My Back Pages: Buying Books in Delhi

Here is a long story that will not be of interest to you. You are welcome.

I recently came upon a book I had purchased in the mid-2000s from the Bookworm, a bookstore in Connaught Place in Delhi. The Bookworm was an important part of my life in my college years and after in Delhi. There were a few other popular bookstores in the city but as far as I was concerned there were two major places to buy books: the Sunday secondhand book bazaar in Daryaganj and the Bookworm. The Sunday bazaar is now much altered and the Bookworm is gone. Continue reading


An Incomplete Guide to Regional Indian Cookbooks, Part 2

Back in late November I’d posted an annotated list of regional Indian cookbooks available in English. This post was quite widely read, having been shared by a large number of people online. In the wake of that post friends and others wrote in to suggest other regional cookbooks that I had either missed/forgotten the first time around or that I had not known about then. I’d originally thought I’d post this second list in December but as anyone who actually follows my blog knows, I am very bad at follow-ups—some people are still waiting for the annotated list of 1960s Bombay films I’d promised back in September.  Even with these additions this remains an incomplete list and I hope to receive even more suggestions and recommendations. If you’ve made some in the past and don’t see those reflected in this second list, please don’t be offended. This is a list that I have to vouch for and so for books that I don’t actually have on my own shelves I am only comfortable listing those recommended to me by people I can also vouch for. But please know that I will do my best to track down your suggestions for myself and they may yet appear in further entries in this series. Continue reading

A Love Letter to Favorite Recipes of Rice County Extension Homemakers 1965 (Volume IV)

A week ago, Sunday our friends Daniel and Emily dropped off a plate of cookies at our door. Like many others, they’ve apparently been baking a lot during the pandemic. There were some Moravian wafers on the plate and some Swedish almond rusks. I enjoyed one of each greatly with my evening tea, especially the rusk. I Whatsapped Daniel later with compliments and learned that the Moravian wafers were out of a Maida Heatter book but that the rusks were from something called Favorite Recipes of Rice County Extension Homemakers 1965 (Volume IV). This, he said, was a book they’d literally found on the street and that it was a trip. He sent me some pictures. I asked if either or both of them might be interested in writing up a review or appreciation of it for the blog at some point. Emily would, he said. And a few emails and a scarily short amount of time later this wonderful essay landed in my inbox. Continue reading

A Fond Look Back at the Futura Cookbook ~ Prachi Deshpande

Two weeks ago I posted an annotated list of regional Indian cookbooks that seems to have struck quite a chord with a lot of cooks of Indian food online. Indeed, based on the feedback I received on that post I will soon have a sequel to that list (perhaps as soon as next weekend). That first list, as I noted in that post, was put together with the assistance of three good friends who I got to know on the Another Subcontinent food forums more than 15 years ago (!): Anjali, Aparna and Prachi. In our conversation about regional cookbooks a couple of books came up that didn’t quite fit that list as I’d envisioned it but which I filed away mentally to ask them to consider writing guest posts on later (Aparna has already written a wonderful post on reading Agatha Christie during lockdown in Delhi, which I highly recommend you read if you haven’t already—or read again if you haven’t read it recently). One of them was the Hawkins Futura Cookbook, which Prachi mentioned she’d cooked from more than any of the more formal cookbooks she owns. I’d thought I’d have to work on her for months but to my great surprise she agreed readily to write a short piece on it. And so I am pleased to announce that after being awarded the Infosys Prize for the Humanities earlier this week her first publication—very mildly peer-reviewed—is for this blog and is on a pressure cooker cookbook. I expect it will go on her cv. Continue reading

Regional Indian Cookbooks, An Incomplete Guide

Earlier this week I enjoyed reading Bettina Makalintal’s piece for Munchies on American food media’s tendency to flatten and collapse heterogeneous culinary traditions into national ones. Late in the piece the owner of a culinary bookstore, Ken Concepcion, is quoted as follows: “I’m sure there are amazing regional books about Chinese food, about China, or regional Pakistani books, but they’re not written in English”. On Twitter I noted that in the case of Indian cuisines, at least, a number of excellent regional cookbooks exist, many written in English, others translated into it. The problem, I noted, is that American food media has no interest—for the most part—in these books. Then I thought that I should put my money where my mouth is and actually list some of these books for interested parties. Global ecommerce means we aren’t limited to what American publishers choose to put out: most of the books that follow are easily available online for less than you would pay for some overpriced restaurant or cooking show host’s cookbook that you will never actually cook anything from. You’re welcome. Continue reading

“It’s Time to Find a Place” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

Here is the third entry in my occasional series on poems about food and drink. In introducing the series—two weeks before I actually got around to posting the first entry—I noted that these poems “may centrally be about food, drink or hunger/starvation; they may make passing reference to food/drink; they may employ food/drink/eating/drinking//hunger/starvation etc. entirely as metaphors.” The first two poems I wrote briefly about in the series—Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai” and Arun Kolatkar’s “Irani Restaurant Bombay” were indeed centrally about restaurants as particular kinds of spaces; spaces that in the one case allow for a provisional declaration of community and in the other are the stage for a kind of public solitude. The poem I have for you today, Eunice De Souza’s “It’s Time to Find a Place” only glancingly mentions restaurants, as one in a list of spaces where endless prattling happens. Still fits the theme of the series though and is also roundly a poem I like a lot. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mike)

Here is the fourth entry in the occasional series of book’ish posts that I’ve outsourced to a few old friends: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. Well, considering this is the third entry in as many weeks it’s at risk of becoming a regular series. I hope you’ve all read the third entry—Aparna’s piece on reading Agatha Christie while on lockdown in Delhi; the second entry—Mahmud’s review of Clancy Sigal’s early 1960s road novel, Going Away; and the first—Peter’s recap of a few false starts and then a few things he’s enjoyed getting into since all of this began.

This week’s entry is from my deplorable friend, Mike. Like Peter, Mike also posted a piece earlier this year on some of his favourite reads of 2019. Mike is one of the most voracious and wide-ranging readers I know, someone who pays no heed to the usual fences of genre that hierarchically divide the literary landscape. He is also one of the most generous readers I know, attuned always to the pleasures of reading. I expect that if you haven’t already read all the books he talks about below, he’ll have you ordering at least one of them. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Aparna)

A month goes by between the first two entries in A Reading Journal of the Plague Year and then two come at once. If you haven’t read those first two entries you should do so right after you read this one: the first by Peter Stokes and the second by Mahmud Rahman. This third entry is by another old friend, Aparna Balachandran. I first met Aparna on an Indian culture forum I used to run a long time ago. She was then finishing up her PhD in Indian history in New York. I can’t remember if we ever met in person while she was in the US. But we’ve been meeting and hanging out on all our trips to India ever since she went back to start teaching at Delhi University. A number of my meal reports from Delhi over the years have been of meals in her company—and it’s very good company indeed. We are also in a small WhatsApp group together. For the last two months our primary topics of conversation, like everyone else’s, have been the pandemic and our coping strategies. Aparna kept talking about the books she was reading and so I began working on her to make a contribution to this occasional series. After giving a lot of what in Delhi University we call “pricey ones” she finally agreed—though she refused to make public the genre that is her true primary reading and threatened me with violence if I disclosed it. Instead she said she would write a piece on Agatha Christie. Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mahmud)

Here is the second entry in the occasional series I’m running on the blog called A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. (See here for the first, by my friend Pete whose title I appropriated for the series; and see here for my other occasional series on poems about food and drink.)

Today’s entry is by another old friend, the Bangladeshi writer, translator and all-around cool person, Mahmud Rahman. I’ve known Mahmud online since the mid-90s and have hung out with him a few times, in Colorado and in Minnesota, while he was on cross-country drives; and I’ve separately hosted him at my college where he gave a wonderful reading from his collection, Killing the Water (available from Penguin India). He has also translated Mahmudul Haque’s novel Black Ice from Bengali, and is currently putting the finishing touches on his own novel. I have been waiting a long time to read this novel and am hoping it won’t be too much longer before I’ll have it in my hands. Those who know Mahmud know of his long history of driving across the United States—he’s mostly lived here since the early 1970s—and it’s no surprise then that he’s chosen to write about a road book, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away (helpfully out of print but available from libraries and Alibris). Continue reading

“Irani Restaurant Bombay” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

Here is the second entry in my occasional series on poems that deal passingly or centrally with themes, locations and/or images of food/eating/hunger etc. (See here for the first entry, on Imtiaz Dharker’s, “At the Lahore Karhai.) This week’s poem takes on a very different geography than Dharker’s poem (Bombay rather than London) and is formally more…well, formal and forbidding: in place of free verse, a set rhyme scheme—though not meter—and in place of declaration, elliptical, almost opaque observation.

But I’ve started in on the poem itself without telling you anything about the poet. Arun Kolatkar (1932-2004) was and is by any measure one of the most significant writers of the 20th century and a giant particularly in the world of Indian poetry, specifically Indian poetry in English. He was one of the central figures in the modernist flowering in the little magazines published in Bombay in the 1960s and 1970s and influential despite the fact that very few collections of his poetry were published  when he was most active as a poet. His first English collection, Jejuri, only came out in 1975 (when it won the Commonwealth Prize for poetry) and two others only emerged in 2004 after his cancer diagnosis. Continue reading

“At the Lahore Karhai” (More Poems About Food and Drink)

It’s been two weeks since I said I’d soon be inaugurating a new occasional series of posts on the blog on poems about food and drink and so I guess I’d better get on with it. As I said in that first post, these will be poems either directly about food, drink, eating, drinking, hunger, thirst etc. or poems that use related metaphors to talk about other things or poems that mention food or drink just in passing. To begin the series I have a poem I have posted on social media a number of times over the years: Imtiaz Dharker’s “At the Lahore Karhai”. Dharker is a poet with a background/biography that drives a certain kind of South Asian nativist insane with rage: she was born in Pakistan, raised in the UK and now spends her time between the UK and India (as far as I know). She was a candidate for the poet laureateship of the UK in 2019 before withdrawing her name from consideration.

This poem is from one of her earlier collections, I Speak for the Devil published by Bloodaxe in the UK in 2001 and Penguin India in 2003. The poem itself is from 1999. I decided to begin this series with it not only because I do like it so much but also because its setting is a restaurant and an experience of conviviality that we are currently denied by the pandemic. I have no restaurant review for you but here is a restaurant poem.

Continue reading

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Pete)

I recently promised that I’d be starting a series of posts on poems about food and drink and that the first entry would be coming soon. It has not yet arrived. But I bring to you instead the first installment in another book-ish series: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. I had not thought to give it that title but quickly stole it from the author of this first installment, my old friend, Peter. You may remember him from such previous guest posts as “2019: A Year in Books (Pete)” and…well, that’s the lazy bastard’s only previous contribution. I asked Pete and the rest of the crew that had contributed to that series earlier in the year if they’d be interested in writing a bit about what they’re reading in isolation/quarantine. Not all were into it but I have roped in a new contributor (maybe two) and this time around I might get around to writing an entry myself. One a week probably until I run out of contributions. Here, to start with, is Pete. Continue reading

More Poems About Food and Drink

I will not be posting any/many restaurant reviews for the foreseeable future (though I will have a few takeout reports in support of some of our favourite small establishments). In place of that usual weekly delivery I offer to you a new series: poems about food and drink. Because if there’s anything people like more than reading my restaurant reviews, it’s poetry. Don’t worry: the poems will not be by me. They may centrally be about food, drink or hunger/starvation; they may make passing reference to food/drink; they may employ food/drink/eating/drinking//hunger/starvation etc. entirely as metaphors. But they will all be poems I like. They will also all be relatively brief poems—by which I mean that none will be as long as The Canterbury Tales. Think of this as a slow-motion anthology of poems about food and drink—who knows, maybe I’ll even pitch it to a press [I won’t].

The first entry will be coming soon. Contain your excitement.

2019, A Year in Books IV (Nikki)

Here now is the last in my “2019, A Year in Books” series. I say “my series” but, of course, I have outsourced this task to friends. Here once again is the premise:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

Here are the first three lists again: Gio, Pete and Mike. The last list is by my friend Nikki, who I’ve also known from my earliest days in the US. In fact, Gio, Mike, Nikki and I were in a seminar on contemporary American fiction in my first term in graduate school. I’m not going to say anything smart alecky about Nikki because I’ve been terrified of her ever since I met her. In fact, let’s just agree her list is best. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books III (Mike)

Here is the third entry in my “2019, A Year in Books” series, a series I have very cleverly outsourced to friends. Here again is what I said about this series when introducing Gio and Pete’s lists last week and the week before last:

“I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them.”

And so to the third list, from my friend Mike, who I’ve known pretty much since my first days in the US in 1993. There’s a story I could tell you about Mike and me and a beef curry, a story which could be read allegorically; but I will leave that for another day. Mike is one of the funniest and most evil people I know. He’s also one of the kindest people I know. Continue reading

2019, A Year In Books II (Pete)

Here is the second entry in the year-end miniseries on books that began last week. A quick reminder of what this is: I asked four old friends from graduate school who read more than anyone else I know to make a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 and would recommend to people for any reason. It doesn’t have to be a list of books published in 2019 and it doesn’t need to be a “Favourite Books of 2019” or “Best Books of 2019” list. I asked them to avoid making their lists heavy on usual suspects but left the rest entirely up to them. If you missed the first one last week, please go and read Giovanna’s excellent list featuring fiction and poetry. Today’s list comes to us from my friend Peter, a dour Englishman, across a page of whose dissertation our beloved friend, teacher, mentor and now tormentor, Jim Kincaid once wrote the terrible sentence, “You write like the Rev. Mr. Collins”. You might think this should disqualify him from making aesthetic judgments but if you’ve read much of this blog you know standards are low here. Continue reading

2019, A Year in Books I (Gio)

A while ago I’d said that I’d write more about books on the blog and then, as is my wont with things I promise to do, I didn’t really do it. But now I’ve found the perfect solution: farm that task out to friends who read a lot and like to talk about books a lot. In particular, to four friends from graduate school—people I’ve known since 1993—who are among the most voracious readers I know. I asked them to annotate a list of 5-7 books they read in 2019 that they found compelling for some reason and would like to recommend to others. They don’t have to be books published in 2019, I said, and they don’t have to be a list of favourite/best books of the year; and I asked that the list not be dominated by “usual suspects”. Beyond that I’ve left it up to them. First up is a list from my friend Giovanna. Gio grew up following the Italian national football team and so her aesthetic sense is a little suspect but we’ll try not to hold that against this list. Continue reading

Indian (-ish) and the Question of Indian American Identity

It has been almost eight months since the publication of Priya Krishna’s cookbook Indian (-ish) and almost as long since I first threatened to review it (though I did get around to reviewing some of its marketing in the summer). Is there any point in reviewing a cookbook half a year after its release? Frankly, the reason I didn’t get around to reviewing it earlier—after work and family obligations got in the way in May, June and July—is that with each passing month it felt less relevant to do so. However, as the end of the year approached and it began to show up on many lists of the best cookbooks of the year it seemed worth it again to go back and look at it closely. It is, as at least one Indian reviewer has noted, somewhat lightweight in its approach, but a large part of the American food media seems to still be ascribing it a fair bit of importance. I should say before I get started that I am less interested in the book as a cookbook than I am in it as a cultural text. This is not to say that I have nothing to say about any of the recipes or other bits of food information that it contains; I do and will get to some of that below. But I’m more interested in how the book tacitly represents the categories of Indian and Indian American food, and relatedly how it models a particular form of Indian American cultural identity. Okay, let’s get to it. Continue reading