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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cut, stir, simmer and serve, spiced with a running train of thought

It's a quarter past five and I walk sleepily into the kitchen, my hand reaches for the medium-sized coffee filter and I not-so-precisely measure five heaping spoons of fresh grounds into it and with the other half of my brain pull out the milk to boil. I put away last night's clean and dry dishes as silently as possible, knowing the early morning stillness magnifies the sound of a tinkling spoon into something resembling cannon fire in the slumbering mind of the still-sleeping household. I watch the milk first slowly and then rapidly rise to a boil thinking of Kanthiamma, my maternal grandmother, tell me it's a good sign if the milk boils over. (Well it's done that several times over and I haven't noticed any unusual good luck coming my way.) I make my coffee and as I lift the tumbler to my lips I wonder whether it will be a "perfect coffee day". My friend Mahrookh visits my wandering mind at that moment, saying in her inimitable Tamil imitation "sariya iruka di?" A quick fade and there's my cousin Rajee who insists that you add the decoction to the hot milk, and not the other way round, to get the perfect cup. Then it's Elle's turn, sitting at her window seat in Jittery Joe's (I wonder if it's still there, the seat and the window and Jittery Joe's) joining me in an outsize cup while over a spillover discussion from the culture club. Then can Carolina be far behind, an image of her outside the downtown coffee bar where we last met in Athens, talking about the culture club in its current avatar, more graduate students, less Elle. I must pull my mind back to my kitchen in the here and now but while I am visiting Athens how can I not stop by Sarita's kitchen and glance at the two big filters made ready in the night by Ganesh, the official coffee maker of the Beechwood house? And of course there is Tonya, who loved the coffee I made for her, to go with the chocolate croissants from Harris Teeter, and here is Melinda, another comrade in graduate-school arms. Now I must turn my attention to the beans, and as I string them I think of Ramana in the huge kitchen at the base of Arunachala, lining up the beans and the strings in neat piles, my mind's image to Amma's recounting...but somewhere in the middle of that journey of consciousness I remember learning a new method of making paruppu usili by microwaving the dal instead of steaming it (thank you, Malati). From beans to the sambar is a quick journey interrupted by a long mental detour that takes me past many cooks who have added flavour to my life and many good meals I have shared with friends, cousins and others. By the time the rice and dal are done, and the lunch boxes are packed, I feel like I am back from a nice long visit over many cups of tea and coffee, having had a whiff of the aromas wafting from every kitchen I've been in and every table I've sat at. The most surprising memories, pop into my head when I am closeted in the kitchen every morning. More people than I send birthday greetings to or call even once a year, many whom I have not met in decades and am unlikely to ever meet again (some being in what we may call "a better place"). Some people with whom I share no connection other than a fleeting smile or a quick shake of the hand. It's amazing how many people touch you. And leave fingerprints in your memory.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Found in Translation

As I scanned my bookshelf and ticked off in my mind the books I had finished reading, it struck me that works in translation comprised about 80 percent of my list last year. I don't consciously look for translated work, other than those by writers in Indian languages (being handicapped by my relative inability to fully appreciate the written word in the Indian languages I am familiar with) but it turns out that many of the non-Indian writers I had read last year were also in translation. Allowing works of imagination (and information of course) to travel across linguistic and cultural boundaries leads to a wonderful movement of ideas, creating connections in a relatively effortless manner. Of course, I completely appreciate that the act of translation is certainly not without effort, in fact requires a special talent that is able to transfer mood and meaning to an alien language in a way that leaves no sense of a "foreign tongue" in a reader's head. The best translations are fluent transmissions of meaning, in which you are able to appreciate the context/content of the original without being hindered by an unfamiliar idiom.

Our reading lives are enriched by work in translation, right from short stories by Tagore in our sixth grade "non-detailed" books to the passages from Homer in high school or college. And we don't even notice that they are meanings twice-born (respectful apologies to the late Prof Meenakshi Mukherjee who used the term "twice born" to describe Indian writing in English), first in the author's mind and then in the translator's.

Of the wonderful twice born books I have read these last few months, the one that is almost definitely top of the list is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The translation carries the light elegance that must have defined the original. The story of an unlikely but beautiful friendship between a concierge, a precocious thirteen year old who discovers the concierge's carefully hidden intelligence,  and a Japanese widower with  a heightened aesthetic awareness. And then, a single copy hidden amongst the best sellers I found another translated work, this time from the Portuguese, Night Train to Lisbon. This provided a slightly bumpier ride through the story but gave me plenty of contextual information in case I need to take that train ride myself.

The past year also saw me venturing into more recent works from Indian writers in translation. The hour past midnight by Salma took me on a journey into the kind of Tamil home that I have not have the privilege of entering, while the translated edition of Sivasankari's "Palangal" (Bridges in English) gives me the opportunity to match my impressions with my mother's reading of the same novel in the original.

I'm grateful to these translators, these painstaking purveyors of other people's stories, these men and women who undertake to retell in a manner that gives you entry to worlds that would otherwise be walled off by language. My world would be poorer without them, as would that of many others who cherish stories of a million tongues.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Won't you sign my e-book please?


A couple of weeks ago I came home from a book launch with a nice fat hardbound copy of the novel, Amitav Ghosh's "River of Smoke", signed by the author with an inscription to my daughter. This copy joined my set of three of Ghosh's books, each with a signature and a personal note. Then there's the signed copy of Chimamanda Adichie's "Half of a Yellow Sun" alongside Alexander McCall Smith's "No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" with his name scrawled on the fly-leaf. Other authors have scrawled their unrecognizable or distinctive black-ink John Hancocks on other books, from Mark Tully to William Dalrymple to Kaveri Nambisan. Each of the inscriptions brings back a story of a meeting, of a specific context of experiencing the book. And I treasure them all. I know, ten or twenty years from now, when my bibliophile daughter takes over my bookshelves, she will feel the same fondness for those old volumes, maybe a bit yellowed and dog-eared, but with the charming smell of ink and thick paper that refuses to get old. Each time someone tells me about a recent conversion to Kindle or the Nook or books on the iPad, I think to myself, oh how convenient, to be able to travel with one slim gadget that carries a thousand books in it, and to read in comfort wherever you go without worrying about "running out" of reading material!

But I am also equally convinced that the paper and ink version of the book will not go the way of the dinosaur and steam engine just yet. Apart from the raw commerce surrounding the production of hard copy books, there is just too much cultural meaning surrounding them for people to give them up easily. There is the charm of marginalia--and better still, second-hand marginalia that makes us smile or mutter as we leaf through a pre-owned copy. I think there are at least two good reasons for predicted a long life for the printed book. One, most of us still feel the delight and excitement of tearing off the pretty wrapping from a book-sized object and exclaiming, "Oh, but just what I wanted to read!" And two, there is a special meaning attached to author-signed copies of books, no matter how obscure or distant the author. Pradeep Sebastian writes in his column in The Hindu about precious "association copies"  ,  books that have been inscribed and signed for a particular person. There is a special feeling about owning a book with the writer's own [pen and ink] mark on it. In this, the e-book  just cannot compete. After all, can you imagine someone going up to an author with an e-gadget and asking, "could you sign my ebook please?"