English Lit—East

Many people are unaware of the fact that some of the best English literature of the last hundred years or so comes from India. The subcontinent has some 22 officially recognized languages and dialects spoken within its borders. Most people know about Hindi, but what about Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Marathi, Meitel, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu? Actually, what binds all the various peoples of India together is, believe it or not, the English language, a holdover from British colonial days.

In this post, I will mention two writers whom I have read over the years with great pleasure. First, there is Rasipuram Krishnaswami Iyer Narayanaswami, better known as R K Narayan (1906-2001).

Narayan was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by none other than Graham Greene. Like William Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, Narayan created a fictional town in Tamil Nadhu called Malgudi and wrote numerous novels and short stories about the people who live there. My favorites among his novels are Swami and Friends (1935), The Financial Expert (1952), The Guide (1958), The Man-Eater of Malgudi (1961), and The Vendor of Sweets (1967).

Another excellent Indian writer writing in English is Anita Desai (born 1937), who currently teaches at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Several times, Desai has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Among my favorites of her novels are Clear Light of Day (1980), Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988), Fasting Feasting (1999), and The Artist of Disappearance (2011).

There are others I can name, but I have not read as many works by them as I have from Narayan and Desai. If you are interested in the many worlds of India, I heartily recommend that you give them a try.

Cherrapunji

Photo by Manish Jaishree of the Wettest Place on Earth

Here I am, reading about massive rainstorms in India circa 1990 while living iat the edge of a desert—and one in an increasing cycle of drought. I imagine, someone in Cherrapunji, India, might have dreams of living in a dry country in which, for all intents and purposes, there is no rainfall for six months of the year.

For your information, Cherrapunji is considered the wettest place on earth. It holds the record for the most rainfall in a calendar month and in a year: it received 9,300 millimeters (370 inches; 30.5 feet) in July 1861 and 26,461 millimeters (1,041.8 inches; 86.814 feet) between 1 August 1860 and 31 July 1861. in Alexander Frater’s book Chasing the Monsoon, the author talks of a friend of his father experiencing rainfall for several consecutive days in which between 30 and 40 inches of precipitation fell.

I miss rain. In Los Angeles, we only had one day of persistent rain in the last twelve months. There have been numerous instances of what I call a dirty drizzle, in which the windshield of my car is muddy as the result of an insufficient drizzle. To form a raindrop, there must be a bit of dust in every drop. But when not enough rain falls to operate the windshield wiper, then the dust predominates.

California and the American Southwest looks to be one of the big losers in climate change. The Colorado River is drying up, the Sierra snowpack is insufficient to fill the reservoirs the state needs, and horrible wildfires are destroying our forests.

There is not too much one can do about it except wait it out. Climate change has happened before. Up until the 13th century, Greenland was actually a fairly prosperous place, but then a little ice age set in and the colonists appear to have vanished from the pages of history. The town of Garðar was actually a bishopric, but nothing remains of its past glory.

Actually, I wouldn’t mind another “little ice age,” but who knows what will happen in the years to come?

Summer Reading

During the Heat of Summer, My Mind Turns to India

Most people’s idea of summer reading is of some cheap paperback to be consumed on a beach towel or on a long plane, train, or bus ride. There are a large number of trashy novels written each year to satisfy this undemanding audience. My taste in reading material, however, is more of what you would describe as deep-dish.

When the temperature rises into the 80s F (30s Celsius), there are certain books that appeal to me. Looking back over July and August in the last several years, here is what appeals most to me during temperature spikes:

  • Books about India, such as those written by William Dalrymple, author of City of Djinns
  • The novels of William Faulkner set in Mississippi
  • The novels of Brazilian author Jorge Amado set in his native State of Bahia
  • The novels and short stories of Chilean author Roberto Bolaño
  • American and French noir novels
  • The Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald set in South Florida
  • Travel books such as those written by Freya Stark, who traveled extensively by herself in the Middle East

Sometimes, I go in the opposite direction: I recently read Chauncey C. Loomis’s Weird and Tragic Shores: The Story of Charles Francis Hall, about a failed trip to discover the North Pole.

I am currently rereading William Faulkner’s Go Down Moses and have Jorge Amado’s Home Is the Sailor in my TBR pile.

A Ray of Hope

Portrait of Bengali Filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

I always thought that I was pretty good about seeing a goodly number of great films from around the world. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I found that I had somehow missed out on the films of Satyajit Ray of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). I had seen a number of Merchant-Ivory productions, but not a single film by India’s greatest filmmaker.

TCM decided to celebrate the Centennial of Ray’s birth by presenting a number of his films. I plan to see a number more of them in the weeks to come, but over the last week, I have seen the following:

  • Pather Panchali (1955), the first film in the Apu trilogy and my favorite
  • Aparajito (1957), the second film of the Apu trilogy
  • The World of Apu (1959), the final film of the Apu trilogy
  • The Big City (1969)

Poster for Ray’s The Apu Trilogy

What I love about the Ray films I have seen is not only the poetic realism, but perhaps the most sophisticated and understanding portrait of human relationships I had ever seen on the big screen. In the three Apu films, we see the growth of the boy Apu after having successively lost his sister, father, and mother to early deaths. In The World of Apu and The Big City, Ray has shown us two marriages that seem to thrive even in the face of hardship. When the wife dies in childbirth in The World of Apu, I actually felt bereft, even as Apu himself did.

In fact, I have never seen marriage portrayed more positively, yet realistically, than in Ray’s films. There is nothing in these films of a standard American heartthrob product. His films do not shy away from death, disease, and dire poverty; yet they are almost religiously positive.

When I finish seeing the ten Ray films that TCM showed, I will post more about him and his work.

Two Types of Travel Books

The Blue City of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa—these are cities I would dearly love to know more about. So when I read Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, I looked forward to learning more about these magical places. Alas, I was disappointed: The book was more about a bicycle trip with little attention paid to destinations, and most of the attention paid to the roads connecting the destinations.

I had to remind myself that there are two types of travel books. First, there was my preferred kind, which combines personal experiences with history, literature, art, cuisine, and culture—the whole ball of wax! But there is another kind of travel book as well. Call it adventure travel or experiential travel. All mountain-climbing books fall into this category. They can be excellent reads, such as Jon Kracauer’s Into Thin Air, Alfred Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, or any of Eric Shipton’s great books on mountains he has climbed.

Tibetan Monastery

Kate Harris and her companion Melissa Yule concentrated all their efforts in surviving a multiple-thousand-mile journey involving multiple mountain ranges and passes. It was quite an accomplishment, but it just left me hungry to learn more about Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa, and points between.

Oh, well, as long as the quarantine and my health last, I’ll have the time to make up that deficit.

American Cuisine? No Thanks!

Burger and Fries … and Fries and Burgers

As I grow older, I realize more and more how different I am from most Americans. Politically, I have re-defined myself as independent of the two major political parties, and totally uninterested in the minor ones. Racially, I no longer consider myself to be white—ever since I have become so disgusted with misbehaving whites in the Trumpf era. (As a Hungarian, I consider myself to be of Other Race, namely Finno-Ugric, the language family to which the Hungarian language belongs, originating in the borderlands between Europe and Asia.) Now I find myself disliking most American food. At those times I am forced to eat at an American restaurant, I am usually lucky if I can finish 30% of my meal.

I make an exception in the case of the foods of the American South and Southwest. And I like Italian, Latin American, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern foods. And I still love Hungarian food, if I can find any! But don’t offer me a burger and fries. Been there. Done that. Am finished with it once and for all.

That has led to some problems with Martine. Most of the time, she likes to eat stuff I don’t like, such as burgers, pot roast, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes. I will indulge her on weekends when we go out to eat, but I don’t make much of a dent in what is served to me. And no Cokes or Pepsis, please, just iced black tea without chemical additives. In the end, I make sure she gets what she wants, but she is frightened that I am becoming a vegetarian of the Indian Subcontinent variety.

During the last six weeks, Martine has had major digestive issues, so that I have concentrated on improving my vegetarian curries. And I have done so substantially, to an extent that alarms my little French girl. I suspect that we shall come to some sort of agreement in the end, even if I have to cook some foods I am not interested in tasting.

Multiplicity

There Is Just So Much to Remember

Last Monday, I was privileged to see a demonstration of Indian temple dancing at the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The young woman who runs Soorya Performing Arts in Woodland Hills casually mentioned in her introduction that there are a million gods in the Hindu religion. It is possible she wasn’t exaggerating. According to the Huffington Post, there are upwards of 33 million gods in the Hindu pantheon. Another source says there are 330 million. That is approximately one god for each person currently living in the United States. Your own personal deity, so to speak.

Doesn’t that make things complicated? Now India is a very Hindu country—so Hindu in fact that Buddhism, which was born there, is more or less eradicated from the entire subcontinent. The ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, is virulently Hindu. And yet there are 22 different languages spoken in different parts of India. With all that wild multiplicity, I have a difficult time focusing on what is essential and distinguishing it from what is relatively unimportant. If you pray to one particular god, say Vishnu, does not another god, say Prajapati, get envious and turn your earnest pleas into a curse on your family for 27 generations?

It just so happens that I am going through a period of my life which is heavily influenced by Indian vegetarian cuisine. For the last three weeks, Martine has been going through some intestinal ailment which does not allow her to eat my cooking, and what she can eat barely counts as cooking at all in my book. So I have been making some authentic spicy vegetarian curries and bhajis. Also, I am reading Eric Newby’s travel classic Slowly Down the Ganges.

Now if I become interested in the Hindu religion as well, do I risk fragmenting myself into 330 million pieces?

 

A Day at Universal Studios

Mohan Gopalakrishnan and Son Aravind by the Hogwarts Express Locomotive

The last two days I have been busy with an old friend visiting Los Angeles from India. I used to work at Urban Decision Systems with Mohan Gopalakrishnan, a brilliant young programmer who went on to work for a number of computing companies in the United States and India. He was accompanied by his 14-year-old son Aravind.

Today, I drove them to Universal Studios in the San Fernando Valley. We did all the usual tourist things: In addition to the Studio Tour, we saw the Special Effects Show and took a wild Jurassic Park Boat Ride. I was surprised that, at this date in June, there were so many thousands of tourists in attendance. Still, it was worth it. We had a lot of fun and managed to catch up on old times.

Mohan repeated his invitation to visit him in Chennai, where he lives, but I have already written a post about my hesitation to visit India. Who knows? Perhaps I might might take him up on his invite at some point, but I would first have to overcome my fears.

 

My Flirtation with India

Mumbai Street Scene

For years, I have been fascinated with India in a way I have not been with any other Asian locale. Is it possible that I would ever go there on a vacation? There are a number of factors pro and con:

PRO

  • I have a good friend—Mohan—in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).
  • I love reading about India. One of my favorite authors is the Tamil R. K. Narayan who wrotre a series of novels about a mythical town called Malgudi. Also, I have just finished Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, which I enjoyed.
  • English would probably take me further in India than in any other Asian destination.
  • Indian curries, especially vegetarian curries, are one of my favorite cuisines.

CON

  • What frightens me about India is the same thing I hate in Los Angeles: Unrelenting heat. I would have to time my visit carefully so I’m not stuck there just before the monsoons arrive.
  • I would probably not enjoy spending much time in India’s large, crowded cities, such as Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai.
  • One of my friends from Dartmouth College, also, like me, from Cleveland, died in India a few years after graduation of some gastric disturbance. Because of the state of my health, I would be afraid of contracting food poisoning.

There you have it: A few random observations of what goes through my mind when I consider going to India.

Kale and Turnips—Not!

The Bombay Frankie Company’s Aloo Gobi Matar Wrap

Last week, I ran into a rabid vegetarian at the Ralph’s Supermarket in Santa Monica. She had her groceries in two piles, momentarily confusing the checker, who asked me if her second pile was mine.

I answered him: “Hmm, kale and turnips. Nope, that doesn’t look like what I’d eat.”

This angered the customer, who turned to me and started critiquing the groceries I was purchasing, much of which was for Martine, who has been ill with a bad cold. I stayed silent until she slunk away with a sour look on her face—a look that could only be the result of eating a diet of kale and turnips.

Actually, I consider myself a part-time vegetarian. The one difference between me and the other customer is that I refuse to eat bland, tasteless food, regarding it as an insult. I was raised on Hungarian food, some of which was vegetarian, especially when times were bad and we couldn’t afford meat. But it was good food and tasted great!

I cannot for the life of me stomach American vegetarian cuisine, which I find objectionable in the extreme. Hungarians have good vegetarian dishes, as do Italians and Persians. The best vegetarian chow, in my opinion, is from the Indian subcontinent. Indian curries are the epitome of a great vegetarian cuisine, such that I prefer to cook vegetarian when I make curry.

In preparation, I visit an Indian specialty food store, such as India Sweets & Spices in Culver City, where I can buy curry leaves, black mustard seeds, good turmeric, cumin, and coriander—and where the owner usually gives me a cup of chai masala for free. In fact, if Martine were not still hitting the soup trail for her cold, I would cook a potato and spinach curry this week.

One of the oldest books I own is Monica Dutt’s The Art of Indian Cooking, which has been my guide to learning how to cook curries. Today I had an Aloo Gobi Matar wrap (as illustrated above) at the Bombay Frankie Company in West L.A., which is located at one end of a Chevron Station at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit on the I-405.