#52Books | November 2011

Agatha Christie’s Mrs M-something’s Dead

A book I chose purely based on its cover, a collage of letters cut from what seem to be newspapers or books. A certain Mrs McGinty or McGnity (depending on which way my spoonerism compass is pointing), an elderly cleaning woman is found dead and her young lodger has been found guilty and is due to hang.

The Superintendent is not convinced by the evidence which influenced the verdict and seeks the help of Hercule Poirot. Poirot makes his way to the sleepy village Broadhinny where the old lady lived, bumps into his good friend Ms Oliver a novelist while staying at the dreadful Summerhayes’ guest home. The scenes in the Summerhayes’ home prove to be the most amusing bits in the book - The Summerhayes couple has no idea of how to maintain a household or put together an edible meal.

When going through Mrs M’s belongings, Poirot comes upon a crucial clue into the death of Mrs M: An old article on women implicated in murder cases. Poirot investigate the houses MrsM cleaned and soon secrets are revealed, people fear being exposed and soon all the skeletons come tumbling out.

A breezy read for a Sunday afternoon when you want to relive summer vacations from the time you were 13 or 14 years old.


William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns 
In my head, there are many Dillis - Possibly as many as my friends from Dilli.

There is Foodie Thakur’s Dally - warm, full of love and laughter, buffered with delicious homecooked food and guavatinis and interspersed with multiple conversations all going on at once. Sometimes this Dally - in this regard, na, Bangalore Dally se toh Batter hai na?- is all arrogance, ruthlessness and over-ambition completely devoid of sense and sensibility. To me, her Dally is just like her - charming, beautiful in the mysterious way the wise and the all-knowing are and almost always on the verge of collapsing into a burst of tears or a fit of giggles.
T’s Dilli is far more glamorous. There’s intellectual snobbery and drunken schoolboyish revelry all in the same breath. Book launches, brunches and hangovers aplenty. High maintenance women teetering in heels too high, long weeknights at TC and costume parties on weekends. Cirque du Soleil a la Dilli.

Gee’s Delhi drips with the richness of ghee, the tang of the chaats at Chandni Chowk and the softness of the paranthas at Paranthe Wali Galli. K’s Delhi is unhinged, brimming with middle-class sensibilities (all my shopping only on Snapdeal, haan!) and Tam-Brahm all over. R’s is all a sham and a scam, always a hustle with an exaggerated sense of self-entitlement written all over - I’d never do business with this Punjabi scum.
My idea of Delhi is also chiseled by the modern secrets of Delhi unearthed by The Delhiwallah, Rana Dasgupta’s astute take on the Capital’s Gains and Manu Joseph’s implication in a Mumbai vs Delhi piece that Delhi’s a testosterone fueled City, a City of Sperms.

So it is with all these picture and word postcards, snippets and the collective weight of my Dilli friends’ experiences and lives that I started reading City of Djinns.

The book is a charming portrait of the city with Dalrymple uncovering the history of its ruins and strands of history no longer a part of public memory. The book isn’t one that reads like a boring history lesson; it couldn’t have with all of Dalrymple’s Englishman-abroad humour intact. Peppered with stories of WD’s struggles with the country’s bureaucracy (WD had declared a list of items on arrival in India and wanted to fly to Karachi for a few days. As per regulations the Customs Officer wouldn’t let him leave without these items. Long story short, WD brings the items to the airport, Customers Officer verifies, lets him go only after holding on to the items as surety that he would return to the country!) and anecdotes from their stay at the house of Mrs & Mr Puri (the lady eccentric, the husband senile), it’s a witty travelogue of Dalrymple and Olivia Frazer’s year in India.

WD starts off with the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots and then in an affable style moves through the sprawling ancient city to introduce us to its forgotten people and their lives. You meet the Punjabis who make up the majority of the population, the remnants of the colonialists the Anglo-Indian community, and then the people of the underbelly the eunuchs. The sport of cock-fighting makes an appearance and so do the exiles of Delhi currently living in Karachi “The old men swam together through great oceans of nostalgia before finally coming ashore on a strand of melancholy" 

The title refers to the spirits that according to legend have, through the ages, watched over the inhabitants of Delhi. In modern times the belief in djinns may have faded but I couldn’t help thinking about the contemporary djinns, the forgotten people of Delhi - the Anglo-Indians, the eunuchs, the exiles of Delhi, the Royals of Oudh even. Forgotten by its current inhabitants, very much alive but hidden somewhere in the chaotic warrens of this indestructible city. 


Siddhartha Gigoo’s Garden of Solitude

The book traces the story of a young Kashmiri Pandit, Sridhar, and his family through the political turmoil in the valley, migration to the camps in Jammu and Delhi and then their life and plight in exile. As someone mentioned on Twitter, it’s in the description of the everyday especially in travel writing that a place truly comes alive and it is so with life in the valley, the Garden of Solitude.

The political turmoil in the valley with the militants calling for Azad Kashmir leading to the disappearances of many Kashmiri Pandits, the murder of a Pandit family and hearsay about the violence against Pandits soon forces Sridar and his family to leave their home in Srinagar. He becomes a first-hand witness to the effects of this migration to Delhi and Jammu and finds solace in writing. The protagonist loses his grandfather to amnesia and old age and inherits his grandfather’s trunk and learns of a book his ancestors had written. Unable to find the book, he sets about writing his own book.

Letters exchanged between Sridhar’s father and their Muslim neighbor in Kashmir Ali are a poignant reminder of the Pandit-Muslim amity. Ali writes “Waiting for your homecoming in sensible times”. His father and grandfather never get a chance to return to their homeland but Sridhar eventually returns home temporarily.

He visits his old house now inhabited by a Muslim lady and her daughter, Noor. As he sips tea and shares cakes with them, Noor is taken aback by this visitor who is so similar to them and yet, not: Not a Muslim, speaks Kashmiri, has cakes and tea just like them but is a Pandit. “Who are Pandits, mother?” she insists.

I’d almost forgotten I’d read this book and was reminded of it again when I mentioned Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night to a friend. For the most part, when reading the book I wanted to rap the author on his knuckles for his sentences which suffered from stunted growth. Outside of that, the novel meanders, overwhelms with details and coupled with its fanciful flights into needless storytelling it sometimes loses the plot - that of explaining the experience of exile.