SSoP Podcast Episode 59 — India: The Continent Masquerading as a Country

SSoP Podcast Episode 59 — India: The Continent Masquerading as a Country

Friday, 21 June, 2024

This is a transcription of India: The Continent Masquerading as a Country

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on Earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about India. If you’re listening to this on release day, welcome to summer. Tomorrow, in India, there are celebrations for the life of Kabir Das. He was a poet. He was famous for saying, in very clear, precise language, that we should all love one another. If you’re curious about his poetry, we’ll put a link in show notes. In Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to talk about dolphin rights! Power to the porpoise! Then we’ll talk about five books we love.

Melissa: I’m recommending a book that combines storytelling, history, food, and photography in a way I’ve never seen before.

David: I’ve got a book about a kid who’s not sure if the rest of his family are magical. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the India 101.

Melissa: I need to preface this whole shebang by saying that one of the first things I read in my research was this line: ‘India is a continent masquerading as a country.’ It became my mantra, and everyone might want to keep it in mind as we talk about the vastness that is India.

Melissa: Let’s get oriented. India makes up a big chunk of the Asian continent. It’s surrounded by water on three sides — shout out to the awesomely named Bay of Bengal — and it shares land borders with six countries: Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Melissa: The Indian constitution recognizes 22 languages. The two official languages are Hindi — that’s spoken by about 44% of the population — and English. India is the world’s second-largest English-speaking country after the United States.

Melissa: The population is about 1.4 billion people. Billion. One guide book said in India, ‘the crush of humanity may turn the simplest task into a frazzling epic.’

Melissa: The capital is Delhi, in the north-central part of the country. It’s the second largest urban area in the world, after Tokyo. It’s described in various sources as ‘chaotic and colorful,’ ‘strange and wonderful,’ and ‘sharply modern and hazily ancient.’ It really does seem to have everything: ancient forts, mosques and temples, sprawling bazaars, bustling lanes of street food, leafy parks and botanical gardens, and streets crammed with cars, rikshaws, and tuk tuks.

Melissa: India doesn’t have an official religion, but more than 80 percent of Indians are Hindu. About 13 percent are Muslim. Other religions — which all started in India include — Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

Melissa: We need to briefly talk about the caste system. For more than 3000 years, Hindus have been divided into hierarchical groups based on their karma — that means work — and dharma, which means duty. The highest caste were teachers, then warriors and rulers, traders, and at the bottom, menial workers. Outside of all of that were the untouchables.

Melissa: Those main castes were divided into 25,000 subcastes, based on specific occupations. As you might expect, the upper castes came along with privileges, and the untouchables did tasks that others wouldn’t even talk about like cleaning latrines, removing dead animals from the streets, that kind of thing.

Melissa: The Indian Constitution bans discrimination based on caste and has outlawed the practice of Untouchability. In the cities, things are looser — different castes live side by side and inter-caste marriages is more common. But in the countryside, caste identity is still pretty strong.

Melissa: Indian history can be divided into three major periods: ancient, muslim, and British. When we talk about ancient Indian history, we’re really talking about WORLD history. Civilization started thriving in the Indus Valley around 2500 BCE. Here are some Indus Valley fun facts! The Indus Vally Civilization was larger than ancient Egypt. They had the first dentists! They invented buttons and dice! They grew cotton and chickens! But by 1700 BCE, many Indus cities were abandoned. By 1900 BCE, it was kaput — and no one really knows why.

Melissa: The Golden Age of India was during the Gupta Empire — that’s around 320-550. The arts, literature, math, and astronomy took huge leaps forward. For example, the concept of zero took hold. A poet named Kalidasa wrote two epic poems in Sanskrit. Astronomers calculated the length of a solar year.

Melissa: In the 16th century, India came under control of the Mughal Dynasty, and that lasted for the next 350 years. The Mughals were possibly descendents of the Mongols, and pretty much designed the India you recognize today, including the palaces at Delhi, Agra, Lahore, and the grand poobah, The Taj Mahal. There was also music, poetry, and advancements in textiles. We have the Mughals to thank for polka dots, checks, and florals.

Melissa: And then the British showed up.

Melissa: The British East India Company backed a couple of local coups and in 1858, the last Mughal emperor was deposed by the British. The British Raj replaced the Mughal dynasty. There were good things like infrastructure development and not-so-good things like economic exploitation. Eventually, there were widespread resistance movements —this where Mahatma Ghandi and his commitment to nonviolence come in. In 1947, India declared its independence from Britain and went through a process called the Partition. It divided India and Pakistan along religious lines — Hindus in India, Muslims in Pakistan. The geographical split forced 15 million people to move. Between half a million to 2 million people died in the ensuing violence.

Melissa: India is now a democratic republic with a parliamentary system, president, and prime minister.

Melissa: Let’s talk about fun stuff to do in India! You might recall from third grade social studies class that India has a monsoon season. Also, the heat of the summer is described as ‘incendiary’ and ‘hair-dryer hot.’ Travel experts seem to agree that the best time to visit is between October/November and early March.

Melissa: To try to understand India, I turned to two travel guides: Lonely Planet and The Rough Guide. They’re each between 2000-3000 pages.

Melissa: If you want to travel to India, I recommend getting one of these bricks and educating yourself. A trip to India is not a small undertaking. The shortest recommended itinerary is two weeks, the next level up is 3-4 weeks. There is also a detailed plan for a 6-month stay, which is how long a tourist visa lasts.

Melissa: The top suggestion pretty much everywhere is to visit the Golden Triangle. That’s a route in the north that connects the cities of New Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. It includes medieval monuments, Mughal forts that look like something out of Aladdin — they’re all decorated with turrets and domes — bazaars with jewelry and beautiful garments, and the Taj Mahal. I’ll put a link in show notes to resources for that.

Melissa: But I thought we’d talk about three cultural things you can enjoy while visiting that have also been exported to the rest of the world, so you can partake even if you can’t get to India anytime soon: food, Bollywood movies, and yoga.

Melissa: India is tricksy. Every time I thought I could easily summarize something, it spiraled out of control. Remember that continent-country thing. So even talking about the food isn’t simple. Unless we just want to say, Indian food is delicious. Which, you know, FACT.

Melissa: In the US and the UK, when you eat at an Indian restaurant, it’s usually got everything, right? There’s meat cooked in the tandoor oven, spicy curries made with yogurt, breads like naan and roti, and rice dishes like biryani and pulao, plus all the condiments and chutneys.

Melissa: But in India, all of those dishes probably wouldn’t show up on the same table. Each region has its own approach to cuisine. In the south, it’s about coconut milk curries seasoned with herbs like lemongrass and curry leaves, usually served with rice. In the north, curries are made with yogurt and are spicier — stuff like butter chicken and rogan josh. They’re usually served with bread. Along the coastline, the food is primarily vegetarian, and in Mumbai, which used to be Bombay, there’s an Iranian tradition that I’ll be talking about later. If you want to explore the history of Indian cuisine and how it migrated to the rest of the world, you might like the book ‘Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors’ by Lizzie Collingham. It delves into the history of eight iconic Indian dishes and investigates how history and different invaders led to what we consider classic Indian dishes. It’s packed with fascinating stories and a handful of recipes. I found it really charming.

Melissa: Also charming: Bollywood movies!

Melissa: The name Bollywood is a mashup of Bombay and Hollywood, and it’s where Indian movie magic is made. Bollywood films usually blend genres so you get romance, drama, action, and comedy — plus singing and dancing — all woven into the story. But beyond being entertaining, the movies often tackle cultural and social issues.

Melissa: If you wanted to immerse yourself in the colorful world of Indian movies, you could go on a Bollywood tour in Mumbai. That takes you behind the scenes to learn the history of the film industry, watch pros at work on set, see a Bollywood dance show, and drive through a fancy neighborhood to see the mansions of the Bollywood stars. Some of the packages also include a dance lesson!

Melissa: I found a few solid lists of where to start with Bollywood movies, if you want to have a little film fest of your own. They’ll be in show notes.

Melissa: And finally, at the opposite end of the spectrum is yoga.

Melissa: The origins of yoga go back 5000 years to our old pals of the Indus Valley Civilization. The earliest references to yoga are from around 1500 BCE, in the Rigveda, one of the sacred books of Hinduism.

Melissa: Over the centuries, yoga evolved to include meditation and spiritual awareness. The combination of poses and breathing that we use today — hatha yoga — was codified during the medieval period. Then in the late 19th century, during the time of the British Raj, Indian monks started travelling and spreading their knowledge and namaste, yoga spread in popularity worldwide.

Melissa: If you want to practice in India, Rishikesh, on the bank of the Ganges, is considered the birthplace of yoga and has the most authentic yoga schools and ashrams. This city is also where the Beatles studied Transcendental Meditation and wrote the songs for the White Album. You can still visit the ruins of Maharishi’s ashram, which is now known as the Beatles ashram. You can also go to the International Yoga Festival to participate in massive yoga sessions.

Melissa: Before we close, I need to mention one more thing: Tiger Safaris. India is home to almost 75% of the world’s tiger population, and there are dozens of areas designated as tiger reserves. As of 2023, there were 3,682 wild tigers in India. You probably don’t want to run into a tiger on your own, but there are national parks where you can go on a jeep safari to safely see these big cats up close. General opinion seems to be that Ranthambhore National Park in northwest India is the best, but there are a bunch more options. I’ll put a link to some video in show notes. It’s pretty spectacular.

Melissa: For those of you who are not into the whole tiger adventure scenario, you should know that India has the world’s largest English-language readership, and the publishing industry is ginormous. So you can always go book shopping. I’ll put a link about good bookshops in show notes.

David: I’m about to say three statements, two of which are true. Mel doesn’t know which one is a lie.

David: Statement 1: Salvador Dali — the great artist, the man of the melting clocks — once designed an ashtray for Air India. He was paid, in part, in peacocks. Statement 2: According to the government of India, dolphins are non-human persons, and, as such, have the right to life and liberty. And Statement 3: The longest regular bus trip in history was from London to Calcutta (now Kolkata). It was approximately 10,000 miles — or 16,000 kilometers — one way. If you’re rough with distances, that’s about four times the mileage from New York to LA.

David: Let’s take them one at a time.

Melissa: I think the first one is true.

David: Nope… Salvador Dali once designed an ashtray for Air India. He was paid, in part, in peacocks. Return with us now to 1967. Air travel is glamorous and exciting, and maybe the most captivating carrier is Air India. Passengers ate caviar, drank champagne, and smoked Havana cigars. They were attended by stewardesses in saris and bouffant hairdos. Some of the amenities were designed by Hermes and Christian Dior. Air India was the expression of posh.

David: About this time, in Manhattan, the Head of PR for Air India runs into Salvador Dali. I couldn’t find out how they met, but I assume it was a party thrown by Don Draper. Or someone a lot like him. Gorgeous women, sleek suits, swinging jazz, martinis, probably a cloud of second-hand smoke. And the head of PR – his name is Jot Singh – says, “Oh my goodness! Salvador Dali!” He introduces himself, and they get to talking. And then Singh says, “You know what? – You should design something for us. We will commission a work from you for our passengers. Maybe – I don’t know – an ashtray! What would it take to commission a limited-edition ashtray designed by the great Salvador Dali? – Name your price!”

David: And Dali thinks for a moment. In my imagination, he probably considered a peacock. Maybe two. But then he settled on his final price. A price fit for one of the greatest artists of his time. One elephant. To design an ashtray, Salvador Dali wants an elephant. And Singh looks at him. And he smiles. And he says, I think I can do that, but I have to ask, why do you want an elephant?

David: And this is a quote. Dali reportedly said, ‘I wish to keep him — in my olive grove — and watch the patterns of shadows the moonlight makes through the twigs on his back.’ Now I can’t imagine that Singh had the kind of sign-off he would need to get Salvador Dali an elephant. But, they work it out.

David: Dali designed an ashtray — it’s porcelain, with a snake around the top and two legs to it. Viewed one way, the legs look like swans. Viewed the other way, they look like elephants. We’ll have photos on our show notes. Only 500 were ever made, but you can still find them for sale online from time to time.

David: Air India sent him an elephant. The poor beast was flown from Bangalore to Geneva and then trucked to Dali’s home in Catalonia, Spain. When he got there, the mayor of Dali’s hometown held a three-day holiday and a parade. Eventually, Dali got bored or impatient with his new guest. In 1971, the elephant ended up at the Barcelona Zoo.

David: Statement 2: According to the government of India, dolphins are non-human persons, and, as such, have the right to life and freedom.

Melissa: True!

David: That is true. About a decade ago, the Indian government adopted a very pro-cetacean stance. They recognized that dolphins are highly intelligent and sensitive. Research shows that they have sophisticated communication, a sense of community, self-awareness, and the ability for abstract thought. Plus, probably a good sense of humor, once you get to know them. Previously, humans had thought only humans had those qualities. Surprise! It turns out animals are pretty great; maybe we should be nicer to them.

David: India has since banned all entertainment that involves the capture of dolphins, orcas, and the like. And they toughened up their laws protecting them at sea. It is now illegal to catch any cetacean in Indian waters.

David: India is one of several countries that have banned the capture and import of cetaceans, joining Costa Rica, Hungary, Chile, and, most recently, the indigenous leaders of New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands.

David: There’s also been a movement in India to extend the personhood status to elephants. I, for one, welcome our elephant friends.

Melissa: That means the last one is true.

David: The longest regular bus trip in history was from London to Calcutta (now Kolkata). That is true! The inaugural trip left London on April 15, 1957 with about 20 brave passengers. For 85 pounds — which is somewhere around 2500 pounds or $3000 today — you and your luggage would be transported for 50 days. Meals were included.

David: The bus traveled from England to Belgium, then through West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and finally India. I imagine it was quite an adventure.

David: The bus was relatively swanky for 1957. Everybody had a bunk. There was a small kitchen. There was an observation lounge up front. And, curiously, there was what’s described as a reading nook. There were planned stops along the journey. For instance, there was shopping in Salzburg, Vienna, Istanbul, Tehran, and Kabul. Presumably for Cheetos and t-shirts. The bus from London to Calcutta took its last trip in 1976.

David: If you’re interested in driving across Europe and a substantial chunk of Asia, there’s a travel agency called Adventures Overland that can help you out.

David: Once a year, they do a group car caravan from Gorakhpur in India to London. You can rent a car or bring your own. They take you the long way. You go through Nepal and China, through Russia for about a week, and on through Turkey, Austria, Germany and France on your way to the UK. It’s a 10-week trip for a little under $35,000 a person. There are events along the way: air-ballooning in Italy and caving in China and the like. If you’re listening to this on release day, their 2024 trip — which started in April — is scheduled to pull into London today — this very day. We’ll link to it the show notes if you want to learn about next year’s trip. That’s two truths and a lie.

David: Ready to talk about books?

Melissa: Yes. My first recommendation is Loot by Tania James. This is historical fiction that explores imperialism through the life of a wood carver in India.

Melissa: When we meet our hero Abbas, it’s 1794 in Mysore in southern India. He comes from a family of wood carvers. His father and brothers make useful things like cabinets and beds. But Abbas is an artist cursed with curiosity. He likes to carve fanciful toys — elephants, tigers, horses that move when you turn a handcrank. His father tells him to stick to the family business because ‘toys only bring trouble.’

Melissa: Those words are hanging in the air like a thought ballon when the Sultan’s guards show up. They escort Abbas from his family home to the Summer Palace. It seems that Abbas’s toys have caught the eye of the Sultan.

Melissa: At this point in real history, the British East India Company controlled only a small part of India, mostly in the north and east. But they wanted the south, and the major force in their way was Tipu Sultan, known as the Tiger of Mysore.

Melissa: I want to read a paragraph from early in the book to give you a sense of the voice and set the scene:

Tipu’s kingdom barely survived the most recent war with the English, and talk of still another is always on the horizon. The people never know who is coming from where to take what from whom. All they can do is submit to power each time it changes hands… This one wants a new calendar. That one wants his face struck on a coin. With every alteration, large and small, the ground unfirms itself beneath their feet, making it nearly impossible for anyone to leave a lasting mark. At the moment, Abbas has no interest in leaving a mark. All he wants is to stay out of trouble, though it is, perhaps, a little late for that.

Melissa: At the Palace, Abbas is apprenticed to a French clockmaker, Lucien Du Leze, and together they’re ordered by the Sultan to build Mysore’s first automaton. They’re tasked with carving a ferocious wooden tiger attacking a British soldier — all the better for Tipu to show his strength and fortitude in the face of the encroaching British East India Company.

Melissa: That tiger — essentially an enormous toy — opens up Abbas’s world to artistry, travels, romance, and — as his father predicted — some troubles.

Melissa: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Not least because it lets me use one of my favorite literary terms: Bildungsroman.

David: What’s a Bildungsroman?

Melissa: It’s a German word that means ‘novel of education.’ It refers to stories that trace the moral and psychological development of a character from childhood to adulthood. Like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Melissa: I loved that this book has the big sweep of a 19th-century novel. And as it moves from India to Rouen, France, and to England, each section has a slightly different genre feel to it. It’s got coming-of-age elements. It’s a war story and an adventure tale. Part of it is told through the journal of a sailor aboard a ship belonging to the East India Company.

Melissa: I also really enjoyed the relationship between Abbas and the clockmaker Lucien. They’re halfway in danger the entire time they’re making Tipu’s Tiger, but they find a way to work together and, ultimately to care for each other. That relationship and what Abbas learns from Lucien has ripple effects throughout his life.

Melissa: And finally, one of the best things about this book is that Tipu’s tiger is real. [DAVE You could go to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London right now and see it. The carved wooden soldier is almost life-size, and he’s on the verge of having his throat bitten by a painted tiger. the tiger is beautiful. It almost looks like it leapt off a carousel except that it’s mauling a soldier. There are mechanisms and a bellows inside that make the man’s hand move while he emits a wailing sound, and the tiger grunts. The tiger’s body also hides a small pipe organ and a keyboard with ivory keys so someone could play music during the attack. It’s pretty spectacular. I’ll put a video in show notes.

Melissa: This is one of those books that reminded me of reading as a kid — the kind that grabs you and you’re instantly transported into the pages of the book. It’s completely immersive — and it’s sneaky because it’s a good history lesson about imperialism without feeling like any kind of lesson at all. It just feels like a thrilling, swashbuckling, romantic story. It’s ‘Loot’ by Tania James.

David: My first book is ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ by William Dalrymple. First, we need to talk about William Dalrymple. William Dalrymple is a Scotsman who fell hard for India in the 1980s. When he was 17, he visited Delhi for the first time. He tells a story in ‘City of Djinns’ that I think completely explains why he was so taken with Delhi. It is the very first thing in the book. It reads:

It was in the citadel of Feroz Shah Kotla that I met my first Sufi. Pir Sadr-ud-Din had weasel eyes and a beard as tangled as a myna’s nest. The mystic sat me down on a carpet, offered me tea, and told me about the djinns. He said that when the world was new and Allah had created mankind from clay, he also made another race, like us in all things, but fashioned from fire. The djinns were spirits, invisible to the naked eye; to see them you had to fast and pray. For forty-one days, Sadr-ud-Din had sat without eating, half-naked in the foothills of the Himalayas; later, he had spent forty-one days up to his neck in the River Jumna. One night, asleep in a graveyard, he was visited by the King of the Djinns. ‘He was black, as tall as a tree, and he had one eye in the centre of his forehead,’ said the Pir. ‘The djinn offered me anything I wanted, but every time I refused.’

‘Could you show me a djinn?’ I asked.

‘Certainly,’ replied the Pir. ‘But you would run away.’

David: Dalrymple moved to India a few years after that – when he was 22 – and has been writing about India since then – for the last 35 years or so. He’s done well for himself. He’s won a shelf full of awards. He’s written and hosted documentaries about India for the BBC. He’s a lecturer at Brown. And, at least according to Goodreads, his books are uniformly good. After ten books, he’s batting around 4.1 stars.

David: When I was exploring books for this episode, I started reading a few of his works. His most recent is about the East India Company. It’s called ‘The Anarchy.’ It tells the – I want to say shocking, even though the action has been over for about 150 years – the shocking story of the rise of the world’s greatest corporate power. I started to read that and found out that the story in my head of Britain being a posh super-power when they first met the poor, downtrodden Indians was the inverse of the truth.

David: He might be most famous for his book, ‘White Mughals : Love and Betrayal in 18th Century India.’ That’s a non-fiction book about a love affair between a British East India Company official and a Hyperbadi noblewoman. Scandalous! Also a good read.

David: But eventually, I settled on ‘City of Djinns.’ It’s one of his first books. It came out in the early 90s. And it’s many things. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about his first year in India with his wife. They moved to Delhi together. So it’s also an expat story, a ‘fish out of water’ tale. It’s a travelogue — he explores his new city and points out the landmarks. It’s a history — because he’s a historian, and that’s what’s interesting to him. It’s a bit of a cold case mystery. “What happened to Delhi?” There are signs everywhere of a once affluent city that is now obviously having hard times.

David: He ends up describing emperors and eunuchs and his very particular landlady. It feels very transportive, like you’re walking the streets of Delhi with him, looking at the magic and the chaos, smelling the food from the street vendors.

David: Early on Dalrymple writes a bit that I want to hear from an old newsreel narrator. He writes: ‘Some said there were seven dead cities of Delhi, and that the current one was the eighth; others counted fifteen or twenty-one. All agreed that the crumbling ruins of these towns were without number.’

David: All these threads tie together into a rich exploration, kind of a scrapbook of tales. The writing is solid; Dalrymple is very good with a story, whether he’s piecing together ancient history or talking about someone he just met. There are characters in this book that I doubt I’ll ever forget. There are some surprisingly emotional passages. There’s a story in here that killed me — about a woman who lived under a tree. Came out of nowhere and stabbed me in the guts. The book is a portrait of a city that Dalrymple loves. He’s doing his best to get you to love it, too. It’s ‘City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi’ by William Dalrymple.

Melissa: My second recommendation is ‘Dishoom: Cookery Book and Highly Subjective Guide to Bombay’ by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar, Naved Nasir. Before I tell you particulars about the book, it needs some setup.

Melissa: Today, the port city on India’s west coast is called Mumbai, and it’s the capital of the state of Maharashtra. But in the 17th century, when the British took control of the city, they called it Bombay.

Melissa: It’s famous for Bollywood, street food, and architecture including landmarks like the Gateway of India — that’s an Islamic style arch that sits on the waterfront, overlooking the Arabian Sea — and a train station built in the spiky, ornate Italian-Gothic style in 1887. It was the headquarters of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. I love the grand way they named stuff in the 19th century.

Melissa: In 1995, India changed the name from Bombay to Mumbai to leave behind colonial rule and honor the city’s cultural heritage. But the idea of old Bombay, with its palm trees and Victorian architecture, is very romantic.

Melissa: Now we need to talk about Dishoom. Dishoom is a restaurant group founded in the UK in 2010 by two cousins: Shamil and Kavi Thakrar. They are all about paying homage to the Irani cafés of old Bombay. There are nine locations in the UK, and they have a Michelin star. Here’s the story of why they were inspired to start Dishoom:

‘The story of the disappearing Irani cafés has a certain wistful poetry. Iranis cross the Arabian Sea to Bombay to escape religious persecution. They work in the homes of established Parsi families, leaving to set up their own cafés, often on street corners which happen to be shunned by Hindus for some superstition. These Irani cafés become an irreplaceable Bombay institution. One which earns a fond place in the hearts of Bombayites — regardless of caste, class, religion or race — by providing a cheap snack, a decent meal, or just a cup of chai and cool refuge from the street. Fans turn slowly. Panelled walls are hung with sepia family portraits and mirrors. Wealthy businessmen, sweaty taxi-wallas and courting couples sit close to each other on rickety bentwood chairs at chipped marble tables. Students eat breakfast while high-court lawyers read their briefs. Families have lunch and writers find their characters. As the decades wear on, eventfully, the Irani cafés peak in number in the 1960s and then start closing down. From none to four hundred and back down to twenty-five within a century.’

Melissa: And now we get to the book. This is like no other cookbook I’ve seen. It’s a travel guide to modern Mumbai and a romantic travelogue of old Bombay with recipes. You could literally go to Mumbai with this book in your hands, and it would guide you to eat in some of the best restaurants, then go on walking tours to admire an art deco cinema from 1938, visit an iconic garden from Bombay’s golden era, or wander the Ballard Estate, which is also known as the London of Mumbai.

Melissa: Each section corresponds to a meal and its daypart, so breakfast, mid-morning snacks, lunch, sunset snacks; first, second, and third dinner — I like the way these guys think about eating all day.

Melissa: They start with a walking tour of a Mumbai neighborhood and a stop in a restaurant. Then the prose jumps back in time to describe what it would have been like in old Bombay. The end of each chapter features recipes inspired by the Irani cafes that have been adapted for the home kitchen.

Melissa: There are really beautiful color and black-and-white photos, both vintage and new. Colorful food, bustling street scenes, the interiors of the cafes — it’s all very dreamy.

Melissa: And the writing is fantastic. Here’s a bit that leads into the sunset snacks chapter: The title of the essay is ‘A Gentle Stroll on Chowpatty at Sunset, with Plentiful Snacks.’

‘It is almost 5 pm. You may be feeling pleasantly tired. The evening sea breeze hasn’t yet picked up, although it is teasing you with its occasional promises to do so. The sun, having lost some of its ferocity, slinks contentedly towards the horizon. At this time of day, Bombay relaxes and takes to the seafront to stretch its legs… Now it is time to make your way on to the beach… to partake in the serious business of idle pleasures… When you have decided what you’d like to eat, you can the savour it in the open air, surrounded by all kinds of Bombay life, the flavors of buttery pau bhaji or spicy bhel made doubly delicious by the view of the curving golden bay as the sun goes down.’

Melissa: The joy of this book is the storytelling and the photographs — making the food just seems like a bonus. There are curries and kebabs, soft buttery buns and spicy chutneys, and they all look very manageable for a home cook. One of the most popular breakfast dishs at the restaurant is the bacon naan roll, and I am excited to try that. It’s homemade naan bread stuffed with cream cheese, bacon, and tomato-chilli jam. There’s also a chicken tikka recipe that looks delicious and easy. Tikka is usually cooked in a tandoori oven, but you can make it on the grill or under the broiler. Seems perfect for summer. There’s also a basmati rice pudding with caramel and blueberry compote that I think someone I know would love.

David: That someone is me!

Melissa: I read this book front to back, and was transported. It gave me that flutter in my chest that I get when I the yearning feeling comes upon me. I want to visit this magical place they describe with palm trees and jazz music and all different kinds of people mingling to eat good food, converse, and read.

Melissa: That’s ‘Dishoom: Cookery Book and Highly Subjective Guide to Bombay’ by Shamil Thakrar, Kavi Thakrar, Naved Nasir.

Melissa: We’re going to London in the fall, and we are definitely eating at Dishoom, and I will report back in an episode of The Library of Lost Time.

David: My next book is ‘The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar’ by Indra Daz. It is a novella, about 120 pages. It just came out last year. It’s about a child — his name is Ru — and Ru believes that his family might be some kind of magic, but they won’t discuss it.

David: In the first few paragraphs, the narrator is standing in front of a bush with his grandmother. The bush has flowering pods on it. In each flowering pod is a tiny, sleeping dragon. It’s a dragon tree. The story reads:

‘It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen in my life. I remember the immensity of the happiness I felt, looking at this flower-like fetus of a dragon growing off a tree tended to by my grandmother, knowing that dragons were actually real and grew on trees, wondering if people knew.’

I couldn’t really believe it, which is why the memory became a dream. I convinced myself it wasn’t a true memory, because dragons don’t exist.

Why didn’t I ask my grandmother later? My family? I did, of course, and they said: ‘Dragons aren’t real, you had a dream.’ If the dragon tree was a real thing, and my family had the privilege of caring for such a marvel, why would they only show it to me once, when I was young, just old enough to know about dragons from books and cartoons and movies on pirated VHS tapes? Dragons aren’t real.

David: That sets up the primary conflict of the story. Ru wonders if he, in fact, is from a magical family. It makes him a stranger in his house. It makes him a stranger in his neighborhood. Because that’s not the kind of thing you can say to the local kids.

David: Ru and his family live in a maze-like house with unusual, but not entirely inexplicable details about it – a tapestry that shows stars that aren’t visible from Earth, a bone dagger, a display of reptile teeth. Ru’s parents tell him stories that sound like fables, but maybe they aren’t? – and there’s a tea they call “the Tea of Forgetfulness,” which is probably not just a brand name. Also, it makes the narrator a bit unreliable. Ru slowly comes to find out his situation, as he grows up.

David: From the title, you might think this is a fantasy book, but it’s mostly a coming-of-age story and, I believe, an allegory. I haven’t read anything by the author that suggests what I’m about to say is true. So. Grain of salt. But it seems to me that the story is a fantastic metaphor for growing up in Kolkatta. The story is set there, in the late 90’s. The author grew up there.

David: I suspect that it feels like there has recently been magic in Kolkatta. That grand, mystical, hard-to-understand things happened — maybe in your living room or down the street. And maybe the magic is still here, but it’s hard to see? — and nobody talks about it. It’s not hard to grow up there, wondering why my parent’s history is inaccessible to me? I also imagine that, if you grew up with that, it would be easy to think that it’s just your imagination, that the magic is just some sort of trick of memory. Was that really a dragon bush?

David: The other book I read for this episode — ‘City of Djinns’ — and this one were talking to each other quite a lot for me. ‘City of Djinns’ felt like it was telling me stories of larger-than-life characters who used to roam India, and the outrageous things they did – parades of zebras and ostriches and thrones made of jade, taking over entire cities during one drunken night, that kind of thing. And this book talked about what it was like to grow up there, after the magic was gone, metaphorically.

David: This is the second book from Indra Daz. The first one was ‘The Devourers.’ That one is about a werewolf who recruits a history professor to help him write his memoirs. The Washington Post called it one of the best science-fiction books of 2015. That’s on my TBR now. As for this one, if you enjoy magical realism mixed with your coming-of-age immigrant stories, you’ll like this. It’s ‘The Last Dragoners of Bowbazar’ by Indra Daz.

Melissa: The final recommendation is The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff. This is an unusual crime novel and celebration of female friendship set in modern India.

Melissa: Here’s the setup: A village in India is all abuzz with rumors that Geeta killed her no-good husband. She didn’t. Five years ago, he walked out of the village, and she has no idea where he is. Conveniently for him, he also left her saddled with his debts.

Melissa: But Geeta’s reputation for badassery has benefits. No one messes with her anymore, and none of the men want to marry her. To Geeta, this is cause for celebration. Here’s a bit from the book where we learn about Geeta’s life since her rat husband took off:

‘Eventually, through discovering her talents for jewelry making, salient truths emerged: There was a Geeta before Ramesh’s hands had found her, and that Geeta was still alive, and even if no one else was interested in knowing her, Geeta was. She found extra salt pleased her palate. She made it a point not to apologize. She liked music and danced to her old radio to jump-start her mornings… Biscuits and tomato Lay’s were a perfectly acceptable dinner some nights… Her grapes, whether sour or fair, were her grapes.’

Melissa: So Geeta’s beginning to live her best life. But everyone thinking she’s a murderess does have some repercussions. The other women in the village want her to help them get rid of THEIR rotten husbands — and they’re not above blackmail and threats to convince her. And so begins a daisy chain of hijinks, some with very serious consequences. There are murder plots run amok, dangerous confrontations with a bootlegger, revelations of secrets, and very real, sobering accounts of domestic abuse.

Melissa: The writing is really impressive. The author Parini Shroff delves into the sexism and misogyny that are just kind of baked into life. She blends that with action scenes that verge on slapstick comedy, and there’s a lot of sharp, funny dialogue. Somehow it all works. One of the standout chapters is a big set-piece that plays out like the climax of a caper movie. It takes place during Diwali, that’s the Festival of Lights, and even though there was legitimate danger, it also made me giggle. It was so much fun.

Melissa: At the heart of the book is Geeta’s social circle. She’s part of a group of women who’ve received microloans to start small businesses. Their meetings are a master class in throwing shade, like a Bollywood edition of Mean Girls. Motherhood is a big topic of conversation which leaves Geeta on the outside — she and her husband don’t have children. The other women complain almost constantly about the burdens of caring for their husbands and kids, but immediately follow it up with statements like, ‘But I’m happy to do it. It’s so rewarding. Joys of motherhood. Such a blessing.’ One of them even says, ‘Until you’ve brought forth the gift of life, you’re not complete.’ while looking pointedly at Geeta.

Melissa: This book also makes the caste system visible in a way that helped me understand how it works in real-life, day-to-day situations. It also explores the tension between Muslims and Hindus and the way bribery is just part of everyday life. But all of these heavy topics are simply woven into the lives of the characters. To them it’s just normal and they usually react with a conversational zinger, like, ‘We’re middle-aged housewives. Who’s more invisible than us? We can get away with murder. Literally.’

Melissa: When I cast the movie version in my imagination, Geeta was played by Jameela Jamil, her number one frenemy was Priyanka Chopra, and the romantic interest was Dev Patel, because I think he should be in just about everything.

Melissa: I never knew what was going to happen next in the plot. The stakes would go up another notch, and I’d think, ‘How is Geeta going to get out of THIS mess. Oh! Wait! She just made it worse. OK.’ I found the combination of action and tenderness very effective, and Geeta’s redemption arc is a real pleasure to behold.

Melissa: That’s The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff.

Melissa: Before we wrap up, I want to mention another novel that provides a peek inside another community of women in India. It’s ‘The Widows of Malabar Hill’ by Sujata Massey. It’s a mystery novel set in 1921 Bombay featuring a plucky heroine named Perveen Mistry. It’s a solid crime novel that also explores the lot of women in 20th-century India.

David: Those are five books we love, set in India. Visit our show notes at for links and details. We will show you Dali’s ashtray. And a show that William Dalrymple produced about India for British television. And the tiger safari! Mel, where are we going for our next episode?

Melissa: We’re blasting off into outer space.

David: We’ll talk to you then!

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Sylwia Bartyzel/Unsplash.

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May we propose a fantastic day in India? Start your day with yoga and meditation, take a tour of a Bollywood studio, eat a best-in-the-world curry, visit tigers in a nature preserve, then stroll the beach at sunset.
In this episode, we get excited about two books: Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey and How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix. Then Dave explains why the Tollywood movie RRR is the best action-adventure movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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