Monday, 22 March 2021

A Mumbai Icon And A Disappearing World


It is thought that the first Parsees came to India between the eighth and tenth centuries, fleeing persecution in what is now Iran. Together with the Iranis, they are one of two groups practising the Zoroastrian faith. They have been extremely successful in India, particularly during the period of British rule when several members of the community achieved positions of prominence including in science, industry and the military. In recent decades their numbers have declined due to emigration and an extremely low birth rate.  However, their presence is still felt through their historical achievements, the remaining Parsi temples and the work of internationally renowned writers including Rohinton Mistry, Thrity Umrigar and Bapsi Sidhwa. They are also known for their famous cuisine. 


During the middle years of the 20th century, Mumbai was home to several hundred Parsee and Irani cafes serving authentic dishes including salti boti (mutton pieces cooked in a special gravy), fish patra, berry pulav and Parsee chapatis. Sadly, most have now disappeared, some have reinvented themselves as places to enjoy beer and snacks and a few have clung on to their roots. Café Britannia in the Fort neighbourhood falls into the latter category. Founded in 1923 by Rashid Kohinoor, a Zoroastrian immigrant from Iran, it was originally established to serve continental dishes to British officers during the colonial period. Rashid’s son, Boman eventually took over responsibility for the café and was an iconic presence there until his death in 2019 at the age of 97.


The name of the café was chosen because eating places needed to be licensed by the British and Rashid thought the name might encourage them to deal quickly and positively with the application. He was proved right and the café has been operating since then. Although not as elegant as it must once have been, it retains a certain charm with its peeling paint and beautiful bent wood chairs imported from Poland decades ago. Less charming although somehow endearing are the idiosyncratic rules and regulations displayed on the walls and on the menu. These include sensible stuff such as not allowing outside food to be brought in and a requirement to vacate seats as soon as you have paid to allow others to sit down. Others assume a more authoritarian tone. My favourite notice reads “Do not argue with the management”. I wish I’d thought of that when I worked with the public. It goes nicely with a favourite sign of mine seen in another Mumbai café that says “This place is for eating not meeting. Eat and go”. These notices can be found in most of Mumbai's Parsi and Irani cafes and as well as directing the behaviour of customers they have inspired at least one prominent Mumbai writer. The Bene Israel Jewish writer Nissim Ezekiel wrote the following after spending time in Bastani, another (now sadly closed) Irani cafe in south Mumbai. 


Do not spit

Do not sit more

Pay promptly, time is invaluable

Do not write letter

Without order refreshment

Do not comb

Hair is spoiling floor

Do not make mischief's in cabin

Our waiter is reporting

Come again

All are welcome whatever caste

If not satisfied tell us

Otherwise tell others

God is great

I met Boman Kohinoor twice, the first time in 2017 when I enjoyed a plate of his famous vegetable biryani accompanied by a sweet lime soda. He took my order, asked me where I am from and said, “I’ll be back”. A few minutes later he returned to the table saying “I’m back” before proceeding to show me a number of laminated press cuttings picturing him with Prince William and Kate Middleton as well as other articles about the café. He was a devoted royalist and received extensive media coverage when he was invited to meet the royal couple when they visited the city. The invitation came following his making a video appeal explaining how thrilled he would be at the opportunity to meet them. He continued to come and go from my table to speak to other customers, always saying “I’ll be back” and “I’m back” at the appropriate point before telling me a little more or teasing me about where I come from. “So are you from England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles or the United Kingdom” he asked me. I told him “London” and he agreed that this was a good answer.


Before I left, he asked me for three favours. I was to ask the Queen to visit Mumbai, to kiss the children of William and Kate next time I saw them and to come back and eat there again. The first two were beyond my ability and at least one would probably have got me into serious trouble should I have tried to do it. However, I did manage to return and to enjoy his food a second time. I was also able to give him a large copy of the photograph I had taken of him, proudly holding the laminated news clipping featuring the picture of him with the royals. His death was a sad day for Mumbai and for India, the end of an era and the loss of one of the few remaining links with old Bombay.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

The Language of Thieves

London's Jewish Book Week (JBW) is one of the highlights of the literary calendar. Every year it attracts huge audiences who come to hear authors talking about their latest books and current issues of Jewish (and wider) interest. This year, for the first time, and for obvious reasons JBW took place online before a virtual audience. Whilst I missed the excitement of the live appearances and the chance to browse in the pop-up book shop I welcomed the chance to attend the festival from the comfort of my armchair whilst enjoying coffee and cake!

I watched several sessions but was so interested in Martin Puchner's book The Language of Thieves that I ordered a copy online whilst listening to him speak and then read it within two days of receipt. It tells two stories. Primarily a history and examination of Rotwelsch, a language spoken in Europe from the Middle Ages to the mid twentieth century, mainly by vagrants and members of the criminal class, it also tells a parallel story of his uncovering an uncomfortable truth about his family.

The author describes Rotwelsch as more of a sociolect than a language, that is a variety of language used by a distinct social group, in this case mainly homeless people. It enabled communication between its users who cam from different parts of Europe and also allowed its speakers to disguise their conversation and on occasion to evade the police. Puchner relates early childhood memories of men coming to the door of his family home, his mother giving them food and his being unable to understand much of what they said. His parents explained that these people lived on the road and spoke their own language. More than this, his father was able to explain some of the words to him, sparking a lifelong interest and eventual academic research into the subject. 

Although Rotwelsch was primarily a spoken and not a written language, its speakers left pictoral codes, carved into the foundation stones, fences and gateposts of houses. These signs, known as zinken, provided information for other people of the road about the possibility of receiving food from a particular house, places to avoid or advice on the kind of behaviour that might secure some help, such as religious piety or offering to work for food. Others can best be described as tags, symbols identifying particular characters a bit like those used by modern graffiti artists. I especially liked the idea of an image of a parrot being used by a man able to speak several languages. 

Rotwelsch borrows words from various sources, primarily Yiddish and Hebrew but also Romani, Czech and elsewhere. Hebrew speakers will recognise the words lechem (bread) ganeff (ganav in Hebrew meaning thief) and mackum (makom in Hebrew, meaning place) as well as many others. Examples of this are given throughout the book and there is a nice touch at the end of each chapter where the author gives a short lesson on different themes, enabling us to talk about the police, prison, making an escape or to take the American Oath of Allegiance in Rotwelsch. Through detailed research he discovers that although the language has almost disappeared today, there is perhaps a successor version called Yenish which is spoken in Switzerland and has a degree of official recognition there. 

Puchner is a Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He was born and grew up in Nuremburg, the site of the enactment of the notorious Nuremburg Laws, Nazi rallies and of course the war crimes trials at the end of the Second World War. It may come as no surprise that the Nazis were not big fans of either Rotwelsch or the people who spoke it. This was partly because of its use of Yiddish and Hebrew words but also because of the lifestyle and non-conformist behaviour of its speakers. What did come as a surprise to the author was finding out about his paternal grandfather's had involvement with the Nazi Party and his authoring of an anti-semitic tract about the use of names as racial markers. This unwelcome surprise, which turns out to have direct links to Rotwelsch instigates a painful search for more details of his grandfather's story and its impact on the family. 

Whilst listening to the author speak, I was reminded of other languages or sociolects that have served similar purposes. Both Polari, a kind of slang spoken mainly by gay men (but also by others) until at least the 1970's and Cockney rhyming slang have been used to disguise the conversation of its speakers and on occasion to evade the police. Both are in danger of disappearing.  

The Language of Thieves is a fascinating work that not only tells the story of the language and its speakers but also the context in which it grew, developed and eventually disappeared. The book is an important and eminently readable work of social history. It deserves a wide audience.

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One Indian Contemporary Fiction   Best Reads of 2020 Part Two

Friday, 26 February 2021

Picture Post 72 - Beautiful Watercolours From Myanmar

Sai Pyae Sone Aye is one of Myanmar's leading watercolourists. Born in Hkamti in the country's Sagaing region, he began painting at a very young age, receiving many prizes for his work. His original ambition was to be a cartoonist but over time he became interested in watercolours and began studying the format in 2014. 

His work includes both rural and urban landscapes of his stunningly beautiful but troubled country, with a number of recurring themes. These include the river Ayeyarwady, the iconic Shwedagon and Sule pagodas in Yangon and street scenes featuring the crumbling red brick buildings of the colonial period. More recently he has begun to produce portraits. Regular readers will know that I have a special affection for Myanmar and Sai's paintings perfectly capture many of the things I love about the place and I must admit to being the proud owner of two of his works. Sai identifies Khin Maung Than and Myint Naing as sources of inspiration for his work. 

Than is a particularly interesting character. He was born in Wetlet, Shwebo in 1942 into a family with artistic talents - his father was a goldsmith. He studied at Myoma School until grade seven before going on to the Mandalay Fine Arts School in the 1950's. He initially worked in commercial arts, producing film posters and graphic items and illustrating a number of novels and other books for high profile authors. He moved to a more fine arts approach in the 1990's and his work has been exhibited overseas a number of times.

Sai has had significant success both in Myanmar and internationally. His works have been exhibited in prestigious hotels in Yangon as well as in private galleries in the city. In 2019 he was selected to represent Myanmar at the International Triennial Watercolour and Spirit exhibition in Varna, Bulgaria. His works are available for sale. Enquiries should be directed to him through his website

All of the  pictures featured in this post are Sai's work and are currently available for sale at time of writing.

You might also like The Ahuja Family And Early Burmese Photography

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Best Reads of 2020 Part Two

A recent Adrian Yekkes post featured reviews of some of my favourite reads of 2020. It focused on five great works of contemporary fiction, all of them by Indian writers. This post continues the literary theme with five more of my favourite books from last year.

Andrew Cartmel's Vinyl Detective series is perfect for me combining music with the detective work of the unnamed hero and his fabulous partner, Nevada. Low Action is the fifth title in the series and once again the pair accept a commission to track down a rare vinyl record, the pursuit of which inevitably leads them into trouble. This time they investigate a series of attempts on the life of an ageing rock star's girlfriend, whilst simultaneously searching for a rare album of the fictional disbanded punk girl group - the Blue Tits. Low Action sees the return of several old favourites including the afore mentioned ageing rock star, Erik Make Loud, free loader Tinkler and shaved headed cab driver Agatha. I am especially fond of Agatha who gets drawn into the trickier parts of the couple's work and is admired from afar by Tinkler. 

In Low Action, Cartmel works his usual magic, leading us through numerous twists and turns, developing his characters so that one feels they've known them for some time. The reader develops either a liking or disdain for each one, before reaching the final denouement which never fails to surprise. The series has great continuity with all the little habits and interests of the main characters maintained and developed with each book. The Vinyl Detective always has something to say about the quality of his coffee and Nevada can be relied upon to choose a great wine and to track down haute couture fashion in second-hand shops whilst simultaneously searching for the elusive vinyl. At the same time, there are always new subjects in his stories and trouble is sparked by all kinds of jealousies, resentments and grudges. It's worth starting at the beginning of the series if you haven't read any of them, but each title  can stand alone. Cartmel has also written a number of Doctor Who novels and novellas and wrote scripts of the TV series in the late 1980's.

Still on the subject of crime, I discovered the books of A.A Dhand for the first time last year. Amit Dhand's stories, set in Bradford look at crime through the prism of various social issues including religious and political extremism, corruption and poverty but without becoming didactic or cliched.

His detective, DI Harry Virdee is a complex character who resorts to unorthodox methods to solve cases. and this often lands him in trouble with his superiors This includes occasionally securing the help of his brother who is himself involved in the city's underworld. The books also have a sub-plot. Virdee is a Sikh married to a Muslim woman. Their marriage has caused both families to sever ties with them. These mutual prejudices are to some extent examined in each of the stories but are given particular attention in his most recent novel One Way Out. 

The first of his books I read was City of Sinners which left me hungry for more of his writing. Our hero is tracking a vicious serial killer bent on revenge for a perceived slight several years previously. Although he doesn't realise it at first, the grudge is somehow linked to Virdee and threatens to destroy his family. The tension builds to an almost unbearable level that kept me reading into the night, too worried to put the book down until I reached the end. 

Dhand grew up in Bradford and as a teenager helped his parents in their convenience store. His experience there was no doubt a rich source of ideas for the characters and story lines of his books. He went on to qualify as a pharmacist, a profession which he still practices full-time. There are plans for Streets of Darkness, his  first novel, to be made into a TV series. 

Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. It is an atmospheric tale of outsiders, misfits that the city needs but doesn't want. It centres on Tequila Leila, an Istanbul sex-worker, brutally murdered and dumped in a garbage bin in the back streets of the city. The first half of the book deals with what happens to her mind after death, where for ten minutes and thirty eight seconds her life passes before her as each memory is evoked by a different smell or taste - lemons, cardamom coffee, wood and even sulphuric acid. 

This device is used to take us through her life from her childhood in a small village to her escape to Istanbul where she becomes a prostitute and where her life is shaped through her relationships with her five best friends. All of them are, to some extent, outsiders. Jameelah is a Somali woman, brought to Istanbul by human traffickers. Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height) is a very religious refugee from Lebanon who is taunted for her dwarfism. Sinan is her best friend from childhood, Nalan is a trans woman and Humeyra has fled her abusive husband. 

This group inhabit what was once a very diverse city and the writer's affection for those times is clear. A couple of years ago I heard her speak about how her beloved Istanbul has been cleansed of much that made it both interesting and a refuge for the dispossessed.  Shafak describes the quarter in which she once lived as having a synagogue, an Armenian church, a Greek church, a Sufi lodge and a Russian Orthodox Chapel "between rows of licensed brothels" all within short distance of her street. Istanbul has also been cleansed of her presence as she now lives in the UK after having been prosecuted in Turkey for daring to refer to the Armenian Genocide in her work. 

The second half of the book deals with what happens to Leila's body after her death. Her friends are not happy to let her lay in an unmarked grave where those who die in the street or without relatives are dumped. They embark on an almost slapstick mission to bury her somewhere more fitting, avoiding pursuing police as they drive through the night in a stolen truck. This is a final act of friendship and an indication of how even in death the outsider will no longer find a welcome in the city. 

Shafak has a particular talent for enabling the reader to feel they are in the room with the characters. I especially felt this in the scenes in Leila's apartment and in the tension of the stifling life she lived in the village before her escape. The story examines some of her favourite themes - the treatment of women and sexual minorities, growing problems with religious and political orthodoxy and the rejection of difference. These subjects are also examined in her earlier works including The Bastard Of Istanbul, The Flea Palace, Three Daughters of Eve and Honour - all of them cracking reads.

Not many people can say that they won the Booker Prize with their first novel, but Douglas Stuart can. The Glasgow born, New York based fashion designer picked up the 2020 prize for Shuggie Bain the story of a young boy growing up in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1980's. The focus of the novel is Shuggie's relationship with his alcoholic mother Agnes and his attempts to save her from herself. In the early chapters his older brother and sister take responsibility for her but eventually leave in order to save themselves and so it's just Shuggie and Agnes from then on. 

Agnes is a fascinating character. Despite living on an isolated sink estate in what was then a decaying city, she is determined to keep a clean house, to wear only the smartest clothes that show off her figure at its best, to always attend to her hair and not to go out without getting made up first. All of this despite her growing reliance on the alcohol that takes most of her weekly benefit payments. There are brief moments of respite when it looks as if everything will be fine. From time to time Agnes and Shuggie decide they will be "new" and she stops drinking, but the city, her neighbours and her need for love are always going to be there to pull her back down.

As if this isn't enough for a young boy to cope with, he is also gay. His way of speaking, attention to his appearance and disinterest in the games of other boys lead to him being described as "not right" by friends, relatives and neighbours. They also make him vulnerable to abuse by adults and older children.

Whilst Shuggie and Agnes are the main characters, there are several other stories here. Her parents have a dark secret. The female neighbours on the estate are both jealous and secretly admiring of her appearance and most of them have stories of their own with husbands made redundant in middle age and destined never to work again but still having to maintain themselves and several children. And then there's the issue of sectarianism with religious affiliation governing who will be friends with whom and where they will live, or go to school. However, despite the misery of much of their lives, Agnes and Shuggie manage moments of humour and there were occasions when I laughed out loud whilst reading this. It's a great, albeit difficult read, and good to see a novel featuring authentic working class characters receiving the highest accolades.

Avi Luria, a 73  years old retired engineer who seems to be in the early stages of dementia is the hero of Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua's latest novel,  The Tunnel. Avi's memory loss is first alluded to when he forgets to collect his grandson from school and then has trouble remembering people's first names, including that of a woman he once had a brief affair with.

His wife Dina is a high profile paediatrician who wants him to remain active and intellectually engaged in order to slow the progress of the disease. She persuades him to return to his former employer, the Israel Roads Authority as a volunteer where he becomes involved in a supposedly secret project to build a military road in the Negev Desert. The project is hampered by the road needing to pass through the location of a hill at the summit of which are ancient Nabatean ruins. Not only this, the hilltop is home to a family living in Israel but who lack appropriate documentation to do so. The family claim to be trapped and unable to live elsewhere and so Avi develops proposals to take the road underneath the hill, a costly project that will bring many technical challenges. The project gives him a new lease of life but his family are troubled by his occasionally going missing and some of his former colleagues are against his ideas.

The tunnel is a metaphor both for Avi's dementia as his world narrows and slowly darkness begins to surround him. However, perhaps all is not lost and as Dina says "Does it matter what day it is, if there is love every day". The tunnel idea is also a reference to the ongoing political situation in Israel with opportunities for resolution narrowing but then there is always light at the end of the tunnel. 

You might also like Best Reads of 2020 Part One - Contemporary Indian Fiction or Essential Items And Other Tales From A Land In Lockdown - Stories From The Pandemic

Sunday, 31 January 2021

A Place Full of Stories - East London's Novo Jewish Cemetery

The Novo Cemetery in Mile End is just a ten-minutes walk from my home. I have lived here for almost twenty years but it is only very recently that I "discovered" the cemetery through the Discovering and Documenting England's Lost Jews project. Established in 1733 and now tucked away within the grounds of Queen Mary University, the cemetery has been the resting place of some very prominent people. Champion boxer Daniel Mendoza was buried here as was Benjamin Disraeli whose grandson of the same name became Britain's first Prime Minister of Jewish heritage, famed comic actor David James (David Belasco) and Diego Pereira who served as financier to the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa. It is fascinating to think that these illustrious characters were buried just a short walk from where I now sit.

Grave of Orovida Abigail Bensusan

It has also been the final resting place of the less well known, including tailors, rag merchants, quill pen makers and feather makers who lived and worked in the once predominantly Jewish East End and were eventually buried here. I wonder if any of the traders mentioned in my recent post on Sclater Street were laid to rest in the Novo Cemetery.


The graveyard itself has quite a story. In 1656, after an absence of almost 400 years, the presence of Jews in England was accepted but not officially recognised. In the same year, a small synagogue was established in Creechurch Lane in the City of London and in 1657 a piece of land was purchased in the then rural Mile End, for use as a burial ground. Over the next several years as this predominantly Sephardi community became more established and expanded in size a larger cemetery was needed and in 1726 an additional piece of land was leased for this purpose. A short distance form the original burial ground it was named the Nuevo (new) Cemetery and the former site became known as the Velho (old) cemetery. The first burials took place in the Novo in 1733.

Nature has begun to take over some of the gravestones

Over the next century London's Jewish population continued to grown and in 1855 it was necessary to purchase a further 1.7 acres of land to accommodate its needs. By 1899 the cemetery held about 9000 graves. At this point, the Sephardi community began to drift away from this part of London and a new cemetery was established in Golders Green. In 1906 the Novo was closed for adult burials and in 1918 for children. Despite this, occasional internments took place into the 1970's.

In 1973 about 7000 bodies were disinterred from the pre 1855 site and reburied in a communal grave in Essex, leaving about 2,000 graves in place. This was because the expanding Queen Mary College, now a University, required additional space and an agreement was reached between the Sephardi community and the College to transfer part of the burial ground to College ownership. Daniel Mendoza was one of those disinterred and this great Jewish and British sporting hero now lies unacknowledged in a shared pit.

Hands signify the grave of a Cohen 

A life cut short

Books may indicate that the deceased was a scholar 

Wandering through the cemetery on a crisp, cold winter's afternoon I was struck by how much cemeteries can tell us about the communities they serve and how many stories are waiting to be unlocked from them with just a little research. As already noted, the Novo Cemetery is a Sephardi burial ground and this is evidenced by the Spanish and Portuguese names marked on almost every one of the gravestones as well as by the tradition of laying the stones flat rather than upright. This is to remind us that regardless of our status in life, in death we are equal. Some gravestones carry visual clues to the lives of the deceased. An image of hands usually denotes that the person is a Cohen, that is, of the priestly caste and that they can claim to be descended from Aaron, brother of the the Biblical prophet Moses. Images of books may indicate that the deceased was a scholar or rabbi, whilst a tree or a tree being cut down means that a life was cut short. Candlesticks are sometimes carved into the headstones of women as a reference to their responsibility for lighting candles on Shabbat. 

Non-Jewish visitors may wonder why there are small stones or pebbles on many of the graves. Various explanations are given for this including the belief that the soul of the deceased remains near the body for a while after death and that rocks will prevent it from leaving too soon. There may also be practical reasons for this tradition. In Biblical times burials would take place under a pile of rocks rather than a heavy slab and so the placing of stones on graves in the modern era may be a reflection of this. Today it indicates that someone has visited the grave.

It is important to note that although all of those buried here are from the Sephardi community, not everyone came from Spanish or Portuguese family backgrounds. A whole row of graves is given over to the illustrious Sassoon family who originated from Baghdad in Iraq and became one of the world's foremost merchant families over several generations with business interests in  Bombay (today Mumbai), Shanghai and Hong Kong. Amongst others, Flora Sassoon, wife of David Sassoon founder of the dynasty and former leader of Bombay's once substantial Jewish community, (nee Farha Hyeem) is buried here.  

Grave of Flora Sassoon (nee Farha Hyeem)

Cemeteries have always been important sources of information for historians but today the little bit of information contained on a headstone can lead us on the most fascinating of virtual journeys via the internet. The stone pictured at the top of this post is that of Orovida Abigail Bensusan who died on 30th July 1912 aged 69. We can learn from it that she was the daughter of Samuel and Esther, that she probably never married (no other family name is given other than that of her parents) and the quote from Proverbs indicates that she was well thought of and did not need praise.

"Give her of the fruit of her hands and let her own works praise her in the gates". 

A little research reveals many interesting details about her and her family. Both parents were born in Gibraltar which remans home to a significant Jewish community today. Although I have not been able to find out when the family came to London, the 1871 census shows Esther, Orovida's mother, living in Lambeth. By 1881 she was living in Penge not far from the site of the Crystal Palace, which perhaps indicates that the family had become more prosperous. 

Although Orovida appears not to have married, according to the Ancestry website, she did have a child with one Abraham Corcos, a merchant born in Oran, Algeria in 1810. He was father to at least nine children, some of them born in Algeria and Morocco, and who had three different family names between them. Orovida and Abraham's daughter, Esther Corcos was born in London in 1873. Details of Orovida's life after the birth of Esther are sketchy until 1911 when it is known that was living in Stamford Brook, Chiswick with her niece Esther (daughter of Orovida's brother Jacob) and her niece's husband...famed French artist Camille Pissarro. Orovida was clearly a much loved aunt as the couple named their only daughter after her. Orovida Camille Pissarro was herself to become a distinguished artist studying with her father and then with Walter Sickert before rejecting their styles in favour of Chinese and other Asian techniques.  Her works can be found in the collections of both the Tate and the Royal Academy.

The Novo Cemetery is full of stories like that of Orovida Abigail Bensusan and whilst not everyone will have had links with world famous artists, discovering their personal histories will be  just as interesting. The website of the Discovering and Documenting England's Lost Jews project includes testimony from Jews with Sephardi heritage, more details about the history of the cemetery and stories of some of those buried there. The cemetery is open to visitors and is a short stroll from either Mile End or Stepney Green Underground stations.  

You might also like Sclater Street - full of history and a hot spot for street Photography or Whitechapel Library - University of the Ghetto

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Best Reads of 2020 Part One - Indian Contemporary Fiction

I had planned to spend all of last September in India. For obvious reasons I couldn't go and so instead I  visited vicariously by immersing myself in contemporary Indian fiction. I have previously enjoyed the works of Kushwant Singh, Hassan Sadat Manto, Anita Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa and others but thanks to The Scroll I have discovered several new authors from different communities and from different parts of India. The books I enjoyed most share a number of themes - the vulnerability of outsiders of various kinds, friendship, betrayal and relationships between the classes, sexes, rich and poor. These are universal themes and can be found in the literature of most countries, but the five books included in this post explore them in a specifically Indian context.

Megha Majumdar's debut novel, A Burning, was one of my most engaging reads of the year. Set in the author's home city of Kolkata, the story begins just after an horrific terror attack has taken place. It revolves around three main characters, Jivan who lives in the slum but has dreams of a good job and a better life; her friend and neighbour, Lovely, who also has an ambition to leave the slum and to be a success in Bollywood and PT Sir, Jivan's former sports teacher. Jivan helps Lovely to improve her chances by teaching her English and whilst at school was well liked by PT Sir due to her sporting abilities. Although she has ambition she is young and naive and becomes implicated in the attack when the police examine the contents of her beloved mobile telephone. As the story unfolds, the moral character of both Lovely and PT Sir are tested as they are forced to compromise between helping Jivan or pursuing their own desires. All three are outsiders in their own way. Jivan is a Muslim, Lovely is a Hijra and PT Sir is not well regarded at his school. Lovely and PT Sir have both been fond of Jivan but when choices arise between opportunities to improve their lives or to forgo them and instead help her, their loyalty is put to the test.

Majumdar builds the tension as the story progresses, raising and then dashing hopes at various times,  as the story moves to its shocking denouement. Throughout, she exposes the hierarchies that govern every day life, at work, at home, even in prison. She studied in the United States and now lives in New York where she works as an editor at Catapult. Her book has received substantial praise from some very big names. Amitav Ghosh describes it as "...the best debut novel I have come across in a long time..." and Yaa Gyasi called it "An excellently crafted, utterly thrilling novel full of characters I won't soon forget". A Burning was long listed for the 2020 JCB Prize and shortlisted for the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. It might just be my book of 2020.

Hansda Sowendra Shekhar, author of My Father's Garden also writes about outsiders. He is a doctor as well as being an accomplished writer who has published three novels and a book of short stories. Born in Ranchi, the capital city of Jharkand in north-east India, he is a member of the Santhal ethnic group  who are one of the Adivasi or tribal communities. He is also gay. His writing explores the lives of the Santhal and neighbouring communities, the various social problems they face and their suffering at the hands of multi-nationals who wish to use the mineral-rich Adivasi lands for profit, forcing out the Santhal and other groups. Some of his short stories have provoked controversy amongst his own community due to the candid depiction of sex, prostitution and other issues. This led to calls for his brilliant collection of short stories - The Adivasi Will Not Dance - to be banned. 

My Father's Garden has also encountered controversy as it tells the story of a young gay Santhal doctor, his search for love and companionship and the difficulties of managing the expectations of his family and community. The first half of the book details the highs and lows of an affair with a fellow medical student and the different understanding, needs and wants that the two of them have from their relationship. The second half tells the story of a platonic friendship with the head clerk of the hospital where our hero is posted and how this changes over time to leave him disillusioned when his corrupt nature is exposed. The story explores several themes including the search for love, rejection, disappointment and the condition of being a permanent outsider even in one's home or family.

India's small but accomplished Parsi community has provided several writers who have achieved international recognition. Canada based Rohinton Mistry has scooped numerous awards for his epic novels of Parsi family life whilst Bapsi Sidhwa, born in Karachi when it was still part of an undivided India, has also achieved international recognition with two of her books being the basis for successful films. Last year I discovered another Parsi writer - Thrity Umrigar. Born in Mumbai she moved to the United States at the age of 21 and her stories are set in both India and her adopted country. 

I enjoyed two of her novels in 2020 - The Space Between Us and The Secrets Between Us. Set in Mumbai, they chart the relationships between Sera Dubash, a wealthy Parsi widow who survived an unhappy and sometimes violent marriage and her illiterate maid, Bhima who has her own sad story and who works to enable her orphaned grand daughter, Maya, to attend college. Umrigar cleverly contrasts the lives of the two women - Sera living in comfort in a beautiful apartment in a wealthy part of the city, Bhima scraping by in a small house in one of Mumbai's slums. Over many years they have shared an unspoken understanding of the other's secrets, yet still Bhima is not permitted to sit on the furniture she polishes every day and although she cooks Sera's meals she may not eat from the same plates or drink from the same cups. Umrigar contrast the lives of the two women which although very different materially are similar in many ways. Both had unsuccessful marriages and both choose to live their lives for their children or grandchildren. Both keep up pretences, Sera that her marriage was happy and Bhima that although she may live in a slum, she is not of it. Despite this, when a crisis arrives in the shape of a new and dreadful secret, this "nearly" friendship is placed under unbearable pressure in which themes of loyalty, truth, betrayal and redemption are examined. The books also capture something of the spirit of Mumbai. I especially enjoyed the scenes on Juhu beach, where Bhima and Maya go for fresh air and to temporarily escape their poverty and where both Bhima and Sera revisit memories of happier times.

Annie Zaidi is a journalist, novelist and playwright. Originally from Allahabad, she is not the first acclaimed writer in the family. Her maternal grandfather was Urdu Laureate, Ali Jawad Zaidi. Her most recent work, Prelude To A Riot uses a series of soliloquies, interspersed with clever use of poems, news reports and advertisements to tell the story of a South Indian village where religious intolerance threatens to destroy long established friendships between Hindus and Muslims. The soliloquies give voice to a range of opinions across age, class, sex and religious boundaries, giving depth to each character and background to the relationships and connections between them. 

Developing her theme of growing intolerance, Zaidi seems to make reference to what has become known as cancel culture. When the local newspaper publishes an anonymous poem, the recently formed Self Respect Forum, writes to the editor, objecting to its inclusion, claiming it makes disrespectful reference to a deity and also because too much space has been devoted to it "...the forum feels strongly that this much space need not be devoted to cultural inputs, especially on weekdays". The female editor writes a robust response "We must not forget that anybody who seeks to block the flow of ideas or people, creates artificial hurricanes" and suggests they visit the much neglected local museum where ancient statues depict the said deity in the same way as the poet. The Forum fail in their attempt to prevent further poems being published but are nonetheless outraged.

This relatively short but extremely powerful novel also exposes the discrimination faced by migrant workers who are paid less than the locals, not allowed to live in certain neighbourhoods and vulnerable to violent attacks. In Devaki's soliloquy she hears her father angrily describing his workers as "bloody illegals" before acknowledging that they are "cheap hands". Devaki asks "Does Appa (father) ask which side of the border they come from when he's bargaining like the devil himself to pay just half the government rate?". Resentment, jealousy, fear and denial fill the pages of this book which as the title indicates, does not end in a riot, but it is clear that something dark is likely to happen. Prelude To A Riot was shortlisted for the 2020 JCB Prize.  

My final choice in this, the first of two posts on my best reads of 2020 is the superb Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. The Kerala born author is also a journalist has won numerous awards for her reports on the impact of poverty and religious violence on the education of children. This is her first novel. 

Djinn Patrol is the story of a series of child disappearances as seen through the eyes of three young friends - Jai aged nine and addicted to reality police shows, his studious friend Pari who is the only girl of the trio,  and Faiz who although still of school age has to work to help his family. The friends attempt to solve the mystery of the missing children taken from their slum in one of India's cities. The Purple Line of the title refers to the city's metro system and the Djinn comes from Faiz' idea that the children have been spirited away by one of these creatures. Pari is dismissive of his idea and Jai decides to undertake an investigation into what is really happening.

The parents and relatives of the missing children are treated with thinly disguised contempt by the authorities and the police show no interest in finding missing slum children. Local politicians attempt to make political capital from the misfortune of those gone missing and this has some impact within the community with neighbours becoming suspicious and threatening to turn on each other.

The writer sets the context by detailing the realities of slum life where many residents struggle to feed themselves and their families. Then there are the daily indignities of  having to use overflowing communal toilets, queuing for water early in the morning and the total absence of privacy. As if to emphasise the poverty, the slum is adjacent to a series of high rise luxury apartment blocks where the city's wealthy live behind high walls protected by security guards. Many of the women who live in the slum work in the homes of the wealthy madams, cooking and cleaning for them and looking after their children. The apartment dwellers and their less fortunate neighbours are linked in an economic relationship but as the story unfolds there may be other links too.

In the afterward of the book, Anappara writes that every day in India 180 children go missing. A disappearance will only make the news if the perpetrator is caught or if there are what she describes as "graphic details" surrounding the crime. She reports being struck by the total absence of the childrens' voices in these cases, which is why the format of her book is unusual. It places the children at the front of the story, not only the young detectives who search in the dangerous bazar and foggy narrow neighbourhood lanes, but also the missing. We meet them before they disappear. We know who they are and we care about them. 

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line has been recognised with a string of awards including the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, the Bridport/ Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award and the Deborah Rodgers Foundation Award. it has also been shortlisted for  the JCB Prize and the Women's Prize For Fiction. I must also mention the very striking design of the UK edition's cover, the work of Suzanne Dean, and although I know the old adage about books and covers, this one certainly catches the eye. 

Regular followers of this blog will know that reading is one of my passions. Although it is hard to feel positive about 2020, having to stay at home for much of the time meant I was able to indulge that passion even more than usual. Another post featuring five (or maybe a few more) titles is coming soon!

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Friday, 1 January 2021

Travels With My Camera 2020 - The Best Pictures

I had big travel plans for 2020. For obvious reasons most of them did not come to fruition, including a first time visit to Angola and a return to India. However, I did manage to travel a little before everything stopped. I spent a few days in Bangkok at the beginning of the year en route to my third visit to Myanmar. I also made my annual Israel visit but had to cut things short when it became obvious that air travel was grinding to a halt. This resulted in my doing significantly less photography than in previous years. It also meant that lockdown permitting, I spent some time in the streets of London looking for interesting shots much closer to home.

The pictures included in this post are some of my personal favourites from 2020. Others have been particularly well received on social media or at the exhibition I was able to hold at the Jeannie Avent Gallery in Dulwich, South London in August. This sixth incarnation of my Travels With My Camera show was the most successful so far. It was a great location and a rewarding experience. I enjoyed talking to visitors, listening to their feedback and learning from the advice of some of the more experienced photographers who came along. I had planned another exhibition in the cafe gallery of the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch but this, like much else, fell victim to the lockdown.

Bilone and her grandson, Kasae Kum, Kayah State, Myanmar

Pop Nyat Khaing school for nuns, Loikaw, Myanmar 

Despite the disruption to my plans, 2020 provided me with some new experiences. In Myanmar I visited Kayah State for the first time and spent time in villages only recently opened up to overseas visitors. This included spending time with several members of the Kayah ethnic group who gave me free reign to photograph them going about their daily activities. The picture of Bilone with one of her grandchildren is perhaps my favourite picture of the trip, if not of the year. I was struck by the easy and obvious affection between grandmother and grandchild and how comfortable they were together. I also loved the way the light fell on Bilone's face, illuminating her love for the child. 

Still in Kayah State, I visited a school for young nuns in Loikaw. Many of the girls are orphans or from families unable to look after them. They are placed in the nunnery where they will be fed, cared for and receive at least some education. Many of the children were shy, but one girl in particular was fascinated by the camera. She grinned at me and pulled faces before turning back to her work. She then turned round once more just as a patch of light fell on the wall behind her. And that was the shot. 

Shy flower seller, Yangon

Breakfast at the wholesale fish market, Yangon

Yangon is one of my favourite cities and once again I enjoyed early morning expeditions to the various wholesale markets, photographing the workers going about their daily tasks as well as capturing some interesting portraits. I especially like the picture of the shy flower seller who was at first reluctant to be photographed, but then changed his mind and approached me whilst carrying a huge bunch of white flowers, hiding just a little of his face being them. The woman seen ladling food from her bowl in the picture below was enjoying her breakfast in the wholesale fish market when I saw her. The Yangon based watercolorist and my good friend, Sai Pyae Sone Aye, used this photograph as inspiration for one of his beautiful works. I look forward to seeing it next time we meet.

Still in Myanmar, I visited the city of Mawlamyine for the first time. I happily spent a couple of days wandering through its narrow lanes and markets and am keen to return at the earliest opportunity. It was here that I came across a young man working on a new well, pumping muddy water from the ground in an area where instant access to clean water is not guaranteed. He is pictured below.

A new well, Mawlamyine, Myanmar

Alone in a crowd, Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel

I love portrait photography and am especially attracted to informal portraits where the subject has less opportunity to hide their true mood or feelings. I particularly like three portraits from 2020. The first is of a young Jewish man taken during the Purim celebrations in Meah Shearim, Jerusalem. This is an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and photography is normally unwelcome there, but during Purim with the right approach and some contacts it is possible. Purim is a chaotic time in Meah Shearim. People wear costumes or disguises and alcohol consumption is encouraged - at least amongst the men. This young man seemed alone in the crowd, slightly apart from the celebrations and although physically present, somehow absent. I wonder what his story is.

The second portrait I've chosen from last year is of a little girl in Bangkok. I noticed her sitting with her grandmother on the step of a shop house in the Klong Toey market. Noticing the camera, and much to her grandmother's amusement, she began to laugh, wave and pose before finally leaning standing quietly against the house gate which framed her face perfectly. In this quiet moment she is somehow similar to the young man in Jerusalem, lost in thought, no longer with us.

My third choice is a portrait of Bilot, another Kayah woman and friend of Bilone featured in the picture at the top of this post. I spent some time talking to her before taking the camera out. She was optimistic and funny. She offered me home made rice wine and betel leaf and teased me about traveling alone. I think this portrait captures the self she showed me during our conversation.

The dreamer, Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand

Bilot laughing, Kasae Kum, Kayah State, Myanmar

On the way to the flea market, Sclater Street, London

After my Myanmar/ Bangkok and Israel trips I had a long spell where I hardly picked up my camera. I fell ill in late March and took several weeks to recover and of course, the national lockdown much reduced the opportunity for my preferred kind of photography. However once the initial lockdown was lifted, I made several weekend visits to Spitalfields, close to my home in East London. The Sunday fleamarket market and nearby shops act as a magnet for many young, fashion conscious visitors. They also attract many local people who have lived in the area either their whole life or for many years. The pictures above and below were taken in Sclater Street near the market and represent the different audiences it attracts. 

On the catwalk, Sclater Street, London

I originally intended to include just ten pictures in this post but whilst drafting it I decided to indulge myself and include two more shots from my time in Jerusalem. One shows an ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy entertaining himself whilst his father (not pictured) says his prayers at the Kotel (also known as the Western Wall and the Wailing Wall). I liked the interplay between the lines on his sweatshirt and those of the stacked chairs, as well as his stylised movement. The second picture is of a teenager, sunlight on his face and the worse for wear after over indulging at Purim. 

When you get bored waiting for your dad, Jerusalem, Israel

Too much to drink at Purim, Meah Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel

Thank you if you came to my Jeannie Avent Gallery exhibition, or if you follow me on various social media. I hope to see you again soon. Happy New Year to everyone.

If you are interested in any of these pictures please contact me at

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Please note: All rights reserved. None of these images may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without my prior written permission.

Thursday, 17 December 2020

Frank Herriot Risdon and a Modernist find in Kent

Fort Grenham, Minnis Bay, Kent

Earlier this year I spent a few days exploring the delights of Kent including Margate, Ramsgate and Birchington-on-Sea. Birchington is home to the wonderful Twentieth Century art deco house, built in 1935 and now a superb bed and breakfast hotel. There are a few other deco buildings not far from Twentieth Century including Fort Grenham, built in 1936 and designed by architect Frank Herriot Risdon. The house was built for one Harry Vivien Ward and the Kelly's Directory of the Isle of Thanet for 1939 confirms him living there. Ward was a local notable and served as a Councillor then Alderman on the former Margate Corporation as well as being Mayor in 1953/54. No doubt Fort Grenham saw many important guests during this period.

This impressive, four bedroom house appears to have retained its original crittal windows and has a roof terrace which must command excellent views as the building faces the sea. However, at least externally, it is in poor shape and in need of some loving care. This seems to be a long standing issue as Thanet Council's minutes from April 2013 note that a Section 215 notice had been served on the property. According to UK legislation, a local planning authority can serve such a notice where the condition of land or buildings adversely affects the amenity of the area, requiring the owner to deal with the poor state of a building. 

Risdon was not an architect I had come across before but a little research revealed him to be both accomplished and a bit of a character. Born in Brixton, South London in 1913, he was named after his father who had fought in the Boer War and the First World War. Perhaps inspired by having received drawing lessons from a cousin, he went on to study at the former North London Polytechnic in Holloway, where he later taught. He chartered in 1936 and had the great fortune to find work with Frederick Gibberd who designed Pullman Court, an iconic modernist group of apartment buildings in Streatham. Indeed, Risdon drew the plans for Pullman Court, a project that perhaps inspired one or two of his later works, despite his initially being more enamoured of the classicist Italianate style. His commitment to modernism is further evidenced by him having built a house for himself in this style. Like Fort Grenham it was built in 1935 and was located in Beckenham, then in Kent, now amalgamated into Bromley in South London. I have been unable to locate this house, or even to confirm that it still stands, so if anyone reading this has details please share them in the comments below!

Pullman Court, Streatham, London

The Second World War began just three years after Fort Grenham was built and Risdon saw active service in the Navy in Norway and Greece and was also involved in the action at Salerno, Italy in 1943. After the War he formed a partnership with Alec Shingler and together they designed Hertford's Castle Hall and Dunstable' Civic Centre as well as shopping centres in Glasgow (Drumchapel) and Jarrow, the Herbarium at Kew, and the University of the South Bank premises at Wandsworth. Other projects included the London Nautical School and Audley Square Garage in Mayfair, Central London.

Risdon had a long working life, combining managing his architectural practice with a senior role at North London Polytechnic. He appears to have been popular with his students, several of whom went on to work for him, but at least one of them was not completely comfortable with his approach. In his autobiography, architect Thomas Saunders claims that Risdon "coerced many of his fourth and fifth year students to produce drawings and details for his private work for the odd five or ten pounds". As with many things there are two ways of looking at this. Saunders clearly considered it to be taking advantage but others may have seen it as a chance to get experience of working on a live project and this seems to have resulted in a least some of them gaining paid employment at a later date. Saunders goes on to say that "everyone had to be a cardboard replica of himself. One was either a dedicated disciple or discarded". Despite this, he admits he admired Risdon's work, which is perhaps more important than views on his personality. 

Frank Herriot Risdon died in December 2005. He had worked as an architect for sixty years, not retiring until 1996, at the age of 83. In addition to this architectural work, teaching and naval careers, he continued to paint throughout his life and to take an interest in local planning issues. It is a shame that Fort Grenham, one of the first buildings he was fully responsible for has not been better preserved.

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