Books: 45 posts

Books and libraries

Divine Pleasures

From 1750 to 1850 India experienced one of its most turbulent and violent periods. Fissures in the Mughal Empire that had controlled most of the subcontinent since the early sixteenth century allowed competing states to take control. Written down as history, it sounds like yet another shuffling of rulers and borders, but for the contemporaries it meant slaughter and starvation. When you keep in mind the scope of the calamities, the ethereal world of the art produced at the time comes as a surprise.

“Here lovers cling to each other in abandon, surrounded by a mosaic of cushions and bolsters; elephants run amok and dart under the arches scraping their sides; armies of monkeys and bears turn into a vast cloud as they advance upon Lanka; the universe comes into being before one’s eyes as matter begins to form from void; a tiger shot in a forest tumbles nineteen times over before it falls to the ground; a blind poet envisions baby Krishna waking up; princes stand on marble embankments feeding crocodiles;… boats ply on gentle waters while lovers escape to fragrant arbours. There is so much to see here, and savour, as painters play around with time and keep manipulating space at will.”

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Winter Lists : 5 Books and 2 Perfumes

There is nothing especially winter-like about my list of books (and perfumes). It’s mainly about enjoyment, with a dose of something high-spirited. Some may call it escapism, but I see it as a way to recharge and tune out the world long enough for me to find my balance and plunge back into the routine. Moreover, high-spirited, entertaining and fun, whether in literature, art or perfume, can assume many different forms. Here is my take.

winter-list

Jeffrey Steingarten The Man Who Ate Everything

“Whenever I have nothing better to do, I roast a chicken,” writes Jeffrey Steingarten. The food critic at Vogue magazine since 1989, Steingarten is also the author of two of my favorite books about cooking and eating, The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate. Steingarten is witty, irreverent and passionate, an irresistible combination. His essays are full of interesting tidbits and recipes, but the main reason I enjoy them is because of Steingarten’s dry sense of humor. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “Kyoto Cuisine,” but the scene in which he tries to pry off the lid from a bowl of soup leaves me laughing out loud every single time. In the same essay, he also describes the exquisite flavors of Japanese cuisine, reminding his reader that as a bumbling tourist he may have missed many nuances. With Steingarten you can visit the Nishikidori market in Kyoto, run a scientific test of ketchups, grill sardines with Marcella Hazan in Venice, perfect fries, or try cooking from the back of the box.

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Reading

Looking through some of my photographs, I found this picture of my grandfather as a first year engineering student.

grandfather reading

He posed for the photo, but in my recollections of him, a book–and a fishing rod–are ever present.

Damask Roses and Roses of Damascus

Occasionally I come across articles mentioning “roses from Syria” as “a precious” ingredient in perfumes. One of the pieces even appeared in a newspaper that runs daily reports on the war in Syria. But real world events don’t enter into the fantasy bubble of beauty writing, with absurd and morbid results.  We’re conditioned to think of perfume as something so rarefied and intangible that for all we know angels pick the flowers and blend essences in their celestial realms. The thought that a country, which has been at war for five years, might have difficulty growing roses doesn’t cloud the writers’ imaginations.

rosa-damascena

Until the war, which started in 2011, Syria produced 80 tonnes of roses, some of which were distilled on site and some exported to be processed in Europe. Syria wasn’t as large a producer as Turkey, Bulgaria or Morocco, but its roses had a delicious raspberry nuance. The last commercial sample I was able to get in 2011 still smells of sun warmed fruit and spicy honey. Damascus and the other rose growing provinces have suffered tremendously during the war, especially the area held by the revolutionary army and targeted in the heavy bombing campaigns by the Syrian regime.  People have fled from the fighting, leaving plantation owners with few work hands and resources. As a one-time distiller told a reporter of The Express Tribune, “Today there are barely 250 grams (half a pound) of oil available to buy in the whole market.” What are the chances that it makes its way into a perfume produced by a luxury brand?

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Perfume in the Library: Hafez’s Rose and A Wine Cup

Oh, come let’s scatter rose petals and fill the cup with wine;
let’s tear the ceiling of the universe and create a new one.
If the army of woes is intent on shedding the lovers’ blood,
Cup-bearer and I will ride together and uproot the army’s foundation!
We’ll pour rose water in the bowl of purple wine;
we’ll in censer pour the sweetness of the scented wind. (ghazal 129)**

I’m reading Hafez in Shiraz. The marble steps are cool, and the autumnal sunlight thick as honey clings to the blue tiled dome of Hafeziye, a poet’s tomb. Hafez was born in this city known for its culture, sensuality and pleasure-loving ways, and even today Shirazi are proud to reinforce their reputation as sybarites with a sly sense of humor. It’s a regular weekday, but at Hafeziye there is the aura of an endless fest. A group of students reads poetry. A turbaned man in the flowing dress of a mullah pays his respects at the tomb. Two heavily made up young women with prominent post-surgery bandages on their noses pose for a selfie.  Couples exchange glances, verses and phone numbers. Somehow, I think that Hafez wouldn’t mind.
hafez-divan

“Color your prayer rug with wine,” writes Hafez, one of the most remarkable poets and mystical thinkers. Remarkable for his imaginative allusions, for his unveiling of hypocrisy and for his limitless passion which pours out in his verses through metaphors of love, perfume and wine.

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