Thanks to access to a good community library, I developed an interest in history from the age of seven. My interest in India grew when I married Indian-born Atam Vetta. After teaching, I set up a business and was director of Oxford Antiques Centre. In 1998, while chair of the Thames Valley Art and Antique Dealers Association, I was invited to become the art and antiques writer for The Oxford Times. That was how my freelance writing career began but since 2016 I have concentrated on writing fiction and poetry but make occasional contributions to The Madras Courier.
Sculpting the Elephant
What is my book about?
The fast-moving contemporary story is half set in Oxford and half in India (mostly on the Buddhist trail) and is embroiled in the lives and ambitions of impoverished Oxford artist Harry King and Indian historian Ramma Gupta. But there is a historical subplot. It grew out of a question I asked myself. How was it possible for Ashoka, who is responsible for the world’s third-largest religion to have been forgotten for over a thousand years? His inspirational story demonstrates that it is possible for a person to change. His transformation from a brutal warlord to a pacifist is an example that the world needs to embrace if human life is to survive. Inspired by the Dalai Lama, I hope that, despite some of the serious subjects addressed in Sculpting the Elephant, it is imbued with humour.
To understand India it is important to know that it was the birthplace of four great religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The Buddha was a Vedic teacher with a following in North East India. The emperor Ashoka was responsible for spreading the religion we know as Buddhism. Ashok Khanna’s account of Ashoka, the ruler of the Indian subcontinent for 37 years from 269 BCE traces the important influences Greek and Persian philosophy had on Indian society and the origins of Buddhism. Khanna describes Ashoka’s carved edicts on pillars and rocks extolling justice based on equal treatment for all. Ashoka is a much-needed example of good governance and Khanna’s account is assessable. You don’t need to know anything about Ashoka to read this book.
If you already know a lot about India and are interested in an unusual insight into the role of temples in the history, culture, architecture, and myths of the subcontinent, then this is for you. It will also introduce you to thirteen writers who include journalists, academics, and authors. Each one was asked to write about one temple, recounting its origins and the mythology and history surrounding it. It’s beautifully illustrated by Mistunee Choudhury. You can enhance the experience by googling the locations. It has introduced me to some must-see places to go on my want to visit list. I visited the unforgettable temples of Khajuraho and they appear in my own book.
The great temples of the Indian subcontinent are uniquely fascinating spaces. Steeped in mythology and history, they are windows into a complex, often contrary culture. Where the Gods Dwell delves into the ‘(hi)stories’—history and mythology—of thirteen architectural marvels that have inspired awe, and not only in the hearts of the faithful.
Every essay in this book is an intriguing mix of historical detail, mythological narrative and architectural commentary, supplementing and complementing each other to tell a story that is more than the sum of its parts. From Pashupatinath in Nepal to the Nallur Kandaswamy in Sri Lanka, the Kamakhya in…
This well-researched vividly written trilogy was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. What many of my countrymen absorbed growing up was the myth of the British Empire as civilising project. Most are unaware that when the vicious and absurdly profitable triangle of trade involving slaves from Africa transported to the Americas and the products of their labour sold in the UK ended, it was replicated in Asia. In the first half of the 19th century, the East India Company embarked on the biggest drug dealing operation the world had ever seen. The new triangle was the UK, (manufactured cotton goods) India where the opium was grown and China where it was sold and paid for much desired Chinese tea, spices and silk etc to take to the UK. It led to the Opium Wars 1839-42 when the Chinese Emperor tried to close down the trade. These novels take you there and then.
The trilogy gets its names from the ship Ibis, sailing from Calcutta on board of which most of the main characters meet for the first time. We are introduced to, Bihari peasants, Bengali Zamidars, Parsi businessmen, Cantonese boat people, British traders and officials, a Cornish botanist, and a mulatto sailor. Page turners.
At the heart of this epic saga, set just before the Opium Wars, is an old slaving-ship, The Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its crew a motley array of sailors and stowaways, coolies and convicts. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners, from a bankrupt Raja to a widowed villager, from an evangelical English opium trader to a mulatto American freedman. As their old family ties are washed away they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais or ship-brothers. An…
This is a polemic and pretends to be none other but it serves as an antidote to the apologists of Empire. Why is it needed? You can’t read the Ibis trilogy and not understand the exploitation of the East India Company. The first war of independence (1857) failed and was brutally put down. There were attempts at reform and not all legacies of the Raj are regrettable, my Victorian maverick works on the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. But the tendency in the UK is to highlight the positives and ignore the racism, the famines, the massacres, and the horrors of the manner in which we left India. Once readers know the consequences of the Raj, they will understand the origins of South Asian immigration to the UK and will get a glimpse of how others see us, warts and all.
The Sunday Times Top 10 bestseller on India's experience of British colonialism, by the internationally-acclaimed author and diplomat Shashi Tharoor
'Tharoor's impassioned polemic slices straight to the heart of the darkness that drives all empires ... laying bare the grim, and high, cost of the British Empire for its former subjects. An essential read' Financial Times
In the eighteenth century, India's share of the world economy was as large as Europe's. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. The Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die…
Pandit Vishnu Sharma,
G.L. Chandiramani (translator),
Why this book?
It is possibly the oldest surviving collection of 84 Indian fables, written around 200BC by Vishnu Sharma. He became a tutor to a king’s children. He engaged their interest by telling stories of animals with a moral message at end of each story rather like Aesop’s Fables. The animals are somewhat different. e.g The Monkey and the Crocodile, the Hare and Lion. Many elements of Rudyard Kipling’s children’s books such as the Just So Stories were inspired by The Panchatantra. There are of course Hindi editions available too.
The Panchatantra is a collection of folktales and fables that were believed to have been originally written in Sanskrit by Vishnu Sharma more than 2500 years ago. This collection of stories features animal characters which are stereotyped to associate certain qualities with them. The origins of the Panchatantra lie in a tale of its own, when a King approached a learned pandit to ask him to teach the important lessons of life to his ignorant and unwise sons. This learned scholar knew that the royal princes could not understand complex principles in an ordinary way. So, he devised a method…
The environment and how we treat it has always been important to me since I was a child. My passion for storytelling morphed into writing, but the underlying spark came through environmental activism. I got a university degree in aquatic ecology, published numerous papers, and now write eco-fiction that is grounded in accurate science with a focus on human ingenuity and compassion. The most meaningful and satisfying eco-fiction is ultimately optimistic literature that explores serious issues with heroic triumph. Each of these favourites intimately connects human to environment. Each moved me to cry, think, and deeply care.
What resonated with me on so many levels was the author’s use of lyrical and beautiful language in describing trees and forests: as characters. I’m an ecologist and I felt a particular kinship with the botanist Patricia Westerford, a disabled introvert who must swim against the hegemonic tide with heretical ideas. When she argues that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, have intelligence and society, her scientific peers ridicule her and end her university career. This story is as much her triumph over overwhelming challenges as it is about the dwindling majestic forests that must quietly endure our careless apathy as they continue to offer their gift of life-giving oxygen and medicinal aerosols for hundreds of years.
The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of-and paean to-the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers's twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours-vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see…
I’m a nonfiction author whose success owes enormously to fiction. It challenges me to portray real people as vividly as characters in novels, and to use narrative and dialogue to keep readers turning the pages. Reading great novelists has taught me to obsessively seek exactly the right words, to fine-tune the cadence of each sentence, and to heed overall structural rhythm; continually, I return to the fount of fiction for language and inspiration. The astonishing novels I’ve shared here are among the most important books I’ve recently read to help grasp the critical times we’re living in. I’m confident you’ll feel the same.
I’ve just returned from a research trip to Iraq (one of many settings for my next book: stay tuned). I took along two Iraqi novels, The President's Gardens and Daughter of the Tigris (they’re really just one; the first literally ends with the words to be continued) and I was as stirred by reading them as by what I saw there. While we protest Russia’s outrageous rape of Ukraine, we forget the hideous mess that America’s unjustifiable invasion left in Iraq. Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was considered the flower of Arab culture, a land overflowing with poetry, music, and art. Today much of it is rubble. Masterfully, Al-Ramli describes the latter with all the breathtaking beauty of the former. This ranks among my most moving reading experiences ever.
One Hundred Years of Solitude meets The Kite Runner in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
"A contemporary tragedy of epic proportions. No author is better placed than Muhsin Al-Ramli, already a star in the Arabic literary scene, to tell this story. I read it in one sitting". Hassan Blasim, winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Iraqi Christ.
On the third day of Ramadan, the village wakes to find the severed heads of nine of its sons stacked in banana crates by the bus stop.
One of them belonged to one of the most wanted men in Iraq, known to…
I was born in South Africa. My mother was a daughter of Polish immigrants, while my father was a first-generation Jewish Lithuanian (a ‘Litvak’). I emigrated at 20 and have spent much of my life in Europe, with extended periods in Nigeria, the Caribbean, and back in South Africa. Being mobile and displaced is both part of my personal experience and my chosen professional career. Although I do work on other themes (like island societies, creolization, and globalization) I found myself increasingly writing on migration and diaspora.
Mahmoud Darwish is often described as Palestine’s national poet. He was born in the Galilee and his poems reflected his life as an Israeli Arab and chronicler of the Palestinian struggle. He increasingly became recognized as a poet of international significance, though one working in a long tradition of Arabic poetry. The imagery of his poems is remarkable, and he is also known for his extraordinary aphorisms, for example: "Nothing is harder on the soul than the smell of dreams, while they're evaporating." Exile, displacement, and suffering are all there, but done in a way that is lyrical not finger-wagging and rhetorical. This is a collection of poems from various phases of his career. (He died in 2008.)
Mahmoud Darwish is a literary rarity: at once critically acclaimed as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, and beloved as the voice of his people. A legend in Palestine, his lyrics are sung by fieldworkers and schoolchildren. He has assimilated some of the world's oldest literary traditions while simultaneously struggling to open new possibilities for poetry. This collection spans Darwish's entire career, nearly four decades, revealing an impressive range of expression and form. A splendid team of translators has collaborated with the poet on these new translations, which capture Darwish's distinctive voice and spirit. Fady Joudah's…