I love detective stories! From the time I cut my teeth on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and Fatty and gang, I was hooked on mysteries, and the sleuths who cracked them. As I am sure many other 10-year olds have done, I even attempted, with a cousin, to write The Mystery of the Missing Pillow.

Graduating to the classic Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie I began to enjoy not just the answer to ‘whodunnit?’ but equally the cleverly crafted plots, and distinguishing nuances of the sleuths who cracked the cases, starting with Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and Hercules Poirot and Jane Marple, right up to the ‘traditionally built’ Mma Ramotswe. Over the years I have discovered, and delighted in, the quirky characters of the detectives created by writers in many parts of the world. I continue to explore, and discover, new and exciting detective fiction authors and add to my list of favourite detective characters.

On my last visit to the British Library I chanced upon a book called the Detection Collection. It was a collection of short stories by a number of authors I like. What made me curious was reading that the book was first published to celebrate 75 years of the Detection Club, and republished in 2015 to mark 85 years.

Digging deeper, I discovered that The Detection Club comprises the cream of British crime writing talent.  It was founded in 1930/1929/1932 (ambiguity surrounds the exact year) on the cusp of the Golden Age of detective, crime and murder mystery fiction which began in the early 1930s. The club’s first president was GK Chesterton, and since then the mantle of presidency has passed to some of the most significant names in the history of crime fiction including Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, Julian Symons and HRF Keating.

The Club in true British club tradition has a Constitution and Rules dating back to 1932. As described by one of its members “It is a private association of writers of Detective Fiction in Great Britain, existing chiefly for the purpose of eating dinners together at suitable intervals and of talking illimitable shop…if there is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club, it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standards that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, claptrap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.”

Besides contributing individual stories to The Detection Collections, the writers have also occasionally come together to create a multi-authored single novel. One of these, published in 1932 was titled The Floating Admiral. Each chapter was written by a different Detection Club member and at the end of the book most of them also offered their solutions to what happened, and who had perpetrated the murder!

Imagine the best writers of detective fiction in Great Britain coming together three times a year—to dine, to exchange ideas, and to plot murders! Theydunnit!

“The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds.” Philip Guedalla


Cry, Beloved Blue City 

A stranger in India, reading the news in the last few weeks, would think that the most prominent landmark of Jodhpur was a huge prison, dominating the landscape. That the principal function of the city was to host trials for all kinds of ‘celebs’ accused of all types of crimes, and to then house the convicted in its boundaries.

I have lived in Jodhpur for several years, and my family has close ties to the city. None of us had any clue where Jodhpur Jail was. After the news of Salman’s conviction, we had to look up Google to figure out the location.

What we do remember of Jodhpur is the magnificent 550+ year-old Mehrangarh fort, one of the best preserved and best kept monuments in India. When I lived there 30 years ago, we would be greeted by drummers when we entered, and there were some friendly moustached guides who would take us around. They almost became like family, so often did I take visitors to the Fort. (Now there are proper displays and exhibits and shops and what not. Still nice, but not so intimate).

When you look down from the ramparts of the fort, you know why Jodhpur is called the Blue City. And there is also a walking path from the heart of the city up to the fort, which we did a few times as students (on furlough from college, no doubt). And the very unique Jaswant Thada, lined with different coloured translucent marbles, as you came down from the Fort.

Then the Umaid Bhavan Palace, the newest palace in the world, built as a drought-relief work and completed in the ‘40s. Part-hotel, part-museum, part-royal residence and wholly fascinating. Specially the indoor swimming pool lined with mosaics of the zodiac signs. And the huge murals of scenes from the Ramayana, with the heroes and heroines of distinctly Greco-Roman cast of features, done by a Polish painter.

The most interesting was where I had the good fortune to live on the grounds of—the Ratanada Palace, one of the palaces of the royal family, never really inhabited because it seems it wasn’t lucky for them. It was turned over to the Government after Independence and became the Defence Laboratory, a lab under the Defence Research and Development Organization. Imagine a lab in a palace! There were rumours that it was haunted, and ‘jingling ghungroos’ and ‘strange noises’ were sometimes an excuse not to stay too late at work!

The Palace-Lab


The housing for the Lab scientists was on the palace grounds, in converted elephant and horse stables, garages,  band-house, aloo-khana, etc. So there was the most amazing array of very quaint but probably very uncomfortable houses for the families. I never knew whether we were lucky my father was allotted a proper  house—one that was built for the king’s British pilot, who seems to have lived in true colonial style, in a 14-room bungalow . (The same king, I think, who features in the very interesting movie ‘Zubaida’).

The Pilot’s House


The food—the mirch wadas, the badi pakodis, the kabuli, the sponge rasgullas, ghewar and the array of sweets. The lassi in which we could stand a spoon, the dal-bhatti-churma, the kachodis.

The people—hospitable, chivalrous, generous, entrepreneurial.

The ‘khamma ghanis’ and the ‘padaro sas’ and the courtesy.

The bandhinis, the leherias, the silver jewellery and the lac bangles.

The  bazaars, the gullies, the bargains.

I want these images to dominate my mindscape and Jodhpur memories. Not the prison and the prisoners!


The Pelican Has Landed

Raghu often lectures in various places. One of his favourite places to do so is the Silver Oaks School, a unique school in many ways. When he went for a talk there a few years ago, they gave him a potted plant. It looked pretty nondescript. We just left the pot on the verandah and watered it occasionally. But then, a few months later, it burst into flower! The flower whose pic you see below! Pretty exotic! It never grew very much but gave about 2-3 flowers a year, and were we proud of it! All our visitors made quite a fuss over it. We asked the gifters the name of the plant, but they didn’t know.



20180415_091803And then we moved to Bangalore, and decided to plant it in the ground. And were we in for a surprise! It was a climber, and boy, did it climb. It climbed to the first floor and went all over the terrace rails and roof. And flowers? About a hundred a year! Huge purple ones, with yellow centres. And very cute kind of seed pods—they burst into a parachute shape when they were dry. Our house became known for this creeper which was all over the roof.

Everyone was fascinated with the flowers, though a lot of people were a bit uncomfortable—as we sometimes are, especially with some types of orchids.

Then a friend decided to do a bit of research, and told us it was a Pelican flower (Aristolochia grandiflora). With that lead, we did our own research, and figured this was Aristolochia littoralis, a sort of cousin of the Pelican flower.

Apparently, these flowers are called Calico flowers (because they look like cloth?). Or Elegant Dutchman’s Pipe, because the flowers look like Sherlock Holmes’ pipe (now why would that be? Holmes was not Dutch to the best of my knowledge. But he may have been elegant, I concede.)

A lot of people had commented that our flower looked kind of carnivorous. But actually, it is not. Apparently, it is pollinated by flies and it does trap the fly inside to ensure pollination, but lets it out in a day or two, when the job is done. So machinating yes, but carnivorous no (sensitive readers, please excuse my anthropomorphism).

Nor do the flowers smell of dead carrion, as the books say they do. At least, ours don’t!

This plant, which is a native of South America, is an invasive species in Australia. But hopefully, not here. A lot of friends asked for the seeds but they couldn’t propagate it, so while my plant grows and grows, at least it is not spreading.



Bibliophile’s Supermarket

Know the feeling you get when you walk into your favourite store with gift coupons to be spent on whatever takes your fancy! The delicious sense of anticipation, the excitement of browsing the shelves, the difficult decision making…should you get clothes? Something for the house? Toiletries or accessories? You spend a happy time wandering and comparing before you make up your mind. You go home happy with a bag of goodies–an afternoon well spent!

That is just the feeling I get when I go to a library! Faced with an array of books, what could be more fun than to browse? What do I feel like this month—something light and happy? Something thrilling and gripping? Something serious and profound? A favourite familiar author? Best seller or Booker winner? Decisions, decisions!

This wonderful feeling has been a part of my life ever since I fell in love with books. The B.C. Roy Children’s Reading Room, more familiarly known as Shankar’s Children’s Library—a haven through the hot Delhi summer vacations; Grover’s hole-in-the-wall lending library in the neighbourhood market where one graduated from Archie comics to Mills and Boons! The American Centre library where one discovered the classics and the contemporary.

Moving cities, the first thing one looked for was the nearest library. In Nairobi it took the form of the next-door neighbour’s collection of crime and detective fiction which kept the suspense going! In Ahmedabad it was Raju’s circulating library that provided a menu of “time-pass” options. And now the British Library beckons every month. At the rate of 4-5 books a month, I seem to be running out of books to borrow. Panic!

But till then, every day is World Book Day for me!


Happily Ever After?

I must confess, I am a regular ad observer! I believe that ads improve my GK as it were! They give me a sneak peek into “what’s hot”, “what’s cool” and where its “raining discounts!” Ads add to my vocabulary, introducing words like Swag (!), and now KDM. Ads paint me a world where the swag and gloss of the PYTs is never to be touched by the seven signs of aging; the housing schemes that promise “paradise on earth”; and dhamaka deals that will make it feel like Diwali every day! The world is your oyster–Just choose, click and add to cart!

Pardon me if I sound like I don’t relate! In fact I don’t want to, in this make-believe air-brushed world, while the mad, bad rest of the world continues to grapple with the daily business of survival–water shortages, spiralling prices, blatant corruption and abuse of power, and the horrors of every kind of atrocity that humankind can unleash.

But I digress. Coming back to the ad ad ad world. A long-time item of my ‘ad education’ is a scan of the Sunday paper’s matrimonial pages (another confession!). This is in some ways a tiny window into what society considers “a suitable match”, and how things are changing (or not). Some years ago girls were ‘wheatish’ complexioned and ‘homely’ (wonderfully Indian use of the word which in British English means cosy and comfortable and in American English means unattractive!) Of course we use it to mean home-loving and, perhaps, skilled in domestic duties! The other attribute highlighted was the “cultured” family background.

A quick look-over of last week’s page revealed that ‘Beautiful, slim, fair’ were the main adjectives used in almost 80 per cent of the ads. Somewhere in the fine print is revealed that the girl is also well-qualified professionally. Another interesting, though curious, point was the highlight on the “successful business family” angle. A case of lucre over culture? On the same page are also some Elite ads in which everyone, without exception, is ‘looking for a like-minded and well-educated/well-read match.’ I would love to know how these very noble-sounding words are interpreted!

On the very same page was the proud announcement by the newspaper that it has started a BooksOverBeauty initiative through which the intention is to change the format of matrimonial ads so as to put education over looks. The paper promises to highlight every ad that puts education first. I am flummoxed—are looks and books so irreconcilable? Does it always have to be one or the other? Are we continuing to reinforce the comic-book stereotype of the frothy beauty vs the geek? I thought we had moved beyond that?

It would be interesting to see how that initiative unfolds. At a time when our society seems to be at the lowest ebb of basic human values and respect for dignity and life, are we merely paying lip service to the notion of respect for women? Or are we merely playing with words? Will the mere order of words change the way we see women, we treat women, and perhaps even how women see themselves?



The Seven Signs of Aging. Or Learning from Unexpected Places


We aged when we aged. And our skin aged along with us. Thank God I was already in my fifties when ads started talking of the ‘seven signs of aging’, which they assured us had to be taken care of in our twenties! Scary if invaluable information! Whoever knew, before these ads?

In spite (or because?) of such life-changing information, ads are not a place where I look to learn from or improve my vocabulary. But a few weeks ago, I saw these large ads for a company which seems to focus on pomegranate-related products (that seems a pretty narrow specialization!). And I saw the word ‘aril’ splashed around. Truthfully, I had never heard this word before. Since the ads talked about jams and syrups and squashes, I thought ‘aril’ was some kind of a product made from the fruit, maybe an exotic kind of pastry.

When I looked up Merriam Webster, I found it defines aril as: ‘an exterior covering or appendage of some seeds (as of the yew) that develops after fertilization as an outgrowth from the ovule stalk.’ In other words, in the context of pomegranates, it seems it means those red pearls I have always called the seeds.

I decided then not to be so cynical, and to try to think of other things I had learnt or should learn from ads.

The business of KDM is surely one of those! Akshaya Tritiya (actually, this festival itself is one I learnt of from ads!!!) seems an appropriate day to share this learning!

In the thousands of jewellery ads we see around us, I have for a few years now, come across the term ‘KDM’ as a major boast and differentiator. Now, as a good Tam, I know about carats—basically that South Indian jewellery is more noble in that our gold is of higher carat! But that is where my knowledge stopped.

After the ‘aril’ experience, I tried to look up KDM (on the web of course). Most sites are very confusing, but at last I think I have it figured out with the help of this site: https://artofgold.in/what-do-hallmark-916-kdm-jewellery-mean/2015/5199, and I quote:

‘The basic process in jewellery crafting is soldering a myriad of intricate gold parts. Without soldering, there is hardly any jewel that can be done. Needless to say this solder should have a melting temperature lower than that of gold, so just the solder melts and joins gold pieces without affecting the gold parts. Earlier this solder was a combination of Gold & Copper. Though there was no particular ratio for this solder, generally it was about 60% gold + 40% copper. Since this alloy was very strong and also easy to make, it was widely used in jewellery making for a long time. But the downside to this solder is that, purity of the solder is only 60%. So when this jewel is melted, quality will be less than 22 carat. This is the reason your old jewels may carry a seal of 22/20 (20 carat represents the melting purity).

To overcome this problem and maintain a high standard of gold purity, cadmium began to be used in place of copper. The advantage being that unlike the traditional gold & copper solder, gold and cadmium can be mixed in a ratio of 92% + 8%. In other words the solder itself has a purity of 92%. This ensured the finesse of jewel remains constant regardless of the amount of solder used. Such jewellery using cadmium began to be widely known as KDM jewellery.

But shortly after the introduction of cadmium, it was banned by BIS as it was found to cause health issues for artisans working with it. After the ban, cadmium was replaced by advanced solders with Zinc and other metals. But the term “KDM” hung on and is still commonly used. So a KDM jewellery means it will have the same purity even when it is melted, as the solder itself has a purity of 92%.’

With my long forgotten Chemistry education, I could make sense of this! And truly educational it is.

Well, one lives and one learns. And most of all I learnt that one can learn unexpected things from unexpected places.




The launch of Raghu’s book ‘Return to Jammu’ went well, with lots of discussions and participation from the audience.

But I felt, through the event, a sense of sadness. Why? Because a good part of the book is set in J&K, with places near and like Kathua. And central to the book is a theme of violence against a young girl in communally troubled times.

Apart from feeling anger and outrage, sadness and despair, is there anything we can do? Is there something we can do? Is there nothing we can do?

I am sure all of us have been through this. What do we do? Join rallies, vigils? Write about it? Vent our frustration on social media? Does any of it help?

But I can’t even understand what is happening and why. Is it the depravity of individuals finding justification in ‘causes’? Is it because perpetrators are sure that they will suffer no consequences? Is it because violence like this is becoming more and more common—and when something becomes common, it slowly becomes more and more acceptable?

Is there anything I can do? Something I can do? Or nothing I can do?


“His vocation to be a medical healer was deeper than his vocation to practice law.  He practiced law for about 20 years and then quit forever (though vigorously engaged in politics); his medical healing of sick individuals continued throughout the rest of his life.”

A recent lecture by Dr Mark Lindley at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad explored Gandhi’s persona as a healer, and health advisor as well as practitioner. Lindley himself wears many hats! An internationally renowned musicologist, as well as an ecological economist, he is also a Gandhi scholar with particular interest in Gandhi’s views on health.

While I was aware of Gandhi’s strong and passionate views on health, diet and lifestyle, a lot of which can be found in his seminal work Key to Health, Lindley’s talk revealed several new aspects of Gandhi which I felt would be interesting to share.

We all know that Mohandas Gandhi went to England in 1888 when he was 18 years old to study law, under advice from family elders. What is perhaps not as well known is that Gandhi’s own desire was to study medicine there. At that point however, apparently the popular perception that becoming a barrister would be an ‘economically’ more practical choice prevailed.

The idea resurfaced around 1908 after he had already been practising law in South Africa. Gandhi may have felt that he could serve people better by practicing medicine than by practicing law. This time, it was the fact that studying medicine would involve vivisection that led him to reject the idea. During his visit to London in 1909, he wrote to a friend that a certain doctor there “…tells me that in the course of his studies he must have killed about fifty frogs. An examination in physiology without this, he tells me, is not possible. If this is so, I have absolutely no desire to go in for medical studies. I would neither kill a frog, nor use one for dissecting if it has been specially killed [by someone else] for the purpose of dissection.”

Interestingly Gandhi’s writings soon after that visit reflect a radical change of view. In Hind Swaraj which he wrote on board the ship while returning from England in 1909, Gandhi vociferously avers “I was at one time a great lover of medical profession. It was my intention to become a doctor for the sake of my country. I no longer hold that opinion.”

“It is worth considering why we take up the profession of medicine. It is certainly not taken up for the purpose of serving humanity. We become doctors so that we may obtain honours and riches. I have endeavoured to show that there is no real service of humanity in the profession, and that it is injurious to mankind. Doctors make a show of their knowledge, and charge exorbitant fees. …The populace, in its credulity and in the hope of ridding itself of some disease, allows itself to be cheated.”

Reading these lines, 109 years later, I was struck by how much this sounds like some of the concerns about the medical profession today!

As the famous French epigram goes “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, in other words “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


An Invite and A Sampler

Happy to share the invite to the launch of Raghu’s new book. His first foray into fiction. Set in Ambala, Jammu, IIM-A.

If anyone should be in Bangalore that day, it would be great to see you there!


A sampler from the Book..

‘So one morning, with my infant sister in one arm and my tiny hand in the other, (mother) towed me to the school and spoke to the headmistress, who was gracious enough to let me attend the nursery informally, as I was barely two. From then on I was no longer just Bala, but S. Balan, with an initial of my own, like grown-ups! In those times, the major talents required for entry to the nursery class were demonstration of reasonably good toilet training and the ability to sleep on demand. I was fairly accomplished in both departments, particularly in the latter (a talent I haven’t lost yet). Between bouts of sleep one was expected to eat snacks and play some games. But I turned out to be a master sleeper and happily slumbered through the year – it helped me attain the reputation of being the least troublesome kid in the class. In short, I found the demands of nursery quite manageable.

It was lower kindergarten, or LKG, that held some challenges. At the end of the year, that is, by March 1958, the Class of Nursery relentlessly marched forward to LKG. But the headmistress decided to hold me back as I was too young and sleepy to be promoted. And especially because I had been admitted only informally in the nursery, she thought I could sleep some more in the same classroom before being kicked upstairs. This meant that all my ‘friends’ had moved on and I was to start schooling all over again with some strangers. This was a clear affront to my personal dignity and I had to do something about it. So I bawled even louder than I had when I first wanted to go to school with Urmila.

But boy! Was the LKG syllabus tough! It included the English and Hindi alphabet, quite a few advanced rhymes from the Radiant Reader (nursery rhymes were passé), counting up to twenty and even some addition and subtraction with large numbers like 9 + 8. It seemed as if they had only left out integral calculus. But fortunately they still allowed ample time for sleeping, which was of course my core competence.’

From: Return to Jammu. Harper Collins.