The desire to get one’s name right can exceed the confines of a misspelt Starbucks cup. To Shakespeare’s Juliet, famed for asking her lovestruck question, “What’s in a name?”, Zahia Rahmani, the Franco-Algerian author of the novel “Muslim”, would respond: “Everything”. Call a rose by any other name, and it might doubt its own sweetness. The act of naming, or the denial of one’s name, can devastate one’s identity.
The first time I set foot in the war zone, a Ukrainian soldier chastely kissed my cheek before confiding he was excited to tell his mother that he had kissed a Frenchwoman. A few minutes later, just beside me, his fellow soldiers were perched on a tank, firing shots in the air to disperse residents who were opposed to their presence. The ringing from the shots caused me to lose hearing in one ear for a full 24 hours.
When Jeet Thayil writes a book about chocolate saints, one knows it will not be the kind populated with Easter eggs and Willy Wonkaian characters. Rather, think Umberto Eco acid-tripping on a couch punctured with cigarette burns in a moldy basement.
Think hard; use your imagination. Try to remember the time when the world was not an oyster, with its pearl geolocalized on Google Maps, rated on TripAdvisor, its best sights already pre-dissected on The Lonely Planet and travel blogs. There was an era during which the world had not shrunk yet to a global playground easily explored with a smartphone and a wifi connection in hand or indeed, before planes, videos and even ballpoint pens. It was the epoch of explorers and discoveries, of years spent away from a home that less and less could be called as such. And this is the time during which Alfred Raquez wrote his travel journal, In The Land Of Pagodas, A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou.
It is that time of the year again. The day after Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights loudly celebrated with an army of firecrackers, Delhi residents wake up with something that is worse than a hangover: a cloud of toxic fumes stubbornly sitting on the face of the Indian capital, choking it to a slow death. In her book, Choked: Everything You Were Afraid to Know about Air Pollution, Indian writer Pallavi Aiyar dissects the airpocalypse that has spread to India’s major cities over the past few decades.