Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi

November 1, 2018

The origin of New Delhi can be traced to the Coronation Durbar in December 1911, where Emperor George V announced the transfer of the capital of the British Empire in India from Calcutta to Delhi.
Swapna Liddle traces in fascinating detail the events that led up to that historic day: the deliberations over the choice of location; the roles played by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and the two principal architects, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker; and, finally, the naming of the capital as ‘New Delhi’—to distinguish it from the old city of Shahjahanabad.
Even as the new capital took shape, it was Connaught Place that gave life to the city. Designed as a shopping and commercial centre for the elite—both British and Indian—it boasted of the most exclusive shops, cinemas and restaurants.
While many of the old familiar haunts like Gaylord, Volga and Regal Cinema have shut their doors, Connaught Place continues to reinvent itself with shiny new multiplexes, branded stores and restaurants taking their place. A guidebook of the early 1940s described Connaught Place as ‘indeed the most fashionable shopping centre…and, undoubtedly the most progressive part of the most progressive town in the country.’ The crowds that continue to throng its corridors, both young and old, visitors to the city and residents alike, bear testimony to the statement.
Rare photographs and illustrations add to its value as a classic amongst city biographies, in keeping with Liddle’s earlier book, Chandni Chowk: The Mughal City of Old Delhi.

Naked or Covered

November 1, 2017

An African tribesman merely needs to wrap a simple string around the hips and tuck his genitalia out of sight to be correctly dressed while, at the other end of the spectrum, a devout woman is considered naked in many cultures if her head remains uncovered.

Throughout history, different cultures and religions have developed codes to control unruly nakedness, giving rise to a variety of ideas of what it means to be dressed. Now, in a time of globalization, we are confronted by a variety of perspectives on dress: not just what to wear, but who wears it, why and how. Advertisers routinely fall back on the female nude to sell anything from cars to perfume; wearing a traditional khadi kurta vs. a Western-style three-piece suit can send a powerful political message; violent protests take place against the idea of nakednesss, yet nakedness is used as a form of protest; and contemporary interpretations of religious or cultural edicts are met with bafflement, bigotry or outright bans.

Using an engaging mixture of anecdote and historical interpretation, Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World brilliantly dissects our contradictory attitudes to bodily exposure and concealment through time and across cultures. Mineke Schipper’s unerringly detailed prose is complemented by aptly chosen photographs and paintings which bring the history of revealment and concealment through clothing to life.

The Meaning of Civilisation

September 1, 2017

When Naguib Mahfouz left his job as a civil servant in 1971, a Nobel Prize in literature was nowhere on the horizon, nor was his global recognition as the central figure of Arab literature. He was just beginning a new job on the editorial staff of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, and elsewhere in Cairo, Anwar Sadat was just beginning his hugely transformative Egyptian presidency, which would span eleven years.

The Meaning of Civilisation is a collection of essays that captures one of Egypt’s most important decades in the prose of one of the Middle East’s most important writers. It stitches together a fascinating and vivid account of the dramatic events of the time, from Egypt’s break with the Soviet Union to the Yom Kippur War with Israel and eventual peace accord and up to Sadat’s assassination by Islamic extremists in 1981.

Through this tumultuous history, Mahfouz takes on a diverse array of political topics—including socioeconomic stratification, democracy and dictatorship, and Islam and extremism—which are still of crucial relevance to Egypt—and the world—today. Clear-eyed and direct, the pieces illuminate Mahfouz’s personal and political convictions, which were more often hidden in his novels, enriching his better-known corpus with social, political, and ideological context.

This collection is a rare treasure, a story of a time of tremendous social and political change in the Middle East, told by one of its most iconic authors.

Is That Even a Country, Sir!

August 1, 2017

When Hindi-speakers from North India were massacred in Assam before the elections in 2000, two out-of-work journalists, Anil Yadav and Anhes Shashwat, decided to go there, braving violence and uncertainty, with the hope that their despatches would make them famous. They set out with very little knowledge about Northeast India and no strategy for their trip; they had few contacts and very little money.

On 29 November 2000, the pair embarked on what became an epic journey in which they crisscrossed Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Manipur, staying in rundown hotels and guesthouses, and in the homes of friends and strangers. They travelled by local buses through ambushes, were forced to walk halfway down the highway from Shillong to Guwahati and, on one memorable ocassion, Anil shared a tractor with a herd of goats on the road to Sibsagar.

They encountered, among others, a boatman on the Brahmaputra who clearly explained to them the politics behind the massacres of Hindi-speakers; former members of the ULFA who told them why they had surrendered; a former general of Zapu Phizo’s separatist army in Kohima who described to them his gruelling march through virgin forest to China; a murderous raid in Shillong which gave them a glimpse of the insider-versus-outsider equation in Meghalaya; a Manipuri sculptor with whom Anil travelled to Tripura, and who had to be rescued from the Army; and a barber who told them why an elephant was butchered by a mob in Dimapur.

Written with rare power and candour, Is That Even a Country, Sir! weaves history, politics, myth and gritty ground-zero reportage into an unprecedented and unforgettable portrait of Northeast India.

The Elephant in the Temple

August 1, 2017

From military camels and hunting cheetahs, to herding dogs and talking mynahs, animals have been living, working, playing and performing with humans in India for centuries. In this intimate book, John Lockwood Kipling writes about animals in daily Indian life, bringing alive the sights, sounds and smells of the nineteenth century.

In these tales, forty restless elephants are hoisted into a steam ship and nearly sink it; a guilty goat gets the thrashing of its life; a cheetah-keeper wakes up every night to a feline bed fellow; and a dog follows a king to heaven.

Kipling describes the animal kingdom with the authority of a naturalist, paired with a sympathetic engagement with Indian culture. He narrates religious myths, traditional folktales and incidents from day-to-day life with relish, peppered with local sayings—‘The Indian lover can pay his sweetheart no higher compliment than to say that she runs like a partridge.’

Lavishly illustrated with Kipling’s own pen-and-ink drawings, and enhanced by his son, Rudyard Kipling’s verse, The Elephant in the Temple offers a fascinating glimpse of a time when birds and animals used to ‘come and go at their own pleasure, and rub shoulders with humanity.’ This wittily written book is a delight for aficionados of Indian history and animal lovers everywhere.

No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight

July 4, 2017

For a few years in the early 1990s—at a time when the embers of a violent agitation for Gorkhaland were slowly dying down—Parimal Bhattacharya taught at the Government College in Darjeeling. No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight is a memory of his time in the iconic town, and one of the finest works of Indian non-fiction in recent years.

Parimal evocatively describes his arrival, through drizzle and impenetrable fog, at a place that was at odds with the grand picture of it he had painted for himself. And his first night there was spent sleepless in a ramshackle hotel above a butcher’s shop. Yet, as he tramped its roads and winding footpaths, Darjeeling grew on him. He sought out its history: a land of incomparable beauty originally inhabited by the Lepchas and other tribes; the British who took it for themselves in the mid-1800s so they could remember home; the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway—once a vital artery, now a quaint toy train—built in 1881; and the vast tea gardens with which the British replaced verdant forests to produce the fabled Orange Pekoe.

In the enmeshed lives of his neighbours—of various castes, tribes, religions and cultures—lived at the measured pace of a small town, Parimal discovered a richly cosmopolitan society which endured even under threat from cynical politics and haphazard urbanization. He also found new friends: Benson, a colleague whose death from AIDS showed him the dark underbelly of the hill station; Pratap and Newton, whose homes and lives reflected the irreconcilable pulls of tradition and upward mobility; and Julia and Hemant, with whom he trekked the forests of the Singalila mountains in search of a vanished Lepcha village and a salamander long thought extinct.

With empathy, and in shimmering prose, No Path in Darjeeling Is Straight effortlessly merges travel, history, literature, memory, politics and the pleasures of ennui into an unforgettable portrait of a place and its people.

The Division of Heaven and Earth

June 1, 2017

The Division of Heaven and Earth is one of the most influential and important books from Tibet in the modern era—a passionate indictment of Chinese policies and an eloquent analysis of the protests that swept Tibet from March 2008 as a re-awakening of Tibetan national consciousness and solidarity.

Publication of the original Tibetan edition saw Shokdung (a pseudonym), one of Tibet’s leading intellectuals, imprisoned for nearly six months, and the book immediately banned. This English translation is being made available for the first time since copies began to circulate underground in Tibet.

Written in response to an unprecedented wave of bold demonstrations and expressions of Tibetan solidarity and national identity, Shokdung’s book is regarded as one of the most daring and wide-ranging critiques of China’s policies in Tibet since the 10th Panchen Lama’s famous ‘70,000-character Petition’ addressed to Mao Zedong in 1962.

Chandni Chowk

January 3, 2017

What we know today as Chandni Chowk was once a part of one of the greatest cities of the world—the imperial city established by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan in the seventeenth century, and named after him—Shahjahanabad. This is the story of how the city came to be established, its grandeur as the capital of an empire at its peak, and its important role in shaping the language and culture of North India. It is also the story of the many tribulations the city has seen—the invasion of Nadir Shah, the Revolt of 1857, Partition.

Today, Shahjahanabad has been subsumed under the gigantic sprawl of metropolitan Delhi. Yet it has an identity that is distinct. Popularly known as Chandni Chowk, its name conjures up romantic narrow streets, a variety of street food and exotic markets. For Shahjahanabad is still very much a living city, though the lives of the people inhabiting it have changed over the centuries. Dariba Kalan still has rows of flourishing jewellers’ shops; Begum Samru’s haveli is now Bhagirath Palace, a sprawling electronics market, and no visit to Chandni Chowk is complete without a meal at Karim’s, whose chefs use recipes handed down to them through the ages for their mouth-watering biriyani and kebabs.

Swapna Liddle draws upon a wide variety of sources, such as the accounts of Mughal court chroniclers, travellers’ memoirs, poetry, newspapers and government documents, to paint a vivid and dynamic panorama of the city from its inception to recent times.

Gulbadan

August 1, 2016

An accomplished scholar and author of the Humayun-nama, Gulbadan Begam was also Babur’s daughter, Humayun’s sister, and Akbar’s aunt.

In this compact biography, Rumer Godden draws upon the Humayun-nama and other records, as well as her own soaring imagination, to create a portrait of the begam and the Mughal Empire as detailed and exquisite as any miniature.

While still a child, Gulbadan travelled from Kabul to Agra, where Babur had established his capital. She grew up in the cloistered world of the zenana, an idyllic existence that was shattered when Babur exchanged his life for Humayun’s. Humayun’s reign was marked by hardship after he lost the Empire and his vast army was reduced to a ragtag band. The Empire was regained but, soon after, Humayun died in a freak accident. He was succeeded by Akbar and it was under him that the Mughal Empire reached its zenith, in territory and in cultural and religious accomplishments.

This rich, broad sweep of history, written from Gulbadan’s point of view, is interspersed with colourful re-creations of goings-on within the zenana and the many diversions and internecine politics of the royal court.

Combining a historian’s rigour with a novelist’s gift for invention, Gulbadan is a timeless classic.

On Art, Literature and History

June 1, 2016

The Non-fiction Writing of Naguib Mahfouz: Volume I

Naguib Mahfouz is one of the most important writers in contemporary Arabic literature. Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1988 (the only Arab writer to win the prize thus far), his novels helped bring Arabic literature onto the international stage. Far fewer people know his non-fiction works, however—a gap that this book fills. Bringing together Mahfouz’s early non-fiction writings (most penned during the 1930s) which have not previously been available in English, this volume offers a rare glimpse into the early development of the renowned author.
As these pieces show, Mahfouz was deeply interested in art and history, as well as literature and philosophy, and his early writings engage with the origins of philosophy, its development and place in the history of thought, as well its meaning writ large. In his literary essays, he discusses a wide range of authors, from Anton Chekov to his own Arab contemporaries like Taha Hussein. He also ventures into a host of important contemporary issues, including science and modernity, the growing movement for women’s rights in the Arab world, and emerging ideologies like socialism—all of which outline the growing challenges to traditional modes of living that he saw all around him.
Together, these essays offer a fascinating window not just into the mind of Mahfouz himself but the changing landscape of Egypt during that time, from the development of Islam to the struggles between tradition, modernity, and the influences of the West.

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