Three old books, but fine vacation reads

One of the joys of a Christmas and New Year vacation is the world slows down and you can catch up with things you’ve been postponing, sometimes for years. In my case that’s books. I buy or am sent many and they pile up in my bedroom, laden with dust but unread. This year I decided to make amends. I caught up with several and today I want to tell you about three. They’re old books and I wish I’d read them earlier. But where I erred you could be lucky!

Two of them are biographies, a genre I find most enjoyable. These, however, are exceptional. The first is Zareer Masani’s slim but revealing and insightful work on Thomas Macaulay. Written in his highly readable style, Masani presents a portrait of a man we know little about but owe a lot to — far more than most realize and many are prepared to concede.

As the cover says, “If you’re reading this book in English it’s probably because of Thomas Macaulay.” A simple but telling acknowledgment of his famous minute on education which, although undoubtedly disparaging of Indian science and philosophy, literature and religion, is the reason why India has such strength in English. To use Macaulay’s own words, it created “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” That, I would add, is the basis of our success in IT and why we do so well when we work abroad.

Macaulay also gave us the Indian Penal Code. It’s lasted since 1862. And he played a significant role in the professionalization of the Indian Civil Service. The institution of an entrance exam was his suggestion. The Indian Administrative Service is a direct descendant. As the subtitle claims, Macaulay was a “pioneer of India’s modernisation”.

The other biography is Arthur Herman’s eponymously named study of Gandhi and Churchill. I was surprised to find the two coupled together but this book reveals how much they influenced each other. Quite literally, what one man did was bound to provoke the other.

Two beguiling qualities of this book, apparent from its first page, are the sympathy and understanding the author has for both men and his easy-flowing evocative style. Oh yes, there’s a third too. The research. It’s full of wondrous detail but let me not say more for fear of revealing its glorious surprises and ruining your enjoyment.

This is, however, a big book and to make the most of it you need to give it both time and undivided attention. If you do, the reward will be enriching.

The third book is very different. To begin with it’s a joy to behold. It comes in a purple velvet cover and you can spend hours ogling its sumptuous photographs. It’s the perfect present but a trifle expensive if you’re the one making the gift!

Called Dining with the Maharajas, this is essentially a book of royal recipes but you don’t need to be an aspiring cook to want to own it. And if you are, there’s a very practical and detachable kitchen copy of recipes so you don’t ruin the book itself with your messy experimentation.

Let me, however, share a personal impression. The food looks scrumptious, if somewhat heavy, but the Maharajas and their ranis are clearly and, often, uncomfortably posing. They’re trying terribly hard to look the role, just in case time and lack of royal attention have made them proletarian! But that adds to the fun.

Now, after this experience, I’ve made a promise. I’m going to strive to read more of the books I buy or receive. May be not all and probably not the full book in every case but most and as much as I can take. After all I don’t want to find, five years from now, that some of the best books I’m reading I could have picked up half a decade ago. I can’t afford to make that mistake again!

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story The views expressed are personal

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