Comics, Manga, Myself

Reading At the End of the World: The Drifting Classroom

There are a few names that immediately come to mind when you say “horror manga” — Junji Ito, Suehiro Maruo, Hideshi Hino, and Kazuo Umezu (or Umezz, if you prefer). Of these, Umezu is the oldest, born in 1936, and was still making manga as recently as 1995. Beyond his primary career, Umezu is a musician, an actor, screenwriter, and film director. And as the 2009 picture below shows, he’s also a bit of a visual personality.

He’s hugely influential in the manga industry, and the newer crop of horror manga-ka, including Ito have gone on record citing his work as one of their major sources of inspiration. Rumiko Takahashi, known for blockbuster series like Ranma 1/2, Inuyasha, and Maison Ikkoku worked as his assistant early on her career — and I believe you can see shades of Umezu in her short Mermaid Saga.

Sadly, his work has not been widely available in English. Orochi was a single-volume work published by Viz in 2002, and is now unavailable. The two volume Cat-Eyed Boy came out around 2008, and has been unavailable in dead-tree format for about a decade now, though thankfully available on Kindle and Comixology. For the record, this is what I wrote about it in Rolling Stone magazine about this title back in the day:

Kazuo Umezu is known for his gruesome, no-holds-barred comics. One of the of luminaries of the horror manga scene, Umezu knows how to unabashedly press the right buttons on his unsuspecting readers, his stories taking you down uncertain paths in deserted temples, suburban neighborhoods and bucolic villages. The Cat-eyed Boy in the stories is a monstrous-looking creature who plays the omnipresent narrator, at times an onlooker of the ghastly proceedings, and at other times actively involved in the eerie goings-on, leaving you riveted and repulsed at the same time.

But it is the eleven-volume Drifting Classroom that has been the white whale for completist manga collectors. The series was published in its entirety in 2006, and went out of print. Thankfully, in 2019 Viz chose to republish it in a three-volume hardcover format under its Signature imprint, at a great price point. The books are gorgeously designed volumes, and one of the reasons I jumped on them (other than the chance of these going OOP very soon too), was the visual and tactile experience of the hardcovers. The text you see on the covers are embossed, and the outer surface of the books have a matte texture that makes it feel like a vintage publication. I also dig the glitchy font design, with the word “CLASSROOM”. Its like adjusting an old television set to an alien signal.

This is the official description of the series on Viz’s website:

In the aftermath of a massive earthquake, a Japanese elementary school is transported into a hostile world where the students and teachers are besieged by terrifying creatures and beset by madness.

What the summary does not tell you, though, is how the story-line is a series of escalating events that are accompanied by strained nerves, wild revelations, gruesome deaths. There is a mood of panic and fear that propels the story forward, most of it heightened by the anachronistic artwork from Umezu. The series came out in 1973, after all. His style is cartoonish, and does not possess the vocabulary or style of modern manga. The emotional pitch of all characters are set to a default of 8 out of 10, and every setback or stressful situation twists that dial to 200. So, as a reader, that’s the first threshold you have to cross to take the book seriously.

The many faces of Sho Takamatsu

The story is told from the point of view of Sho Takamatsu, a twelve-year old sixth-grader who begins the story by getting into an argument with his mother before rushing off to school. The unresolved tension between the two play a significant role in events of the manga, and the narrative device is Sho’s diary in which he is talking to his mother. When the school disappears, it’s through his eyes that we see the horrors unfold. He jumps through the various stages of grief in the course of the first few chapters, and is one of the few that realize the kids have to maintain the peace both among themselves and among their juniors. It is not easy to steer this school of semi-hysterical children towards any kind of common action plan, but Sho does his best. From the very beginning, he takes on responsibilities beyond his age, calming the younger children down, taking charge of things when they spiral out of control.

The initial chapters of the manga capture the agonizing revelation that the survivors are well and truly alone, trapped in a world that is all desert and desolation, with the only resources available being the ones that are in the school compound. Umezu uses creative ways to dispose of the adult teachers, most of whom attempt to be the voice of reason as things go south. By the middle of the series, there is only one adult left, and he is in no mental condition to interfere. Having the teachers around in the initial chapters also demonstrates the freedoms inherent in the educational system in the seventies, namely, the ability to slap crying kids into silence.

Umezu eases us into a cast of interesting supporting characters in subsequent arcs. There’s Saki, the level-headed girl who has a crush on Sho and therefore sides with him at all costs. The fifth grader Gamo looks like a scrawny nerd, and he is the brains of the gang, with the best ideas and theories whenever they are in a jam. Otomo, the class representative, starts the story as a member of Sho’s inner circle. Then there are the strange ones, like Nakata with the unquenchable appetite and hyperactive imagination, the handicapped girl Nishi, who struggles to keep up with the rest of the gang.

The challenges the kids face are unrelenting. The food delivery person takes over the cafeteria and keeps everyone away from what he considers his supplies. A particular teacher loses his marbles in a spectacular way. There is an outbreak of a deadly disease. Food and drinking water problems. Factions within the classrooms attempting coups and trying to rig elections. Blame-games and accusations related to who was responsible for causing the cataclysmic event, and the occasional ripple of superstition. A sudden rainstorm that threatens to destroy the school garden with a mudslide. A conflict that leads to an outbreak of fire. People unwilling to listen to reason. The school, as is to be expected, becomes a microcosm of society, and all burden of leadership falls on the shoulders of a bunch of twelve-year old children. And all these problems pale into insignificance when the supernatural elements creep in. A strange insect appears to consume some of the school-children, while leaving others unharmed. Ugly mushrooms grow everywhere, with no way to find out if they are edible or not, and those who consume them are….oh, now that is something you should read for yourself.

Very early on, the characters come to the realization that their displacement is actually a time-jump. They have arrived many years into the future, and in their original present, the school is considered to have been destroyed in an earthquake. This introduces a nifty semi-supernatural angle to the story, where Sho’s mother hears his voice in key moments of their struggle, and her actions in the past end up influencing the outcomes of events in the children’s future. This, incidentally, also leads in to the eventual climax at the end of the series.

The sixth grade children agree to become the “parents” of the kids from the lower grades, with both the boys and the girls agreeing to carry out their responsibilities. This reads, and sounds both like social fantasy, and a reflection of the fact that it is the younger generation that think about and make sacrifices for the common good, and self-organize against existential threats. (shout-out to Greta Thunberg et al) No doubt some of this sounds very familiar if you have read Lord of the Flies, and the dozens of similar stories involving school-children stuck in mock societies bereft of adults.

Midway through the series, it is all but apparent that the story is an allegory for climate change. The desolate world the children are transported to is literally the future they inherit from a generation that has played havoc with nature. The explanation for how exactly the planet ends up this way fits in neatly with Umezu’s body-horror tics — grotesque tentacled creatures begin to appear, even as some of the students undergo physical changes because of their, ahem, dietary decisions. The fun is in seeing Umezu twist the knife even he guts the familiar tropes of the story. Like the best of horror stories, there is a tightrope between horror and absurd comedy that he excels at.

Shit gets real

As the description suggests, there is a also vein of tragic madness that runs through the characters and their tribulations. Remember what I said about the heightened emotional pitch in Umezu’s writing and artwork? That is what makes the really dark turns of insanity among the characters distressing to the reader. When such a thing happens, when a character loses it, you do not realize at first whether it’s just the creator doing what he does best, or if it’s genuinely a character trait. It’s only when true horror comes lurching at us that we jerk back in our seats. By then it’s too late, both for us reading the story, and for the characters who bear the brunt of these breakdowns.

And of course, it goes without saying that Umezu is phenomenal at pacing and the art of the slow build-up. For all my scoffing about pitch, his mastery of layout and his ability to amplify childhood fears to a crescendo is in display throughout the book. Look at this example of a page where the kids have to hide from a monster. Gamo advises everybody to pretend to be an object to clear their minds of thought, since that is the only way to avoid being detected. “Become a thing,” he urges. A wordless page demonstrates Sho’s state of mind, even as the clock is ticking.

There are numbers thrown around in terms of student casualties as the book goes on, and let me warn you — the death toll gets higher and higher, and Umezu does not shy away from gruesome visuals. One of my favorite sequences is when the school is under attack by a giant insect, one that is seemingly unstoppable. Ikegaki, one of Sho’s classmates elected Minister of Defense, takes it on himself to organize the class scrappers to attack the monster as the others shelter behind barricades. They manage to turn the insect away, but not without casualties. The aftermath is brutal.

And that of course is one of the main reasons I still love well-written manga. The focus is not just on the grand moments, but also on what comes after. The sequence of panels slowly closing up on Ikegaki’s face make me tear up.

As the years go by, I have come to the conclusion that stories set in school hold great emotional resonance for me. Not because I have great memories of my school life, nor that I put myself in the shoes of a school-child when I am reading them. It’s possible that the combination of innocence and potential strikes a chord in me. Adulthood brings with it the jaded third-person perspective towards events in the lives of school children that are so earth-shaking for them. Umberto Eco wrote, “Life is about reliving your childhood in slow motion.” That may well be true, but I know I will never feel the bitterness of a high school rivalry, the pain of a crush on the girl sitting at the adjacent desk, the sheer terror of a teacher’s disapproving glare, at least not first-hand. Therein comes in my fascination with the school story, my way of vicariously living those myriad life experiences all over again. School is never a place one wants to be in as a child, but for some of us, it is a mental image of home, of a time and place where we were safe. And in a time when nothing and nowhere feels safe, isn’t it natural that I turn to school stories for succour?

The school in the series represents a similar safe haven for the children. There is an emotional sequence around the middle, where Sho says “Tadaima” when he enters the school gates, back from an external expedition. The word, which means “I’m home” becomes a mantra for the children, all of whom begin to chant it as well, becoming a source of acceptance of the fact that they really have nowhere else to go. The Drifting Classroom, for all its perceived faults, is one of the finest school stories out there, and all you need to do is to switch off that irony-meter in your brain and give in to its charms. Despite the lump in your throat, you will find yourself cheering on the protagonists as, like the best of school stories, it ends on a hopeful note.


Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Gods of Jade and Shadow

OK, so here’s a book that reminds me of Neil Gaiman a lot. Part of it is the subject matter. The story is almost a primal narrative, brimming with character and story tropes spanning cultures. There are multiple references to fiction affecting reality, and how myths inform the present. There is even a talking raven.

“Words are seeds. With words you embroider narratives, and the narratives breed myths, and there’s power in the myth.

Casiopea Tun dreams of doing her own thing, of escaping from a family that treats her and her mother as outsiders, wanting more than the hint of a thousand-peso inheritance from her autocratic grandfather. One fine day, Casiopea finds an escape from her life of drudgery through, of all things, a Mayan death god, who she awakens from imprisonment. She becomes a willing co-passenger to this deity on a journey across Mexico, as he seeks to regain his powers, his missing body parts, and his throne from his treacherous brother.

“You’ll give me your name,” he said as the station and the town and everything she’d ever known grew smaller and smaller. She adjusted her shawl. “Casiopea Tun.” “I am Hun-Kamé, Lord of Shadows and rightful ruler of Xibalba,” he told her. “I thank you for liberating me and for the gift of your blood. Serve me well, maiden, and I shall see fit to reward you.” For a fleeting moment she thought she might escape, that it was entirely possible to jump off the tram and run back into town. Maybe he’d turn her into dust, but that might be better than whatever horrid fate awaited her. A horrid fate awaited her, didn’t it? Hadn’t the Lords of Xibalba delighted in tricking and disposing of mortals? But there was the question of the bone shard and the nagging voice in the back of her head that whispered “adventure.” For surely she would not get another chance to leave this village, and the sights he would show her must be strange and dazzling. The pull of the familiar was strong, but stronger was curiosity and the blind optimism of youth that demanded go now, go quickly. Every child dreams of running away from home at some point, and now she had this impossible opportunity. Greedily she latched on to it.

If you remember the first eight issues of Sandman, the arc of the god Hun-Kamé’s quest to regain the missing parts of his body follow a similar pattern, bargains and stand-offs (I was tempted to add ‘Mexican’ as an adjective there, but that wouldn’t have made sense except as a cheap chuckle) and the occasional bloody confrontation against demons, wizards, and even a succubus. As in American Gods and Anansi Boys, there is the thesis that the gods and mortals exist in a co-dependent manner, and that the locale determines the power and relevance of a god. The monotheistic ideal of divinity is dismissed with a scathing sentence: “The god of your church, if he is awake, does not live in these lands.”

The relationship between Casiopea and Hun-kamé takes center stage, as mortal and god give and take parts of each other into themselves. From the god of death, Casiopea learns that her problems with family were a tad more universal than she thought, and that control over one’s life does not bring contentment. Hun-kamé, attached to the mortal world by the shard of his bone implanted in her hand, finds himself comprehending the nature of human existence. He gazes at Casiopea marveling at the beauty of stars and the ocean, and they converse about poetry and death, dreams and flowers. They are on the clock. The longer time passes, the more Casiopea finds her essence leeched away, while Hun-Kamé becomes better accustomed to his mortal body.

“Dreams are for mortals.” “Why?” “Because they must die.” Somehow this made a perfect sort of sense. The volume of Aztec poetry she had read was full of lines about dreams and flowers, the futility of existence. “That’s sad,” she said, finally. “Death? It is unavoidable, not sad.” “No, not death,” she said, shaking her head. “That you don’t dream.” “Why would I need to dream? It means nothing. Those are but the tapestries of mortals, woven and unwoven each night on a rickety loom.” “They can be beautiful.” “As if there’s no other beauty to be had,” he said dismissively. “There’s little of it, for some,” she replied.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia nails the tone. The book is dedicated to her grandmother, and the story is narrated with the sort of omniscience that elderly tale-smiths possess, an ability to talk about the innermost workings of the heart and to soak you in the atmosphere of the setting. In this case, Mexico in 1927, which comes alive in all its sun and dust.

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford cars! English was sprinkled on posters, on ads, it slipped from the lips of the young just as French phrases had once been poorly repeated by the city folk. A bad imitation of Rudolph Valentino, hair slicked back, remained in vogue, and the women were trying to emulate that Mexican wildcat, Lupe Vélez, who was starring in Hollywood films. The pace was absolutely insane in Mexico City. Everyone rushed to and fro, savage motorists banged the Klaxon looking for a fight, the streetcars drifted down the avenues packed with sweaty commuters, newspaper vendors cried out the headlines of the day at street corners, and billboards declared that you should smoke El Buen Tono cigarettes. Kodak film and toothpaste were available for sale in the stores, and, near an intersection, a poor woman with a baby begged for coins, untouched by the reign of progress and modernity.

As with the real world, Moreno-Garcia paints the fantastic world of Xibalba in surreal imagery with her words, making the realm of death (pun intended) come alive in your mind. Once again, shades of the Dreaming from Sandman.

Xibalba, splendid and frightful, was a land of stifling gloom, lit by a cheerless night-sun and lacking a moon. The hour of twilight did not cease here. In Xibalba’s rivers there lurked jade caimans, alabaster fish swam in ink-black ponds, and glass insects buzzed about, creating a peculiar melody with the tinkling of their transparent wings. There were bizarre plants and lush trees, though no flowers bloomed in the soils of the Underworld—perhaps some had, at one point, but they’d long withered. These were all bits of dreams that had taken physical shape, but the nightmares of mortals also abounded in the fabulous landscape of Xibalba.

Before I read the book, I was told that it’s slow-paced and that “nothing really happens”. I am not sure what the detractors were looking for, the pacing was deliberate and measured. The road trip does not feel repetitive, and the slow-burn change in the relationship between the two protagonists is organic, as is the realization of the duality in the actions and motivations of mortal and deity. The quest is not just that of one god and his acolyte, but is mirrored by his rival and brother Vucub-Kamé, who had imprisoned Hun-Kamé many years ago to occupy the throne of Xibalba, and his followers. Specifically, Martin, Casiopia’s cousin and bête noire, whose aggressions, both micro and macro, were among the main reasons she fled from her hometown. And there too, the writer weaves in surprising plot twists. Was Martin really all that bad, we find ourselves wondering, or was he weak, his frailty possessing him to be jealous of Casiopea’s strength of will?

Like in a good story about gods and myth, this one also features the use of prophecy as a storytelling device. Vucub-Kamé is gifted at foresight, and in multiple sequences, ex-sanguinates and eviscerates various animals to understand what the future holds for his reign. The answers he sees are unclear, but it is Casiopea’s presence that is the most confusing for him. At the same time, there are disturbing visions that appear in our lady protagonist’s dreams, of blood and death in the city of Xibalba. Hun-Kamé warns her about the power of words and stories, and his recalcitrance to speak about the myths she knows, of him and the stories around him, further muddy the path ahead.

All of these separate threads come together incredibly well in the end-game. Far better, I would say, than Gaiman’s American Gods ended, if we are still comparing. The winner of this game of throne is decided not by gods wielding bolts of magic and blood, but by the choices and actions of their champions. The overall theme, that of gods depending on mortals for both their existence and sustenance, is something that is a recurring theme in both Sandman and the prose works of Gaiman. Moreno-Garcia adds a delectable layer of romance and a historical milieu that make it more than just another twice-told tale. The four principal characters have distinct voices and motivations — Casiopea’s distaste for her fate and headstrong demeanor contrasting against Martin’s obedience to his grandfather, and Hun-Kame’s self-assured hauteur plays well against Vucub-Kamé’s insecurities. The decisions that drive the ending are laid out wonderfully across the story. We hold all the pieces, and once events transpire, we see how descriptive paragraphs like this scatter clues in plain sight.

Mortals believe gods to be omnipotent and ever-knowing. The truth is more slippery; their limitations are multiple, kaleidoscopic, and idiosyncratic. Gods cannot rudely move mortals like one moves a piece across a game board. To obtain what they wish gods may utilize messengers, they may threaten, they may flatter, and they may reward. A god may cause storms to wreck the seaside and mortals, in return, may raise their hands and place offerings at the god’s temple in an effort to stop the hurricane that whips the land. They may pray and bleed themselves with maguey thorns. However, they could also feel free to ignore the god’s weather magic, they could blame the rain or lack of it on chance or bad luck, without forging the connection between the deity and the event. A god can make the volcanos boil and cook alive the villagers who have made their abodes near its cone, but what good is that? If gods destroyed all humans, there would be no adoration and no sacrifice, which is the fresh wood that replenishes a fire.

Among all its virtues, most of all its inherent readability, this book provided a great introduction to Mayan myth and encouraged me to look more into Popol-Vuh. I am intrigued by the story of the Hero Twins, alluded to throughout this book. Also, Moreno-Garcia seems be a genre-surfer par excellence — her other books include one that’s described as Lovecraft meets the Brontes in Latin America, another that combines music and magic in Mexico City, yet another that’s a magical romance set in a world inspired by France of the Belle Epoque. A lot to dive in, in the coming months.


A Food Novel: The Pasha of Cuisine

If there is one constant thread in my life, it is this realization that one thing leads to another, in the best possible way. Consider, for example, that after reading and gushing over the third book of The Daevabad Trilogy, I began to look around for the next hit (To be clear, I use the word in the context of narcotics, not in that of popularity) that might continue to further explore the medieval Islamic world. While it was tempting to swim around in the fantastical waters of djinn fiction, with the names I had mentioned in my review, I also wanted a book that was a little different and unpredictable.

I was also listening to podcasts featuring Shannon Chakraborty, to hear her thoughts about the series and to continue holding on to Daevabad and its pleasures. Among the interesting tidbits she talked about was her obsession with food, in particular historical recipes and writings on food. She spoke of a deleted scene in the second novel, which was to feature a cooking competition during Navasatem. And then, she went on to recommend a specific book called The Pasha of Spices.

A hasty online search showed that the novel Pir E Lezzet, written in Turkish by Saygin Ersin, and translated into English by Mark Wyers, was available on the Hoopla app. It took about a week for me to get to the book, two days to finish it, and here I am, on a Saturday afternoon, babbling words of appreciation with stars in my eyes and a tremendous longing for kebabs and baklava.

The book, set in Ottoman Turkey, begins with a botched dinner party organized for the King’s Sword Bearer, a man of tremendous influence and a foul temper. The main course includes a leek dish, a vegetable that the guest is known to detest. As it turns out, he dreamily eats his dish, and then on realizing what it is, walks out in a huff, leaving the owner of the house to sputter at the cook for his disrespectful choice. The next morning, however, there comes an invite from the Sword Bearer — hand over the cook to be my personal chef, he says, and all is forgiven. The cook, already punished for his transgression, knew this was exactly how things would transpire and is ready to go.

We follow the young unnamed cook into the palace kitchen and its chaos, and the story slowly peels away secrets and histories that reveal the trajectory of the young cook’s life. In the space of the first few chapters, we realize that his presence in the palace kitchen, even his very existence, is no accident. There is the matter of his growing unease as he accompanies the guards to the palace, with a near-panic attack as he draws closer. The master of the kitchen, Head Chef Isfendiyar, seems to share a mysterious bond with him. And there is the matter of his interest in the Sultan’s Odalisque Harem, forbidden to all men other than the royal family.

Over the course of the next few days, the cook works not only to secure his culinary grip over his new master’s palate with his masterful use of flavors and ingredients, but also woos the latter’s harried assistants by cooking sweets and delicacies for them. At the same time, he takes on the responsibility of cooking for the Harem, making friends with Neyyir Agha, the Chief Eunuch working for the Haseki Sultan, who was “known to be one of the cleverest women that palace had ever seen, (and) wielded power over the sultan and the Harem at a very young age.” There are flashbacks that reveal the broader story of the cook’s journey, from his hidden background and innate culinary ability, to his apprenticeship at a bordello, and his journey to redeem both his title and his destiny. His quest involves a woman, if you must know, but it also involves coming to terms with his own emotional vulnerability. It is quite a journey.

Where Ersin excels is in making the story tread a fine line between historical fiction and fantasy. The chef whispers secret words as he cooks his magnificent meals and adds his ingredients one by one. Is his culinary skill related to magic or is it a real-world skill? They call him the Pasha of Cuisine, which is a title bestowed once in a generation, one that combines both the inborn ability to discern flavor and taste from an early age coupled with years of training. His dishes are shown to be able to influence both the emotions and the will of his diners. This paragraph, for example, gives a great insight into the way the Pasha’s abilities to heighten that relationship becomes important plot-points through the narrative.

Everyone knew that linden naturally brought on a feeling of calmness, and when fermented, that effect was heightened. Some religious scholars stated that fermented linden was an intoxicating substance that Muslims were prohibited from consuming. But if they were to have tasted a pastry made with the linden fermented by the Pasha of Cuisine, they wouldn’t have just advised against its consumption but banned it outright. In the hands of the Pasha, the innocent fermentation created a substance that tore down the barriers of logic that held back strong emotions and did away with all self-control. Whoever ate the fritters would forget about fear and loyalty, discarding tradition and rules in the process. The void created by the fermented linden would be filled with the sugar, the taste of which would be heightened by the sesame oil. The cook knew that sweet, one of the four basic tastes, was coupled with the element of fire, which was famed for its violence.

The flashback sequences are truly fantastic. The cook apprentices with Master Adem, a former Pasha, and then embarks on a voyage that goes beyond mere culinary school. He studies horoscopes under the eccentric el-Haki brothers, who teach him the medicinal properties of foods, and how food affects individuals based on their star signs. From the Lady of Essences, he understands not only the intricacies of spices, but also the means to soothe his wounded soul. And I must mention that from the moment the Lady of Essences makes her appearance and asks the cook why he came to her, the only face and voice I could hear was that of Tabu in her Vishal Bharadwaj characters. (One would assume the first mental image associated with such a character would be Aishwarya Rai in Mistress of Spices, but I have spent years trying to forget that experience.) All his journeys lead him, finally and fittingly, to Alexandria, where he has to ask a question, and one question only, of the Master Librarian. That question reveals, both to him and to us, the greatest secret of what it means to be the Pasha of Cuisine.

Spices are not related to intelligence, but to emotions. It is meaningless to know what spices are, whether they come from trees or roots or bark, or to memorize their natures, as it won’t be of any use to you. You should be able to inhale the scent of garlic and write two verses of poetry, compose an epic about the basil and mastic combining in your mouth, and extol the virtues of myrrh and a pinch of rosemary. Only then can you tell me that you’ve learnt about spices. You should look into the eyes of the person you want to mesmerize with your food and see into their hearts and soul, and at the same time be able to go through all the scents you know in your mind and decide which ones will either dampen or whet the appetite of their soul. Only then can I say that you’ve become the true Pasha of Cuisine.

Gratuitous Tabu photograph for eye-candy purposes

I am in no way capable of talking about the historical accuracy of the novel. In the writer’s own words, “the Ottoman era is our very attractive “Fantasy Realm”. It is our Neverland, it is our Narnia, Westeros and Middle Earth. It has a magical atmosphere; very real on one side and very ‘dreamy’ on the other. Also it is so flexible. You can write a realistic political novel in that atmosphere and you can also write a mystical novel like the Pasha of Cuisine in the same atmosphere.” Below is an excerpts from a Turkish blog that talks about the culinary atmosphere in the Ottoman era. For the record, the reign of the Ottomans lasted six centuries, and it is unclear which period of those 600 years the book is set in. Warning: plot points in the description at the link below, so please do not click if you do not want to be spoiled.

Diverse Ottoman cuisine was amalgamated and honed in the Imperial Palace’s kitchens by chefs brought from certain parts of the empire to create and experiment with different ingredients. They were brought over from various places for the express purpose of experimenting with exotic textures and ingredients and inventing new dishes, and they served for 10.000 people every day! Meat was used in most foods. Kebabs and stews with every kind of meat were cooked in the palace kitchens. Birds such as chicken and duck were mostly roasted on a spit and you’ll read one of the most difficult recipe of The Ottoman Palace kitchen: Enveloped kebab which is cooked with different types of meat (turkey-partridge-chicken-quail). These poultries are put in each other in a size order, enriched with spices and put in oven. Have you seen green pilaf before? The Turks’ fondness for pilaf was such that it attracted the attention of travellers. It is an easy recipe, but among the indispensable tastes of the Ottoman cuisine. Spinach is boiled and crushed in strainer, then filtered with the help of a muslin. You can use this green water to cook your pilaf! How about a milk kebab? Lamp is boiled in milk, and meat is lined on a spit and slowly cooked.

Other than the Pasha of Cuisine himself, there are supporting characters known for their devotion to food and their craft, like the Mad Fishmonger Bayram, “the greatest fisherman not just of Istanbul, but of the Marmara Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Black Sea, and even all seas around the world according to some”. He was also a master of cooking seafood, and his makeshift shack where he served favored guests was a secret unto itself. Why exactly he was considered mad is a story that is part of the book and I will leave you to find out for yourself. But the descriptions of Bayram’s cooking, specifically his fish soup, is both insightful and poetic.

Fish soup was one of the two greatest soups in the world, and the pinnacle of fish dishes as it had to be made perfectly, just like anything else that was difficult. A fish soup could not be “so-so,” “alright,” or “passable.” If done right, it would be soup; if done wrong, it would be rubbish, and that was that. It was one of the strangest dishes in the world. The more ingredients one added, the better it became. It did not have an absolute taste. The base flavor was fish, provided its smell was just right, but the soup changed taste with every spoonful. The first spoonful might be fish accompanied by celery stalk and carrot, the second might be onion and a small piece of fresh oregano, while the third could be the pure taste of fish scorched lovingly with the sweet taste of black pepper. The carnival of tastes continued until you finished the bowl. You would never guess what you would get with the next spoonful, and each sip was a surprise.

I will say, however, that the reason why the book has me rapturously singing its praises, goes beyond poetic food descriptions and exotic characters and locations. It is that the story takes a stand about art and the myth of the solitary genius that works tirelessly to achieve their goal and climb to the pinnacle of their chosen field. In a way, The Pasha of Cuisine is the anti-Whiplash, a movie I love passionately, but cannot get over how it leaves me shattered at the end of every viewing. The cook’s mentors (all but one, without spoilers) genuinely want him to succeed, and do so without compromising his life at the cost of his art.

Your soul is incomplete. You’re completely alone, and as long as you can’t mend the void within your soul, you’ll remain alone. Becoming the Pasha of Cuisine will not make your soul whole again. On the contrary, you will only be deserving of that title once you heal your soul.

Throughout the book, we know the cook not by his name, but by the title bestowed on him. We hear his name, for the first time, on the last sentence of the book. It is a triumphant end to his journey, bringing both closure and a sense of prophetic fulfillment. The epilogue that follows is a fine dessert, but even without it, I felt sated and full, like I just finished a masterful meal by a genius chef. This was followed by an overpowering urge for kebabs, but that’s TMI, I guess.


Books, Comic Art, Movies

A Scott Pilgrim 10th Anniversary Appreciation Post

Today morning, this came up on my YouTube Feed.

While the placeholder image on the video says “Full Interview”, it’s actually the reading of the complete movie Scott Pilgrim vs The World, with narration, digital effects, soundtrack, and a whole lot of fun. I know the movie well enough to figure out which bits were chopped (no 3-second song, no other-Scott, Wallace, and Scott sandwich on the futon). Some members of the cast couldn’t make it so others filled in for their roles (Anna Kendrick launches into Envy’s role with panache, and Satya Bhabha does a mean Young Neil). Other observations:

  • Aubrey Plaza continues to cement her status as Batshit Insane Diva, with stellar use of props, loudness, and timing
  • Chris Evans’ eyebrows deserve an Academy Award
  • Michael Cera actually sings and plays the guitar on camera
  • And Brandon Routh plays the bass (lolwut)
  • Not sure who deadpans better – Mary E Winstead and Alison Pill
  • Bryan Lee O’Malley live draws key characters at different points of the reading, the man can fuckin’ draw
  • Belly-laughing for one and a half hours is an excellent way to begin a work-week

This movie is a modern-day miracle. It was a failure in theaters when it came out, and yet ten years later, it is a movie that refuses to disappear from public memory. People come across it in different platforms and in different ways. A midnight screening, a streaming platform, an animated gif or a quote that lead them to find out about the movie. And they fall in love with it, and proceed to share the love with others. The result has been a film that has gained an ever-expanding circle of fans over the last decade. Obviously it also helps that the graphic novel is still as relevant, and the release of a recolored version has but added to its appeal.

The cast of the film have all gone on to do bigger and better things, and it’s a wonder how the makers got this talent package to come together in this one lightning-in-a-bottle production. I mean, just look at the roster — Michael Cera, Mary E Winstead, Anna Kendrick, Alison Pill, Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson, Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Hader (the Voice), Aubrey Plaza, Mae Whitman, Johnny Simmons, Ellen Wong. The only other ensemble cast I can think of that has gone to somewhat-equivalent cumulative stardom would be the TV show Freaks and Geeks. And for the record, even that was cancelled after one perfect season.

As a comic-book movie, Scott Pilgrim is positioned in a rarefied overlap of faithfulness to the source material with a visionary onscreen interpretation. This was 2010, where comics had not yet taken over the world, and the Marvel machine was in its infancy. There was still the two schools of adaptations, the first being those that slavishly translated from page-to-screen with visual effects cranked all the way up to 11, with examples like 300, Sin City, or Watchmen. The other end of the spectrum was complete directorial independence, leading to either excellent examples like The Dark Knight trilogy by Chris Nolan, creative disasters like The Green Hornet by Michel Gondry, or sound and fury blockbusters with no substance, like Michael Bay’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Edgar Wright took the essence of the books — its romance-meets-action comedy zaniness, the video game and indie music references, the bildungsroman tropes, and proceeded to sizzle it all together using Wrighteous alchemy. You know, the stuff that makes him a film-maker par excellence. The quirky cuts, zoom shots and montages, the use of music and score to incredible effect, the painstaking attention to detail and the use of intensive story-boarding to break down scenes. Edgar went the distance, and made his actors do the same. One example, referenced in the video above, was about him preventing the cast from blinking during the scenes to make it more like a comic-book. The end result is a movie where the actors revel in the sheer outrageousness of the proceedings and deliver lines with both flawless timing and improvisational tics, visual and text effects bounce across the screen in perfect synchrony, and we the audience are whisked away to find ourselves completely immersed in the strange and mysterious land of Toronto, Canada.

Here’s another wonderful thing about being released in 2010. If this was to be adapted in 2020, it would probably become a multi-season TV show, or at least a film trilogy. There was no way a studio would let such a mass of content be squandered on a single two-hour movie. It is our good fortune that Wright was around to pick it up at exactly the right moment and do right by it, making a perfect product of its time.

Two of my favorite Scott Pilgrim stories are from the commentary track on the bluray, with director Edgar Wright, writer Michael Bacall and creator/graphic novelist Bryan Lee O’Malley. Wright of course kept O’Malley in the loop throughout the making of the film, using his input even as the creator was working to finish his series. The original ending of the film therefore was written by Bacall and Wright differently from the books, with Scott finally ending up with Knives instead of with Ramona. O’Malley asked for the ending to be changed to that of the book, since that was what he intended the story to be all along, about Scott and Ramona trying to work out their relationship and give it a fresh go. Wright agreed. The alternate ending can be seen here.

My second favorite Scott Pilgrim story is to do with Twitter and sweet vindication. So the week the movie released, it came in fifth at the box office. Fifth! All the way behind Expendables, Eat Pray Love, The Other Guys, and Inception. Seth MacFarlane, he of the cerebral Ted fame, decided to rub it in on Twitter, saying “Scott Pilgrim 0, the World 2“. This was Wright’s response to that tweet.

 I was like, f*ck you. And I lay in wait until 8 Million Ways to Die in the West came out, or whatever it was called, and I rubbed my hands with glee. I didn’t tweet anything because I’m not a total monster. But Monday morning Michael Moses sent an email with three words. It was one of the sweetest emails I’ve ever gotten from anybody in the industry. It said, “Years, not days.”

Nobody, obviously, is doing a ten year anniversary celebration of Expendables or Eat Pray Love. I wasn’t able to remember who the lead actors of The Other Guys were. On the other hand, I have lost count of the number of times I have re-watched Scott Pilgrim vs The World. I got my blu-ray copy signed by Edgar Wright at Amoeba a few years ago, and of course, by this time I can basically quote the movie beginning to end. Envy Adams’ “Oh yeah? Oh YEAH!” call echoes in my head every time I am about to write code, or do something challenging. “Your BF’s about to get F-ed in the B” is a line I used one day and promptly exploded into laughter before finishing it. I had a grin when I walked into the Toronto Public Library last year. A couple of years ago, I would bump into Bryan Lee O’Malley in random movie screenings around Los Angeles. Which has nothing to do with the movie but is a cool Los Angeles perk that I thought I would throw out there.

One of the things that I want to verify someday, and I am not sure how that is possible, is my thesis that the original trailer to Scott Pilgrim vs The World is maybe the first to use this now-popular trend of cutting action scene effects to the rhythm of the background music. Check out the part of the trailer where the Prodigy’s ‘Invaders Must Die’ kicks in, around 1:45. Wright would go on to use this in Baby Driver tremendous effect, and nowadays trailers have overused this to the point of cliche. But in 2010, this was the bomb.

Here is a tale of regret and self-loathing. In 2012, Bryan Lee O’Malley visited San Diego Comic Con. I was there. I waited in line to get my books autographed by him, and bought the slipcase and poster that came along with it. I asked him if he had any original art. He said yes, and showed me this.

Dear reader, it haunts me to this day that I did not buy this page immediately. I bought two pages from Eddie Campbell instead, and a couple of other items. What stopped me was that I had a dream image in mind, of owning a Pilgrim page that included all or most of the cast. Just owning this would not have fit the bill.

It was only when I came back home and opened up my copy of Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, the first volume of the series, that I realized that this was the very first image of Scott in the book. Other than the cover, this would be most iconic image. It was also the image sort of used in the film poster, if you squint real hard. It was even used as a Mondo print two years later, which made me groan even more.

However, instead of ending the post on a bum note, let me show you the Scott Pilgrim original that I actually got. It fulfilled the mental criteria I had for the piece. It was even published as a print, too, thereby lowering my bar for envy at loss of the earlier piece, and what makes it even more special is that it’s a riff on a classic game poster, Puzzle Fighter, pictured below. When I bought it from Bryan’s art rep, the wonderful Felix Lu, he also mentioned that this was the biggest physical piece of art that Bryan had ever produced, at a whopping 16 by 24 inches.

P.S The table reading was done as a charity event for Water For People. You can donate here:


A Shannon Chakraborty Appreciation Post

TLDR: Best fantasy series I have read in the recent past, highly recommend.

So the Daevabad Trilogy caught my eye because of two main reasons:

  1. The eye-catching cover of City of Brass, the first book, showcased in the fantasy section of nearly every local bookstore when it came out.
  2. The name of the author. SA Chakraborty is not only an Indian name, but is also a name from my part of the country. So I was curious, went and looked up the name, and found out that the writer was a New Yorker, and the initials stand for Shannon Ali. I didn’t think too much of it, other than a few mental tsks at the fact that obscuring the first names of women writers of fantasy for marketing purposes still seems to be a thing. (Don’t take my word for it – JK Rowling, NK Jemisin, VE Schwab are all part of the same club).

I did not read City of Brass right away, waiting it out because my queue was already backlogged. Plus, without any idea of how long the trilogy would take to complete, it didn’t make sense to plunge in and then wait for yet another Windy Winter. It was only when the second volume, Kingdom of Copper came out just about a year later, and to equally positive reviews, that I jumped on. A few days later, there I was, blinking at the last sentences of the epilogue to the second book, after a grueling sequence of mayhem, death, and heart-stopping action. “I’m home”, said the lead character, as tears sprang to her eyes. I was sitting in the courtyard of the public library next to my workplace, my lunch forgotten next to me, my skin breaking into goosebumps even though it was a sunny afternoon. I remember taking a deep breath, steeling myself to wait another year for the story to end. And then I sent a few texts to different corners of the globe, with the general message of “Drop everything and please read Daevabad trilogy”.

Empire of Gold, the third book, came out last month. Almost a year since I read the first two, and I realized I didn’t even have to refresh my memory, because the story had stayed with me. And when I was done, about twenty four hours later, there was the satisfied-yet-eager feeling that accompanies the best of endings. A good book is one that makes you miss the world, a magnificent book is one that encourages you to seek out even more. Empire of Gold jump-started my reading again this year, after a lag brought about by the quarantine period.

The Daevabad Trilogy is djinn-fiction set in the middle-east, in an opulent, magical city filled with magical beings that have complicated political and personal histories. Things happen when….wait, let the author herself set things up, instead of me blathering on.

A City and Its People

The city of Daevabad is described by the writer in such vivid detail that one wonders how much is her own creation and what bits existed in some forgotten manuscript, and of course it is the intriguing details of the city’s make-up and history that drive a majority of the tale. Turns out Chakraborty spent the better part of a decade poring over and creating these backstories before she began working on the actual book, as a sort of historical-fan-fiction-woven-with-fantasy project. It also helped that she was a history nerd, with a major in medieval Islamic history.

To appreciate the world of the books, it helps to know a bit of Islamic djinn canon. Djinns are fire elementals, capricious, endowed with superhuman powers, and yet human-like in the sense that they have children and may die, and as the books make it clear, they are immensely political. That the prophet-king Suleiman conquered the various races of djinns, stripped them of their magic and made believers of these capricious spirits is known. The ones who rebelled against Sulaiman’s rule were the ifrits, and they were forever banished. Suleiman gave his ring of sovereignty and the source of all djinn magic to Anahid, first of the Nahids of the tribe of Daevas, and the founder of the city of Daevabad.

Our ancestors spun a city out of magic—pure Daeva magic—to create a wonder unlike the world had ever seen. We pulled an island out of the depths of a marid-haunted lake and filled it with libraries and pleasure gardens. Winged lions flew over its skies and in its streets, our women and children walked in absolute safety.

The city is divided into various quarters, each populated by one of the six tribes that make up the djinn, and is ruled by the Qahtani family of the Geziri tribe. It is clear that there are undercurrents of hostility and mistrust among the various tribes, along with uneasy alliances, since the Qahtanis took power by force from the Nahids. Compounding all these issues is the presence of Shafits, half-human half-djinns who are allowed to live in their own separate quarters but with, shall we say, distinctly lower social status in this world.

It is into this unstable sociopolitical powder-keg that Nahri, our identifying character of the story, finds herself transported. Much like protagonists of other, familiar fantasy sagas, she finds her regular life and identity pulled away from beneath her feet, and most of the first book is her coming to terms with her mysterious connection to the Daevas since, as it turns out, she is a Nahid. Or maybe a shafit, we don’t know yet. Nahri’s priority is to figure out who she is and where she stands amidst the complex and contradicting options put before her, with nothing but her wits and street smarts about her.

“I wanted to find a balance between a starry-eyed dreamer and a ruthless pragmatist; someone who’s learned to temper her ambitions with realism and is largely okay with the moral ambiguities of doing what she needs to survive. I also wanted to explore the idea of someone being alone in a world that so strongly revolves around family and community.”

As much as the story is about Nahri — and yes, I know, so far this sounds totally like a Chosen One on a Quest story, it is the supporting characters that make the book so, so much more. What helps here is that we are not just introduced to Daevabad from Nahri’s perspective, but also from within. The viewpoint of Alizayd Al-Qahtani, the younger son of the ruling king, one who is being trained to become the general to his elder brother Muntadhir when he eventually ascends the throne. His lens comes with the bias of being part of the ruling circle in the city and recognizing the injustices being perpetrated on the shafit. Ali is someone that is entrenched in the political system, both through his privileged bloodline and his training, and what he needs is to decide between his love for his family and his desire to see things change. When we first meet him, he seems to have made some choices that are going terribly wrong. And then things get worse.

Then there is Darayavahoush Al-Afshin. Dara for short. Once upon a time, Dara served the Nahids as one of their weapons of war, and his name has since become legend. He had disappeared for a long time due to reasons unknown, and his presence back in Daevabad, with Nahri in tow, causes jubilation in some quarters and terror in others. Things are further complicated by the fact that while transporting Nahri to the city, sparks fly between the two. And take my word for it, this is not a hurried, love-at-first-sight relationship. Half the first book is the journey undertaken by the two to reach the city, and they encounter friends and foes, and worse, each other’s idiosyncrasies on the way. The first kiss, when it happens, feels earned by both.

It would be unfair of me to reveal further of the plot, and besides, it is impossible to explain the complicated politics of Daevabad and the myriad subplots that weave throughout the story. A lot of reviewers have compared the series to George RR Martin’s A Game of Ice and Fire. To be honest, while the shallower aspects of Martin’s writing has seeped into a lot of fantasy, the comparison holds good here because of the way in which Chakraborty refuses to boil down her narrative into a straightforward good vs evil narrative. The main theme of the series is the complicated nature of relationships, both familial and of the heart. The secondary theme is the unforgiving nature of history, specifically the cycles of oppression and liberation that perpetuate across generations until someone decides to learn from them and, forgive me for this, “break the wheel”.

Spoiler-free list meant to titillate and intrigue, but will possibly be confusing:

  • There are excellent curve-balls thrown into the story, involving not just the city and its djinns but the building blocks of grudges and betrayals that led to the present moment.
  • We are introduced very early on to the earth and air elementals, ghouls and peris respectively. Later on, we meet the water elementals, the marids, first in a harrowing sequence involving Ali, and then in much greater detail in the third book. Its beautiful how all these different beings are woven into the main storyline.
  • The second book jumps forward five years from the events of the first. The third book begins immediately after the cliffhanger epilogue of the second.
  • There is a marriage of convenience. And broken hearts, broken promises, conspiracies and counter-conspiracies. Also, the family showdowns give a whole new meaning to the term “bound by blood”.
  • For a while, I thought Ali and Muntadhir’s relationship mirrored that of Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh, and was on tenterhooks wondering if fiction would follow history.
  • There are various points of the story where the characters are placed in positions of convenience, where they could have said “fuck it” and let things be, choosing to be beholden to the status quo. But of course, it’s their choices that drive the story. I loved that.
  • Dara is added as a point of view character from the second book onwards, and suddenly it makes so much sense. It’s also heartbreaking to both identify with his impulses and to understand how he is pulled into events that spiral beyond his control.
  • Pay close attention to Nahri’s personality – her reactions to events telegraph what she wants, and also what she needs. She gets the former at the end of the second book, and she has to work to earn the latter in the third.

So. Much. Love.

There are so many reasons why I love this trilogy so much. I was burnt out on SFF for quite a while, mostly because the tropes were getting tiresome, and there are only so many variants of Chosen Ones on a Quest to defeat a Dark Lord that one can take in without feeling wiped out. Hard fantasy also has had this tendency to force the reader into doing homework, trying to figure out milieu and context through maps, linguistic tongue-twisters, and a whole bunch of expository text referred to as “world building”. Dragons, witches, elves and dwarfs are de rigeur, as are pseudo-European medieval feudal kingdom settings.

Obviously, for me, it’s the joy of seeing characters and settings that do not fall in that narrow band that has dominated fantasy all throughout. It is not as if djinns have not appeared in Western fantasy at all, but those appearances have primarily been through a first world filter. The “genie” in this setting is a fast-talking trickster figure that grants wishes, and then chooses to side with the protagonist, becoming a secondary character in the hero’s quest. I am thinking of the titles that come to mind – The Thief of Baghdad, Disney’s Aladdin, I Dream of Jeannie, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, only the last of which has any motivation to go beyond the surface level tropes associated with these beings. Of late, of course, there has been better works – Helen Wecker’s Golem and the Jinni comes to mind, but even that is set in early 20th century New York, with brief flashbacks to a far-flung past.

So unlike the Eurocentric fount of stories, it’s refreshing to see a world inspired by stories of court intrigues set during the Abbasid Caliphate.

For one, the period I particularly enjoy—the Abbasid Caliphate—was in many ways a bridge between the ancient world and the more “modern” medieval era, witnessing an incredible syncretism of different cultures, languages, religions, and customs. I like seeing the way places and people change: that a proudly Arab Muslim court might be modeled on a Persian Zoroastrian one, led by a wazir whose family had been Buddhist priests centuries earlier, and that it would have employed Greek scholars and Hindu surgeons and sent trade missions to China. I don’t have any illusions that this was always peaceful, but these were teeming, fascinating, and diverse cosmopolitan cities.

To be clear, Chakraborty is not the only Muslim writer with spins on Islamic folklore. Names I can think of include Saad Z Hussain (his The Gurkha and The Lord of Tuesday is short but beautiful, and Djinn City is on my list), Sami Shah’s Fire Boy is set in Karachi, while G Willow Wilson’s Alif The Unseen brings together djinns and cyberpunk, two genres I never thought of seeing together. And of course, I should not forget Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights, which is the closest to superhero djinn fiction I have ever read.

The characters and their arcs, and by this I mean not just the three main characters I mention, but the ever-widening supporting cast that Chakraborty situates around the protagonists. It helps that the names are beyond fabulous — who can help but swoon at names like Muntadhir, Zaynab, Manizheh, Irtemiz, Mardoniye, to name a few. There are even Bangla names thrown in (Subhashini and Parimal Sen, and it warms my heart to see the former spelt the proper Bengali way). The homework part of reading fantasy automatically goes away, since these names are not only culturally familiar to me, but also rooted in a classical tradition instead of being made-up fantasy tongue twisters. The nomenclature of the world is a confluence of Persian, Arabic, and Indian cultures, and you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the differences.

As much as it feels like obligatory love triangle is telegraphed with two male and one female lead characters, the beauty of these books is how it subverts those expectations. It is clear that a lot of thought went into the individual motivations of each character, and Chakraborty recently talked in a Reddit AMA about how she wanted her main character to go through different shades of love—infatuation, sexual experience, trust and mutual respect, while also becoming better people. The Quest therefore is not just a tagline or a MacGuffin; finding a magic sword or defeating an Evil Lord could be the endgame in a different unending war, but for Nahri, Dara, and Ali, it is all about finding themselves, owning up to and healing the pitfalls and mistakes of the past. The series does not end with a grand flourish of hashtag winning; it awakens to another day in the life of the city where change is in the air, and they who remain need to get to work.

Final note about how immersive the story was. I read the books on my Kindle, and as I was in the middle of Kingdom of Copper, I realized around lunchtime, with a shock, that the Kindle had run out of charge at a crucial point. I ran to the library next door, hoping that there would be a copy left. No luck. In a final act of desperation, before giving up completely, I searched the library app to see if they had an e-version I could read on my phone. Whaddya know, Hoopla had the audio-version. So I scrubbed the audio all the way to the correct chapter which, on a phone, is madness. And I spent 45 minutes listening to Soneela Nankani narrating the story, only half-wincing at the rolling r’s in her pronunciations of Nahri and Dara. But there you go, that’s how much it hooked me. And hopefully will do the same to you.