Some of my favourite books are the ones I go back to over and over again. Their spines are cracked, their pages are dog-eared, some of them have food stains from careless eating and reading. I love my books hard and I have several where the covers are just falling off, held together by a stitch and the force of my affection. To more worshipful book-lovers, this must seem like blasphemy. These are people who won’t pick up a book without washing their hands and here I am, folding the large paperback so I can hold it more comfortably in bed. It got me thinking about the books even I wouldn’t do that to. The beautiful books, the ones that live on my “display” shelf outside as opposed to the rest tucked away in various corners of the house. While the content of a book is always the true pleasure, there are some volumes where that content is also aesthetically beautiful, not just for the words, but for how it’s put together. This month, I wandered through three of those lovely books, fine presents for anyone you know, or just to treat yourself to something beautiful that you can also read.

Water cooler

As soon as I heard about the poetry “conversation” between Sampurna Chattarji and Karthika Naïr called Over and Under Ground In Paris & Mumbai , I knew I had to read it. The details were even better: A book of verse about commuting in their respective cities, specifically in the Paris underground and the Mumbai local trains. And illustrated in gorgeous black-and-white sketches by Gond artist Roshni Vyam for the Paris sections and French illustrator Joelle Jolivet for the Mumbai commute.


Over and Under Ground in Paris & Mumbai; Sampurna Chattarji & Karthika Nair (illustrated by Joelle Jolivet and Roshni Vyam); Westland/ Contxt; Poetry; ₹799


Besides this, which makes for a terrific book already, the poetry is beautiful, as anyone familiar with Chattarji’s and Naïr’s previous works will already know. Also adding to the design is the fact that the book is a tête-bêche, namely, it can be flipped, turned around and opened from either end. One side is Paris to Mumbai, that is to say, Nair starting the conversation, and the other is Mumbai to Paris with Chattarji’s beginning. The poems flow, from a long, tender section on terrorism in both cities that made me want to cry, to observing commuters, thoughts on the route, meditations, all things you might think about as you sit by a train window and watch the world go by.


December 12, 1911, the Coronation Durbar, Delhi. The announcement by the Emperor George V, right at the end of his speech: The capital of India was going to be moved from Calcutta to Delhi. And so began the making of the city, according to Swapna Liddle’s comprehensive book Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi . The book is small, just 157 pages before the bibliography begins, and a lot of space is taken up by old photographs and maps of Delhi as it used to be. In fact, it could almost be a coffee table book, but is instead a slim, smart hardback, designed to sit on your shelves modestly. But Liddle (whose book Delhi: 14 Historical Walks I lend to all my foreign visitors and use extensively myself) knows how to tell a story about origins without making it too dry. Interspersed with stories of how Lutyens designed the place are anecdotes that will charm you. My favourite one involves the meaning of Pandara Road’s name. It remained a mystery until 1942, when it was finally revealed that it was supposed to be called Pandava Road and someone mistook the ‘v’ for a lower case ‘r’. Even if you’re not from Delhi, I’d recommend reading it, just to know what the country was like when this city was being made.


Connaught Place and the Making of New Delhi; Swapna Liddle; Speaking Tiger; Non-Fiction; ₹499




Partition stories are difficult to hear at the best of times, but Witness To Life & Freedom, a collection of photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s photos of India for Life magazine in 1947-48, brings that terrible time to life. You might remember Bourke-White from the film Gandhi , where she was played by Candice Bergen, but that small bit in the movie has nothing on Bourke-White’s actual life.


Witness to Life & Freedom: Margaret Bourke-White in India and Pakistan; Pramod Kapoor; Roli Books; Non-fiction; ₹595

This volume, brought out by Roli Books in 2010, has a somewhat clunky but informative foreword by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, which begins with a startling anecdote about how her parents agreed to only have sex when they wanted children. Plus, there’s the whole story about her supposed affair/deep friendship with Frank Moraes, the late poet Dom Moraes’s father. But scandalous details aside, her photos in this lovely book are so alive, they could have been taken yesterday on an iPhone camera. They’re gory too, dead bodies abound in black-and-white. But most of all, there’s a sense of falling through time into this critical period in India’s history. Seeing what’s gone by is a good reminder to not repeat the past as well.



Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan


Meenakshi reddy madhavan is the author of seven books, the latest being The One Who Had Two Lives ;

Twitter @reddymadhavan