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Good reading on the menu

The compilation of articles from one of the Financial Times most popular columns keeps the reader engaged at every turn

Arundhuti Dasgupta  |  Mumbai 

Characters, like eels, are slippery beings. They have a nasty tendency to slip between the words used to pin them down to the margins of a page. Ask any writer, painter or anthropologist and they will tell you that people make for difficult subjects. It takes special insight to read them without prejudice and gifted craftsmanship to paint their portrait - be it with words or a brush. A missed stroke or an exaggerated phrase can make even the most interesting people duller than ditch water or, worse, cast them in a mould not their own. This book, a collection of 52 lunches with the Financial Times, is remarkable for the way it stays true to the characters, blemishes and all, and keeps the reader engaged in every chapter.

The "Lunch with the FT" column debuted in 1994 and has made 800 appearances since then. The book is a selection of the best. It is not only a pastiche of people stories, but also a set of "portraits that chart the evolution and revolutions of global society," as John Ridding, CEO, Financial Times, writes in his foreword to Lunch with the FT: The interviews are interesting, delightful in the titbits they serve up about the people covered and reveal about the nature of humanity at large.

Take, for instance, the first interview in the book, with Martin Amis ("Literary Lion" by Lionel Barber). A few sentences into the column and we see the picture of the man whose words have thrilled many come sharply into focus. "An uncertain handshake and a furrowed brow" tell you as much about Mr Amis as the way he orders his food: roast quail, a glass of Chardonnay and "reluctantly, a green salad".

The one with Steve Wozniak is as illuminating. Many would know about his gadget fetish, his run-ins with Steve Jobs and the boundless energy that seems to follow him wherever he goes. But in "The Wizardry of Woz" by Richard Waters, the "explosion of explanation" used to describe the way Mr Wozniak speaks makes "the other half of the Apple myth" human.

Some conversations offer us a glimpse into history through the eyes of the people who were part of its making. Jimmy Carter, for instance, when he says, "I kept our nation at peace. We never dropped a bomb, we never launched a missile", offers a perspective into a presidency often criticised for doing nothing. Vaclav Havel ("The Playwright Who Became President" by Stefan Wagstyl) aptly describes the post-communist world. He calls it a "two-faced trend: on the one hand it brings people thousands of advantages and joys and pleasures; on the other it is endangering the human race". Imran Khan's interview ("Cricket Seems So Small and Far Away" by Edward Luce) shows us a side to the man usually invisible in public portraits. "In my first Test match I thought I was going to get 100 runs and 10 wickets. If I thought I would get nowhere in politics I wouldn't bother." His confidence is charming.

The book has plenty of star power. Michael Caine, Angelina Jolie, Sean "P Diddy" Combs, George Soros, Jeff Bezos, Angela Merkel share page space in this collection. They are funny and irreverent and entertaining. Michael Caine ("I Can Never Pour These Bleedin' Things" by Peter Aspden), a Google freak, makes the reader smile when he says that he googled "how to garden" for his gardener, who didn't know much about gardening.

The lunches are as much about the people as about the nations and cultures they belong to and the events that they have been part of. As Lionel Barber, editor of the book and of the Financial Times, writes in the introduction, "We have an ABC (Africans, Brazilians, Chinese) of prominent persons which stretches all the way to Z (Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai)…."

The people featured span the continents, and the chapters are like stories unfolding in a global cafeteria where civilisations clash, bend and sometimes blend into a messy brew. The lunch with Chinese newspaper magnate Shaw-Lan Wang ("It's True, I Am a Woman" by David Pilling) has Madame Wang declare, "I always wear my Chinese dress. I am not Japanese. This is a Chinese qipao. It is not a kimono." The interview with Yuko Tojo ("Let Sleeping Gods Lie" by David Pilling), grand-daughter of executed Japanese wartime prime minister Hideki Tojo, brings out her biases when she dismisses the author's views on the Nanking massacre as Chinese fabrications. Tojo's interview is delightful not just for the manner in which she tells off the interviewer, but also for the surprise she springs on him and readers by bringing her grandfather's remains to lunch in Tokyo.

The interviews are a mix of ideas, twists of fate, quirks and acid-tongued reflections of interviewers and interviewees. Regular readers of the "Lunch with the FT" column will treasure this volume. Those who do not follow the column will find the menu tantalising.

Penguin India
338 pages; Rs 799

First Published: Thu, April 18 2013. 21:25 IST