Favourites List : Empires, weddings & Mary Poppins edition

This past weekend I finally got to go inside the Houses of Parliament for a guided tour, and it was great! Our guide, Liz Rubestein, was engaging, full of trivia about the legislative process, and fun to boot. They don’t let you take pictures inside, but it felt oddly familiar, from both the Beeb and watching House of Cards (the original, British version). It’s well worth the ticket price, if only for all the potential answers to pub-quiz questions; if you’re in London this summer, check it out.

Interesting reads

1. Nellie Bly

Perhaps best known for beating Phileas Fogg’s (fictional) record for circumnavigating the globe–she did it in under 73 days–Nellie Bly pioneered investigative journalism at the turn of the century. I first heard about her on this episode of the West Wing (as you can tell, I love political procedural dramas), and, curiosity piqued, did some more research. In 1887 she famously had herself committed to a mental institution for 10 days so that she could write about the horrific conditions that inmates faced.

Brain Pickings’ lovely tribute to Nellie Bly includes some beautiful illustrations, and extracts from a letter in which she responds to a correspondent who asks, patronisingly, “what girls are good for”.

2. Running away to get married

Eloping in the US (outside of Vegas) or UK seems like it’s usually a rather civilised affair. One gives notice to the civil registrar who publishes the banns. On the appointed date, all a couple needs to do is to show up at the office, recite some vows (if they’d like), sign papers, and then head off to brunch. In India, eloping is usually a much more clandestine affair, fraught with whispered plans, disapproving families, anxiety and the looming possibility of terrible fates.

Neha Dixit takes a long look at the legal underpinnings of the institution of marriage in India, particularly the Special Marriages Act, which governs marriages between two people who do not share a religion, or who–for whatever reason– do not want to get married under religion-based laws. For many couples who are running away to get married, the complexity and cost associated with the SMA means that they opt for a quickie conversion (of one or both partners) and an Arya Samaj or Muslim wedding. However, as always in India, this carries the risk of inflaming what should just be two sets of unhappy families into two warring communities. This is one of the pieces of legislation that could be ripe for reform under the new government, which has promised a Uniform Civil Code–although with a base that is getting increasingly worked up about a purported love jihad, I can’t imagine marrying for love is likely to become easier.

3. The man who turned the Bay of Bengal into a lake

This year marks the 1,000th anniversary of the ascension of Rajendra Chola I to the throne of the Imperial Chola empire. Amid all the debate about the Indianisation of our education system, I’ve been struggling to remember much mention of southern empires anywhere in our NCERT textbooks. I do remember, however, getting into a debate (rather, and argument) with some friends in business school who simply refused to believe that there even existed a South Indian empire that stretched far and wide.

If you don’t know much about Rajendra Chola, Ajith Kumar’s blog has a nice overview of the empire he built, which ranged as far east as Indonesia, and as far north as Bengal. His navy (part of an army that is estimated to have included 1.5m soldiers, compared with the 1.1m soldiers who serve in today’s Indian army) had exclusive control of the Bay of Bengal, which led it to be termed the Chola lake.

4. An imagined meeting between Mary Poppins and the Penguin

One evening at one of his dinner parties, after hours spent sipping absinthe, The Penguin ran up to the roof of his building, opened up his large black umbrella, and leapt off into the air. As he coasted to the ground, he hollered out lines from Blake, stuff about grabbing life by the fat of its stomach and giving it a twist. He was that crazy. He was that bursting with life.

5. The Homophone Addenda

“Our hour has come,” proclaim the militant homophones. “We are discrete but no longer discreet.” They threaten to uproot heteronymativity.

Satirises this story, which is almost too funny to believe. Plus this comment.

Bits, bobs & funnies

Ever fancied cooking with molten lava?

A nostalgia-inducing tribute to classic Indian ads.

This two-minute play from The Neo-Futurists is just brilliant.


The Favourites List is a somewhat irregular (usually weekly) roundup of things I’ve enjoyed reading. Expect some fiction, long-form writing, travel, food, technology. I usually link to free content, but occasionally to items behind a paywall (because I think paying for quality content is awesome!).

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