Experiencing home away from home

No matter how many years you live outside your country, there are times when a wave of homesickness washes over you. You just can’t stop reminiscing about home, the streets that you are so familiar with, the neighborhood shops, the walk back home from work or school under the shade of leafy trees, the little cozy café where you stopped by to pick up a sweet treat, known faces of neighbors, the sound of a language that is commonly spoken on the streets and in homes– in my case Tamil, and last but not the least, authentic food that your palate craves for. No matter how authentic an Indian restaurant claims to be on foreign soil, it just doesn’t re-create the same tastes that you savor back home.

So it was one of those times when I was indulging in sweet memories of my hometown Chennai that I walked into this little unassuming restaurant on Serangoon Road, bang opposite the Perumal Koil in what can be called the Little India precinct of Singapore. The sign-board read ‘Sri Lukshmi Narasmihan Restaurant’ and a peek from outside only revealed a row of wooden tables and chairs. Nothing fancy. Nothing to rave about. But a step inside and the experience that followed is something that will stay with me forever. For the sixty minutes that I spent there, I almost forgot that I was in Oriental Singapore.

It was a hot sweltering day when I swung the restaurant door open at 11:00am to step in for a quick bite and for some restful time. It was early in the day for Indians to be having lunch and so the restaurant was almost empty save two or three tables that were occupied by other customers like me. Unlike the unrelenting heat that beat upon you outdoors, it was cool inside and the restaurant was well-lit by rows of tube lights affixed on the ceiling. The sound of devotional chants playing in the background calmed my senses within minutes. I noticed that the walls were adorned with beautiful traditional Tanjore paintings, aka Thanjavur Oviyam; vividly and richly colored figurines of Hindu Gods and Goddess such as Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Hanuman, and Lord Krishna.  I placed my order and while I waited for my food to arrive I just soaked in the ambience.

As I sat there, I was reminded of my Chennai days when I was embraced with coolness as soon as I set foot in my home after having traveled in the afternoon heat of the city. I wonder if you have ever felt that. A sense of relief as you step inside your home; and you wonder how it is that your home is cool and shady while it is blistering hot outside. The devotional chants that were playing reminded me of the temple that was just a stone’s throw away from where I used to live in Chennai. It reminded me of all my South Indian friends’ homes and of the erstwhile Brahmin neighborhoods. And the food? Well what do I say…Have you ever tasted temple food? It’s vegetarian, tasty, simple, and freshly cooked. It’s simply lip-smacking delicious. That is what the cooks at Sri Lukshmi Narasimhan replicate be it their pongal, uppma, dosai, idlly, oothapam,vadai, sambar-rice, or the full-blown South Indian meal served up in a banana leaf lined thali. As I savored my chappati plate – two soft chappatis served with a cup of wholesome dal, and a lightly spiced sabzi – I couldn’t help noticing the duo at the adjacent table. A lady in her 40s with her mum in her 60s deeply engaged in a conversation in Tamil peppered with English.  It was easy to discern their Tam Brahm descent by the way they spoke and I must unabashedly admit that I enjoyed listening to them and watching the mami relish her oothapam.  I almost felt like I was in a Sangeetha Bhavan  or Ananda Bhavan in Chennai.

I am no coffee addict but I simply couldn’t resist ordering a filter coffee that day. It came in the tumbler and dabara and as I poured it back and forth till it was of sipping temperature I thought to myself, “Now this is the real thing; not some hazelnut or butterscotch flavored frappe, latte, mocha in the name of coffee.” I don’t know what it is about South Indian filter coffee…maybe it’s the coffee beans, maybe it’s the chicory, maybe it’s the tumbler and dabara or maybe it’s just the nostalgia that comes with it….

Having tended to my bout of home-sickness for the day, my tryst with Lukshmi Narasimhan ended with a smile on my face, a spring in my step, and a lightsome heart.

It was not just about food. It was about re-creating the feeling of home away from home.

PS: If you are visiting Lukshmi Narasimhan, the perfect time is during lunch on week-days. It’s quiet and service is quick. It’s pretty crowded at dinner time and be prepared for a longer waiting time for food and a noisy atmosphere on weekends. But believe me, it’s totally worth it. Any south Indian dish you order will be good, so just go ahead and indulge your cravings. A few of my favorites are the mini tiffin (a sizable idly, a medu vadai, a masala dosai, a ladleful of pongal laced with ghee and a serving of tea/coffee/buttermilk), rice/chappati meal (rice/chappati, papad, south indian veggies, rasam, sweet and maybe I’m missing a few more items), and the Andhra spicy dosai (a dosai with some super spicy chutney or podi spread inside).  The average cost for two people is about S$20.

Maid in India

Having a maid in India is considered commonplace. It is one of the few luxuries that Indians living abroad often have to miss out on. Of course, some of us NRI junta do opt for household helpers, paying them by the hour, but there is no denying that we miss the all-rounder bai who we were so used to back home in India. However, like everything else is modern India, the maid culture too has undergone sea change. With every visit to my hometown in India, I am more and more convinced that the bai is comparable to a shaadi ka ladoo –  jo khaye who bhi pachtaye aur joh na khaye who bhi pachtaye. This essentially means: damned if you do (in this case hiring a bai) and damned if you don’t. Cheesy as it sounds, it’s true.

There was a time when maids in India were extensions of the family. They stuck to serving one household for years and were more than happy with their salary and everyday meals. Back then we used to call them ayahs or aimas and there was no embarrassment surrounding the terminology. In fact the meaning of ayah is “a nursemaid who looks after children”. What can be so bad about that? But today we refrain from using such terms and have instead moved to more politically correct ones such as “helper” or “domestic help”. Sadly, the change in terminology has brought about a concurrent change in attitude amongst the bai log. Here is a quick look at what has changed over the years.

One is enough versus No one can serve just one

In the days of yore maids often served one household; at best two. I remember our ayah who used to click the gate open at 6:00 am and left only at 5:00 pm. It doesn’t mean that she was slogging all through the day. Rather, she went about the household chores at a leisurely pace; chit chatted (with us the kids, with mom, with the neighbor’s maid, with the dhobi and basically all and sundry) in between and took tea-breaks as well a lunch break. Compare that with today’s maid who rushes into the house as if there were a hurricane at her heels and rushes out like she has a train to catch. The ‘stick to one house’ mantra has changed into ‘visit as many households as you can’. Before you can even realize it, she has one leg out of the door. I understand that maids are not insular from the woes of inflation, but that doesn’t call for flitting from house to house and hurried name sake cleaning.

No chore is unwelcome versus only few chores are welcome

I remember ayah used to faithfully wash the aangan every morning and draw beautiful kolam designs with rice flour not because it was part of her household duties but because she wanted to. When mum used to occasionally run out of an ingredient or vegetable, ayah would readily agree to walk up to the store and get it for her. When grandma had aching muscles, ayah never cringed from massaging her legs. The plea for extra help when guests were arriving or when festivals were round the corner was never turned down. Try asking the modern day avatar of a maid if she can throw in a helping hand occasionally and you will be met with a taut reply which more often than not is a flat refusal or a vague non-committal response peppered with muttering and accompanied with a change of facial expression. It would make you wonder why you had to belittle yourself by asking in the first place.

Steadfast loyalty versus highly volatile loyalty

Twenty years back, maids were loyal to their employers and hardly would you come across a maid switching loyalties for the greed of a few extra bucks. Our maid found comfort in knowing that we would tide her through moments of difficulty. In fact, ayah used to seek financial advice from my mom. Mom even helped her open a savings bank account so she could safeguard her hard-earned money from her drunkard son and greedy son-in-law. The call from other houses in the neighborhood was usually turned down and what’s more, we were even informed about the attempts made to poach our maid. Note that by letting out these secrets, the intention of our maid was not to suggest that she was in demand or that we should consider raising her salary. But today, maids find the lure of a hundred bucks too irresistible an offer to pass up. There is no telling when a maid will up and leave today. Loyalty is short-lived to merely a few days. Some leave within a few days of joining while some cleverly wait until pay-day. Once the monthly salary is in hand, the other hand goes up to wave goodbye. No question of helping find a replacement, no apologies, no regret for the inconvenience caused; nothing. The equation is simple. If you are willing to match the offer, she may consider sticking around. No guarantee period though. It’s almost like attending an auction where the highest bidder wins the maid for the month, only to be rebutted by a repeat auction in the subsequent month. You can be sure of the disloyalty quotient going up exactly when you have guests arriving or a family function or sick kids or ailing grandparents. It’s understandable that everyone aspires for a higher salary but sometimes maids don’t realize that they are being penny wise, pound foolish.

Negotiable salaries versus fixed rate pay

As an employer, it is natural for you to have the upper hand while deciding things such benefits (free meals, days off, etc.) and compensation. That was the case circa 1980 or 1990 even. Tune in to 2011 and you will find a stark reversal. Maids do the interviewing and fixing of pay while employers flounder under scrutiny. Some commonly asked interview questions that employers need to brace themselves for are:

  • How many members in the family?
  • Do you a washing machine?
  • Have you bought a mop-stick?
  • How many rooms in the house?
  • How often do you mop?

It is common for the maid to undertake a tour of the house to assess how ridiculously high she can go while quoting her non-negotiable salary. Five hundred to six hundred rupees is the standard norm for each piece of work. Terms and conditions apply. Fine print: No miscellaneous chores will be entertained; timing is subject to change; paid leave will be taken without any notice; no obligation to answer the employer or keep the employer informed of any leave of absence; mood swings to be tolerated; frequent threats of leaving will be made; and last but not the least no questions to be asked. As an employer you can attempt to negotiate (be prepared to lose a little bit of self-respect in the process) or meekly comply or simply let go and wait for another one to come by.

Sigh. Such are the vagaries of India’s maid culture. We crib about them, we dedicate an entire post on our blogs to them; yet we cannot do without them. Let’s face it, household work is an unappealing and thankless job. Idiosyncrasies aside, the maid is our only saving grace. So put up with the eccentricities or clean up your own mess. Well, looks like most households in India would much rather put up with the bai than deal with her permanent absence.

Note: The situations described above are true and drawn from my real-life experiences. At the same time, I have the utmost respect for helpers and maids. I appreciate their efforts in making our lives easier and I’m sure they have their own stories to tell. I guess it depends on which side of the bridge you are standing on. The intention of this post is not to make any generalizations, put down a service sector, or hurt anyone’s feelings. 

Masked

Totem poles and wooden masks no longer suggest tribal villages but fashionable drawing rooms in New York and Paris – Mason Cooley

My drawing room certainly doesn’t belong to the league of fashionable New York or Parisian ones; nevertheless, these masks are part of my wall art at home. I personally think that masks are a wonderful style statement and add character to wall space. They are shrouded in mysteriousness and have the uncanny ability to draw your attention towards them. You either like masks or dislike them.

The two brown ones are wooden dot masks from Bali while the one in the center is an aboriginal dot mask from Australia. This photograph was taken during sunset in natural light, which explains the shadow of my floral window curtain on the wall.

The dying art of letter writing

I love technology and what it has done for the human race. As clichéd as it sounds, technology has truly shrunk the world into global village. There are no borders and there are no distances. The power of technology is such that it has even redefined the concept of time.

Most of us live in far flung corners of the world. Cousins in America, friends in Australia, parents in Asia and I guess you get the drift. I have no doubt in my mind that each of us marvels at how easy it is to communicate with each other. Thoughts traverse distances in a matter of micro milli seconds, all thanks to email. It’s fast, efficient, instantaneous, convenient and inexpensive. Emails are all of this and more. But unfortunately, the rise of the email has led to the demise of an age-old art; the art of letter writing. So now you’re probably thinking what all the hoo haa is about. What I’ve said is after all a known fact and nothing to shout aloud from the rooftops. The email is a practical form of communication and that’s that. Agreed, there is no outweighing the advantages of sending and receiving mail electronically but having said that, I must admit that I miss writing and receiving hand-written letters.

The charm of finding a hand-written letter nestled inside an envelope in the post-box or at the doorstep is something else altogether. Born in the 70s, I fortunately escaped the assault of technology in my early years unlike present day kids. I consider myself lucky to have fond memories of letter-writing. Will my kids be as fortunate? I really don’t know.

There are so many aspects to writing a letter; from choosing letter paper, to thinking about what to write, to articulating those thoughts, to sealing the letter, to dropping it in the right red letter box, to waiting for a reply.

A trip down memory lane tells me that my affair with letter writing began when I was very young. It all began when my aunt who used to live another city dropped me a short letter one day. I was proud to receive an envelope addressed only to me and not as D/O so and so. Although I don’t remember the exact content of those letters, I do remember looking forward to receiving them. I sometimes used to find snippets that aunt used to cut out from the newspaper enclosed along with the letters; a cartoon strip, a puzzle, a word building game or a picture to color. Sometimes there were friendly pieces of advice as well. Of course, the moment I received the letter I was eager to reply. So out came the letter paper. I vividly remember choosing my letter paper and pads from Chennai’s most famous book and stationary store ‘Landmark’. I was particularly drawn to the Chimanlal designs as they were traditional, bright, and attractive. A motif of a mango on pristine white paper, a khadi print against a yellow background, a fiery red paper with golden colored Indian prints, and a spray of purple flowers along the length of the paper were some of the letter sets that I had collected.

Once I had selected the paper, I used to run up to mom and dad and ask them to help me draft the letter. I especially recall dad explaining to me that I should begin the letter with Dear so and so; that I should first enquire about their well-being. “I hope this letter finds you in the pink of health” is a phrase that I will never ever forget. That was my standard opening line for all letters that I wrote. And then of course the rest of the letter would follow. I used to end with conveying my regards to the other members of the recipient’s family and sign off with love.

Once the envelope was sealed, I used to wait until I could post the letter so that it could reach its final destination. Luckily, there was a red post letter box just down my street. An occasional trip to the dark and cool post-office meant I could read the names of the states on the differently colored boxes and drop my envelope into the ones marked Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and so on.

As I grew older, the desire to convey my thoughts on various subjects took precedence over the act of writing and posting a letter. When my grandpa was visiting my uncle in the United States I wrote him a letter expressing my thoughts on life, war, books that I had read and even everyday mundane activities. He remembered the letter for years to come. If I had sent him an email, would he have been as touched? I hardly think so.

That’s what’s special about hand-written letters. Letter writing offers pleasure not only to the sender but also to the recipient. In other words, the act of receiving a letter is as enjoyable as writing one. As I write this blog, a letter that was written to me by my parents five years back when I got married and moved out of country lies carefully folded in the  top draw of my writing desk. It is the only letter they have written to me so far and every time I read it, I find myself connected to them in an inexplicable sort of way. When I read the letter it feels like I can almost hear their voices. The cursive crawl of dad’s beautiful handwriting and mom’s miniscule writing brings a smile to my face. The letter is more precious than any material gift they have given me. The advice it carries is invaluable. The words are soothing and comforting. The letter is my panacea in those moments of darkness. An email or a phone call simply does not replicate the experience.

I have never seen my dad’s father but he has left his legacy behind in a letter written by him in 1959 to my father who was on a school trip when he was 15 years old.

Twenty years down the lane, will I ever pull out or even remember an email that I have archived? Will an email become a legacy? Will an old time email evoke the same emotions as a hand written letter would? Will we hang on to an email as a keepsake? I think we know the answers.

The advent of the communications revolution has sounded the death knell of the art of letter writing. – My dad.

 

India’s health obsession

There was a time when having a paunch was considered a sign of wellness and prosperity in India. However, today it only attracts unapproving glances, is a symbol of an unhealthy lifestyle and has become a cause of concern in many urban Indian households.

Indians have long been insulated from the concept of a healthy lifestyle, which usually encompasses a well-balanced diet and a regular exercise regime. Most of us Indians have grown up on a diet rich in fat, spices, and carbohydrates. We may be spared of the ‘fries and ice-cream’ culture but our samosas, mithai, doasas, puris and murukkus are packed with enough calories to last us a lifetime.

My grandmother often used to lament that she grew up healthy and strong thanks to the ghee she was generously fed upon as a child. Needless to say she used to click her tongue disapprovingly and tut tut at my mother’s frugalness in using oil in her day-to-day cooking. I tried explaining to her that she could afford to follow Lord Krishna’s footsteps in slurping a cup full of ghee or feasting upon a pot full of butter and malai simply because she managed to burn all those calories. What with drawing water from the well every day to beating the life out of a cartload of clothes to sweeping the aangan to getting down on all fours and mopping the floors clean. Hell, where was one supposed to get all the energy from for all these chores if not from ghee, butter and malai? Unfortunately, this formula cannot be applied to today’s generation that is trapped in desk-bound jobs and a sedentary lifestyle.

Times are changing. Indians are waking up and smelling the coffee. They are conscious of what they eat, how they eat, and when they eat. Healthy diets and exercise seem to have turned into a national obsession and the health and wellness industry that is more than robust is raking in the moolah.

Rujuta Diwekar’s book ‘Don’t Lose Your Mind, Lose Your Weight’ flew off the shelves like it were a limited edition print. Following suit is wellness expert Namita Jain with her latest offering ‘The Four Week Countdown Diet’. Actress Kareena Kapoor is busy launching fitness books while Bispasha Basu decided to have her share of the pie by launching her fitness video, ‘The Fit And The Fabulous’. Weight and health obsessed youth are avidly surfing health and wellness blogs. Nutritionists have turned into celebrities and there is a hot demand for personal dietitians who can dish out customized diets for each body type. A few years ago, “gymming” was the in thing for staying in shape. It was all about weights and cardio and what not. But now, fitness chasers find comfort in hipper workouts such as aerobics, pilates, belly dancing, tai chi, yoga, and power yoga! Ayurvedic centers that hold the promise of a “truly authentic experience” are mushrooming across the country. Tranquil spas with a zen like atmosphere are seeing more visitors seeking a rejuvenation package walk through their doors and a monthly spa appointment has become as basic as visiting the salon for a facial. Supermarkets are stocking up on organic products and namkeen shops are advertising oil-free snacks in a bid to reach out to the every discerning consumer. Meenaksi Ammal’s ‘Samithu Paru’ that was once considered the gospel for young brides is now replaced by a pack of Sanjeev Kapoor’s zero-oil cookbooks. The city edition of any newspaper is filled with front page advertisements of slimming centers that promise to transform you from fat to thin within weeks. Dinner table conversations center on calories and diets and all that relatives and friends seem notice is your weight, the increase of decrease of it. Now, if these aren’t warning signs of a health-obsessed nation, then what is?

While all this preoccupation about healthy diets, fat busting exercises and weight loss is good for the “healthy” Indian, the change for some reason just doesn’t seem real. Perhaps I should use the term genuine. The point is that switching to a healthier lifestyle seems to have become a fad in modern-day India. The motivation behind the sweeping change that appears to have gripped most Indian households seems to stem from social pressures rather than a physical need to do so. There is nothing wrong in wanting to shed those extra kilos; but obsessing about it because you want to fit into that black party dress or because you want to shut off unwelcome comments from insensitive people simply doesn’t make sense.

Unfortunately or fortunately, the modern day Indian is heavily shaped by societal pressure. The trend is to wear dresses, skirts, blouses, or trousers that are more flattering to one’s figure. The salwar kameez or sari that does a wonderful job of hiding those extra layers of fat is not the preferred choice of clothing for most young women. Men too are sweating it out to fit into slim tees and slacks that show off their well-toned bodies. I suppose Kareena Kapoor’s size zero story is also doing its fair share in inspiring youngsters into acquiring an hour-glass figure. The end result is a fixation that is centered on losing weight, following a healthy diet and joining some form of group physical activity.

Another reason as to why some people are choosing the healthier path to life is that they want to feel good about it. That’s perfectly fine too. But most often than not, it is a half-baked attempt and they fool themselves into thinking that they are followers of a healthy lifestyle. Here’s a simple example that never fails to amuse me. Walk into any Saravan Bhavan or Sangeeta Restaurant outlet in Chennai for an early morning breakfast. You will find uncles, aunties, and even young men and women in their jogging attire cackling around a table laden with anything but healthy food. They walk along Marina Beach and huff and puff in their neighborhood streets or parks, and once they are satisfied that they have completed their ‘morning walk’ they head to the nearest idly/dosa joint and unabashedly order deep fried crispy medhu vadas, ghee infused sambar, and oil laden dosas. A glass of “fresh” mosambi juice with two spoonfuls of sugar seals the deal. Of course they then go back to picking and choosing what they eat during the rest of the day; all in the name of adopting a healthy lifestyle. And then we have our Gen X and Gen Y who booze all night, smoke like chimneys and help themselves to unhealthy pub food, only to hit the gym or embrace a detox diet the next day.

Until now India was grappling with the fair skin obsession. Well, I guess people have had enough of the ‘Fair and Lovely’ fixation and are now busying themselves with the new-age health revolution. It isn’t for nothing that Rujuta Diwekar titled her second book as ‘Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha’. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all out for a healthier life. There is no denying that a healthier life is a better life. But a health obsessed life is absolutely no life! There is a thin line that differentiates a healthy lifestyle and a health obsessed lifestyle. The question is: Do we know the difference?

There’s lots of people in this world who spend so much time watching their health that they haven’t the time to enjoy it. – Josh Billings

Good Morning Vietnam

Good morning Vietnam! The 1987 film starring Robin Williams was all I knew about Vietnam. But having visited Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), over Christmas last year, my vision and knowledge of this highly underrated country has been enriched and widened. Located in the southeastern region of Vietnam, Saigon can be best described as an eclectic mix of the old and new. It is a fast growing commercial center pulsating with life and energy. Here’s my take on Saigon and what it meant to me.

One of my first experiences of Saigon as I left the airport was the city’s traffic. For me, it was almost like a homecoming. Akin to India’s chaotic road traffic, Saigon’s roads are a sight to behold. Long winding lanes of motorbikes, bumper-to-bumper traffic, cyclos and cyclists meandering through the maze, cars honking, drivers screaming, sudden jolts and brakes and that’s Saigon’s infamous traffic for you. The good thing about Ho Chi Minh’s chock-a-block traffic is that it gave me ample time to connect with the city’s character and its varied sights and sounds. It was interesting to watch the motorcyclists cleverly navigate through the sea of vehicles and how footpaths turned into motorbike lanes. I saw nondescript little wooden shops selling textiles seated right next to a glitzy mall with flashing neon signboards and glass facades; gourmet restaurants just a few yards away from the street-side pho shops; and government buildings in peaceful coexistence with commercial complexes. Having lived in India for over 25 years these images weren’t out of the ordinary for me, but it was certainly a stark contrast from the traffic free, super clean, and highly organized city of Singapore, which is where I currently live.

There are several things to see in Saigon. You can embark on the War Trail and visit the war museum, cu chi tunnels, and the reunification palace or you can head out of city and take a canal boat ride on the legendary Mekong River. If you have a penchant for pagodas, there are several temples you could visit in the city or you could hop over to Notre Dame Cathedral. You can shop for local handicrafts, textiles, and gourmet food products or you could sit back and enjoy a water puppetry show.  So here’s what was on my itinerary.

Based on research and hearsay, the Reunification Palace seemed to be a “must-see” destination and that was where I was headed on the first day of my Vietnam vacation. Apparently, the Palace is the most important historic landmark in Saigon as it marked the reunification of North and South Vietnam.  After the French left Vietnam, the country was split into North Vietnam, controlled by the communists, and South Vietnam controlled by US-backed Vietnamese leaders. In 1975 the North Vietnamese army tanks crashed through the gates of the palace, marking the fall of the South Vietnamese government and well in a sense, the fall of Saigon; hence the term reunification palace. Given that the palace was the South Vietnam President’s residence and workplace during the American-Vietnam war you will find conference rooms, meeting rooms, entertainment lounges, a library, the palace kitchen, and of course war command rooms. It was like being in a time machine where time stood still. The furniture and artifacts were of a bygone era and you could almost picture the scenes of that period. The best part of the palace tour was the tunnels in the basement, which had previously served as the President’s war command station. Telecommunication equipment, maps, and projectors have all been preserved and it’s almost eerie to walk through those dark corridors.

The second hop over was the War Remnants Museum. Now this is certainly not a place for the faint hearted. The museum has exhibited proof of the Vietnam War and its horrific consequences. There are not only remnants of artillery, tanks, arms and ammunition but also gruesome pictures of war crimes meted out by American soldiers against Vietnamese civilians. The most profound exhibits were a series of photographs depicting the horrid consequences of Agent Orange. Agent Orange was a toxic dioxin used by the US military forces to wipe out forest cover that helped the enemy to hide.  However, the herbicide did more damage than that. It caused birth deformities amongst the Vietnamese civilians and the photographs in the War Remnants museum are testimony to the terrible consequences of the war.

After the War Remnants Museum I didn’t have an appetite left for visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is usually popular amongst the tourists. Instead, I opted for a more pleasant, cultural, and entertaining experience – the Vietnamese water puppet show. Water puppetry is more widespread in Hanoi than in Saigon, but there are a few places that stage the water puppetry show to cater to the Ho Chi Minh tourists. Having read mixed reviews about the water puppetry show I wasn’t sure as to what to expect. But I was delighted beyond belief! The water puppetry show is one of the most unique cultural shows that I have ever seen. Puppeteers stand behind a screen in a waist deep pool of water and control the wooden lacquered puppets with bamboo rods. None of this is visible to the audience and it appears like the puppets are floating on water. The performance is accompanied by music rendered by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra. Although the performance is delivered in Vietnamese, it is easy to understand the story. The most common themes center on day-to-day rural living including fishing, reaping a harvest, attending a royal procession, watching dragons fight, etc. This is a must-see if you are visiting Vietnam.

No trip is complete for me if it does not include shopping.  I’m not a chronic shopaholic but I just love picking out souvenirs and artifacts for my home from every place I visit. The Ben Thanh Market in downtown Saigon is the one-stop place for souvenirs and knick-knacks. The market sells local handicrafts such as figurines of Vietnamese women in the traditional “au dai” costume and conical hat, metal and cane representations of the famous cyclo (a cross between a bicycle and a trishaw), lacquered boxes and vases in the most vibrant hues, paintings of rural Vietnamese life in muted tones, silk handbags with colorfully embroidered motifs, and eclectic hand-made jewelry. You will also find a section dedicated to flowers, fruits, ceramic ware, and food.  Walking through the narrow aisles of the cool market one can’t help but take in the aroma of coffee beans that wafts through the air. A coffee kit makes the perfect take-home gift and you can ask coffee sellers in the market for any quantity of coffee that you wish to take home with you. Coconut candy, preserved fruits, and tangy tamarind sweets are also one-of-a-kind and worth a try.

If you are looking for high fashion and off-beat stores then a stroll down Dhong Khoi is worth your time. Dhong Khoi is a shopping strip in Downtown Ho Chi Minh and houses some of the top Vietnamese fashion labels. Tastefully done up stores sport very classy silk scarves, blouses and au dais while some stores stock the most unusual and  captivating works of art.

I wouldn’t be doing justice to Saigon if I didn’t mention the wonderful Vietnamese cuisine that I had the pleasure of sampling while I was there. If you love beef and pork then you will love Vietnam. Beef is almost found in every dish from noodles (also known as pho) to rice. There are various types of restaurants, eateries, and cafes in Ho Chi Minh and there is no dearth of choice for foodies. Quirky cafes are aplenty and street side pho stalls are highly popular with the locals. During lunch hour, it is a common sight to see Ho Chi Minh’s corporate executives with rolled up sleeves, squatting on a small stool in front of a low table on the pavement, slurping up piping hot bowls of pho. Alternatively, they head to the nearest Pho 24 outlet for their steamy bowl of noodles. Pho 24 is a popular local fast food chain that serves nothing but noodles of various types. As for me, I headed to Lemon Grass and Vietnam House. Both the restaurants serve excellent Vietnamese fare and don’t cause a dent in your wallet. The ambiance is wonderful and the food is sumptuous. Vietnamese fried rice is light and tasty and pairs well with silky tofu in soy sauce. The vegetarian noodles were quite novel and the banana fritters and coconut ice cream whets your appetite for more. The perfect end to a hearty meal is a cup of Vietnamese coffee, which consists of a dollop of condensed milk topped with freshly brewed coffee.

Saigon is a wonderful, bustling, and pulsating city. It brings to mind evocative images whether it is svelte Vietnamese women in au dais’, elderly ladies in conical hats peddling wares, street side pho shops, or a cyclo trudging along a cramped and crowded alley. You just can’t get enough of the Saigon kick. 😉

Proud owner of a mortar and pestle

I love watching the Discovery travel and living channel. I am just drawn into their world of exotic locales, intriguing cultures and myriad food shows. Bobby Chin, Curtis Stone, Jamie Oliver, Kylie Kwong, Anthony Bourdain, and Nigella Lawson keep me engaged with their varied culinary skills. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not a huge fan of cooking. Neither is the kitchen is my favorite hangout and nor do I potter around trying out new recipes. In fact my kitchen setup is very basic – a few pots n pans, a wok, a pressure cooker, a mixer/grinder/blender, a food processor, a toaster, a sandwich maker, and a juicer (which I have used just once), some basic cutlery is all that you will find in my cooking space. While I do enjoy rustling up a meal I’m not as passionate as my TLC gurus. Yet, I am inexplicably drawn to their shows…and heavily influenced by them.

I’m not sure if it’s got to do with the way in which the shows are presented but it’s quite motivating and inspiring to watch Kylie stir fry finely shredded carrots, shallots and crisp cabbage in a rich and (seemingly) flavorful sauce or drool over Nigella’s desserts or feel refreshed by simply watching Jamie toss salad leaves, and cherry tomatoes with an olive oil dressing. I can’t help but pick up certain pointers on the techniques of chopping, grinding, frying while watching these chefs at work. And this is how I was drawn to the mortar and pestle – that simplistic looking primitive device. When I saw Kylie grind her Schezwan peppercorns or Bobby furiously pound garlic and shallots in the mortar and pestle I just wondered if it was a cook show gimmick or if there was any truth to their claim that it actually released the flavors of the ingredients.

Given that I’m a Gujarati the mortar and pestle was not alien to me. You will find it in every gujju home. The only difference is that it’s not made of granite or marble but is instead set in brass or steel – not too impressive looking for my liking. So when I had to run my own household I didn’t think much of owning it. I just used to pull out the mixie and get done with my grinding. However, the more I watched these chefs use the mortar and pestle, the more I was drawn to it. It reached a point where I simply HAD to own one. And so my hunt began. I searched online forums for hints on where I would find it in Singapore. I looked in neighborhood ‘all purpose’ stores. I walked down the aisles of hypermarts. I even trudged up to Mustafa thinking that my search would end there. But I was out of luck. The mortar and pestles were lone pieces and quite non-impressive. My mind was set on a black, smoothly polished granite one. One weekend I just happened to drop by a cramped store in Little India that seemed to stock utensils and pots and pans and voila! There it was! My prized possession. I was as excited as a little girl who has been given a doll.

Today, the mortar pestle proudly sits on my kitchen top and I never lose an opportunity to pound fresh garlic or grind cardamom powder in it. Is the experience gratifying? Yes! Does it make cooking more enjoyable? Oh yes! Do the flavors of the ingredients seem enhanced? Yes! Yes! Oh yes!

At the risk of sounding crazy, I’m going to say this: If you have ever doubted the usefulness of this tool, do yourself a favor – go get one and put an end to all those questions and apprehensions. 😉

Necessity is the mother of invention

As I was flicking through my repertoire of photographs that I had earmarked as “one-of-kind”,  my gaze lingered a few moments longer on this particular snapshot. The frame captures a rural woman squatting on the parapet of a temple tank very ingeniously drawing water. For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the concept of a temple tank, I quote from wiki “Temple tanks are wells or reservoirs built as part of the temple complex in Indian temples. Bathing in the sacred waters of these tanks is thought to cure disease and maladies.” I was always led to believe that the main purpose of these tanks were to carry out the ritualistic tasks of “cleansing”. However, I’m glad to note that the life giving water that is stored in these reservoirs actually serve a higher purpose than merely taking a dip to “wash away” sins and maladies. The picture was taken in January 2009 while I was visiting a small non-descript rural town in Western India. I titled it ‘Necessity is the mother of Invention’ for more reasons than one. Read on.

Say what you want about “Indian shining” and the rapid ascendancy of the sub-continent, but unfortunately the country still grapples with a water scarcity crisis. A crisis that every Indian has lived with at some point in his life. Unfortunately, the problem still hangs around and is more acute in rural India than the bustling metros.  I tagged this picture as ‘one-of-a-kind’ as it triggered off my memories about how we used to tackle the problem of water shortage. It all boils down to how far one would go for that much coveted bucketful.

It begins with lining up plastic buckets, cylindrical drums, and steel vessels under every tap of the house where water is expected to spurt or trickle, even if it’s only for a few minutes. Then you resort to drilling a bore well in your premises. When that doesn’t work, you start buying water every alternate day by the truckload. You also drop everything your doing as soon as you hear the rumble of the water lorry in your lane and scoot up and down with bucketfuls of water in each hand trying to get as much as you can. Finally, in times of desperation you start clutching at straws, abandon all apprehensions and do what we did. Smuggle. There, I said it. Yes smuggle…water.

It was a harsh summer. The city was called Madras then. We used to live in a house in  Abhiramapuram.  Our neighbor who also happened to be our tightfisted landlady had a well in her backyard. There was a gate in the common wall between her house and ours. It was a warm sultry night. At around 11 pm when the lights went out in the neighborhood, we (Mum, Aunt, sis and me) tip toed out of the back door of our house and silently made our way to Mrs. Sampath’s well next door. I used to playfully draw water from the well and help the maids with their washing during the day. But this time it was serious. I was shushed and told to remain as quiet as a mouse. I obeyed and watched as Mum, Aunt and sis tried to noiselessly lower the brass kodam into the inner depths of the receding water levels of the well and smuggle those precious bucketfuls of water. My heart was beating furiously and we were gripped with the fear of being caught. But this was something we simply had to do. Luckily for us, either Mrs. Sampath was so sound asleep that night that she didn’t hear us or she just believed that she was imagining noises in her sleep. Which one it was I would never know.

In retrospect, I find the whole water maaroing episode quite funny but the reason I recounted it is to underscore the problem, which still exists. Had Mrs. Sampath been kind enough to let us borrow some water from her well when we pleaded with her, that eventful night might never have happened. Better still, if we had better water management solutions in place, I probably wouldn’t be recounting this to you. But I guess when all else fails, necessity becomes the mother of invention.

When the well is dry, they know the worth of water – Benjamin Franklin

The Malgudi Day

It was last Saturday afternoon that we were walking down Syed Alwi Road in Singapore’s Indian restaurant quarter looking for an interesting eatery where we could gorge on Indian food and satisfy our rumbling tummies. That’s when we eyed ‘Malgudi’ – an authentic Chettinad and North Indian “multi cuisine” restaurant. The décor looked inviting and we decided to take a chance and stepped in. 

You must be familiar with the adage ‘never judge a book by its cover’. Well, add this one as well ‘never judge a restaurant by its décor/ambiance’ – and my review of Malgudi will tell you why. 

The ambiance: One would expect a restaurant with a name like “Malgudi” to have some semblance to south Indian décor. Except for the few Tanjore paintings on the walls the décor was everything but south Indian. You may argue saying that Malgudi is after all a figment of R K Narayan’s imagination, but you mustn’t forget that he himself proclaimed that the town, albeit a fictional one, is located in South India. Let us suppose I overlook the fact that the décor is not south Indian (I mean it really isn’t a big deal. There is no hard and fast rule that a south Indian named restaurant must have a similar décor.); I would still expect a sense of warmth and a certain “feel good factor” when I enter a restaurant. However, it felt strangely cold and devoid of any personality. This was further accentuated by the cold blast of air that was hitting me from the air-con vent just above our table. A quick look around and I could see that all the tables had the vent placed just above them. Unable to bear the cold, I had to request the restaurant staff to turn down the air-con temperature. I quickly told myself not to be critical and that perhaps the food would be good. After all that’s what matters in the end anyways. With my stomach rumbling, I was looking forward to having a luscious lunch. 

The menu: Quite an impressive list of dishes ranging from biryanis, Indian breads, tandoori fare, chettinad meals, chindian (Chinese food Indian style), etc. 

The food: Inspired by my Friday evening hindi serial, where the protagonists drive to a Delhi Dhabba which served the best butter chicken and shammi kebabs that melt in the mouth, I was determined to have paneer butter masala (I’m vegetarian and butter chicken wasn’t an option) with some Indian breads. There weren’t any shammi kebabs on the menu and so it was Gobi 65’ that I ordered instead. 

Ten minutes after we were seated, our complimentary paapads arrived. They were quite dismal and that’s putting it mildly. I was horrified at the amount of oil that was glistening and dripping off them. I politely pushed the plate aside and waited for the Gobi 65 with trepid anticipation. 15 minutes passed and there was no sign of our food arriving. 15 minutes is an agonizingly long time if you’re hungry. I cannot fathom what took them so long as the restaurant only had a few patrons (of course I now understand why!). When I thought that I would almost faint out of hunger the Gobi 65 arrived. It was daylight robbery – approx. S$7.00 for a few measly florets of deep fried cauliflower. By now, I had given up on the rest of the meal. Anyways, the main course arrived after another 15 minute wait. Surprisingly the naan and tandoori roti were good; the paneer butter masala was palatable. I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of the main course. You see I was so starved that as soon as the food arrived I pounced on it. 

The service: Oh dear! It’s poor! The waiting time is far too long and that is simply unacceptable. 

The damage: It depends on what you order. S$7.00 for the Gobi 65 starter is unreasonable considering the portion that was served. The breads (approx. S$3.00) and vegetables (approx. S$6.00-S$8.00) were priced at the standard norm. 

The verdict: Malgudi has lost me as a patron for sure. 

“If Broadway shows charge preview prices while the cast is in dress rehearsal, why should restaurants charge full price when their dining room and kitchen staffs are still practicing?” – Marian Burros 

From bentos to tiffin boxes – reminiscing the lunch box culture

The other day as I was channel surfing, I stumbled upon a very interesting TV program that was centered on the bento culture in Japan. Apparently, bento is the Japanese term for a homemade meal packed in a lunch-box. According to Wikipedia, “bento is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced boxes to hand crafted lacquer ware. Although bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time and energy for their spouse, child, or themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box.”

The program revealed how Japanese housewives or even office-going women wake up early and carefully prepare the well-crafted and visually appealing bentos for the entire family. This youtube video will give you a clear picture of what I’m talking about. I was quite intrigued by the concept as I always held the notion that the lunch-box culture was peculiar only to India. The Indian tiffin box culture is akin to the Japanese bentos. Indian homemakers and working women still wake up earlier than the rest of the family just so that they can prepare the tiffin boxes for their children, husbands and themselves. I have fond memories of my mum’s tiffin box snacks and lunches that she used to faithfully pack for me every single day for 25 odd years.

I still have a photograph where I am all ready to go to kindergarten and I’m striking a pose with my orange plastic lunch basket that held my tiffin box and water bottle. I also vividly remember my first few tiffin boxes which were made of aluminum. I had a flat peacock blue colored aluminum tiffin box, with two compartments inside to separate the food items. It slowly progressed to an oval steel “dabba” which held my tuck. The steel dabba soon gave way to a plastic snack box shaped as “Hello Kitty” with a matching plastic spoon and fork. As I grew older, the Hello Kitty box gave way to more ordinary looking plastic boxes of various shapes, sizes and colors. Finally, when Tupperware invaded Indian homes, my lunch box was the round flat Tupperware box. I have however never carried the traditional tiffin box which has stacked containers with a carry handle and a unique locking system with a spoon (wish I had a picture of this!).

It is only now that I realize the value of those lunch box meals and the labor that went behind packing them every single day. In retrospect, those homemade lunches were a reminder of home in an otherwise busy day at school, college or work. I actually used to look forward to opening the box to find one of mom’s treats inside. I remember the extra effort that mom used to put into packing the meals so that they were convenient to eat. The theplas had a generous layer of butter and were neatly rolled and placed lengthwise in my box. The oothapams were smeared with the mollagai podi and were cut into quarters to facilitate eating. Idllys were similarly dipped in mollagai podi so that I didn’t have to get my fingers messy. The soft chapattis that were rolled with curried vegetables were delicious despite being cold. The sandwiches were cut to bite size pieces and arranged neatly with no gaps in the box. Aloo parathas with tomamto sauce, masala puris with mum’s sweet mango pickle, pooris and potato sag…yum scrum. I also remember that when I was younger, mum used to cut my sandwiches in various shapes – I used to love the round shape the most. Lemon rice, coconut rice and tamarind rice were always accompanied with applams that were packed separately in a plastic bag to retain their crispness. My lunch box was always accompanied by a neatly folded cotton napkin and a steel spoon. During the summer season mum used to tuck in a plastic glass of buttermilk that was seasoned with salt, garlic, coriander, ginger, and cumin. Despite grumbling about how bulky my lunch bag used to get I can’t deny how much I enjoyed gulping the buttermilk during those sweltering afternoons. It gave the meal a sense of completeness and cooled my system.

The advantage of the tiffin box culture that is widely prevalent in India is that you get to sample various Indian cuisines from the lunch boxes of friends and colleagues. So while my friends were busy polishing off my theplas, I was busy licking tangy onion-tomato chutney off my fingers and gobbling mini oothapams from my tam-brahm friends’ tiffin box. The well-mashed thaiyr saadam with a piece of spicy mango avakaai tasted the best from tiffin boxes that came from south Indian households.

While one would expect the lunch box culture to fade away with modern day India, it is heartening to know that the tiffin box culture still exists. It is a tradition and a mind set that is hard to break. It is after all our passion for home cooked food that created the ingenious 125 year old dabbawallah system as exemplified by this youtube video.

The bentos of Japan and the tiffin boxes of India are not just homemade lunches packed in a box; rather, they are a symbol of tradition.

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch. – Orson Welles

2 States

Chetan Bhagat’s latest offering ‘2 States’ proves yet again that he is undoubtedly India’s favorite author. Simple story; unpretentious and sharp language; subtle humor; and a narrative that is packed with emotion, drama and romance – 2 States makes the perfect lighthearted and entertaining read.

Set against the backdrop of IIMA, Ananya and Krish meet, become friends and move onto becoming a couple. They have their share of fights, laughs, tears, funny moments and even sex. That storyline would seem enough for an entire book but this is what Bhagat covers in the first few chapters. The real action begins when Krish’s mom – a stout, plump, loud and ostentatious Punjabi lady who lives in Delhi meets Ananya’s parents – soft spoken, traditional South Indians who are content with their sambar rice, Hindu paper, carnatic music and simple Chennai life. It’s a clash of the titans from the word go and the rest of the book takes us through the events that transpire between both the families – the “boys side” and the “girls side” which eventually takes a toll on Krish and Ananya themselves. So does their love blossom into marriage? Do they manage to convince each other’s parents?  To what extent are they willing to go to make it work? Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out. 😉 The book provides an insight on the Punjabi and Tamilian mindset, for those of you who aren’t familiar with either of these communities. Parts of the story are set in the cities of Chennai and Delhi and you can expect numerous references to iconic buildings and a splattering of local slang. The storyline is predictable; yet Bhagat’s ability to draw you into the lives of the characters makes this book an absolute page-turner.

Born into a North Indian family but having been brought up in Chennai I could very well identify with the book. There is no doubt that 2 States will appeal to the sensibilities of its readers – almost every Indian will identify with Bhagat’s theme and message. ‘2 States’ is absolute value for money. Critics may not find Bhagat’s latest offering to be “Booker” material; but who cares, it’s appealing, engaging and…kick-ass!!!

This is a must-read. Go get your copy.

Kids say the Darndest Things?

I came across a very interesting video titled ‘The Future of Singapore’ where Singapore’s Primary school students (children aged 6-12 years) were asked the question “how many babies will you have?”

Just to place this question in context let me give you a brief of the population and birth rate situation that currently exists in Singapore. One of the overriding problems that the Singapore government keeps referring to time and again is Singapore’s rapidly decling birth rate. Having once advocated the “Stop at Two” campaign the government is today urging young Singaporean couples to have more babies. Incentives in the form of “baby bonus”, “paid maternity leave”, and “subsidized education”, to name a few, have been introduced with the hope of getting young couples to start having babies. Of course this isn’t having the desired effect, with more than 30% of the women choosing to either remain single, opting not to have kids, preferring late pregnancies or favoring a one-baby policy.

Given that population is Singapore’s current paramount problem Razor TV (a web TV service in Singapore with programming centered on issues that affect Singaporeans) popped the question “how many babies will you have?” to students of a local primary school. It’s quite interesting to see how a 6-12 year old answers this question and goes a step further to explain why (s)he wants no babies, one baby, two babies, three babies or even four babies. Most of the kids were positive about having babies in the future and the most common explanation offered was that having children would mean that they (as parents) would be looked after in their old age. I wonder where a 6-12 year old gets that logic from? They seem to very clearly know what they want and what’s more, they even offer perfectly logical explanations!

Where are the days of ‘Kids Say The Darndest Things’ gone?

Singapore Food Trail – Of Egg Biryanis and Andhra meals…

I hail from a family that loves food and simply loves to eat. Period. Actually, any self-respecting Gujarati has a fine appreciation for food – any food. Needless to say, memories of my growing up years include our family outings to Chennai’s numerous restaurants. We experimented with any restaurant and every restaurant and soon we knew where to head to for the best dosas, crunchiest vadais, softest idllys, spiciest biryanis, fluffiest omlettes et al.

Years later and miles away from hometown Chennai, I suddenly remembered how I so used to enjoy Hotel Ashoka’s “Andhra Meals”. It was not so much for the sambhar or rasam or vegetables that I relished those meals; it was only for the spicy “podi” that I generously mixed with several spoonfuls of melted hot ghee into the heap of rice that occupied the centre of my rice plate that I used to order the Andhra meals. That and some tangy hot “gonkurra pickle” was all I needed. Along with nostalgic memories of the ‘podi rice n pickle’, I also remembered the occasional egg biryani, which my sis used to pack from a lil stall somewhere in Annanagar (the residential area we used to live in). I can almost smell that wonderful heady aroma that emanates as soon as you rip the lid of the reusable plastic container, in which the biryani is usually stuffed until the brim. But wait. The most exciting part of the egg biryani was scooping out spoonfuls of rice until your spoon hits the nicely boiled egg, which is usually well seated in the middle of the rice. Now, that is what makes the dish so special.

So now, since I live in Singapore which is also known as the ‘Food Capital of Asia’, I was all out to track down the egg biryani and ‘podi rice’ meal. A friend suggested “Sankranti” – an Andhra restaurant in Lil India’s Syed Alwi Road, bang opposite Mustafa Centre. I must admit that I was initially skeptical but soon decided to give it the benefit of the doubt – all for the sake of egg biryani. So here is my verdict.

The ambiance: Simple yet tasteful décor. Sankranti is by no means plush; yet it is a far cry from the basic “canteen-like” atmosphere. The restaurant’s whitewashed walls adorn beautiful prints from Indian mythology. Look up to the ceiling and you will see colorful glass bangles that run across the entire ceiling, concealing rows of lighting. If I remember right, there were colorful zari borders that were made to hang from the ceiling. A distinct South Indian look sets the ambiance.

The menu: Although Sankranti is a restaurant that specializes in Andhra cuisine, like most other Indian restaurants, its menu also features North Indian and Chinese fare. I usually refrain from ordering non-specialty items in a “specialty restaurant” and besides, it was the egg biryani and podi rice that I was after remember?

The food: It is delicious! I savored their Andhra Meal alias “Bhojanam”. It’s a sumptuous and complete meal served in a uniquely shaped thali lined with a fresh green banana leaf. True to the Andhra tradition, the poriyals and curries were spicy, the rasam and sambhar were delectable, but it was the “parpu podi” that won my heart. To relive those memories of pouring ladlefuls of ghee onto my steaming rice with the podi – oh what a pleasure to the senses. The “masala omlette”, which was a side order, was true Indian style – I cannot quite describe it – but I am sure if you are an Indian, you know what I mean. As for the egg biryani, it was all that I had wanted and even more – thin long and fragrant grains of rice, that concealed a treasure of not one, but two boiled eggs. The helpings are more than adequate and I am sure all you biryani lovers will not be let down. Another side order was the medu vadai. Now I must admit that I am not particularly fond of medu vadais, but these were exceptionally good. Crunchy, yet soft.

The service: Tip-top. The staff is polite and the quick service ensures that you don’t clutch your tummy waiting for your food to arrive.

The damage: Not bad at all. The prices are extremely affordable. The biryani is around S$ 6.00 – S$ 8.00 and so are the meals. The side orders are around S$ 3.00 – S$ 5.00, depending on what you order.

Overall, Sankranti offers you a pleasurable dining experience, simple yet scrumptious, and it is one of the joints that has made it to “My List of Regular Makaan Places in Singapore”.

Phuket Paradise

Look up the definition of paradise and this is what you’ll get: Any place of complete bliss, delight and peace. A visit to Phuket and this definition comes alive. Situated in the Andaman Sea off the Southern tip of Thailand, the mountainous island promises an extraordinary travel experience – replete with fun, relaxation and adventure. Encapsulated below are memoirs of my sojourn to this exotic getaway.

The perfect panacea for those seeking refuge from the concrete jungle and its everyday perils of traffic, pollution, stress, and pressure, the resort island of Phuket spoils you for choice when it comes to zeroing in on one of its numerous beach destinations. Flashing neon lights, pulsating music, sizzling nightlife, exotic ladyboys, the tantalizing aroma wafting out of numerous restaurants, a cluster of resorts and villas with their white washed walls set in lush tropical gardens, and that’s Patong for you – Phuket’s most preferred and highly popular tourist beach destination. A few meters further from Patong lies Karon, the second most popular choice for those who prefer a quieter atmosphere than the congested Patong. If you’re seeking complete solitude, move further down to the beaches of Kata and Kamala where you can enjoy the sun, sand and surf, sans herds of tourists. Opting for an eclectic mix of Patong’s buzz and Kata’s isolation, it was Karon all the way for me.

Famed for being the only beach-front resort in Karon located on the sandy

Karon Beach Resort at the helm of the ocean

Karon Beach Resort at the helm of the ocean

shores of the Karon beach, “Karon Beach Resort” was my most obvious choice. With rooms overlooking the ocean, it’s an ineffable feeling to wake up to an incredible view outside – a blue sky, an aquamarine ocean which shimmers in various shades of blue as the golden rays of the sun dance on its rippling waters while the foamy white gently laps the soft sandy shores. There are endless ways to begin your day here – a dip in

Sunset view from Karon Beach Resort

Sunset view from Karon Beach Resort

the serene pool amidst a lush landscape, a walk along the sun kissed shores as the cool water caresses your feet or a warm sun bath by stretching languorously on the sun-beds facing the endless stretch of the sapphire Andaman Sea.

While it’s tempting spend the holiday basking in the glorious sun and cooling off in the resplendent sea, it’s hard to resist the call of adventure in Phuket’s myriad offerings. An experience that is best described as novel, majestic, humbling and most importantly unforgettable is the elephant back safari. The “Kok Chang Safari” promises you a journey of a lifetime – one that will be entrenched in your memory for generations to come. Kok Chang is located in the hilly regions of Kata and houses 10 grand elephants with the kindest eyes, who are well looked after by their mahouts. You can hoist yourself up on the large saddles atop these beauties, while the mahout sits on the elephant’s neck. As the elephant treads slowly and steadily you will be led through dense jungle trails along the hills. Our 45 year old female elephant was in no hurry and plodded through the narrow, steep, winding path uphill, flapping her ears and swinging her trunk along the way. En route, amidst the bush, I came across the most beautiful and delicate butterflies as they glided past me with their fluttering gossamer wings in striking colors, only to gently rest on a leaf or a twig. A colony of giant red ants, an intricate cobweb precariously dangling in the greenery, wild mushrooms springing from the earth and latex coagulating in the coconut cups of the numerous rubber trees were the fascinating sights we encountered along the way. We also hit a viewpoint overlooking the beautiful coast and other surrounding islets, before trekking downhill – this time on the elephant’s neck and without the mahout atop. In a nutshell, the experience is no less regal when compared to the days of yore when Maharajahs in India sat on imperial howdahs atop royal elephants.

Our elephant at the Kok Chang Safari

Our elephant at the Kok Chang Safari

Spinning cobwebs in the bush

Spinning cobwebs in the bush

wild mushrooms sprouting from the earth

wild mushrooms sprouting from the earth

The viewpoint en route the safari

The viewpoint en route the safari

Latex coagulating from rubber trees

Latex coagulating from rubber trees

Obscuring any distinguishing factor between the real and surreal is the one day Phi Phi Island tour, which must feature on top of your “Things to do in Phuket” list. Phi Phi is a 45 minute ride by speedboat from the Chalong Pier. The boat ride is an experience in itself, one that fills you with excitement as it speeds over the waters, leaving behind a trail of white foam on the blue expanse, the wind in your hair and the ocean spray kissing your skin. As we approached the famous Maya Bay (where the movie “Beach” was partially filmed) the scenic views of large tree covered cliffs rising majestically from the depths of the green blue ocean are truly breathtaking and leave you speechless. Maya Bay boasts of a small beach with pristine white sand that is as soft as silk and aquamarine blue waters that gently touch your feet as you walk along the shore. Maya Bay is surreal, enchanting and magical – its beauty unsurpassed and unrivalled. The next stop-over after Maya Bay is Pileh Cove where you can jump into the cool, calm, clear water and snorkel to enjoy the shoal of yellow fish darting around the Cove’s peacock blue waters. The final destination is Khai Island – a small stretch of white sand with beach chairs to relax in. Khai Island is literally an island of sand small enough to hold a few hundred people, surrounded by nothing but the ocean. It’s an ideal spot to relax, swim or just feed the tiny fish that rush to the shores. Phi Phi is a one of a kind experience that overwhelms you – a gentle reminder of the sheer beauty of nature that is so grand and majestic that it leaves you no choice but to revel in its glory.

Speeding away from Chalong Pier

Speeding away from Chalong Pier

Majestic cliffs at Maya Bay

Majestic cliffs at Maya Bay

Beach @ Maya Bay

Beach @ Maya Bay

Snorkeling at Pileh Cove

Snorkeling at Pileh Cove

Phi Phi Don Island

Phi Phi Don Island

Sunbathing in Phi Phi Don

Sunbathing in Phi Phi Don

Approaching Khai Island

Approaching Khai Island

Relaxing at Khai Island

Relaxing at Khai Island

The ocean at your feet - Khai Island

The ocean at your feet – Khai Island

Ocean cliff

Ocean cliff

If you can’t seem to get enough of Phuket, there are several places you can explore on the island, like the Chalong temple and Promthep Cape for instance. While Bangkok remains unrivalled as far as temples are concerned,

The Chalong temple

The Chalong temple

the Wat Chalong (wat = temple) is worth visiting if you have time on your hands. Popular amongst the locals, it’s interesting to watch devotees at Wat Chalong – some on their knees with folded palms whispering chants and prayers, while others fervently bow and light bunches of joss sticks at the altar. A few minutes to take in the architecture and beautiful ceiling and you can continue your journey to “Promthep Cape” further down Rawai beach, famed for its sunset. Promthep Cape is the southernmost tip of Phuket and if you are looking for a peaceful moment, as the sea breeze tousles your hair then you must settle at a spot along the stone wall that overlooks the sea and coastline.

Sunset at Promthep Cape

Sunset at Promthep Cape

At sundown, the sky is set ablaze and turns into a flaming red to a glowing orange to a soft purple and the ocean turns a deep blue. The sunset is a perfect way to end your spectacular day.

Boiling down to the two holiday essentials – food and shopping – Phuket hits a bulls eye. No matter which eatery you head to, you

Thai cuisine

Thai cuisine

will be assured of two cuisines – the traditional Thai cuisine with its spicy curries, pineapple fried rice and interesting seafood and the international staple of juicy steaks, crusty pizzas and tomato sauced pastas. It doesn’t matter which restaurant you head to – the Thai food served at the tiniest shack

Street food

Street food

or the plushest fine dining restaurant tastes the same – simply fantastic. Evidently, all the restaurants have the locals stirring up a fiery curry and fried rice and the food is bound to be authentic and lip-smacking – simply perfect with the cold beers and hot sun.

If it’s shopping you’re after, and “cheap bargains” at that, you’re bound to hop, skip and jump for joy at the weekend market in Old Phuket Town. Open from 4:00 pm until late in the night, on Saturdays and Sundays, the weekend market holds promise for everyone. Be it tees, colorful flip flops, smart bags, stylish accessories, appealing souvenirs or exquisite handicrafts, the weekend market has it all. The market also features Thai street food, so if you’re exhausted with your shopping you can nibble on banana fritters followed by delicious ice-cold sugarcane juice and you’re good to go. Old Phuket town has little to offer, except for some interesting sights and sounds like traditional cafes, medicinal and herbal shops with the heady aroma of herbs emanating from their cool and dark interiors, Sino-Portuguese architecture along the deserted streets, brightly colored tuk tuks parked along the street, or a hawker pedaling his motorized “stall” in the afternoon heat.

Old Phuket Town's Sino-Portugese architecture

Old Phuket Town’s Sino-Portugese architecture

The oldest herbs shop in Phuket Town

The oldest herbs shop in Phuket Town

Mobile food vendor in Old Phuket Town

Mobile food vendor in Old Phuket Town

So if it’s that dream holiday you’re after, embark on the enchanting journey of discovering the jewel of Phuket that is sure to please your senses and leave you wanting to go back for more…

Good to know:

• Phuket is accessible by air or sea depending on where your travel base is located. Once you clear immigration head straight out of the airport, bypassing the airport limousine service and other taxi touts and head straight towards the metered taxi stand. The metered taxi stand board is in bright colors and it’s big so it’s hard to miss. The metered taxis charge a flat rate (forget about the meter) to the various beaches that dot Phuket’s coast. It saves you the hassle of bargaining and doesn’t leave you wondering if you are being taken for a jolly good ride – both literally and otherwise. You can expect to pay about 400-500 THB to get from the airport to Patong, Karon, Kamla etc. En route, the taxi will stop at a “travel and tour agency” to “sign in the register and mark his attendance”, while an employee will chat up with you trying to subtly sell you hotel deals and tour packages. It’s best to politely and firmly communicate that you have made all travel plans in advance and that all bookings for hotels and sight seeing packages have already been made. (Irrespective of whether you have actually made them or not)

• The best season to travel to Phuket is during off peak season. You’re bound to get good discounts on your accommodation, sight-seeing tour packages and shopping. What’s more the weather is great and the place is not over-crowded.

• There are numerous tour operators with glossy brochures of Phi Phi, promising you an unforgettable experience. Most offer similar rates and itineraries. I personally recommend the”Phuket Sea Island Company Ltd” which scores high on service. Never book at the hotels as they charge you double the normal fare. There are plenty of tour operators outside every hotel, so not to worry. Never opt for the public ferry as it’s over crowded and doesn’t enter Maya Bay. The speed boat may be expensive in comparison but it’s worth every penny – trust me on this.

• It pays to do your research on the various beach options and accommodation available, as there are numerous resorts you can choose from – all designed to suit varied tastes and budgets.

• The Thai massage is great for rejuvenating and relaxing those tired muscles. It’s worth your money and there are numerous massage parlors that dot the island.

• There are several operators who offer you various elephant trekking packages. Most of them are group tours and the elephant trek is coupled with other activities like oxcart riding and monkey shows etc. If you want an authentic and strictly elephant trekking experience sans the monkey-ox frills opt for the “Kok Chang Safari”.

• If you’re traveling with children, it may be worth visiting the “Phuket Fantasea

• The Simone Cabaret and Thai Boxing are heavily advertised. Having visited neither of them, I can’t comment on these shows.

• The best way to get around Phuket is to hire a bike for the day. It’s most economical and you’re independent. As there are no taxis, you will have to rely on tuk tuks who fleece you. So if you can ride a bike and hold an international license go for it!

• The best way to get to the weekend market is to flag down the local bus which runs every half an hour from the beaches to town.

Athithi Devo Bhava

Athiti Devo Bhava, and no it’s not the ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign that I’m talking about. The literal translation of this Sanskrit phrase reads “guest is god” and is kept alive by traditional Indian hospitality. And it is this Athiti Devo Bhava experience that I wish to talk about.

Indians have long been known for their hospitality. At the very least, anyone visiting an Indian home will be offered a cup of tea/coffee or a cold drink (if not a full meal), on his immediate arrival. Of course it’s a different thing that these days we also wonder silently while serving the guest ‘why, they could have at least called before landing up unannounced” or “they had to turn up now when I’m in the middle of so many things. Isn’t there such a thing as informing someone of your visit” or “oh no! There goes my schedule and had they informed me I would have at least bought some eatables and been prepared” and so on. Well you see, unfortunately the so called “modern”, “urbanized” Indian is always in a rat race, fighting against time, self-absorbed and self-contained and is barely able to offer a drink to the not so welcome guest. Of course this isn’t a sweeping generalization but a mere observation of many households.

It was early this year when I experienced the true meaning of “athihi devo bhava” thanks to a milkmaid and her farmer husband who went all out and epitomized traditional Indian hospitality. Having visited my husband’s relatives in Nasik, we made our last stop over at Ghoti – a small non-descript  town/village located 30 kms from Nasik housing a population of some 20,000 odd people. I hadn’t heard of Ghoti earlier, except for my husband’s recollections of the place, which he had last visited some 12 years ago. Being city bred I was looking forward to a first-hand experience of simple living in a small dusty Indian town. Needless to say I was both anxious and excited. We reached late at night and after a hearty meal of chapattis, curried vegetables, rice and lentils and some excited chitter-chatter, I went to bed on the cotton mattress laid out on the cool floor of my aunt-in-law’s house. I awoke early the next day and was chatting up with everyone, when the milkmaid or “doodhwali” (the hinmilkmaiddi equivalent) made her usual entrance. She was grey haired, about my grandma’s age, stout, plump and a traditional village belle – sari tied in the maharashtrian style, head covered, a huge circular nose ring, a large red circle of vermilion on her forehead and tattoos along the length of her arms. I quickly called my husband to click a few pictures of her and she indulged by shyly posing for us and giving us her best smiles. Once we were done with the clicking, she graciously invited us to her home which she said was by the side of a beautiful lake.  We nodded nonchalantly and she left.

Later that afternoon, when we set out sight seeing, on an impulse we decided to drop by the doodhwali’s place. The dusty sumo spluttered and trudged along the narrow dusty dirt track leading to her hutment. We got down from the car as curious children looked at us, bemused. Least expecting us to show up, she welcomed us with a huge smile and quickly called upon her husband to lay out the charpoy for us to sit on. I suddenly felt a bit odd, like we were imposing but her warm smile and graciousness put me at ease. We were offered water in tall brass tumblers and although her abode was just a simple hut we were invited to have a look. Her grand-children were seated on the mud floors, with plates before them as their mother stirred some porridge and turned over thick chappatis on a choola.

The doodhwali and her husband offered to show us around their farm where they grew vegetables. We accepted and they led the way through fields of cabbage and cauliflower, until we reached their plot of land by the side of a beautiful lake. The sun beat down mercilessly and he heat was searing. While we were busy taking pictures, she and her husband were plucking fresh tender drumsticks from their tree. All through the way they kept expressing their disappointment at not being able to serve us anything. “villagefolkYou are guests who have come to my home. I cannot send you empty handed” she kept saying. We assured her that we were perfectly fine and just wanted to enjoy the village sights and sounds. When we decided to head back home, she gave us a huge bunch of drumsticks saying “this is all we have to offer you. Please accept it.” I was touched by their hospitality. You see, unlike elsewhere in the world farmers in India are poor and their produce is a fruit of their labor in the hot sun and the only means to their livelihood. Yet this humble couple picked the best of their produce by the dozen and insisted that we take it home with us. Who were we to them? From my perspective, we were just a bunch of odd visitors living miles away and who would probably never see them again. From their perspective, we were guests to their home, and guests to them are like God – meant to be welcomed and treated with the utmost respect and hospitality.

This is where the spirit of Athiti Devo Bhava lies.

PS: Four months after I returned to Singapore, I mailed the doodhwali a photograph that we had clicked of her and her husband. The photographs serve as a reminder of their warmth and hospitality and where we truly come from.

Groom your room

Most of us tend to lead lives filled with stress, anxiety, tensions and all sorts of pressures. Given this hustle and bustle, we often look forward to breaks, where we can pack our bags, hop onto an airplane and zoom off into an idyllic retreat, where we can unwind, relax and put our feet up. Resorts and spas have gained increasing popularity given the serene ambiance they offer – the much needed impetus to soothe our nerves. But why restrict ourselves to these one-off breaks to unwind and release our tensions? It is important to be able to recharge and repose every single day within our homes. This is when it’s time for you to sit up and think if there is a space in your home where you can feel like you are in a spa or a resort, where you can unwind, relax and recharge. Yes? No? Well, ideally the answer should be a resounding yes and that space should ideally be your bedroom – your sanctuary and haven of relaxation.

That’s right. The bedroom is the most important space in your home. Yet most of us tend to neglect it the most, paying more attention to decorating our living rooms and entertainment areas or family dens. When I was house hunting early this year, I had the opportunity to view as many as 25 homes and I was surprised at what I saw. Most homes were either cluttered or had beautifully decorated living rooms while the rest of the house left much to be desired. I have personally experienced the benefits of having a relaxed bedroom atmosphere and I speak to you from my heart. How well you sleep is directly proportional to your bedroom ambiance. The only way to be sure of this is to try it out for yourself. I implemented a few simple strategies and it has made a huge difference to my sleep pattern. I am more rested and look forward to my bedroom when I’m tired.

Redecorating and restructuring your bedroom isn’t a Herculean task and certainly not an expensive one either. You don’t need feng shui, zen or vaastu shaastra to help you get the best vibes from your room. Nor do you have to leaf through glossy pages of home decorating magazines. Just a few simple tricks and your personal touches and ideas will serve the purpose. It is guaranteed to be a fun experience and one that you will benefit from, at that.

De clutter – Clutter is nothing but a ‘confused multitude of things’. We tend to dump things in our bedrooms – clothes piled up on a chair or a clothes stand, medicine bottles, perfume bottles, cosmetics, knick-knacks, papers, books, handbags, cell phone chargers, CDs and what not. The idea is to have everything within reach or just plain downright laziness. Well not anymore. Its time to get organized – shelf, store, package and just keep it all away. “Not enough space” is just an excuse. There are plenty storage options available in the market. It hardly costs a few bucks to buy boxes or plastic ware and just organize your stuff neatly and tuck it away in your cupboard or wardrobe. If you have a dressing table, avoid placing too many items on the table.

Non bedroom items must leave the room – The computer along with computer table and its accessories, the television (it doesn’t matter if the best LCD or plasma in town), the treadmill – are like parasites living off your precious bedroom space. Remember we don’t want to bring work into the room, nor do we want football/cricket matches with charged commentaries and frenzied crowds or movies and soap operas or any form of entertainment in the room. The gym equipment must find a place elsewhere; anywhere but your bedroom. If you happen to have anything else apart from your bed, bedside tables, lounge chair and possibly a dressing table, it must go!

Bedroom furniture – If you are planning on buying new furniture, remember to get a nice comfortable bed frame and spend time on choosing your mattress. Even if it means spending those few extra bucks, it’s worth it. Nothing hit me more when I was leafing through Ikea’s pricey mattress catalog, when I came across a fact of life screaming at me from the pages – “You spend a quarter of your entire lifetime on your mattress”. Trust me; it pays to invest in a good mattress as itchar1 essentially means investing in your health and life. If your mattress is too old and you are facing back problems after having tried out every possible remedy, then perhaps a change of mattress might do the trick. It’s equally important to have small bedside tables that can hold certain essentials. If space so permits, a comfortable sofa-chair or rattan chair or any sort of lounge chair or even a bean bag is recommended. If it is placed by the window, nothing like it. This way you can settle in comfortably with your book and enjoy the light streaming from the window or the gentle breeze blowing in or perhaps watch the rain on one of those wet days.

Walls – The trend these days is to use bright colors to highlight the walls – reds and oranges are the colors in vogue. Although, shades of fiery reds and flaming oranges are attractive, they might not work too well for you in the bedroom. It’s preferable to have muted tones, soft shades and colors of nature – beige, cream, light shades of dscn3454green, blue and lavender – which tend to have a soothing effect. As an alternative to coloring the whole room, you can just create an accent wall by using color or textured paint and let the rest of the walls remain white or off-white. I have seen rooms with wall paper with bright bold designs and patterns. While the patterns themselves are magnetic, they tend to darken the room and are so overpowering that the room appears much smaller and not so pleasant.

Accessorize – Accessorizing is when you can let your imagination run and at the same time add that edge to your room. A few tasteful accessories on youb41r bedside tables can go a long way in adding a special touch of elegance. Since we want a spa like ambiance, the natural picks would include pot potpourri and candles. A simple glass of water with a single sprig or a money plant in a wine bottle or a few asters bunched together in a vase creates a sense of freshness and relaxation. I personally find figurines and pictures of the Buddha inspiring. I can’t seem to quib2te put my finger on it, but just seeing the Buddha’s peaceful face can be gratifying. A bedside lamp throws a soft light at bedtime and is a welcome change compared to the harsh light generated from tubes and bulbs. Durries and rugs in warm earthy colors and geometric patterns add a sense of warmth. Avoid dark carpeting as it tends to make the room look smaller.

Room temperature – No matter how hard you try and how well you redecorate your bedroom, you are bound to toss and turn if you are too warm or too cold. It’s extremely important to have the right temperature that suits you, in order to sleep like a baby. If its too warm and sultry try cooling down by opening the windows (it tends to be cooler at night), or regulating fans and coolers to their maximum or setting you air-con temperature to acceptable levels. Remember that freezing temperatures are equally sleep depriving.

On a parting note – just follow the simple pointers above, take a shower, think good and positive thoughts and tuck in for a good night’s sleep. Sweet dreams and good night folks!

Madhubani paintings- from local to glocal

Think Bihar and the larger than life image of a toothy Laloo Prasad Yadav springs up. Think Bihar again, and you’re most likely to envision a bright Madhubani art piece.

Madhubani – forest of honey – a non descript district located in the north of Bihar is today being talked about fervently among artists, NGOs, interior designers, corporate houses and yes even humble souls like moi, for its centuries old painting viz. the madhubani paintings.

While I leaf through the pages of a glossy art book featuring madhubani art, in Landmark (one of the popular and modern book-houses in Chennai); while my sister is busy registering herself for a three-day ‘madhubani workshop’ at Dakshinachitra; while students of Fine Arts in Stella Maris College and Government Arts College are busy learning about Indian folk-art designs, the women of Madhubani are in all probability doing what they do best – the Madhubani painting. This art form is second nature to these village belles, and while we trace designs and struggle to learn the technique, they deftly sketch the vivid designs freehand, borrowing images from everyday life. They are the real artists who have learnt the nuances from their mothers and in turn pass on the skill and knowledge to their daughters.

The origin of Madhubani is multi-pronged. Legend has it that the King of Mithila had ordered that the walls of the city be adorned with paintings at the time of his daughter, Sita’s marriage. Folklore claims that the Gods visited the homes of the people living here to bless them and this was a welcoming act, in anticipation of the Supreme Beings. The art form was mostly confined to the region until the 1960s, which is when it took a commercial turn. The women were told to transfer their designs on hand-made paper instead of the traditional cow-dung coated walls and voila, that was the beginning of the journey from local to glocal.

Madhubani paintings have very distinct characteristics. Images quite naturally are drawn from everyday life and mythology. Common themes are: women at work, shown as either drawing water from the well, carrying pots of water, caring for cattle; animals, cows, fish and birds being the most prominent; village celebrations, like a marriage or festival; nature, like the sun, moon, tree of life and flowers. All paintings have a border and is usually a double line, with the gaps being filled by diagonal lines and other geometric designs. The women folk are portrayed in saris which have intricate designs and jewellery. Their heads are usually covered and they are shown to have large eyes and a stubby nose. Other designs are drawn from mythology and showcase Krishna and his consort Radha or Rama and Sita. Madhubani paintings can be very bright and colorful – blue, pink, red, yellow, black and green being the primary colors. There is no shading and no mixing of colors. The other category is the non-color or line painting, just done in black and white lines. This looks very chic, smart, classy and sophisticated – a bit somber though.

Colors were traditionally natural dyes – black was from soot, yellow from turmeric or pollen, blue from indigo plants, red from the kusum flower, green from the leaves of wood apple trees, white from rice powder and orange from the palash flowers. The paint brush was nothing but a piece of cotton wrapped around a bamboo stick. This definitely sounds exotic and I would crave for such natural dyes, but urbanization leaves me with a box of poster colors or a set of Indian ink bottles and a couple of thin paint brushes. I can neither draw from memory because if I did, I would only draw cars and buildings and women in corporate attire working behind a computer. Now that isn’t a very pretty picture is it? So I enroll myself in an art class and I am given a stack of designs (once the art work of the Madhubani women) to trace from and then I go on to create “my very own Madhubani painting”.

Today Madhubani paintings have gone places. Several NGOs are mobilizing efforts towards promoting this art-form, popularizing it in urban India and even taking it abroad, trying to give the real artists exposure and commercial value as well. Corporate houses often sport a Madhubani mural in their reception area or try and incorporate the art form somewhere in their business space to render that touch of elegance and ironically, contemporary Indian art feel to their office interiors. Expats fancy such art work on their walls. Interior designers recommend this art-form heavily to their clients.

I just returned to my writing after attending to a phone call from my sister. She wanted to know if I wanted a madhubani painting done on a khadi raw silk kurta. She was sending hers to a village in Bihar (somewhere in Madhubani I suppose) and reckons it would look smart. She can have it delivered here to Singapore just in time for Diwali. What demonstrates better, the story of the Madhubani painting going from local to glocal.

Pastamania

‘Life is a combination of magic and pasta’ – Fellini

Looking for a quick, scrumptious, pocket-friendly meal in a pleasing ambience to satiate that voracious appetite? Well look no further. Pastamania is here to take care of all your cravings for that perfect meal with its promise of “quick casual dining”. It can’t get better than this.

One visit to their restaurant was enough to make me a regular, lining up for my usual order every single weekend. The ambience is simplistic, minimal, chic and smart. The bright lighting and signature colors of black, red and yellow cheer up many a dampened spirit. If that weren’t enough, the friendly smiles of the efficient personnel can’t be ignored. The USP of this Italian, fast food eatery is its impeccably quick service and affordable price. Even on a busy day orders arrive in less than 15 minutes and within minutes of placing the order during non peak hours.

Some of the fare you must sample:
Garlic bread ($1.80) with soup-of-the-day ($2.30). All soups (creamy chicken, creamy mushroom, cream of tomato, minestrone) taste delicious and are a wonderful way to start the meal. This followed by a plate of steamy hot pasta coupled with a cold drink will gratify your taste buds. Pasta prices range from $4.90-$13.40. If you’re looking at something simple then ‘Pomodoro’ (pasta tossed in tomato herbed sauce) or ‘Chicken Bolognese’ (pasta and chicken tossed in tomato herbed sauce) makes a good choice. Be sure to add a healthy sprinkling of pomodoro cheese, conveniently placed on your table. If you’re in a mood for something more exotic, try sampling ‘Spinach Tortellini’ (spinach and ricotta cheese stuffed pasta in tomato herbed sauce) or ‘Mediterranean’ (pasta tossed with carrots, zucchini, mushrooms, bell peppers in tomato herbed sauce). There is an interesting range of pastas listed under their selection of ‘Rich & Creamy’, ‘Baked Specials’, ‘Seafood Delights’ and ‘Vegetarian Specials’. You can also choose from a range of cold salads to add that extra zing to your meal. My personal favorite is the potato salad, which is a portion of boiled potatoes mixed well with creamy white mayonnaise and a sprinkling of herbs that gives it its delectable taste.

I would recommend staying away from the pizzas as they are expensive and have ultra thin crusts. The mango dessert pizza however seems to be a favorite among many.

Bottom line: The belly rules the mind after a meal at Pastamania.

Aamir

If you are the discerning film enthusiast, who would rather watch fewer (quality rich) films a year than the run-of-the-mill fare that is dished out, then ‘Aamir’ should definitely feature on your impressive list.

High on drama and suspense this is a no frills movie that awakens the mind. There are no exotic foreign locales, nor traditional Indian settings; no A R Rehmans nor Shankar-Ehsaan- Loys nor Vishal-Shekars duets; no stunning heroine to complement the hero and no exaggerated emotions that tug at your heart.

Right from the opening scene this movie holds promise of being fast-paced and intriguing. London returned, Aamir Ali’s life takes a turn for the worse the moment he sets foot in India. Just minutes after stepping out of the airport, he is thrust with a cell phone and the trail of the movie is set ablaze. Alphonse Roy’s camera work is laudable as he captures Mumbai in its truest form, leading us down narrow, crowded, filthy alleys, capturing sights and sounds of the city which the modern, urban Indian is ignorant of. Amit Trivedi’s music adds character to the scenes and blends into the narrative. Aarti Bajaj’s crisp and tight editing requires a special mention. Applause for the star of the film Rajeev Khandelwal, who carried the entire film forward, expressing emotions as if he were in that situation for real and for showcasing talent we are so much in need of. Raj Kumar Gupta’s direction seemed flawless and there were certain unforgettable scenes. The film carries a message for all, refrains from being over-the-top and ends on a poignant note. Bottom-line: Must watch!

Paddy Indian

‘Paddy Indian’ is yet another “NRI” novel, battling the all-so-familiar issues we come across in books of this genre; yet it is refreshingly different. For starters, Madhavan has chosen an off-the-beaten-track locale for her debut novel – Ireland. So, fancy a young Indian (Tamil to be specific) doctor, who lands in Dublin to practice at a local hospital there and eventually appear for his Fellowship exams. That is Padhman (or Paddy) for you. Hailing from a wealthy, medical, “westernized” family in Madras, Padhman finds himself in the company of his childhood friends, Renu and Sunil (an easy-going, fun loving, happily married couple). He also finds himself being self-conscious for the fact that he is an “Indian”, a “foreigner” in an Irishman’s world. Yet this is the land  where he finds his true love – Aoife. This love interest ruffles doubt and speculation for both the Irish and Indian families. Does their love survive the cross-cultural test? What happens when Padhman’s world is shaken by a traumatic incident?

The novel is fast-paced, interesting and makes a good read. There is a healthy sprinkling of Tamil slang and references to iconic buildings in Chennai, which makes the reader silently smile; the relationship between Padhman, Renu and Sunil is well brought out and totally identifiable; the situations, people and conversations are all something you can relate to. All in all, ‘Paddy Indian’ is old wine in a new bottle – nothing spectacular yet definitely worth reading.

Unaccustomed Earth

A few pages through the book and one can feel Lahiri’s style of story telling surging forth. Simple yet classic literary fiction. Casual narration that carries tremendous weight when you ponder upon the latent meaning it encompasses. The collection of stories have a common thread – the relationships, emotions and experiences of first generation Bengali immigrants and their parents who are torn apart between nations.

Each of the stories appears seemingly simple but has profound implications, touching upon sensitive issues, providing ample food for thought for the readers. Characterizations have been well established and the narrative keeps the readers engaged throughout the book. It has also explored relationships in a delicate, interesting manner making them appear simple yet paradoxically complex.

My personal favorite stories were ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ and the ‘Hema-Kaushik’ trilogy. The former story brings out the delicate relationship between a father and daughter, subtly portrays the bond between a grandfather and his grandson and ends on an ironic yet poignant note. The ‘Hema-Kaushik’ trilogy was very well presented and the three parts were seamless and a wonderful way to end the book.

These are a few of my favorite whiffs

Have you ever at any point in time come across a wonderful aroma as you are walking down a street or a pleasant fragrance from someone’s home or a heady scent when someone passes you by? There have been some unmistakable smells from everyday life that have made me close my eyes, breathe in deeply and take in the aroma, fragrance or whatever pleasant smell that is being emanated. Enlisted below are a few of them which I simply love.

I remember as a child walking down the street somewhere in T Nagar in the city of Chennai and there would be small shops along the lane – grinding mills, grocery stores, tailor shops, small pharmacies etc. One of the little joints was a coffee grinding mill and from which a rich, warm hedonistic aroma wafts out and appeases my olfactory senses. It’s a similar experience even when I pass by a Starbucks or any other coffee house. The warm, enriching aroma beckons you and is simply irresistible – almost comforting…

Another strong aroma I will always remember is the evening nearly 12 years back as I was returning home from my Math tuition quickly walking down a by lane in a Brahmin populated locality of Chennai – R A Puram. I still recall the aroma of potatoes being roasted, tempered with mustard seeds, coated with turmeric and salt as they turned golden brown and became crisp over the low flame of fire. That coupled with the aroma simmering garlic rasam, until the aroma danced out into the streets and made the stomachs of passersby like me rumble.

Being a book-lover and an avid reader of Indian writing in English I have frequented the aisles of many a bookshop – Landmark, Higginbotham’s, Odyssey, Borders, Kinokuniya et al. There is something so exciting and solacing in picking up a brand new book and turning its pages and just feeling the surface of the printed paper. Sometimes the sharp edge of a page slices through the soft pink skin of your forefinger and sometimes the glossy pages squeak when you turn each page. But have you ever lifted the book to your nose and smelt the freshly printed paper? At the risk of looking silly I have many times just taken a book and smelt its newness and placed it back on the shelf, satisfied by the experience.

We all love babies don’t we? That small ball, gurgling and chortling, delicate and soft. I’m not sure how to describe the ‘baby smell’ that emanates from their tiny bodies. But it’s a smell you can’t get enough of. A gratifying sweet smell that makes you smile. A combination of powder, oil, soap, milk, spittle and poop which is oddly endearing.

I love watching my washed clothes flapping in the sun as they dry on the clothes pole. I strangely enjoy bundling the freshly washed laundry, still warm from the hot golden rays of the sun. Not only that but I also love the smell of these freshly washed clothes. As I lift my white cotton tee I draw it up to my nose and deeply breathe in the smell of detergent that has cleansed it.

And then there is the smell of rain. It’s an earthy overpowering smell just before a downpour on a dry, hot, scorching day and the smell soon after the first spell when the ground gets wet and the hot air evaporates. It always makes me rejoice and sets me in a pleasant mood for those few moments.

While we are on the subject of aroma how can I not mention the bakery? The smell of freshly baked bread, buns, brownies, croissants and puffs still warm from the oven, tickles the taste buds and draws one to the delicious treats. Whether it is ‘Raghavendra Iyer Bakery’, ‘McRennetts’, ‘Hot Breads’, ‘Bread Talk’, ‘Delifrance’ or ‘Prima Deli’ the bakery aroma is one of the best.

If you’ve walked into ‘Aesthetics’ a store on RK Salai in Chennai that sells wares from Pondicherry or the posh high end ‘Naturally Auroville’ boutique on snobbish Khader Nawaz Khan Road then you would be familiar with the fragrance I’m talking about. A mix of smells that is given forth from handmade paper, leather bags and essential oils. If you want to know what that smells like you’ll simply have to visit the stores. It is a faintly perceptible mixture of fragrances that hits you as soon as you enter the stores.

Last but not the least is the fragrances that entice from the jasmine, sandalwood and rose scented incense sticks giving out swirling wisps of smoke as their tips burn slowly. I may be passing by a small shop in the street or an auto parked at the corner early morning or even my mom’s pooja room but it has always had a calming, soothing and tranquil effect.

To sum up my olfactory experience – For the sense of smell, almost more than any other, has the power to recall memories and it is a pity that we use it so little. – Rachel Carson

Knock knock who’s there?

Unlike this part of the world where I live, when in India you simply cannot have a day without having your doorbell ringing periodically with the familiar stream of helpers to help you get through your everyday chores.

It’s between 5:00 am and 6:00 am in the morning. You’re still stirring in your sleep, while the uncle and aunties are brusquely taking their morning walk. The dew still hasn’t evaporated and the day is yet to begin. Within minutes there is a knock on your door or worse still a single ding dong to break that silence. It’s probably the watchman or “doodhwallah” to drop of your sticky, drippy packets of milk. Of course many of us have gotten smart and leave a basket outside our doors so that the milk can be dropped off without any disturbance.

At around 6:30 am the “newspaperwallah” swiftly flings ‘The Hindu’ at your doorstep and scampers away to other households awaiting the paper with their morning cup of tea or coffee.

Then there is the watchman’s wife (please note that the watchman and his wife are all rounders) who trundles in with three to four hibiscus flowers in colors of red, white or yellow freshly plucked from the compound tree or surreptitiously picked from a neighbor’s tree for your morning pooja.

Somewhere between 7:00 am and 9:00 am while you’re in a frenzy trying to pack off husband and kids, the maid strides into the house. This is maid no 1 who is breezy and extremely focused on finishing the work in the least amount of time with the least amount of effort. She is meant exclusively for washing the clothes, scrubbing the vessels, sweeping and mopping. All done in a jiffy and all done after she has sipped her hot tea.

As she makes her exit, maid no 2 makes her entrance. Now she is only for the top work. Dusting, chopping vegetables, making the second round of tea, folding the clothes, keeping away the vessels and generally hanging around to execute any odds and ends. Sometimes you wonder why you’ve hired her and sometimes you thank God for her looming presence.

At around 8: 00 am the watchman is again at the door demanding the keys of your vehicle, which stands coated with a layer of dust, so that it can be washed and wiped squeaky clean.

Come 10:00 am and the “istriwalla” or ‘ironing man” is tapping his foot with one arm propped on the wall for support, looking around the living room and making small talk with the maid. He counts aloud as he drops your crumpled, wrinkled clothes in a pile. He then bundles them up and hoisting it over his shoulders yells out the number and trudges out.

At around 10:30 am the gardener makes his appearance. Yet another round of tea to be made and served in a steel tumbler( seems like tea is the fuel to get everyone started on their work). He folds his lungi and gets to work in the sweltering midday sun. He potters around for about two hours until noon and has managed to repot, add new soil, water, cut and prune and finally clear up the debris.

At around half past 12 the “sabziwallah” cries out “greens, onions, potatoes, tomatoes…”. Usually he rings your doorbell and tries to entice you with a “fresh” special vegetable. After a few minutes of haggling you walk away with your vegetables and he walks away with his few rupees.

You would think that you would atleast not have anymore visitors after this but invariably there is some minor repair that needs to get done ever so often. So from 1 pm until 5 pm you can have anyone from the plumber to electrician to computer serviceman to TV/Music system serviceman knocking at your door.

So you see, fortunately or unfortunately your aides stream in and out of your household all day long. But the scene abroad is quite a contrast. I long for the doorbell to ring. I reminisce about the barrage of servants, maids, cleaners, dhobis, and all the above mentioned “wallahs” and how domestic help of any kind is a luxury out here and not a part of everyday life.

So while I do cartloads of washing, drying, folding, ironing – cartloads of vessels – scrubbing the bathrooms and toilets – chopping veggies and making my own tea and meals – being extra careful about appliances lest I land myself in a problem, your doorbell is ringing.The “cablewallah” perhaps?

Let’s Drink to Milo

When it comes to downing the all – in – one nutritious milk in a disguised form, Aavin’s cardamom and pistachio flavored milk packaged in tetra packs now and plastic bags earlier, win hands down. Thank God for small mercies thought my near and dear as I happily sipped on the delectable drink which I otherwise hated. It beats me how I managed to drink half a cup of steaming hot Bournvita in my sleep for 14 long years. But come college and out went the milk factor or anything associated with it from my dietary chart. Now and then I was enticed with a banana milkshake, mango smoothie and cold coffee just so that the milk would flow into my body. Sleepiness of course made it much easier to gulp down the oversized glass filled to the brim with a frothy shake/smoothie. Mom’s can be relentless.

But when I moved to Singapore out went all the cardamom and pistachio tetra packs. Out went all the smoothies and shakes. But not long after, Singapore’s favorite energy drink greeted me. When I was handed out an environmentally green carton with ‘Milo’ scrawled across it and the picture of a swimmer and chocolate milk somewhere in the background, my first instinct was to turn around and bolt in the opposite direction, as fast as I could. Had my throat not been parched and had I not been told that it is Singapore’s most popular drink I wouldn’t have touched it. I eyed it with suspicion and tentatively took a sip. What followed was a pleasant experience. The chilled chocolate milk tasted delicious and had a rich chocolaty flavor.

It’s interesting to note the popularity of the drink. Singapore is famous for its kopi tiams present in every residential hub and even the CBD (Central Business District). The kopi tiam which is a traditional breakfast and coffee stall often serves ‘kaya toast’ (toast with an application of kaya- a jam of coconut milk and egg), teh (tea), teh tarik (pulled tea or the equivalent of India’s cutting chai), teh halia (ginger tea), kopi (coffee), kopi tarik (café latte), kopi ais (iced coffee) and of course last but definitely not the least, Milo. Milo can be served as Hot Milo with water or milk, Iced Milo with water or milk, Milo Dinosaur (iced milo with a generous sprinkling of powdered undissolved Milo heaped on top) and Milo Godzilla (iced milo with a topping of whipped cream). My personal favorite is the Milo Dinosaur at Mr Teh Tarik’s – a small wooden pushcart in Far East Square, with two Indians behind the cart pulling tea for Singapore’s corporates all suited and booted in the heart of the CBD. However I must add that today the pushcart has given way to a stall called Mr. Teh Tarik Cartel, thanks to patrons like myself who never get enough of the Milo whether it’s a Dinosaur or a Godzilla.

Soapsuds

Frustration mounts as the channel surfing becomes frenetic. “Isn’t there one decent program to watch on the home grown channels?” I think to myself rather dejectedly. It makes me sit up and wonder as to where all the creative talent has gone?? Are they all holidaying at some exotic spot? Have they been abducted or are they yet to recover from the current onslaught of unbearable soap operas and irksome game/reality/music shows?

I was happy and excited when I learnt that I have access to Sony TV, Zee TV, Star Plus and Sun TV in Oriental Singapore, but I am beginning to believe that I am probably better off without these precious few channels.

With all due respect to Ekta Kapoor, the K serials have transformed TV content and programming. For worse. I must admit that the saas-bahu saga was interesting initially and the ‘Kasautis’, ‘Kahanis’, ‘Kyunkis’ ruled roost over my cognitive and affectual abilities. But not for long. It doesn’t take too long to wake up and smell the coffee.

The Indian soaps have lent themselves to being stereotypical. A large joint family is the norm. The protagonist is always good and possesses God like qualities. Bahus will put even angels to shame with their kindness and good virtues. Vamps give competition to Kathakali performers, with eyebrows shooting up in every possible direction, wicked smiles that stretch facial muscles to the hilt and not so subtle mannerisms and special words and phrases that punctuate every sentence. Characters are draped in silks, elaborately embellished saris, and royal jewelry. Bindis have become larger and more intricate, blouses have become a fashion statement and the “Sindoor” – a generous application fiery red kumkum is hard to miss.

Themes always revolve around conflict where women are pitted against one another. All they ever do is plot and connive. Life is one ongoing conflict resolution and celebration of festivals with singing and dancing in ostentatious houses. There is an overdose of sweeteners and the following adages are usually thrown in our faces. Good wins over evil, the truth will always outdo everything else, if you are slapped on one cheek show him your other, forgiveness is next to Godliness and human beings are immortal (after all how else can Ba live until eternity).

Where have serials that revolve around simplicity, subtle emotions, and human relationships gone??

I can recall some interesting work – Ravi Rai’s ‘Sparsh’, ‘Sailaab’, ‘Kashish’, ‘ Thoda Hai Thode Ki Zaroorat Hain’. The former three names all dealt with extra marital relationships but in a humane and realistic manner. Renuka Shane, Mahesh Thakur, Sachin Khedekar rendered some memorable performances. Characters appeared real, dressed in everyday clothes that we the junta are familiar with and dialogues were a killer, often providing food for thought. I never missed a single episode of Ravi Rai’s serials and nor did I miss Neena Gupta’s legendary ‘Saans’, ‘Siski’ and ‘Pal Chinn’. Surprisingly even DD dished out some interesting fare. Udan and Jeevan Rekha were a breath of fresh air. Dekh Bhai Dekh, Zaban Sambhal Ke, Mr Yogi (a comedy based on Yogesh Ishwarlal Patel, an NRI who returns to Bombay in search of a suitable bride) offered something to smile about. As for the portrayal of women – they were shown as progressive and capable of making informed decisions, independent and willing to fight the odds. These serials were a league of their own and stand apart from the bandwagon of today’s modern day paradoxically retro serials.

As for Sun TV, I only look forward to Vivek’s comedy scenes telecast over the weekend. That’s about it. K. Balachander’s ‘Kai Alavu Manasu’, ‘Premi’, ‘Chinna Thirai’ were something to laud about but gone are those days of meaningful drama.

It’s high time The ‘K PEOPLE’ did a reality check. I would be happy to highlight a few pointers. For starters, we no longer live in large joint families. We dress simply with minimal jewelry and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a young Indian woman with a “sindur bhari maang’. We try and maintain a work life balance and deal with juggling work, family and baby and yes we do receive help from our husbands. That reminds me, today’s man is independent and doesn’t need his wife to take care of every little need of his. Relationships with in laws are productive and please we have plenty of meaningful things to do other than plot and gossip.

And spare me the funda of ‘this is what the audience wants.’ I have finally solved the “chicken-egg riddle’. The question of audience interest driving content or vice versa does not hold good. We have no choice but to put up with the crummy content served up to us. I think Indian audiences have been grossly under estimated. We are an intelligent people and it is insulting that our sensibilities be assaulted in such a brazen manner.

To wrap this up – It takes a rather special sort of person to follow soaps. You have to be highly intelligent (to understand them) and as thick as a brick (to want to).Alan Coren

My masala dabba

A wry smile escapes my lips, as I see Chef Floyd throwing in some “garam masala” (strictly pronounced as ga-ram (ram rhyming with bam) mus-saa-la. It almost seems like garam masala is the secret ingredient to lip smacking Indian “curries”. So is it or isn’t it? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It is at this moment that I would like to proudly present to you my ‘masala dabba’ or ‘spice box’ if you wish a literal English translation. This indispensable utensil to any Indian, who dares to venture into a kitchen, was carefully and firmly slipped into my trousseau amongst bridal finery, linen et al. I echo my mother’s words when I say, the masala dabba is crucial (yes crucial) to everyday casual Gujarati cuisine. The steel circular dabba opens to seven different masalas. Almost every gujju shaak (vegetable dish) and gujju dal (lentils) owes its taste and aroma to these intriguing powders. The right measure of each of these masalas is half the work done in presenting a lip smacking meal to your near and dear. Tiny black mustard seeds (rai) sit next to the thin long fragrant cumin seeds (jeeru). Turmeric (haldi) is used in small measure to render just the right colour to any dish. Cumin and Coriander powder (dhaana jeeru) is used generously like a base and gives taste a fair volume. Red chili powder (lal marcha) which is used slightly more than turmeric powder and slightly less than cumin-coriander powder in quantity, contributes to the spice factor. And of course the deeply fragrant generic spice powder (garam masala) completes the dish. Not quite. Salt for some reason does not feature in the masala dabba but is nevertheless the most important ingredient that can cause the dish to be labeled as insipid or palatable. So does this complete the dish? Not quite.

If you’ve noticed I have covered six masalas but there is one more container in the dabba that appears empty. And that container is in the centre. This extra special ingredient that appears invisible is but in reality a healthy sprinkling of love. And when this feeling/emotion is mixed in with all the spices it seals the dish. To all the cynics out there – I personally have scoffed at the idea when this secret tip was passed onto me by my mother, as I was beginning to cook my first meal. But over time I have realized that cooking with love and filling that central compartment in my masala dabba with it, has enhanced my dishes with an intangible and rich flavor.

God is in the Art

If you are a Hindu, just look around your house. I can bet that you have at least one painting (or had at least) or figurine of one of the deities apart from the ones seated with all their benevolence in your pooja (prayer) room. The elephant headed Lord Ganesha, the playful and romantic cow herd Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva in his Cosmic Dancer form win the popularity vote as far as artifacts and canvasses are concerned. But in recent times, the monkey God – Lord Hanuman and Lord Vishnu in all his ten forms have been included in the camp.Indian art is so inextricably linked with Indian religion and philosophy, so much so that, the sculptures of Ajanta – Ellora, Khajurahu and the many ancient temples of India soon entered Hindu homes. Stone, bronze, terracotta, glass and even papier mache figurines of Indian Divinities depicting the sensual, virile, powerful qualities adorn every architectural space in India.

Consider for instance, the lobby of a plush five star hotel with its polished marble floor, high ceiling, spectacular chandelier, richly upholstered sofas and

a beautiful bronze idol of Ganesha seated on a wooden console, its radiance and luster enhanced by a focus light placed strategically above the piece.

Waxed wooden floors, Elvis memorabilia, suffused dim lighting, an all American menu, a rock shop, a live band that “rock n rolls”, autographed guitars and rare photographs from the days of rock. Just as these are the hallmark of any Hard Rock Café (be it Bengaluru, The Gold Coast, Bali, Warsaw, New York, Seoul and the list goes on) so is the proverbial image of lord Ganesh which finds a comfortable place in each of these exotic locations to enjoy the endless nights of rock n roll, all while he bestows his blessings on patrons.

Stylish, chic, modern apartments with accent rugs, contemporary furniture, walls painted in natural tones, plenty of throw pillows with embellishments. Perhaps a cozy nook with a corner table for coffee books, a lamp shade and small curios, a modern rendition of Lord Ganesh perhaps or a more traditional idol of Lord Krishna playing his flute or embracing his beloved Radha. A small hand crafted or stone carved Ganesh, a brass or wooden Hanuman may be a few amongst the bric-a-brac interspersed with books on the bookshelf.

Paintings and images of the Divine in a myriad hues, textures, shapes, and sizes can dress up many a white washed wall. Tranquil blues, fiery reds, refreshing greens, earthy browns can be combined to create a modern, abstract or traditional image of benevolent deities on paper, canvas, cloth, wood

and glass.

Even a modest, simple, humble abode will bear some objet d’art – a sandalwood murti (idol) of the Divine, an inexpensive terracotta piece or even a simplistic greeting card framed and mounted.

Indian art to me is but a manifestation of the Divine.

Art in India has always been considered a path of realization of the Ultimate Reality. It is spiritual in outlook, idealistic in expression and sublime in interpretation.- Ananda K. Coomraswamy.

 

Child’s Play

Coloring books, dolls, chopu, monopoly, carom, lock and key, four corners, Enid Blytons, Famous Five, Secret Seven, Nancy Drew vs. kinder golf, X Box, Play Station, Harry Potter. Times have changed and with it so have the games children play.

I fondly remember my childhood and often recount my favorite childhood pastime – coloring. I still remember my “Jumbo Coloring Book” – a big fat sunny yellow book with over 500 pictures within its pages, just waiting to be brought to life by the color I choose to fill in. I used to gleefully open my book, place it on the mattress of my bed and kneel on the floor and color away with my camel color pencils or camel crayons. The steadler felt pen set from an Aunt visiting from abroad was taken out on occasions just to outline the picture. Each day I would add color to several pictures, a mother duck with her three ducklings behind her, an elephant playing with a ball, a clown with a bunch of balloons, a girl frolicking about. If it were pencils on Monday then it would be crayons on Tuesday and paints on Wednesday. Care was taken to color strictly within the lines.

Besides “coloring” I loved to read. Enid Blyton scored some brownie points as she entertained me with “The Naughtiest Girl in School”, “Amelia Jane Does it Again”, “Mr. Meddles Muddles”, “The Enchanted Woods”, “The Faraway Tree” and oh the list is endless. When I look back at these books today, I am bemused that these amazingly simple stories had once upon time caught my fancy. I have passed on my treasure trove of books to my lil niece and I wonder if those very same pages that I leafed through time and again, now yellowed and spotted, will catch her fancy as well? Or will the Harry Potters of today’s world take precedence? I guess time will tell.

Tiny wooden utensils made for little fingers to play with, colored in turmeric and vermillion, green and purple, lil kodams (Tamil term for utensils meant to fetch water) to fetch some water in, a chakki (Hindi term for a household device meant to grind wheat manually) to grind wheat into flour, tub shaped vessels to hold imaginary food and real grains of rice – my chopu (Tamil term for miniature kitchen set) set – now becoming a thing of the past. There was a time when the famous chopu set, neatly encapsulated in a palm leaf box was readily available outside temples and was part of every little South Indian girl’s toys, but today we had to literally hunt high and low to get one for my niece. I’m so glad I have an odd piece or two in my “house house” assortment, all filled in a tin box sitting somewhere in the attic. The house-house (literal translation of the Hindi equivalent ghar-ghar) game was universal among little girls and I personally loved spending hours, preparing tea and pouring them in steel cup and saucers and carrying it carefully to mom in the afternoons or preparing an elaborate lunch and packing it in my brass Tiffin carrier. I even had a steel idly plate to make steaming hot idlys. Today I do see versions of the ghar ghar set, but the idly plate has given way to a plastic bulls eye and pink colored fork and knives – all packed in a transparent plastic bag hanging from the roof of a fancy store.

Outdoor games constituted the simple Lock & Key, Four Corners, Hide and Seek, Dark Room, Races, Badminton with the gate of the house serving at the net and I guess that’s about it. But today my eyes widened when I heard and saw about “Kinder golf”. Kinder Golf is a unique preschooler golf instructional environment specially designed to groom the next generation of very good golfers- boasts its website. I hadn’t heard about golf until my teens let alone kinder golf! Another eye opener was a TV show called “Baby Ballroom Championship” where children aged between six and eleven, competed for the title of Baby Ballroom Champion. Here were children dressed and behaving and dancing like grown ups – not just any dancing but the waltz, cha cha cha, samba and what not.

Not having touched a single video game in my life I can’t talk much on the subject but I have noticed that most kids on the train tout their PSP games, nimble fingers jabbing at buttons, eyes riveted on the screen, oblivious to the world. When a friend of mine asked me get an X Box for her son, I had to run a search on the internet to find out what the “X Box” was all about!

And who knows, just as how I am blogging about divergent childhood games/interests between generation X and igeneration, 30 years down the line this very same igeneration may be lamenting about the differences between their playthings viz. the x box, psps et al and playthings of generation 2038.

Summer days driftin’ away…

Indian summers are invincible, inimitable and irreversible. The heralding of the summer season were the school summer holidays, mangoes and evidently the sun which shines in all its regal glory. Indian summers connote a host of significances. My most vivid memories are what ensue. Those two months of fun, frolic and being away from school, were looked forward to with trepid anticipation. The countdown would begin 20 days ahead and with each annual exam written and done with, a day was crossed out on the calendar and one more item was added to the “to do this summer list.” Oh yes “summer holidays” were those golden words and a golden period.

April and May were the two months when the whole city would be ablaze, the sun beating down so hard that the soil in my garden would form a pattern of cracks. That’s when I would gleefully pull out the hose pipe and spatter water on the hard cracked surface and watch the parched ground absorb the water in seconds, and then there would be this earthy rainy smell that would emanate from its pores. I would see maids splashing buckets of water on the porch to cool the cemented driveway and the stairs leading to the house. Withered plants, drooping with minimal life would get a lease of life when they were watered.

Summer afternoons were quiet, languid, and flaming. Staying indoors seemed like the best option and every attempt was made to keep the house cool. Curtains were drawn before noon to shut out the afternoon rays, yet one had a feeling of being perennially drenched. I have one vivid memory of lazily stretching on my bed, the fan whirring above me, while my beads of sweat evaporated and I lay there enjoying the cold “frooti” as I sipped the thick sweet mango extract from a small green square carton and I can still literally feel it trickling down my throat. Anything that could offset the heat was welcome – even a bowl of even sized cubes of melon with a sprinkling of sugar, long crunchy sticks of cucumber and chilled milkshakes. (I miss it all so much mom!) It was in the pinnacle of the afternoon, just when the eye lids were drooping, intoxicated with sleep, that the “kwality walls” ice cream seller would walk down the blistering tarred road, tinkling his bell and announcing his presence. It was at that precise stroke of three in the afternoon that I would hand him a 20 Rs note and walk away with a mango bar, raspberry bar and choco bar, for mum, sis and me respectively.

Another unmistakable summer association is mangoes. The King of fruits and they would make their way into my home by the dozen. Nestled in dry hay to retain its fruity aroma the most relished and priceless fruit would enter home ceremoniously and I looked forward to removing the lid of the cane basket, digging my fingers in the hay and removing those half ripe alphonso beauties and laying them out beneath my bed on a soft cloth to ripen. Soon my whole room smelt like a mango orchard and I used to take lil peeks under the bed to check if they were ripe enough to be sliced through. Mangoes were consumed before, with and after every meal. Long slices, cut pieces, aam ras, mango milkshake, vanilla ice cream and mangoes – I loved them all!

Summer was also the season for making pickles and vadams/vathals for the entire year and the entire family. I would be jolted from my slumber and I would scramble out of bed and troop into the kitchen to stir the gooey liquid simmering in a huge unimpressive aluminum cauldron. Mum would then pour it out in vessels and off we would scoot to the terrace to spoon them out on huge plastic sheets to dry in the dazzling sun. This affair lasted for three whole days and then the dried vathals/vadams would be peeled off and stored in huge steel dabbas all year round. This would be followed by the pickle making sessions. Sweet mango, Spicy mango, mixed vegetable, onion-garlic, tomato, green chili (mom had to make all these) would be made in turns and then stored in huge ceramic jars made especially for pickle storage.

Summer was also the time dad drove us on many a sultry night to “snowfield” (I haven’t been to this ice cream parlor in ages) and we would ponder upon ice cream names like “Summer Queen”, “Bugs Bunny”, “Flosberry Flop” and other such whimsical names.

Well I guess that’s enough of walking on sunshine and it’s at this precise moment that I recall Cliff Richards’s lyrics

Everybody has a summer holiday
Doing things they always wanted to.
So were going on a summer holiday
To make our dreams come true
For me and you.

“A perfect summer day is when the sun is shining, the breeze is blowing, the birds are singing, and the lawn mower is broken.”- James Dent

Nadir of the Nadar Shop

As I wheel my shopping cart down the long narrow aisles of my local supermarket, picking up tins and cans of food, neatly packaged packets of lentils and pulses, there is someone back home in some lil’ town in India briskly walking to the nadar shop – that non-descript, ubiquitous, local grocery store soon becoming a thing of the past. In the cycle of birth, maturity and death the “nadar kadai” precariously hangs in time between maturity and death, taking a giant stride towards the latter with each grand opening of the retail supermarket chains, starting with Nilgiris, Spencers, Food World, Vitan, Yeses and the most recent all consuming giant Reliance Fresh.

The nadars are a business community in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the grocery shops they set up was every mami’s answer to her household and sammiyal needs. The nadar shop was located at every street corner whose metal shutters was rolled up as the turmeric colored nimble fingers of the mamis and pattis deftly drew intricate kollam designs, at the break of dawn.Unlike the retail giants neither are there shiny waxed floors to vacuum nor are there rows of tube lights to be switched on. Instead the “uncle” briskly sweeps the cement floor with a broom and goes on to light his incense sticks before the Goddess of wealth and the elephant God of auspiciousness.

The shop is no bigger than an average room and has almost anything and everything one would need on an everyday basis, squeezed together on the minimalist shelves that run from the floor to the ceiling. It’s a demonstration of maximum utility with minimum space. Bars of lux and hamam soap; sunsilk and chik shampoo; surf powder and rin super shakti; parle g and milk bikis biscuits; cuticura and ponds talcum powder; gunny sacks of wheat, rice, lentils and pulses; glass jars of mysterious unknown toffees and candies – a chewy pineapple flavored toffee, colorful poppins, kadlai urundai, balli mithai and paalkhowa – all lined on the small counter to entice the customers, passers by and children of the colony.I remember walking to these “stores” (it was always the store suffix, like Selvam Stores, Thangavel Stores, Pandian Stores and so on…) on many a day, while my mum went about her grocery shopping. I used to tag along just so that I could tug at her sari pallu and ask her to buy me some crunchy groundnuts which the shopkeeper would smilingly hand to me after having poured 100 gms of the nuts in a conical newspaper. The lil treats of childhood. The “uncle” knew all the households and their maids, wives, children et al and even sold items on credit. An understood agreement between both parties based purely on good faith. In fact he was so obliging that in the event of an emergency, a mere phone call was enough to ensure that the shop assistant pedaled furiously to our doorstep with the wares. Home delivery for free! (How is that for a promotion?)

However the yester years have given way to the modern era. The small, dark, musty all-in-one store has given way to the 35,000 sq ft air conditioned well lit floors of aisles; the all familiar uncle with a natraj pencil propped behind his ear has given way to uniformed cashiers with mechanical robotic movements and plastic smiles; the lil scribble pad which served as a bill book has given way to computer generated bills. The nadar shop has given way to the super-market.

Animal Farm

Animal Farm – It’s not George Orwell’s novella that I’m referring to but in fact a significant and visible portion of the cityscape in India. Growing up in India renders one exposed to a variety of domestic animals which blend with everyday life. Allow me to shed some light on this subject as I recount my own experiences with many a cheeky monkey, scamp squirrels and Cheshire cats.

It was just a few months back that there was a huge crowd busy clicking as many snaps and filming as many videos they could on their hi tech mobile phones of someone or something right in the heart of the Singapore’s CBD- Raffles Place. Curious to see what the fuss was about I was amused to find out that the centre of attention was a big fat cow! Bemused by the spectacle I realized that most Singaporeans were seeing a cow outside the zoo for the first time. I walked on unfazed and chuckled thinking of what a common sight it is back home in India.

Cows of every color and stature can be found throughout the length and breadth of India. Major roads in cities, narrow alleys in towns and dusty paths in villages – the cow is omnipresent. And why not – it is after all the most sacred of all animals in India and can rightfully roam around in the middle of rush hour traffic which has eventually led to its sobriquet – mobile speed breaker. I used to find cows sitting under the shade of trees on the pavement, opening and closing their soft brown eyes, looking almost angelic, watching us humans make our way round them while they idly swatted flies with their swishing tails. In fact cows combing the streets of Chennai were so normal that mom used to always bag all the green stalks of leafy vegetables and wait at the gate to feed an ever hungry doe eyed, milky white or chocolate brown cow.

Another contender is the common house crow. Found in numbers these grey and black birds “caw caw” from the leafy branches of trees, from the parapet of terraces and balconies, from the cables running across electric poles, from the kitchen window sill, well I guess almost from anywhere and everywhere. I remember crows as sharp birds that will fly down to food you entice them with in not more than 10 seconds. I particularly recall placing bits of the first chapatti made by mom on the parapet of the terrace and running behind the door peeking to see if any of our ancestors would come. In just a few seconds they would swoop down and carefully turn their heads all around to look if anyone was watching. And five minutes later all that would be left of the chapatti were crumbs. Crows also come seeking water on many a hot sunny day and ruffle their wet feathers as they seek shelter under the rooftop on many a rainy day.

This is what Mark Twain had to say on the Indian Crow.
“I suppose he is the hardest lot that wears feathers. Yes, and the cheerfulest, and the best satisfied with himself. He never arrived at what he is by any careless process, or any sudden one; he is a work of art, and “art is long”; he is the product of immemorial ages, and deep calculation; one can’t make a bird like that in a day. He has been reincarnated more times than Shiva; and he has kept a sample of each incarnation, and fused it into his constitution….In his straddling wide forward step, and his springy sidewise series of hops, and his impudent air, and his cunning way of canting his head to one side upon occasion, he reminds one of the American blackbird. But the sharp resemblances stop there…but this Indian sham Quaker is just a rowdy, and is always noisy when awake–always chaffing, scolding, scoffing, laughing, ripping, and cursing, and carrying on about something or other…In India their number is beyond estimate, and their noise is in proportion. I suppose they cost the country more than the government does; yet that is not a light matter. Still, they pay; their company pays; it would sadden the land to take their cheerful voice out of it.”

Occasionally I was robbed of a blissful afternoon nap by two pigeons who were having a go at it on the hood of my air con unit just outside my window. It’s a loud, deep throated sound accompanied by the vigorous clapping of wings. They always appeared a lil meek and timid as they strutted about looking clueless and easily intimidated by the crows. Yet there is something homely about these birds and almost all households in India love to feed any pigeons visiting them.

Another frequent visitor was the swift, edgy, smart, clever, sharp toothed and bushy tailed squirrel. One look at me approaching and it would scamper away as fast as lightening. It usually came to nibble at the grains mom used to sun in the terrace. I have also had to help mom empty the attic and chase the squealing squirrel out with a broom. The damage to the mattress and pillows was irreversible and this agile, twinkle eyed creature was soon labeled as the house pest.

Its monkey business when the red faced cheeky, bold, long tailed, scratchy, impish monkey makes its presence felt. I remember having a face off with a huge thug of a monkey and its companion as they menacingly stared at me, perched on the branches of the custard apple tree in my garden. Shooing them with scary noises only served to make me appear foolish. The monkeys are so audacious that they soon started thieving from urban households and are looked upon with reproach rather than reverence to the Monkey God.

From time to time you would get lucky and you could see an elephant in all its majestic regal glory, striding down the street with its mahout and men, women and children would run out of their homes to be blessed by the Elephant God himself. I used to bow down partly in fear and partly in reverence but the trunk used to just gently touch my head and I was blessed!

Stray cats are not too common on Indian streets but I have had a green eyed feline look me in the eye and then run for shelter. If you would like to catch a sight of smelly, dirty pigs then a visit to the nearest garbage dump would do. Pigs usually poke their nose in the foul smelling garbage overflowing from the dustbins on the street. Hens aren’t too uncommon to find as well, and so is the case with scraggly goats. Stray dogs roam aplenty and chase each other down the alleys.

So if you are planning a trip to India, be ready with your hi tech cameras to capture domestic animal life – cows, buffaloes, dogs, cats, crows, pigeons, squirrels, monkeys, elephants, hens, goats, pigs et al.

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. ~Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe, letter to President Franklin Pierce

Lombok Unveiled

A tropical paradise to soothe the mind, body and soul. A perfect de stressor to just unwind, relax and put your feet up. Picture perfect, surreal, untouched by civilization – that’s Lombok – an undiscovered Shangri-La.

On a mission to just laze, wine and dine, wiggle my toes on the beach I was headed for Lombok. A virgin island with spell binding views of the ocean as you wind up the smooth road to resorts that dot the shore line. Rice fields, a temple or two, pottery and weaving hamlets, authentic Sasak culture and hospitality, a good rub down at a massage spa is what you will encounter on Lombok’s platter.

The best way to relax is to check into a good resort (I would recommend the Lombok Holiday Resort or Sheraton Senggigi) as most of them line the shore of the Senggigi beach and provide you with one minute access to the beach, a spa facility, a lazuline swimming pool where the water sparkles in the afternoon sun, a bar with a live band and a restaurant or two. An ocean front accommodation needless to say would be the zenith. An island which seems to guise as a village at times and as a town at others has little to offer other than a picturesque landscape and a serene atmosphere to soothe those nerves.

The sound of waves crashing on the shore, an ice cold Bintang, some finger food as you watch the sun set in the ocean is one option. The second alternative is to just uncurl by the pool side, open the page of your book and let the sun tan you a nice bronze. Or you could head to a massage parlor and spend two languorous hours treating yourself to a nice rub down by an adept masseuse. This followed by some live music and sumptuous food in one of the cafes (Papaya to Café and Happy Café are two good places) is a perfect way to end the evening. And if you cannot resist local arts and crafts then make sure you head to one of the pottery villages (Banyumulek is recommended) where you can find some resplendent works of terracotta at cheap prices and also try your hand at the wheel. A visit to the weaving hamlet and Sasak village gives you a glimpse of rural life of the locals. Lombok has a rich tradition of weaving and the womenfolk weave Songets in many beautiful colors and designs in the humid afternoons. Kuta beach enthralls with its turquoise waters and white sand with the mountains of Bali as its backdrop.

The Sasaks have a unique culture and are by large hospitable, save the hawkers who harass you every moment of your time to buy their wares. It can be quite a harrowing experience and tests your patience. The island has a sleepy, languid and tranquil feel to it and you can’t help but laze. So while Bali is boogieing the night away, Lombok is steeped in darkness and the drone of dragon flies whirring through the warm sultry night is the last thing you hear as you drift into a deep slumber.

Beguiling Bali

When you want to take a vacation, you are often confronted with what kind of a spot to choose. Should you opt for beaches or mountains, lakes or something steeped in culture and tradition or perhaps some place happening and alive or just a place to unwind?….

Too many choices?

Ah well!… What if I told you that you could sample a piece of all this (and I mean ALL this) in just one heavenly abode? And which one might that be you ask?…It’s one of the many provinces of the Indonesian archipelago – Bali.

A one and a half hour flight out of the noisy, polluted and traffic ridden Jakarta takes you to the heart of serenity. The destination you have always dreamed of, the pictures of tropical island getaways which you used to flick through in the glossy, slick travel magazine now lies before your eyes.

Research on the region will tell you that Denpasar is the main city area with government offices and the airport in tow. The small, unassuming airport is buzzing with activity as tourists hop off the many economic flights (Garuda, Lion Air, and Air Asia – if you are taking a flight from Jakarta) even at mid night. Jumping into a taxi at the airport you can ask to be driven to many many places in Bali. It depends on where you are headed to. The beach side or the villas or the art hub or the night pubs. Hence I suggest you do plenty of research on the places in Bali and then decide on your accommodation in these regions.Sticking to the most popular tourist region of Bali, I was headed to a small, budget friendly cluster of cottages in Kuta. Kuta is like the mecca of Bali, famed for its sunset on the horizon , night life and shopping streets. There is plenty to choose from for your accommodation. www.balihotels.com will list out numerous options from 15 USD a night to 45 USD a night. So if you happen to be a trailing backpacker or a traveler with a penchant for plush extravagance, you are sure to discover a room, a cottage or a villa of your choice.

Night life in Kuta is truly buzzing, humming and seething. Streets lined with pubs, bars and discos are often pulsating with rock beats, many a swaggering tourist under the heady influence of intoxication, casual picking up of “working girls” for a one night stand – its all a part and parcel of Kuta. Sometimes it almost seems that the seven deadly sins of lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, pride can all be found here. However, a harmless drink in the midst of great music by a live band, in a casual atmosphere, at one of the pubs isn’t a bad deal. Most of the joints are open until four am, so the nights at Kuta are young and alive.

The transition from night to day is quite a transformation where the streets are more of a shoppers haven. Street lined shops beckon you with beautiful, aesthetic wares. It could be coir and bamboo bags, rattan furniture, delicate silver jewellery, trendy bags, Balinese paintings, colorful sarongs, exquisite artifacts, serene Buddha statues, wooden abstracts, tribal masks or traditional wood carvings depicting everyday Balinese life. The art savvy would be driven to dizzying heights by the sights of such resplendent works. There is plenty you can buy as a souvenir but make sure to bargain. You can try your luck by going almost 50% of what the sellers quote and can be sure to get your buy at at least 20%-30% lesser that the price originally quoted to you.

Another place to head out to for a good bargain is Sukawati market. At a glance it may seem like a cheesy place, but never judge a book by its cover. A lil bit of rummaging and walking through the overcrowded, overpowering aisles can get you some stuff which translates into good value for money. A word of caution though- make sure to check the distance between places in Bali as most of them are two hours away from each other. It’s best to hire a bike and move around on your own. There are plenty of places you can rent them from. The other alternative is to hire a taxi or even better to ask the hotel you are staying at to arrange for a car to take you around the whole day. Personally, the bike works best- you are independent and it’s a cheap and easy means of getting around.

If you prefer a bit of peace and quiet and just wish to unwind, put your feet up and relax then its just best to stay a beach front hotel which doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket, and yet isn’t the backpackers rudimentary room. There are plenty of resorts facing the less crowded and less populated Legian beach. You can just sunbathe under the shade of coconut palms, look over to the waves lapping the shore, sip on a cold beer in the afternoon, rejuvenate your senses with a soothing massage or get those tired feet kneaded with some reflexology. Most resorts offer the massage/foot reflexology and there are plenty of centers that offer these services for a whopping 6USD.

If you are looking for some action and adventure, water sports may be an interesting activity. Nusa Dua is the centre of action, with jet skiing, para sailing, banana boat, flying fish being the popular sports. It again comes down negotiation and for 25 USD you can parachute over the ocean and ride the waves on a Jet Ski bike. Nusa Dua also houses some of the most luxurious hotels, constructed in traditional Balinese style and are quite famous with tourists. The beaches of Nusa Dua have clean and white sand when compared to Legian which is blackish in colour. But be it black or white, its perfect for the surfers who have a go at the waves.


The next destination I was headed to after Kuta, Legian, Nusa Dua and Sukawati was the celebrated sea temple at Tanah Lot. I always held the belief that Hinduism was a religion that is specific only to India, but I was intrigued to find a Hindu island alive and thriving when I set foot in Bali. Akin to Indian Hindus are the friendly Balinese Hindus praying to deities and making flower offerings to the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Men and women have Hindu names like Sri, Dewi, Jaya and so on. There are plenty of temples to visit in Bali and the temple at Tanah Lot was by far the most popular.

It is a sea temple perched in the ocean, but close enough to the shore that it’s accessible during low tide. Numerous tourists roll up their trousers and with trepid anticipation wade through the tide, feet trying to get a firm foothold on the slippery rocky floor beneath the waves to pay homage to the sea gods. The sunset at Tanah Lot is renowned for casting a magical spell but unfortunately I missed it, as the sun set behind a cloud. I did manage to savor some of its beauty though. En route to Tanah Lot you will see the rice fields, lush green stepped fields with a peasant or farmer (with a bamboo hat for protection from the intimidating sun) bent over, deftly planting rice. Although rice fields are commonplace in rural India, I must admit that it was a very pretty sight.

Traveling in Bali in the sweltering heat can make you thirsty and can also work up your appetite. The best way to quench your thirst is to relax at a nice beach front restaurant and leisurely drink a Bintang, sample some sea food or try the local mee goring (fried noodles) or nasi goring (fried rice). There is plenty of Australian food available as it’s an island that caters to our cousins down under. Aussie fare like burgers with fries, pancakes, shiraz and merlot on the wine list is not uncommon. Peddlers hawk Aussie newspapers and the locals have even adopted Aussie slang land use words like “mate”. Bali is believed to be the Australian surfers paradise and the island seemed to be like a part of the Australian continent! The locals are extremely friendly (a bit too over friendly for my liking) and be prepared to answer a barrage of questions by shopkeepers, receptionists, waiters, bar tenders, taxi drivers – where are you from, where are you staying, for how long are you in Bali. These are three questions you will be barraged with incessantly. And if you are from India, then exclamations of “You are Indian!” “You are Indian” and “oh so you are in Mumbaai?” “ Bollywood star very beeutifool” n you just become intensely aware that you are Indian and that Bollywood rocks this place.

I must admit that the kind and friendly locals are very very good marketers – persistence personified as they assault you with “deals” and “offers” at a “very cheap” price. Everyone is looking at making a quick buck. Beach umbrellas whether you want it or not will be thrust upon you for a sum of money, masseuses follow you and try to entice you into getting a god rub down, men on bikes try to promote certain places of accommodation. You could just be enjoying a stroll down the street and one after another you will find people running up to you always trying to sell you something. It can be quite infuriating at times but I guess its all part of the game.

There are plenty of other interesting places to visit in Bali and I have recounted but a few. I didn’t manage to see the Balinese dance but have heard it’s a must see. You can check www.bali.com for more information.

On a final note, Bali is definitely a place to visit and the best activity of all is to do nothing. Just chill, unwind, loosen up, de stress and just rejuvenate. Bali has definitely got my thumbs up.

 

Read, Read, Read!

I‘ve traveled the world twice over,
Met the famous; saints and sinners,
Poets and artists, kings and queens,
Old stars and hopeful beginners,
I’ve been where no-one’s been before,
Learned secrets from writers and cooks
All with one library ticket
To the wonderful world of books.

It was just last night during a bed time conversation about a book that both my husband and I read that I said to him” You know, I always feel a wee bit of sadness when I finish a book. Coz you get so used to the characters and their lives, it’s almost like you’re a part of the story yet you aren’t.”

Books have always held a great place in my life and are invaluable. Some might say why spend so much on a book when all you’re going to do is stash it away once you have read it. Well I think books are priceless because although you may stash it away today, you cold always turn to them several years down the line, when you aren’t so busy anymore or just wish to unwind and relax. My dad was the one who introduced who me the wonderful world of books and insisted that I don’t place a tag on it. “Books will always be your friend when you are alone” is what he used to tell me and today, I find that books are infact my company most of the time. The way I look at it, you have all to gain and nothing to lose by developing the enriching habit of reading.

With the internet, video games and so many other forms of entertainment available I wonder how many children really take to reading today. As a school kid I used to so look forward to the library hour, so that I could lay my hands on a secret seven or famous five and read my way through the week. And of course I still have fond memories of the local neighborhood library – just a stone’s throw away from home, where I used to stroll down in the afternoons and pick up my Archies and Danielle Steels during my teenage years. Of course with the passage of time you get introduced to more matured reading and the range keeps widening. It’s a pity that the National Library in Chennai (India) is a dreaded place to go to. I remember frequenting its portico only during my masters thesis and was not surprised to see why it seemed like an ancient relic. Dusty shelves with outdated books, poor lighting, creaky tables and the slow whirring of the fans could easily send you scurrying out of there like your tail were on fire. However thanks to Easwari and the more recent Eloor libraries, Chennaites have something to look forward to. My National Library experience in Singapore was a refreshing and welcome change. The library actually fosters a healthy and reader friendly environment. Well lit, air conditioned, carpeted, sofas and music lounges, a café, computerized book search system, monthly events, tables and chairs for those who wish to work/write makes you want to frequent the place.

A wonderful thing about a book, in contrast to a computer screen, is that you can take it to bed with you. ~ Daniel J. Boorstin
You know I almost always try and have a book on my bedside table. Many a time when I am courting sleep I use the book to help me get through.

Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore? ~ Henry Ward Beecher ~
I couldn’t agree more. I lose track of time whenever I enter Landmark and I always step out with a lighter wallet in one hand and some faithful friends bagged in the other.

Readers may be divided into four classes:

1.) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in
nearly the same state, only a little dirtied.
2.) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get
through a book for the sake of getting through the time.
3.) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read.
4.) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by
what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.
~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~
Believe me, I have been all of these at some point in time or the other.

Never judge a book by its movie. ~ J. W. Eagan ~

I remember reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake” and then watching the movie. The latter was nowhere close to the experience of reading the book. The written medium gives the reader the creative license to imagine. It’s also a much deeper and heartfelt experience drawing you close to the characters. Whereas the visual medium does nothing but to push you into a passive mode.

Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have left me.~ Anatole France ~When it comes to books, it pays to be selfish. I have personally lost so many expensive and favorite books by lending them to friends and family. You can be sure of them disappearing from your shelf forever or if by some miracle, they do find themselves back onto your shelf they appear different- dog eared, battered, scribbled on and so mutilated that you’d rather have them remain missing.

On a final note:
A great book should leave you with many experiences and slightly exhausted at the end.You should live several lives while reading it. ~ William Styron ~

 

No one is India

In the past year I have had many an opportunity to interact with individuals from across the globe – Australians, Europeans, Asians and almost all the dinner table conversations involved references to each one’s culture, country, so on and so forth. Given the global village we live in I would imagine that the horizon of one’s world view would have extended. On the contrary I was met with huge disappointment.

I had to grapple with extremely lop sided opinions of what the Indian sub continent was all about. I was surprised to find references being made to Bollywood as something comical with stars running around trees. Most Indians are vegetarians and don’t consume alcohol. That naan, butter chicken and other tandoori fare are staple Indian food. That our English isn’t all that good after all. That we are loud and crass and that India is a poorly developed third world nation. That bhangra music is Indian music. Well while I’m not out here to refute any of these facts and nor am I intending to parade my patriotism, but I sincerely feel that these views are askew and reflect a very narrow perception of the sub continent. While it could be applicable to a certain portion of the pie it doesn’t necessarily have to extend to the whole circumference.

And when I meet these opinions I am at crossroads because I wonder how I can correct these conceptions or should I say misconceptions and just land up responding “Well it’s not like that. And that’s not reflective of the whole.” I guess the whole is more than just the sum of the parts. I don’t blame them for what they feel or know because they have probably experienced just a very thin slice of the Indian Diaspora. Most of the views are due to what the media promotes and the small percentage of Indians they may have interacted with. At this point I would like to stress that Indians born and brought up in the US of A, UK, Singapore, Australia are for all practical reasons more American, British, Singaporean and Australian with just a delectable amount of Indianess. They however cannot be representative of India as a whole. For that matter no Indian can be representative of India as a whole. That’s because we as a Nation, we as a people are as varied as can be. Different colours, cuisines, dress, languages, music, dance, lifestyle, film, religion and food habits and I guess the differences permeate every aspect of life. So to all those who say that

a. Bollywood is of running around trees- please watch Rang De Basanti, Page 3, Corporate and many other Indian films that I can list out

b. Indians are vegetarians and don’t consume alcohol- not anymore. The upper urban class youth hit the pubs like its going out of style and relish seafood, meat, poultry just as much.

c. Naan, butter chicken and the other tandoori fare are staple Indian food- that’s the staple Indian restaurant fare abroad. There is the spicy Andhra Cuisine, coconut based Kerala cuisine, lip smacking Gujarati cuisine and many many more. Our staple food is simple.

d. That our English isn’t all that good after all- Most of us talk with a neutral accent and most young couples converse in English and are not confined to their mother tongue.

e. That we are loud and crass and that India is a poorly developed third world nation- we can mind our P’s and Q’s as well as anyone else. To quote from wikipedia “With a GDP growth rate of 9.4% in 2006-07, the Indian economy is among the fastest growing in the world.[87] India’s GDP in terms of USD exchange-rate is US$1.125 trillion, which makes it the twelfth largest economy in the world.[

f. Bhangra music is Indian music – It is! But so are the lilting notes of Pandit Ravi Shankar.

No one is India- E M Forster

 

 

Once Upon A Time…

We’ve all read them as children, some of us have read them to our children and still others to our grand children. The evergreen characters of never never land – the once upon a time fables of dragons, imps, pixies, fairies, witches, beasts, dwarves an gnomes, talking pumpkins and castles, helpful mice and ugly frog princes. It’s ahoy fantasy land!

The reason I talk to you about the Enchanted Woods or the Three Lil Pigs and Hansel and Gretel is because as I read them out to my lil niece I noticed a thread that weaves them in a common frame…a faint thread of violence. All tales seem to encompass an element of the good, bad and the ugly.

But aren’t fairy tales after all supposed to be exactly that?…Tales of fairies in far away places meant to swish you away on a magic flying carpet to a land of fantasy and make believe? But instead there is always the conflict of good vs. evil. Young innocent minds being introduced to the bad wolf or the wicked step mother or the cruel step sisters and the ugly frog and the beasts and witches casting a dark demonic shadow and an eerie spell. The Grimms brothers must have quite a brutal imagination and their tales have since long been watered down and Disney has made them more palatable.

One school of thought rationales that it’s a good way to introduce a child to reality and to the dark side of life. I however beg to differ and subscribe to the antithesis. As the child grows he will fall and will learn to get up and walk. It’s natural. And as he discovers this that and the other he will also discover the darker side of life and quite naturally learn to navigate towards the light. Fairy tales needn’t introduce a child to the concept of good and evil.

It would be nice to have fairy tales confine to mere fairies and pixies and countless stars and ballroom nights and friendly chipmunks and squirrels. If I had it my way I would just wave my magic wand and turn those wicked creatures to dust – never to rise again!

From an avid reader of IWE

While strolling along the aisles of a bookstore the common encounters of genres are the fiction, non fiction, self help, classics, cookery, art and architecture, management, science, religion and philosophy, computers, fashion, children, humor and last but definitely not the least “ Indian Writing.”. IWE or Indian Writing in English seems to have carved a niche for itself and today has many a novella, anthology, short stories, novels stacked under its label.

I remember a time when Indian authors merely spanned a controversial Rushdie or a feisty Tharoor, a poetic Tagore, a fiery Khushwant Singh and of course the simplistic Narayan of Malgudi chronicles. But today I find a sudden cartload of books tumbling over ….pick up a few and turn them over …Anita Desai, Anita Nair and Shoba De waving the feminist flag (Ladies Coupe and Speed post were enjoyable readings) , Arundhati Roy (who transported me to Rahael and Esthappen’s world in Kottayam), Jhumpa Lahiri (taking me along with Ashima and her trials n Gogol’s struggle with his identity), Sudha Murthy (her narratives seemed to reflect my own experiences), Chetan Bhagat ( who seemed to strike a chord with his IITian experience). But these are names that would still seem familiar in the faint light of the night. One can cite numerous other writers like Amit Chaudhri, Chitra Banerjee, Pankaj Mishra, Gita Mehta, Gurucharan Das and their contemporaries.

So what characterizes this brand of authors and their work …what makes an IWE experience?…Most often than not I observe that the protagonists of these tales are Indian characters who think and feel and react the way Indians do…long winding descriptions of anything and everything is a hallmark of IWE….be it a page long description of rural India or bustling Mumbai or the rain falling in the stillness of the night or an urchin defecating on the street or a bride adorning herself …its all in the details…the ABCD theme will stick its head up once in a while…the first few pages of the work will serve no purpose other than creating some speculation ..but you see that’s the beauty of the IWE reading experience…it takes you to places in India and makes you feel them…it takes you to the idleness and boredom the protagonists are experiencing…it takes you to an “Indian” mind…it presents to you irony which is a reflection of what India is all about. It takes you on a deep unforeseen journey and leaves you with memorable endings…

 

 

 

Googling and the world wide web

World Wide Web. Three simple words. What do they mean in general? And more importantly what do they mean to you in particular?

Computer network consisting of a collection of internet sites that offer text and graphics and sound and animation resources through the hypertext transfer protocol. Perfect dictionary definition.

My definition – Safe guarder of Sanity

Confined to my hotel room on the 9th floor oscillating between Kiran Desai’s novel and five English TV channels, the internet seems like a God-send. My gateway to the WWW and to put it simply my safe guarder of sanity.

In a city which speaks a foreign language, with nothing else to do but for window shopping in the umpteen malls it can get quite irksome to get by time. It’s during these times that we take cognizance of technology, which today, has become such an intrinsic part of our lives that we have taken it for granted – just like all other good things.

20 years back, the only way to get around a new city would be to ask people. Where will I find this? I want to buy so and so things, where can I go? Excuse me, which is the way to X Street?

But today, you just google it. Google – a household name, a search engine, a word which you can now look up in the dictionary.

Sitting at my desk in Jakarta thoughtfully rubbing my chin: Where can I find Indian restaurants in Jalan Suderman ? – Google it

Curled on the couch with an index finger on my forehead in Sydney: Which bus will take me from Hyde Park to Bondi Beach? – Google it

Standing in my room with an arm on my hip in Singapore: Is there a sub way outlet in Woodlands? – Google it

I can be sitting just about anywhere, I mean anywhere and I have the world at my fingertips. No asking anyone, no groping in the dark, no adventures. Googling is all it takes.

With the death of communication barriers I can see my lil niece who is in India, speak to my aunt who is in America and send pictures to a friend in Australia. I can watch videos, read articles, send emails, chat, voice chat, blog and before I know it it’s the end of a day.

Oscillation has now given way to juggling – novel, www, idiot box. No wonder someone once said ‘Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the Internet and they won’t bother you for weeks’

There are three kinds of death in this world. There’s heart death, there’s brain death, and there’s being off the network. ~Guy Almes

check this out

It’s Her

A bright magenta chiffon with white bandhani print on it, and a green n gold zari border….she halts, as her gaze lingers over the saree….she takes a step or two forward ..pauses and then suddenly points out to it….asks to see it and as he unfolds it with a swift move of the arm…it flows before her and she follows its movement as it falls before her lightly brushing her arm…she runs her palm over the fabric…feeling every inch of it…she lifts it…tosses it over her…tilts her head to a side and views herself in the mirror…a small oval face…a flawless complexion…her hair loosely tied in a bun that that rests at the nape of her neck…a strand or two falling on the side of her face which she tucks behind her ear …and a pair of warm soulful brown eyes….she smiles a little smile….looks at herself one last time in the saree that would make her look even prettier than she already is….she peels it off her shoulder…gently puts it down…runs her palm one last time over it…smiles at the man behind the counter …thanks him…and takes a step or two forward…this time to move further without looking back….

A tinkle is heard as she opens the door and steps in….she looks to her sides and smiles….a brown teddy bear with a red ribbon firmly fastened round its neck….a yellow plastic duck with a red beak and blue eyes….a clown in a yellow, red and green checked jump suit, a red plum for a nose and a grin that would make anyone reach out to him….winnie the pooh mischieviously putting his paw inside a jar of honey….there it was!…..the big sized plastic doll in a pink dress with white flowers, shining black hair that fell till her waist, white socks and black shoes, a chubby round face with filled cheeks and the bluest of eyes with long eyelashes smiling at you….she stretched out her arm and lifted the doll looking at it for a minute or so…she turned it over….Rs 120 the tag stared at her….without a moments hesitation she walked to the old white haired beared man behind the cash register and asked for it to billed…

Opens the door….and walks to the tiny room with pink beds and clouds on the ceiling..she placed the doll on the bed and went back to her kitchen…she kept looking out of the window with searching eyes…finally the wait was over!…she opened the door and the little feet ran to the pink room to fling her bag and gobble her lunch…she waited, biting her lip…there was the same pitter patter and the little arms threw themselves around her neck with the doll tightly clutched in them and with shining eyes and delighted squeals….she let out a laugh and hugged back the little girl…the chiffon saree would have to find somebody else….it would be draped by her only in her dreams…

That was no stranger I was talking about…fictional as it may sound, I’m sure that one person in your family would know who I am talking about…take a chance and just ask her to read it… and you will have your answer….

Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly. ~Ambrose Bierce

Those were the best days of our lives…

As we ride the roller coaster of life we pass through several phases and each of these phases has a birth, maturity and a death. But some of these phases get embedded in the far recesses of our mind and probably gets entrenched in our memory forever and ever…the “guru” of all these phases are the good old college days which spell youthfulness, colour, boldness and a host of other adjectives I bet… a phase which perhaps signifies a turning point in our lives, most of the time without us even being aware of it…. a phase which connotes a host of relationships some which are for life some which are of convenience some of which are priceless some others which are neutral and still others which are just plain sour…the phase where your always doing something….I don’t really know why but for some reason a certain part of my brain constantly activates my brain cells which is incessantly flashing images of this life….and I guess always will….

Today as I sit here typing this I realize that when we are in this phase we most of the time are so caught up in living through it that we fail to realize what we are really feeling or experiencing at that moment in time. It’s only when we sit back and think do we realize how priceless and invaluable those golden moments are.

Who can ever forget the pranks, which range from harmless fun to serious dangerous and risky acts. Bunking the grouchiest professor’s class…. sitting in the canteen knowing that attendance is due in 5 minutes…smuggling corn puffs into class hiding it in whoever’s dress had a pocket or whoever’s palm could grasp it best without revealing the grub…. Popping mentos’ and other mint while taking down notes…daring to discuss answers and the number of questions that each one would attempt arriving on a consensus as to how much crap to write and what to write during a test (“whose marks would be counted for internal assessment” we were told as a threat) or worse still placing the note book under the desk and for those with a dash of boldness, on the desk and paraphrasing it onto the answer sheets (knowing that anyway our marks would be decided on the basis of signal sent to our profs grey matter as soon as the eye ball catches glimpse of the name on the corner) and of course on a more serious level spinning yarns and yarns (enough to choke one to death) on the spur of the moment about what we did on a month long internship, which from our side of it comprised of attending all the movies in town, meeting our friends, going shopping, chatting for long hours over the phone, basically just doing our thing…..or to use the lingo of today’s college goers, “jus chillin”….

Then ofcourse is the most important hang out…. the canteen!!!!!!!!!!!!…the hub of all activity…a place of many and varied sights and sounds…where the piping hot sambar rice accompanied by only one papad which is pounced upon by 6 hungry people….or the over fried potato cutlet(which always gains the sympathy vote) or the occasional dosa or idly or kotthu parotha becomes staple food….where coffee ranging from extra strong to normal to milky is the most happening beverage and the kuchi ice that turns your tongue into a colour palette either royal purple or the tangy orange or sunshine yellow which you get tempted into having the moment you spot someone else’s tongue licking it with relish….oh yes the canteen….the “adda” you turn to when your hungry (obviously) or bored or depressed….its a multi purpose place which you can always turn to…

The most testing period of college life….exams!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! groan n moan n whine …then forget all differences all personal grudges and come up with team spirit and soon theres the protest march to the department where we start by negotiating….” But we have so much to do….and on top of that you want us to write a test”….then move on to emotional blackmail,” you know the situation and how we are over burdened with stuff…we just can’t cope with the load….but if you still want us to take the test we will but it won’t be our bestest effort…” and if that doesn’t work then you just turn into a beggar and beg your way to cancellation “ pleeeeeeese mam….mam pleeeeese……”as you can see placing the mam either behind or in front of the catch word “pleeeeeese”…the trick is to drag it and tilt your face to a side, put on a puppy dog “feel sorry for me” face and chorus it out in voices ranging in degrees of desperation…. and then sensing that it isn’t gonna work you start grasping at the last straw and in a strategic move strike a deal“ ok we will take the test but not now…give us some time so we can prepare and put in our best and come out with flying colours…it’s a promise”….out of a fifty times you get away with it about 45 times proving that no mountain is unshakable and that where there is a will there is a way….but whether now or later when the test day arrives cramming is done either on the eve or in most cases on that morning where some students turn into profs trying to feed the ones with the gift of the gab with some ground stuff….but ultimately everyone gets the hang of it and gases away…that’s the rule of the thumb which you ultimately master at the end of college…the ones who studied try to squeeze in a little of the stuff they studied while gasing and the others who haven’t just let themselves go without any inhibitions whatsoever bringing to light their creativity and imagination…as one of my friend’s put it “ if your lucky you get away with your gassing and when it stinks real bad that’s when your in trouble” …but one thing is for sure never take the risk of not asking for a postponement or cancellation…you never know when the stars are on your side…

And of course there are the relationships that you build. Initially you are just wondering what each one is like and wondering whether “your type” exists there or not. You start off as acquaintances and then as time goes by the bond either strengthens or weakens. But sooner or later each one finds his match and at times several matches come together as a groups. It goes without saying that there is always the brewing of inter group rivalry and at times even intra group rivalry. But believe me some of the relationships can be the strongest, unshakable and the most wonderful. You live through things together. The good times are numerous and the bad times aren’t the ones you spent alone either. These relationships add more meaning and value to your life and your college buddy/buddies becomes your life buddy/buddies.

It is said that it takes all kinds to make this world. Well just stand back and look at your batch. It couldn’t have been truer. It really does take all kinds. There are two characters who will always be there in any class. The class clown and the class prim n proper. It’s always a bifurcation into, the quieter obedient ones on the one hand and the noisier, talkative distracted (and distractive) ones. And subsumed within each of these there are several sub categories.

Well left to me I can write a whole book on these days but for a start I think I should keep it short and let you live your own memories. They may not be exactly like the ones I have just unfolded but I’m sure that they bear some similarity. The base is the same, probably the details are different. It’s funny isn’t it that before you even realize the kind of impact these days would have on your life the days are over. And today all your left with is memories, a box of little souvenirs, a couple of snaps perhaps (the ones where you and your pals are singing during culturals, another to freeze the day you guys went wild and pierced your noses and ears or maybe did something that was equally wild, the customary class photograph, the farewell snap, the time one of your pals took the plunge and tied the knot, the b’day parties and so on….)

You move on and soon the roller coaster begins again. New experiences, new people, new friends, a new phase. But nothing quite like those good ol’ days. So one day if and when you realize this what would you do? Well just do as I did…relive all the good times and perhaps write about it. Tell your kids and spouse about it, dig up the telephone number of the class clown n just surprise him/her, pay a visit to your college and see if things are the same, the professors…the culture…the buildings…the canteen…the library…take a trip down memory lane…

“You have four years to be irresponsible here. Relax. Work is for people with jobs. You’ll never remember class time, but you’ll remember time you wasted hanging out with your friends. So, stay out late. Go out on a Tuesday with your friends when you have a paper due Wednesday. Spend money you don’t have. Drink ’til sunrise. The work never ends, but college does…””- Tom Petty (American Guitarist & Singer)

 

 

Ride in my auto

We have all had this experience sometime or the other…if you are an Indian there is no way you can escape it…whether in Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin…whether you are a man woman child…young middle aged or old…it’s the ubiquitous, harrowing, one of a kind auto ride experience!

If you think that the auto-wallahs aka as auto-karans, (in the place where I come from) are anything like what super star Rajnikant propagated in his raging super duper hit song in Baasha, well let me tell you, you can think again! Endless days of dealing and coping with this race have left me sage on this topic.

So would you like to give your memory a bit of a wake up call?

On a rainy morning in Chennai, standing on the street with an umbrella, trying to avoid getting my salwar wet and protecting my file, lunch bag and purse from those large drops, desperately trying to flag a “rick” which seemed to run on Murphy ’s Law – nowhere to be seen just when you need them. After several minutes, one turns up in sight.

Me: “How much to the destination?”

Vasool Raja (my pet name for the auto drivers): “120 Rs!” (Replied with utmost confidence and I must say guts)

Me: “60 Rs is what I usually dish out”

Vasool Raja: a few words of Tamil slang (try and hold on to your self respect if you can) and then “it’s raining. I have to reach you there in the rain.”

Me thinking to myself: “So isn’t that your job. Come rain or sunshine aren’t you supposed to drive people to their destinations at the already over charged meterless rate?”

Vasool Raja: “Cannot reduce.”

Me: “Nor can I. You can carry on.”

This scene plays itself out for another four to five ricks and finally seeing to my utmost dismay that I have no choice, I climb into these phat phatis and he races through the waterways with scant regard for anyone or anything except his 120 Rs.

The rain mind you is just one scenario. This scene plays itself out for various other scenarios as well.

How about, its 9 at night, your dog tired, hungry, head reeling and just wanting to get back to good old home, but wait its 9 at night – how can you pay normal overpriced charge. Its 9!

“Night time ma”. Oh yes your Sire I almost forgot, its night time. Thaaaaats right- that’s the last I see of you my dear Rs 120.

Or how about this – “Evalo traffic irikkuthu ma. Konja pothu kudunga”. Well of course! How can I be so naïve? I need to pay double the fare because the Chennai Metropolitan Council or whatever you call it, is too busy in their corruption deals to pay attention to the plight of roads and the ensuing traffic congestion. One even went to the extent to say, “Oh that road has too many potholes, so you need to pay me extra.” Oh yes absolutely. Adieu dear Rs 120.

Moral of the story? – Raining, potholed road, traffic, 9pm onwards it’s always double of the already doubled fare.

Moving onto other things – Have you ever noticed the interiors of the auto you are traveling in? No? Yes? Well having traveled in them a good many a time, I have some notes to share. Let’s begin our tour with the meter. That antique rusty box like structure perched on the corner, is both ironic and amusing at the same time. I wonder when it last worked- the 80’s??…your guess is as good as mine.

And what about the film star posters inside on either sides. Boarded with nails on the left, Rajni greets you and Vijay with folded arms, looking at you in the eye, sporting a smile on the right. Hello guys!

The characteristic blow horn is done away with and instead the screechy noise has found its way in. And if you got up on the wrong side of the bed you may find yourself being entertained by some radio music loud enough to make even a deaf person shut his ears. But if you lucky early in the morning, you just may have the fragrance of incense swirling into your nostrils trying to calm your senses as the F1 race begins.  

Screeching burning tyres, a million jerky stops, countless bumps into the potholes (sometimes feel they go right into them without even making an attempt of avoidance just to derive sadistic pleasure) and several jostles as the vehicle and you and everything else along are thrown up from you seat as the engine revs over speed breakers. That’s the F1 wannabe at work.

Traffic lights are passé and the auto driver is the King of the Road. And lest I forget, distance from the front and the sides from another vehicle are always a hair’s breadth. Close enough to scrape and no more distance than that. That’s the rule of the game.

And if ever you get to know why an auto from an auto stand charges you a humongous price, please do enlighten this auto ridden soul.

I just realized that my verbiage on this pet peeve is endless, so I reckon I btter come to a grinding halt right here and spare you the details.

On a parting note – Men may come and men may go but the Auto goes on forever…

 

Ironic India? Or Ironic Me?

For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy-a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life, only to discover that the previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.
An excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”

The reason why I chose to quote this excerpt is because many a time I feel closely aligned to one of the main characters in the book-Ashima. An emotional Indian who cannot change her ways in a foreign land and who constantly longs for the familiarity of her world back in India. I often wonder why the likes of Ashima and me, fail to realize the bigger picture and wish to cling on the ‘previous life’. It was just the other day that a friend of ours swiftly and with utmost ease slashed my “Indian bubble” with what felt like a sharp gleaming Samurai sword-Swoosh!!!!!

He said, “What India are you talking about? The country where politicians are allowed to contest from jails?” That was the first swoosh.

“The country where you and say Amitabh Bachhan are not equal in the eyes of the law? No one is equal in the eyes of law there.” That was the second swoosh.

“The country where everything works on bribes and more bribes and still more bribes?” Third swoosh.

“The country where if a woman drinks it is normally looked down upon but no one fails to eve tease and commit other heinous crimes?” Fourth swoosh.

“The country where there are frequent power cuts, where basic necessities for survival like water, energy etc are rare commodities and now even rarer due to the politicization of that as well?” And then I lost count of the swooshes thereon.

Suddenly I felt like someone had gagged me. My mouth felt sealed and I had difficulty building a defense that could swoosh him into silence equally. And then I just said “Agreed. But unfortunately that’s how it is and whatever said and done its home and its where my heart belongs.”

I know it fails to sounds convincing and I am infact angered coz I know that we live in a less than perfect country. But when I think of India I somehow don’t think of the corruption, struggle, inequality and the endless list of vices but I just think about home. I think about Chennai. I think about family, street food, familiar localities and well to put it simply, just my way of life for the past 26 years. In a nutshell – I just think of my cocoon and blur the rest into oblivion. And thus no matter how perfect the foreign soil may be, it brings on a feeling of alienation, a sort of despondence or like Ashima said “a sort of lifelong pregnancy-a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts.” The bigger picture? Guess I just swooshed it with my local Indian sickle.

India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most astrictive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only!”
Mark Twain

An Indian Abroad?

If you’re an Indian – You know you are abroad when

  1. You are confronted with toilet paper and find to your dismay there is no mug available in any supermarket
  2. You spend a heck of a lotta time figuring out how to open the sauce bottle when actually it’s the simplest technique
  3. You start using a cheese board as a rolling board
  4. You begin deep freezing and refrigerating like crazy
  5. You wear your sweater and jacket on a chilly day while the locals are roaming about in shorts and sleeveless tops
  6. You have to ask the local to repeat himself as you can’t understand the accent
  7. Worse still, you have a perfectly neutral accent but are asked to repeat yourself
  8. You struggle figuring out the change while at a billing counter and slowly pick out the 10 c , 50 c & 20 c coins – (currency )
  9. You are willing to pay 17 Rs for a single tomato and 30 Rs for a laddoo
  10. You store the empty butter plastic containers and recycle them
  11. You have to hold yourself back from crossing a street when you have a red light despite the road being sinfully empty
  12. You make every single payment online
  13. You pay 100$(Rs 3000) to a locksmith, plumber or handyman
  14. You have milk out of a tetra pack
  15. You drink water straight out of the tap
  16. You have to start reading maps to find your way round
  17. You find that public transport comes with an air con , tv and best of all seats where you can actually find a place to sit
  18. You do your laundry , vacuuming and other household chores on a weekly basis
  19. Yours are the biggest suitcases at the airport and nine times out of ten you will have a cardboard box as well
  20. You will spend Rs 300 on a 20 minute phone card

Sydney Food Fare-The belly rules the mind

 

Being an Indian vegetarian the first thing I do when I visit another country is to try and locate an Indian restaurant or stall – just anything Indian or if not Indian, at least vegetarian. Sydney was no different. To my surprise, despite the percentage of Indians being less when compared to Indian populated Singapore, Malaysia, London etc, Indian food was quite accessible. You would find Indian restaurants aplenty in the city and you were certain to find one in almost every suburb. I was overwhelmed to find “veggie” food in every restaurant n food court unlike Jakarta or Singapore where you had to literally hunt to no end for vegetarian fare n then not finding any you would eventually have to request them to make you some rice with “no fish-no meat-no chicken”

You will find a wide array of cuisines in Sydney. The multi culturalism has contributed to specialty cuisines, the most popular being Italian, Lebanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese. You will find every possible fare-Japanese, Indian, Singaporean-I reckon there isn’t a single speciality cuisine that you can’t find in this wonderful city.Pasta is found in almost all food courts and so are kebabs (the Indian version are the frankies)…the kebabs are lip smacking {wrap which has rolled in it hummus(a Lebanese sauce), taboulli (parsley & tomato), tomato slices, onion rings, barbeque sauce, cheese, falafel (red lentil patties) & fries on request}.its juicy yet dry and just scrumptious to say the least. Thanks to its addictive don’t be surprised to find yourself parked at the kebab shop every week!

The range of eateries span the food courts, burger shops, kebab shops, specialty restaurants, Thai take aways, numerous cafes, the gourmet restaurants at the wharfs and of course the luxury ones.

Cafes are a hallmark of Sydney and can be spotted almost around every street corner. Café fares are quite interesting the food being absolutely fresh not to mention healthy. Fresh sandwiches with a variety of breads and fillings to choose from, along with rich wholesome crunchy salads, pasta, milk shakes in flavors of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate, juices, smoothies, chai (tea is called chai) and coffees are the most common items on the menu. Most cafes have street seating and you can enjoy the sun on your face and the warmth of its rays or you can cup your palms around warm coffee on a chilly autumn day…the ambience is relaxed and friendly

Some uniquely Australian fare are chai latte(a spiced tea mixed with milk that’s steamed from an espresso machine), banana bread/muffins, banana smoothie, raisin bread, hot cross buns, berry chocolate pastries, strawberries dipped in chocolate fondue to name a few.

Orange juice tops the charts and is consumed like water. Wine is another major competetor. Infact orange juice is cheaper than bottled water and wine costing just as much as water serves as an excelent substitute!!!Breads, jams, spreads are the freshest. Raspberry is another local favorite and so is ice cream…tiramisu…rasberry…peppermint are some of the unusual flavors and one scoop of ice-cream for 3$ is equivalent to 4 scoops in India…how good is that ?

Never have I had to think that too many choices can be not so liberating…..shelves and shelves of sauces, tinned/canned food, and who would have thought that cheese can pose such a variety, from ricotta to parmesan to cottage to mozzarela to fetta to goats cheese to French cheese…triangles…shredded…blocks…slices…(oh I’m tired)

And if its cheese you’re after then wine cannot be far behind…The Shiraz is a popular variety as is the Merlot… A visit to the vineyards @ Hunter Valley is a must and the wine tasting, cheese tasting and chocolate tours will whet your appetite for more…

After all in a land where farming is the backbone of the economy what else can you expect…fruits, fresh vegetables, dairy products and confectionery …it’s a package deal …no wonder there is a channel dedicated just to food and all this is nothing but good news to us Indians who like the Aussies simply live to eat!

Bondi Beauty

One of the spots to head to in Sydney during summer is the beach….plenty of which exist in Sydney so much so you may not be able to visit all….the most popular are those of Manly and Bondi….nearly every household in Sydney will boast of a surfboard…and if you don’t own one no worries mate…you can just rent a board for 20$ and its all yours for the day….the Sydney beach experience is unlike that of East Coast Park In Singapore or the Chennai marina/Elliot’s….here you will find as you stroll on the soft warm sand that slips through your toes, the beach dotted with sunbathers, sprawled on their tums or bums basking in the rays of the sun hoping to catch the bronzed tan that they can show off later on….look towards the water and you will find surfers on surfboards of various sizes and colors trying to master the waves…its truly exhilarating….perseverance is what you will see in the surfing experience….if surfboarding is not your cup of tea then you can probably look with admiration at the kids and teenagers whiz past you on their skateboards and novices trying to catch speed and learn fancy tricks…. 

And if these activities are too fancy for your liking not to worry…just do our own thing…settle comfortably on the sand….build sand castles or wiggle your toes in the gentle waves that lap the shore or stroll along the shores and feel the breeze on your skin….n for all those of you who would like to catch a glimpse of the blond bikini clad aussie gals you can hit Bondi…. 

You can spend hours and hours on the beach and still not be tired by the experience…even if you are not the beachy type you simply cannot resist the Sydney beaches….lil kids in my opinion have a blast and are the ones who enjoy the most….strangely I’ve noticed that there is one beach activity that tops the list for kiddies…and that’s a small lil boy or girl (dressed in a small panty peeping from beneath a teeny weeny itsy bitsy frock or jus knickers if it’s a boy ) just hovering around three years of age, vigorously scooping a handful of sand, then picking up that weight and waddling towards the waves and then flinging it into the water and jumping with glee after that and then…..only to repeat it after having run (a lil unsteadily)a few steps…And if its not flinging mud cakes then its sand building….castles …ponds…just anything you may fancy….

As the day wears on and the sun decides to bid farewell you can walk onto the rock formations by the side of the beach and see some fishing enthusiasts casting their line far into the ocean hoping to make a good catch….its interesting to watch how they hook their bait and then just fling the fishing line into the ocean and then when they sense a catch quickly try and bring it up but alas-on every occasion the catch got away…one or two were lucky and caught a calamari – a popular variety of fish. This is usually sold to the restaurants across the beach for 10 AUD and an hour later you can walk in and eat that very same calamari and place a 30$ bill in the lil black leather case on your way out… 

The beach front cafes and restaurants offer a variety of food fare …fish and chips is a must….so are the chocolate gateaux and hazelnut ice-cream….if you fancy Thai or burgers or Indian snacks or even Italian ravioli not to worry…and if you don’t mind tickling your taste buds then you can sample some pancakes with maple syrup drizzled over it… 

Whatever you choose to eat…whatever you choose to do at the beach you can rest assured that the memory will last a lifetime… 

“The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach” –Henry Beston


No blues @ Blue Mountains

If you are in Sydney then you will definitely hear about Blue Mountains. Its the first place one would suggest a visit to. A mere two hour journey from the city will take you to a breathtaking valley, a verdant rainforest, splendid look out points, stunning waterfalls and of course the ravishing three sisters.

Getting to Blue Mountains is quite simple. You could either hire a car and drive yourself out there or hop onto a guided bus tour or simply catch the train which meanders through the city of Sydney and takes you to the quaint Katoomba station where you can hop off and then make you way around with the help of the Blue Mountains Explorer (a red bus which circles around the blue mountains area).An intriguing observation is that this paradise exists just outside the city, is easily accessible – you can even make a day trip and what’s more is that its easy on your pocket.

A sky ride will take you 270 m above the rainforest where you can catch a glimpse of the mystifying Katoomba falls and the vast vast vast (I feel a need to write the term vast n number of times to translate the magnitude of the vastness)expanse of the Jamison Valley. Once you reach the valley top the scenic railway which is the steepest incline railway in the world will take you down the lush green unaged valley from where you can begin the scenic walk through the lush green rainforest. As you walk through this leafy expanse you will discover interesting facts about the foliage – many of which are centuries old, one majestic tree even had a hollow running up through its bark due to a bush fire decades back.

Once the scenic world expedition is over you can explore the rest of the place by bushwalking. Bushwalking is a popular activity Down Under and several scenic walks can be undertaken both within the city as well as outside. Bushwalking literally means walking through the bush. Some of the walks were simple while others were heart – in – the mouth walks (esp. the honeymoon lookout) as you tread on a narrow pathway along the edge of a steep cliff with the rainforests below. However the lookout point view makes it all worthwhile, silencing you with its beauty and grandeur.

The highlight of the place however would be “The Three Sisters” – three beautiful rocks or should I say sisters, who stand with all their glory and splendor overlooking the vast Jamison Valley and the rainforests with the Blue Mountains in the background.

The Aboriginal dream-time legend has it that three sisters, ‘Meehni’, ‘Wimlah’ and Gunnedoo’ lived in the Jamison Valley as members of the Katoomba tribe.These beautiful young ladies had fallen in love with three brothers from the Nepean tribe, yet tribal law forbade them to marry.The brothers were not happy to accept this law and so decided to use force to capture the three sisters causing a major tribal battle.As the lives of the three sisters were seriously in danger, a witchdoctor from the Katoomba tribe took it upon himself to turn the three sisters into stone to protect them from any harm. While he had intended to reverse the spell when the battle was over, the witchdoctor himself was killed. As only he could reverse the spell to return the ladies to their former beauty, the sisters remain in their magnificent rock formation as a reminder of this battle for generations to come.

Mountains are earth’s undecaying monuments–NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

 

Feel like the Queen in the Queen

If you are the clicking stiletto, Louis Vuitton clad oh so chic chick then QVB or the Queen Victoria Building is your shopping paradise…

The QVB stands in regal glory at the centre of Sydney’s CBD, on George Street, with its 19th century architecture. Balustrades, arched domes, stained glass windows and tiled floors g iv e it an old world charm and are true to its Victorian legacy. It houses some of the grandest names in fashion and is frequented by the rich and famous.

Salvatore Ferragamo, Martin & Stein Antiques, Swarovski, LG Humphries & Sons, Witchery, Les Ind iennes de Provence, Via Condotti, Darrell Lea Chocolates, Rodd & Gunn are some of the names you will find in there.

So all you slick city malls move over! Coz the Queen of them all is here…

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.” – Bo Derek

Park Yourself

A hot dog at the ball park is better than steak at the Ritz – Humphrey Bogart

I landed in Sydney smack in the middle of summer and what a summer it was!….Sydneysiders (that’s how the locals are referred to) simply enjoy the seasons here…I could literally feel them enjoying the beautiful season…it was that time of the year to wear your tees, spaghettis, shorts, hats, caps, shades and the truly Australian thongs (the flat “chappal”/”slippers”) , slap plenty of sun block (this is a handbag essential and an everyday must as the sun can burn your skin here and apparently Australia is reported to have the highest instances of skin cancer due to the predatory sun) and spill onto the streets, beaches, parks and well almost everywhere….you can literally see people enjoying the season and the bug soon bites you as well….I only remember summers as a time to say “oh Chennai (the city I lived in in India) is getting hotter year after year…its hotter this year than last year “ or as the season of mangoes (wait with trepid anticipation to bite into those juicy mangoes) or as a time to jus stay indoors n avoid the heat as far as possible….or when in Singapore do the same….but in Sydney ?…naaah…..we do it different in Sydney folks!…its summertime n here we come!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Australia is truly blessed by nature and there are plenty of parks in Sydney…so many that you will get tired of keeping track ….n I must add that they are ALL natural…the parks are by no means small n since I live close to Hyde Park I have had the opportunity to walk through the park on many an occasion….vast absolutely lush green lawns with plenty of fig trees forming an avenue, benches and a small lil coffee shop as well….unlike Singapore where all the green is untouched and unspoiled, Sydneysiders sprawl out on their colorful towels n enjoy a read or sit on the bench munching a slice of raisin bread or engage themselves in an afternoon game of chess under the shade of the leafy green trees or simply just sit and chit chat in the company of seagulls and pigeons (I must tell you that the seagulls frequent every building and space in Sydney and do not confine themselves to the shores of the water bodies)or cool off near the water fountain, lil kids splashing about n redefining the concept of fun to us 20 somethings who seem to have forgotten the simple joys in life…

Come noon time and the park transforms itself into a food court of sorts with the oh so formal business men all suited and booted making their way in the park, perhaps meeting their wives and kids over lunch….lunch usually comprises of a sandwich or a kebab roll and what better way to enjoy these treats by sitting in the shade of the trees surrounded by the verdant lawns and in the company of innocent seagulls….if you have a few minutes to spare nothing like watching the chess game in progress…

I must add that I discovered what a park meant only when I saw these sights in Sydney….it almost beckons you to enjoy yourself smack in the middle of the city right in the middle of the day …a haven to retreat to and leave the corporate jungle behind just for a an hour or so….and the icing on the cake – its all for free!

 

 

A Heavenly Experience


There isn’t a single person I know who doesn’t like long drives and when the drive is along the coastline of Sydney, with wind blowing through your hair then its something else altogether. So if it’s a bright sunny day and the skies are clear and if you are in a mood for a lovely long drive and don’t mind combining some temple hopping as well then just fill up your gas and speed on towards the famous Nan Tien temple-the biggest Chinese Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. En route you can step off at a famous Hindu temple, and then continue through the Royal National Park (The second largest National Park in the world) and be taken in by the picture perfect views. I am not even going to attempt to describe this experience coz words simply fail to do justice to this piece of heaven on earth.

Royal Welcome for the Queens

If there is one thing Sydneysiders love then it would be fireworks, cheering, parades and participation. (Okay so I didn’t mean one thing, I meant many things!) And they wouldn’t have it any different on the historical day when The Queen Mary II and Queen Elizabeth II met at the fantabulous Sydney Harbor for the first time after World War II.

I’m sure there must have been many an alarm that went off in the wee hours of the morning, so that the Sydneysiders could make it to the harbor to welcome the Queen Mary. All day long the city was buzzing, people thronging the wharfs just to catch a glimpse of the beauty.

 Come 6pm and all havoc broke loose in the city with traffic jams, as people buzzed towards the wharfs like bees to wax, to witness the historic meeting. The ones stuck behind the wheel for hours that seemed like infinity were cussing “it’s just a ship people!” “get a life!” But oh no, this wasn’t going to daunt anyone’s spirit – certainly not that of the man who climbed up a pole to take pictures, pregnant women pushing prams in the crowd, the oldie goldies hobbling in… 

Everyone was making every effort to inch their way to the best seat on the lawns of Royal Botanical Gardens to catch the best views of the beauties as well as the fireworks. Visiting the city, I certainly didn’t want to lose out on the action and rushed towards catching my own lil seat on the lawns. I found my thoughts slowly aligning towards the cussing passengers but I soon changed my train of thought when I got a glimpse of the majestic Queen Elizabeth proudly sailing into the harbor. It was an “aha moment” (you know, similar to the ‘aha moment’ when the Google way of life was discovered) Sydneysiders didn’t miss any opportunity in giving a warm grand welcome, cheering, clapping, waving. The flashing cameras were no less than the flashes at any award ceremony with the onlookers gasping at the sheer grandeur and glory these ships carried with them. Choppers hovered around the ships as they grandly sailed in serving the purpose of ushers.

A majestic fireworks display was the icing on the cake, lighting the Sydney skyline and leaving everyone including the majestic ships absolutely spell bound.

 

A Gay Evening

Coming from Chennai(a South Indian city) Mardi Gras to me meant the IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) cultural fest, now rechristened Saarang and having attended French lessons, it conjured images of my workbook telling me that Mardi Gras was some sort of pancake carnival in France. 

However, Mardi Gras took on a totally different definition in Sydney. Around the end of February and beginning of March the Mardi Gras fever had spread all over the city and every magazine was writing about the popular Mardi Gras parade, a parade symbolic of the gay and lesbian community. I am told that Sydney boasts of the largest percentage of gays and lesbians in Australia and they are welcomed with open arms. The parade is a celebration of sorts of this spirit… of this freedom of choice… Needless to say my curiosity was piqued and this was one event that was on top of my must see and do list while I was visiting Sydney.

The parade was scheduled to begin at 7:45pm and I was puzzled to see people milling towards Hyde Park (starting point of the parade) at 5:30pm itself. When I reached Hyde Park at 7:30pm I realized why! When I reached the spot, to my amazement the entire walkway was lined by Sydneysiders cheering, hooting, showering confetti and flying balloons. People were shouting out from apartment and hotel balconies and everyone was gay (pun intended). Drag queens strutted about and I must say I had to hold myself from staring. Since I could see nothing but bobbing heads of the million people ahead of me (now I know why people were eager to be there before 7:30pm) I turned towards the screen put up for people like me, so that we don’t miss the action.  

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, a strong supporter of the event was also there to participate in the festivities. It began with bikers, lesbian and gay couples on numerous Harley Davidsons of all ages and shapes – some even topless, waving out and cheering at the crowd gathered. The parade consisted of various floats and each group/float had specific theme, Asian, military, funny, environmental friendly groups. You name it and they were there, all being cheered on by the onlookers. 

After an hour or so I started making my way out of there. I was yet again taken aback by what I saw. Teenagers dressed in the shortest, tightest of clothes, fluorescent jewellery at strategic places, some talking loudly, some others screaming, still others boozing, beer bottles strewn about and young couples making out. All of a sudden my conservative Asian background popped up, with my raised eyebrows at these sights and sounds. But Mardi Gras was a nice experience. No great shakes considering all the hoo haa and hoopla but it was a different experience and I guess I now have one more experience to relate to Mardi Gras other than a pancake carnival and the IIT cultural fest!

Mani Ratnam

Mouna Ragam, Agninakshatram, Anjali, Thiruda Thiruda, Dil Se, Roja, Bombay, Thalapathy, Alaipayuthey, Kannathil ….., Yuva and now Guru!….what do all these have in common…well of course I know I am stating the obvious, but nevertheless, they all reverberate “Mani Ratnam”, one of the doyens of Indian Cinema, a director par excellence and to put it simply an auteur director who spells class and magic…

Mani Ratnam in my opinion, has over the years contributed significantly to Indian Cinema and has also taken Indian Film to International fame…a director who weaves slick imagery, breathtaking visuals, understated acting, minimalistic dialogues, even minimalistic lighting, award winning-foot tapping-soul searching music,youthful romance and much much more in the tapestry of his films…

I have always anticipated his movies with a keen curiosity and eagerness for he has a knack of leaving an impact on you…one of the reasons his movies stand out is, because at the very core of it he touches all of us in some way, simply because his themes are pivoted around human emotions, relationships and real life events….

But somehow with each passing film the “Mani Ratnam” or proverbial “Madras Talkies” stamp is fading…it happened with Yuva and it happened with Guru…

For the first time i felt a great deal of disappointment after a Mani Ratnam film….a script that falls apart, redundant characters, a hurried wrapping of the film, not so great music and the total loss of simplicity, relationships n i would say even emotions….yes he has as always brought out the best in his lead actors n so has been the case with Abhishek Bachan but the experience was nowhere close to the emotions i have felt on watching his films….

I cannot call this sudden dip as giving in to commercialism coz he always been commercial….n he has been very open n clear about it….so what is it then…i can’t quite seem to put my finger on it but just hope that this was a one off experience….i think he is perhaps at his best with Tamil movies, simple characters n simple treatment of the film…

To all those who loved the film well good for you! and for those of you who were left with an empty feeling well no worries…we can hope that his next production will satisfy our cognitive and affectual senses…

 

Who is that birdy on my window??

Confined to my home in a foreign land with no buzz of the telephone … nor the maid briskly working whilst talking about this that and the other… nor the sound of horns and barks and vegetable vendors or fish mongers yelling in the street …nor the doorbell ringing several times a day (either the gas cylinder service or courier or cable wallah or dhobi or newspaper boy or the store delivery boy)In the dead silence that envelops me day after day, a small little birdy makes its appearance…. 

N can you imagine my JOY when I spot it on my window….i lie still at first, lest it fly away when I move and after a few seconds tick by I slowly sit up and watch silently at my little friend…what beauty in simplicity…a small tiny birdy with a yellow beak and yellow feet and an irregular shape of the yellow freckle around its eye….it hops about on my window sill and makes a small but quite a loud chirp….first one chirp and then two and then a few more chirps…it hops a bit further …peeps into my apartment….my heart longs to feed this new found friend…puffed rice?!….but alas!…i guess my fried must have had its fill already and didn’t even let curiosity get the better of it…my puffed rice lay unpicked….I guess its happiness just lay in chirping to me….n off it went….where to I don’t know…two days and I have started looking out for my friend…. 

May seem silly to you who is reading this…but I can’t tell you what a pure and heartfelt joy it is to have its company in this foreign land ….in my space where no phone rings all day…no doorbell rings several times and no maid talks away all day and no street hawker cries out…Lil birdys like my new found friend are a blessing…a gift from the skies…

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! – John Burroughs

Chennai Nyaabagam

This isn’t going to be an organised post where thoughts follow in a chronological fashion…how can it be…when I’m talking about Chennai its always going to be disjointed rambling coz the thoughts flash at a speed that is way above my speed of typing (which is quite good I must say)…

I’m just gonna list a few aspects, places, people of chennai that come to recall from the top of my head and bear no importance in terms of being listed on the basis of priority…

1. Sun-Veyyail

The hot hot hot scorching Chennai heat which permeates every space…the beams of sunlight flooding the last bench of the 3rd Year sociology class @ Stella Maris College, the hundreds of lil shining stars dancing over the waters of a lil backwater body in some nook of besant nagar, the heat emanating from the hot sand on Marina beach at 3 in the afternoon, the beads of sweat that trickle down your nape and forehead as you walk on Nungambakkam High Road…You can’t escape the Sun ….

2. A R Rehman-Isai Gyanam

Whether is the beat of “Boyz” , the lilting notes of “Alaipayuthe”, the haunting tunes from ‘Bombay” this musical being and his muse rubs off on you…

3. Raasi, Sundari Silks-Pattu Podavai/Paavadai

Tucked in a lil corner of Mylapore close to the Kapaleeshwar koil lies Raasi & facing the busy Panagal Park Road stands strong and proud-Sundari Silks. Enter Sundari Silks and you are greeted with a traditional ‘vanakkam’ and escorted to shelves of colourful silks, cottons, chiffons, crepes. You cannot but resist the kancheepuram attractions-black and shocking pink, peacock blue and flaming orange, pristine white & dazzling gold woven yarns….

4. Idly/Dosai-Suvai

Whether its steaming idlys served in a stainless steel plate lined with banana leaf at roadside Karthick tiffen centre or Mysore Butter Masala Dosai royally laid on a silver thaali lined with the proverbial banana leaf at The Taj Southern spice with the tinkling of soft carnatic music in the background this is an all rounder-eaten @ B’fast, Lunch, Tiffen, Dinner -lip smacking meal which you cannot resist…

5. Mylapore-Nagaram

I still manage to catch a glimpse of an”Iyer” or “Iyengar” lady wrapped in the traditional nine yards , barefoot, loosely tied knot adorned with jasmine flowers that falls till her waist , the gold thaali around the neck, the glittering diamonds on the ear and nose, turmeric coloured feet and hands, silver toe rings, quickly walking towards a temple seeking the blessings of vishnu/shiva/amabal/vinayaka/murugan and/or the countless other deities or heading for the nearest nadar kadai wanting to buy arasi, manjal, molaga, vadaam and other s.indian condiments…

6. Ricks-Vasool Rajas

rigged meters, tamil slang, F1 wannabes, vasool Rajas in short-the autos and the auto drivers menace-you can’t beat these rogues when it comes to charging you extra for a ride, arguing in loud unchaste tamil peppered with abuses, racing around town like the tsunami is at their heels, breaking rules like as if Rules Were indeed made only to be broken….

7. Sathyam Cinema-Madras talkies

Satyam has almost become a household name in Chennai households where half of Chennai flocks its portico at 11:00 am, 3:00 pm, 6:00 pm & 10:00 pm every single day….sitting on the sofa or tautly upholstered seats munching popcorn n sipping coke ogling at maddy’s toothy smile or surya’s soulful eyes (forgive me I cannot discuss the finer details of jyotika or simran or another tamil belle for obvious reasons) well…who can forget “The Q is Dead”….

8. The Hindu-Samaacharam

I sit in Singapore but still insist on reading the Hindu…why if I were in Timbuktu I would still read the Hindu….Its the newspaper that most Chennaites have grown up with and is still the newspaper that Chennai wakes up to with a steaming tumbler of a coffee….The Hindu can never be passe …it can never die…its like a part of a Chennaite’s life now and more of a habit than anything else…

Chennai…a part of me now…more
of a habit than anything else….

Musing on Music

Its a sunny sunday afternoon and I sit here after a cool bath refreshed, lamenting on the subject of my blog…and as I do so I listen to a song (I usually write while my music plays in the background) and what ensues further is but a consequence of that…

“sounds and pitches organized in time to create a chosen artistic or aestetic statement.”That was a web definition of music. I cannot even fathom defining music in my own terms. At best, i can perhaps attempt to describe the effect which this medium might have-a narcotic effect…a hedonistic effect-an inexplicable effect…hence forgive me if what i write appears disjointed and obscure.

 I have always marveled at the ability of this medium to give life to emotions. Something that is FELT.

 Pain, anger, passion-these can only be felt and you and I can feel these whilst listening to music…the range of emotions that a single song can take you through is something to marvel upon…if you get to the basics of it its just a combination of

a. sounds that emanate from various instruments
b. a voice
c. a tune

and it is the combination of sound, voice and tune that makes me feel pain or anger or loneliness or love….Like a parabola it takes the curve of whatever emotion you feel to a crescendo and gently brings it down…If I as a mere recipient of this feels this way I wonder how the creators would feel-musicians, singers and the like….Music for me has an affectual effect and it seeps into the core of my being and elevates me on another plane….and I end this blog right here right now coz I realize that what i attempt to do is to describe the indescribable and in the process i may end up undermining this art…

I haven’t understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it. ~ Ior Stravinsky

 

 
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

apna sapna – money money money

No it isn’t about the latest movie in town …its about you and me..about your dreams and aspirations which are in all probaility a reflection of mine…dreams about the lil piggy bank juggling with shiny lil coins burgeoning into a bank account with the monies….and not just monies but a heck of a lot of it….as we go around muttering our mantra ‘apna paisa money money” and weave on those huge million rupee/dollar dreams are we missing out on something?…

are we?….

ask yourself….

well sometimes (which is often most of the time) I think we do…we in our strong desire to build on our reserves such that we may “enjoy” life in the future, forget to live the moment….how often have you been able to break away from your routine…your nine to five (or maybe i should change the age old time frame to “nine to nine”, as thats the norm of the day after all!) job which stresses you out so much that you have attend satsangs where gurus have to teachyou the ”Art of Living”….I mean c’mon get real…what makes him any different from you that he tells you how to lead a “happy, peaceful” life…how come he has it figured all out…i mean yeah who am I after all to pass judgements coz I anyways am also part of this very same populace seeking for the elusive but what I often find myself wondering is, is it worth it?…in this rat race to earn the highest biggest the superlative, am i compromising somewhere down the line….whatever happened to those simple pleasures of life….whatever happened to simple living….whatever happened to me, to expend all my time and energy in trying to lead a good comfortable happy life, so much so that I mess myself up in the present…a ha!….now we arrive at the base of the argument …ironically today’s global village is fuelled by the monies you and I are trying to gather and it is for this reason that all my questions posed above are silenced…lets face it i tell myself you want to enjoy things in life , you want to be happy and content, you want to enjoy yourself and have a nice time, you need the money honey….time to wake up and smell the coffee and throw all philosophical questions which look nice and fancy on blogs and get cracking….else you’re gonna be left far behind…

Sigh….

and I resign myself to yet another life’s lesson and go back to my material world…..and perhaps so should you….

ask the questions and if you arrive at a convincing answer drop me a line…

 

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