18-Dec-2007

Jim Corbett National Park

The train was reaching Haldwani junction half an hour late. There was a steady drizzle outside. It was slightly disconcerting sitting in a train berth, cocooned in warm blankets and having access to a proper toilet. After having spent the previous 9 days trekking in Garhwal, I was used to waking up in a tent, hauling my backpack and digging into a packed lunch with dirty nails. Life in Chennai, with an air-conditioned office, dainty spoons and clean clothes were all but forgotten. Now I was back in civilization, chugging in an air-conditioned coach. The lady opposite me woke up too, smiled beatifically and in the unabashed manner of most North Indians plunged into getting background details of my life. I chatted, waiting for the train to pull in.

P and I were headed to the Jim Corbett National Park to spot tigers. After having read Man eaters of Kumaon as a kid, even the thought of coming to the reserve was exciting. One normally gets off at the Bollywood sounding Ramnagar station for Jim Corbett. That of course works only if you have taken the conventional tourist route of coming from Delhi. The non-conventional route of boarding the train at Dehradun involves doing a three-hour stopover in the graveyard hour at Moradabad, deep in UP heartland, as there are no direct trains to Ramnagar. An option that is highly avoidable unless you are looking to meet your maker quickly or otherwise ready to suffer a trauma. The safest option seemed to be Haldwani, a fairly popular train junction, about 50 kms away. We were staying at the Tiger Camp (recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide and endorsed by me) and the hotel had sent across a driver to pick us up.

Guddu greeted us with a shy smile, oily hair and a suitably deferential manner. P and I rolled our eyes at his name, hair and manner and rolled our eyes some more when he switched on the music and vague numbers from the 90s began to play. After a long time, I was listening to a tape which ended with the typical 90s ad for another movie – a slice of melodrama, bits of songs, some bish bam and a promise to be an all round family entertainer.

Tiger camp seemed like a top contender for the world’s best hotels. It had something to do with the fact that the bathroom was spacious, the pot was clean and there was hot water. This was a huge change from brushing teeth with a rationed mug of ash strewn warm water and making do with a rudimentary toilet tent placed on a hole in the ground. P and I wallowed in the luxury of it all and then smelling of roses, decided to figure out details of the jungle trek.

The Corbett reserve has several areas within its vast 1300 sq kms. There is a protected area, which is not open to tourists. The other areas can be accessed through different gates. The gates closest to Ramnagar are Birjani and Dhikala. Birjani is located in the periphery and one can drive down to it from any resort in Ramnagar. Dhikala is located inside the reserve near the Ramnagar River and requires an overnight stay at the rudimentary forest guesthouse there, which can be booked in advance (and usually are booked well in advance). The reserve is open only during certain parts of the year. The most popular tourist season is winter, when the weather is quite cool. Our trip was timed during the exact fifteen days before the monsoon was scheduled to break out. This had some attendant problems – Dhikala would accept only current booking as the reserve would be closed in case it was rained out, tiger spotting would be tougher as tigers would migrate to waterholes deep into the forest and even the day trip reserve area could be closed if it poured.

The travel desk manager excitedly told us that the Birjani gate was open that afternoon and we had to immediately join the line at the entry ticket counter, as tickets were limited. After filling out the ticket forms, we waited to be called. A large Tam Brahm family was also in the crowd. The lady-in-charge was filling out the forms with an academic intensity only Tam Brahms can manage. Submitting them she announced in a high pitched, heavily accented Hindi ‘Hum tiger dekhenge na? Hum south Indians hai na’ (we will see the tigers, right? We are south Indians). It sounded like south Indians had superman type X Ray vision that would enable them to spot tigers through the thick jungle. Her anxiety was understandable though. U.P. is a pretty long and costly trip to make and for everyone who comes, a tiger spotted justifies the entire effort. Infact people made trips into the forest every morning and evening during their stay till the elusive tiger was spotted. Only P and I were relaxed, having decided long ago that neither of us could handle more than one trip into the forest and we shall just wait for divine intervention to give us a tiger darshan.

Sure enough, when we got into our Maruti Gypsy (the only vehicle narrow and hardy enough to travel in that terrain), it did not look like we were going to see any tigers. It was quite thrilling driving through the rough roads with creeks freely crisscrossing them. We were also spotting all kinds of unknown birds. The first lapwing we saw had us excited and clicking away. After an hour, we had seen almost 400 lapwings and I was beginning to wonder how lapwings would taste as dinner. We had also seen a beautiful male peacock, its plumage in full display and several deers. There were plenty of deers – Spotted, Sambar and Bark deers. Our guide and driver got excited when they spotted a Marten, an endangered rodent like thing, sleeping on a tree, an excitement I could not share since I had not known about the animal’s existence till then.

Two hours later, things finally began to happen when we found out that a herd of elephants had been spotted. Rushing to the spot, we quietly watched the herd move deeper into the reserve, complete with a 15-day-old baby elephant in tow. The baby could barely walk and along with its mother, was lagging behind. In a bid to protect the duo, some of the older elephants began to move towards us threateningly. We backed up as quietly as we had come and left the place marveling at the family love and protection in animal land too.

Happy that we had seen atleast something worthwhile, we began to wind our way back to the Birjani gate. Just as we were nearing the gate, the guide told the driver to back up the jeep a bit. Deers and monkeys nearby were apparently giving their warning cries. The guide stood up on his seat and gently motioned us to do the same. Right in the middle of a huge pool of brown water, sat our tiger majestically. All around the huge cat, the jungle was alive with the frantic cries of its prey. The tiger however sat nonchalantly, pouring a bit of water on itself. In a few seconds, it began to sense our presence and with a slightly bored look began to walk away, into the jungle behind it. We watched it merge into the brown grass and trees till only a tiny tail could be made out. We had seen a tiger!

Other jeeps driving up after us waited for a while but could not see the tiger. Of the 30 odd jeeps that had gone in that day, only 2 had seen the tiger and one of them was ours. We became celebrities at our resort and immediately were pressed into service as agony aunts cum specialist advisors. Guests who had not yet seen a tiger required our consoling and wanted tips on how to spot a tiger. Both of us were at a loss for words. I was tempted to give evangelistic dialogues like ‘Seek and you shall receive’. Instead I just dug into the excellent spread that Tiger camp specialized in. Tiger spotting, yummy chicken and great desert – a perfect combination.

I went to sleep dreaming of tigers and food.

The next morning was as lazy as lazy could be. Especially since we had to check out at noon and decided that not reading in bed would be a waste of good money. After lunch, fully fresh and having tucked in another sumptuous meal, we set out to explore the area. Another Gypsy had been pressed into service for us. P and the driver sat up front whereas I perched at the back. Given the clement weather, the roof was down and we could feel the strong breeze. For some strange reason the whole picture reminded me of Salman Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Tuffy the dog driving in an open Gypsy in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Quietly chuckling and humming ‘yeah mausam ka jaadu hai mitwa’ to myself, we reached point A – waterfalls. Like every respectable waterfall, this one was also filled with pot-bellied men in their underwear crowded under the never-adequate water, looking disgustingly obscene. Obviously there were no women getting wet and violating the strong Indian moral code.

A tourist snap later, we were off to Point B – The Jim Corbett Museum housed in Jim Corbett’s erstwhile house. The photos, keepsakes and furniture were kept neatly in a perfectly random order. There was no classification, chronological or otherwise. There were four copies of a picture of Jim Corbett posing with a large fish, kept in different rooms. The house itself was well kept though and had a beautiful garden, filled for some reason with quotes of Mahatma Gandhi.

With the only possible tourist locations done, we headed into Ramnagar to check out traditional Kumaoni jewellery. Our driver dropped us off on the main street and promised to be back in an hour. We realised every single person on the crowded street was furiously wondering who the two dark skinned women in jeans and T Shirts were. When we walked up to the shops though all of them went back to being busy. After checking out almost all the jewellery shops, we realised there was not a single one that sold the stuff we wanted. Hungry and tired, we headed into a ‘café’ nearby.

To its credit, the café had lovely large pictures of pastries and deserts stuck on the walls. It also had a promising menu that served everything from south Indian dosas to Nepali momos. Ignoring the huge range, we apologetically mentioned that tea would do. The owner was watching an old Dharmendra movie on TV and we joined him. The movie had been titled ‘Maa’, shamelessly milking the mother sentiment of the 70s. Which meant, Nirupa Roy, as the loving, abused mother kept dashing in and out of every other scene. Dharmendra seemed to be some sort of a playboy/guesthouse caretaker. His wooing style primarily involved letting ladylove Hema Malini be chased by animals and rescuing her. An entire song went by like this, complete with animal cries of the would-be aggressor animal, and sequences of Dharmendra flying midair in a Tarzanesque manner. We watched mesmerized. At the end of the song, a tiger made its appearance and Dharmendra began to wrestle it on cue. In the next scene, Dharmendra was lying all bandaged, with Nirupa Roy by his side. P and I groaned audibly. We could not hear the dialogues in the sequence as the TV volume was a little low, but I would presumed it went something like this

Maa: Oh apple of my eye, how did you get attacked by a tiger??

D: Maa.. Waaaa… Remember the hot chick I was eyeing?

Maa: Yes pride of the Punjabis

D: Well I decided that I must show her how brave I am. So I came up with the idea of taking her to the forest, dumping her in the middle of it, mimicking elephant calls, then pretending to fight wild animals and rescuing her.

Maa: Yes light of my life, though you surely realise we are a flight journey away from the nearest forest and it would have been easier to do some city-based thing. Not to mention tiger bites require more TT shots than dog bites.

She presumably clipped him one in the ear too. We did not notice that because we were busy watching the café’s cook who was returning with a packet of milk. For a café with an elaborate menu, they sure seemed to short on provisions. P and I were glad we had not ordered any pastries, though the sugary, milky tea could have easily morphed into pudding.

With renewed vigour, we decided to inquire at the only jewellery shop that was left to inquire at. It turned out to be the right shop. We picked up light Kumaoni jewellery from the wonderful collection of heavy, antique pieces and headed back to Tiger Camp.

The train to Delhi was at night and we were finally in the last leg of the long vacation. Neither of us said much to each other. Two weeks of hanging out together meant even silence was wonderfully companionable. The conductor who checked our tickets interrupted the silence. Then he beamed and told ‘very good’ when he saw that I had safely preserved my identity card in a plastic pouch. We beamed back like little school children.

Happy the holiday had gone off well, and sad that it was ending, we went back to reading our respective books.

16-Dec-2007

Movie Review - Evano Oruvan,Khoya Khoya Chand

Two movies that I thought I would really enjoy. Both disappointing me, most likely from my own high expectations.

Evano Oruvan’s opening sequence of normal household noises – an alarm clock ringing, buckets being filled and the local train cutting through the wind – had me worried for a moment. Please god, don’t make this a pretentious art movie. Luckily, after the title credits, we are introduced to an honest, middle-middle class Sridhar Vasudevan (Madhavan), his nagging wife Vatsala (Sangeetha) and their two kids. Vasu is every bit the dignified, honest and respectable white-collar employee, on a tight salary, a home loan and a life bordering on comfortable. However, he does not sport the normal middle class tendency to adjust and compromise and bribe a bit. After one too many disappointments of living with an ‘upright’ husband, a frustrated Vatsala tells him to stop whining and fight the system if he hates it so much, little imagining that Vasu will actually do so. Vasu breaks down and during the course of the next two days, goes about beating up every lawbreaker he comes across.

Assigned to his case, is a police officer Vetrimaran (Seeman) who correctly points out that a white-collar employee taking up arms is an indication of a system breaking down. No middle class man would ever fight unless he is pushed to the brink.

Vasu finally jerks out of this mode when an old middle class Tam Bram woman for whose rights he is fighting, refuses to accept the help of a violent man like him. Vasu and Vetrimaran come to their final encounter.

All principal characters are well etched. Vetrimaran’s role manages to straddle a police officer who can sympathise with Vasu but is unlikely to give up his life, career, and comforts in a quest to save Vasu. Vasu’s rampage does not resemble quintessentially Kollywood reformers like Anniyan or Indian. There are no cold calculated moves, just blind rage stemming from a frustration at the corruption in daily life. Even tiny parts like that of the corrupt water lorry assistant who shamelessly letches at a teenage girl are shown realistically.

However it is the larger picture that gets confusing. Does Vasu go on his rampage because he is unhappy with his own life or corruption in general? Why do the senior police officers want Vasu dead especially in a day and age where media would make a martyr out of Vasu? The movie loses focus, steam and logic at these junctures.

Overall, I would have expected better but is still worthwhile to watch on dvd someday.

Khoya Khoya Chand was worse. The settings and the mood were brilliant. The clothes, the hairstyles, the songs, the music composing sessions so different from today’s technologically superior studios, the same casting couch problems, the Bengali director high on artistic integrity and liquor, the Punjabi producer shamelessly spouting commercialism and neither character coming across as stereotypes. Alas, the principal character is the victim of this attention to detail on everything else. Nikhat (Soha Ali Khan) is supposed to be an actress who is exploited by everyone, manages to make it a success in Bollywood and then takes up drinking as her career and personal life nosedive. Sadly it is a rare moment when you can understand or empathise with Nikhat. She looks the same whether it is confessing her first casting couch experience at 14, or discovering that her memories of a loving father are not true or buying liquor surreptitiously from a bootlegger. In a scale of ‘how much I empathized with the character’, if Mr Bean scored a 3, Nikhat would score 1. Especially considering that I was pre disposed to weep for her as she is supposed to be based on real life heroines like Waheeda Rehman who did suffer a lot of trauma.

Rajat Kapoor as the aging hero, Premkumar, has a great role and does it well. Shiney Ahuja as the self-involved writer Zafar again vacillates from realistic to uni-dimensional. Peripheral support characters like Vinay Pathak, Saurabh Shukla, Sonya Jehan shine.

The movie reminded me of some of the dinners I have been to. The table is set right, complete with excellent chinaware and filled with well-garnished, delectable looking items, but the actual food usually tastes average. Looks great for a photo shoot but you can never forget yourself in it.

11-Dec-2007

Movie Review - Victor/Victoria

Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an out-of-work Soprano in 1930s Paris . Toddy (Robert Preston) is an aging, poor, homosexual entertainer who has been sacked from his job. The two form an alliance of sympathy one fine night of trying to cheat a restaurant into feeding them for free. In high spirits Toddy comes up with the idea of dressing up Victoria as a gay member of the Polish royalty, Count Victor Grazinski. Count Grazinki’s unique talent will be an ability to sing like a woman and play the lead female in the famous Paris musicals. Count Grazinki turns into a wild success and Victoria is all set for a career as a woman pretending to be a man impersonating a woman. However, matters get complicated when Chicago club owner King Marchand (James Garner) falls in love with Victoria . Victoria loves him too but asks him to accept her complete with her public face as a man. Marchand is forced to pretend he is gay. Marchand’s bodyguard, Bernstein (Alex Karras), delighted by this revelation, comes out of the closet himself.

However, not all is well. The Mob which backs Marchand’s club wants him to sell out cheap since they don’t want ‘faggots’ running the club. Victoria realizes that the world thinking she is a man is complicating her relationship with Marchand. How do they resolve it?

The movie keeps the tone lighthearted with a corny storyline, Wodehousian style crowd fights, some sparkling wit and fabulous dance numbers. This is probably just the right tone to gently touch upon the aspects of being a woman and being gay. In a seeming casual manner it states some obvious truths. Victoria does not give up on the rest of her life (a la Bollywood heroines) the minute she falls in love with Marchand. She frankly admits that she likes him but in the same breath says her career is as important. This does put Marchand in the bizarre position of having to pretend he is gay. However, it highlights nicely the point that women are entitled to their own identify.

Marchand after one evening of dancing check to cheek with Victor amidst other cooing male couples is quite upset. He stops at a third rate pub, gets into a fight with the ruffians there and spends a happy evening affirming his masculinity by swigging beers with all his black eyed opponents. When Bernstein confesses to being gay, Marchand is shocked that someone so ‘All American’ can be gay.

Originally adapted from a German movie, the English version won various prizes for its cast and crew. However, having no access to cable, I don’t know if it is one of those movies that has made it to the list of reruns. It certainly should.

02-Dec-2007

Working woman

I have always been strongly suspicious of initiatives to bring a more balanced representation of women to any work force. This is not to say I don’t support any moves for a women’s reservation bill in politics. I still believe that ours is a very patriarchicial society and if we waited for the society to evolve to a state where it would be natural for as many women to be governing as men, we could wait till the cows came home, or till homo plasmians (or whatever name you would give the next evolutionary beings after homo sapiens) came home. Besides, if women have been artificially dumbed down to their homes, no harm in artificially boosting them up. I am quite confident they would display the same level of competence or incompetence as men when it comes to leadership and governance. All they lack is experience, and this can be easily fast tracked through a reservation bill. But wait, I am getting completely sidetracked.

Ah yes, Diversity initiatives. It has now become highly fashionable for organizations to talk about the number of women in their ranks and how x % of senior executives are women, x defined as something that is respectably double digit without making it seem like the Board is a happy kitty party in progress.

B School had 17% women. From being in all-girls schools and colleges, I was suddenly in an environment, where there was less than one in a five chance of seeing women at any given point. Worse still, a large part of the male community had been in all boys schools or all boys colleges (most engineering colleges would count as one given the number of women in them) and some genuinely believed that men are superior to women. This meant that you had to fight your way to be heard (not too loudly though lest you be mistaken for a harridan.). Not having really interacted with too many men before, I was shaken. Were men actually more intelligent than women? After all how come there are so many of them in B School as opposed to a handful of women? It took me time to realise that confidence and attitude should not be mistaken for intelligence. Most men in my batch were only as clever or as smart as more women. True, the toppers in my batch were all men. Not so in my junior batch though. Besides, given how our society has evolved, the probability of a bright woman being brought up in a conducive environment that allows her to be ambitious and stride into traditional male bastions like higher education in B-Schools is low.

Move to first job. The place was full of women. It was not uncommon to be in a lift with 5 women and 1 guy. And we were not in a school or other such traditional areas where women are plentiful. It was perfectly ok for a boss to be late for a Saturday morning meeting because she had to go for her child’s parent-teacher meeting. As long as you delivered your results like everyone else, you went home happy.

Moving into my second job, I realised not all places are as conducive for women to be themselves. A lot of the corporate world expects that you act like a guy. So saying that you had to take your child to the doc makes it seem like the organization wasted good money on employing you, a woman, who spends valuable office hours mothering. Never mind that the father of the child could not be bothered doing it and the human race would come to an eventual halt if women also refused to do this job. Never mind that three other male colleagues were late on the same day because one had to pay his insurance premium, one had to test drive the new car which he is getting on his promotion and the third had to pick up his mother from the airport. The first two jobs are seen as important things to be done for normal life to proceed. The third is seen as a Raymond’s man who has a sensitive, caring side to him.

Sure there are women who always have a ready excuse about how their child is falling sick, how their mother in law is in town and how they have to get the house ready for Avani Avitam and hence they can’t make it to office on time. But aren’t there as many men who come into work and spend two hours by the coffee machine, another couple of hours talking to various colleagues in person and over phone? Everyone, who intends to shrug work, will do so, irrespective of his or her gender. However be a woman and give ‘female’ excuses to not do work and hear another nail being driven into the equality coffin.

The other thing I can’t get is obscenity. Men swear. And swear a lot. I cannot hear a day pass by without someone yelling ‘Tell that fucking bastard to release the deal or expect him to get a kick in his balls’. They will yell all this in a voice loud enough for their mothers back home to hear them. But in a closed room conversation where there are women, they will mention fuck, redden, and then apologize and substitute it with a chaste word. What is the deal with that? I remember a colleague in FMCG who mentioned that her male boss said having women around cramps their style. They cannot be their true selves and swear all they want. Implied in the sentence are (1) my natural style is to swear and (2) I am comfortable swearing in front of a guy so let us hire a male even if he is slightly inferior to the woman. As for the first argument, your natural style could also be to rave and rant about that unreasonable boss of yours. But do you do it? How come you can resist the temptation to do that yet find it impossible to go light on the swearing. The second argument begs the question how exactly will it help an organization achieve its strategic objectives.

Actually go ahead and use the swear words. I am not personally too fond of them but I can live with them. What I can’t live with are the subtly sexist jokes. I don’t mean the really gross ones where you can hear the slap of a sexual harassment case. I mean the snide ones that you can’t really protest against without looking like a prude but which clearly objectify women. Men being men immediately laugh at it lest they be seen as a pansy.
Sample this

Male Boss on conference call (presenting a slide to show there are 27% women in our office thus showing we are keeping in mind the Diversity and Inclusion objective of the bank) – These are the number of women in the regional office

Unknown male voice across the conf call – Lucky guy. Send some here

Unknown male voices – ha ha ha

The casual use of below-average sexist humour as a bonding tool is almost a given in the corporate world. It no longer is considered offensive. Seriously. Stop. And if you are going to crack a joke about gender, race, religious or other stereotypes, atleast take the effort to make them funny! I will be happy to laugh.

I appreciate the Diversity and Inclusion initiative in most places. Most cultures have a philosophy that speaks of the Yin Yang balance. Organisations these days are beginning to recognize that achieving this balance means being able to connect with your environment better, having a balanced set of skills and viewpoints leading to optimal conflict levels and better results. The pressure is on to increase representation across gender, communities, abilities, races etc. How it can be translated into a crude joke at a personal level is however appalling. I was introduced in a meeting as ‘a representative of the diversity and inclusion initiative’. Which was demeaning to say the least because I was certainly not hired because I was a woman. I did not get into B-School and be in the top quartile because I was a woman. I don’t remember being given any out-of-turn promotions or pay hikes because I am a woman. Why exactly would someone suggest that I am where I am because my organization is sympathetic to the female sex at the moment!

Especially given that all my life, I have hated even the hint of a suggestion that I gain some benefit for being a woman. I have never been happy with women being given ‘the best woman entrepreneur’ award or ‘the best woman employee’ award. It makes my achievement seen very cheap when the only person I am going to be benchmarked against are other women. Someone senior I know (a very balanced gentleman) did make a very important point. The award is as much about recognizing the achievement of a woman in a male dominated society as it is about providing encouragement to millions of women across the country and the world who are still trapped in lives where they sincerely believe women are inferior to men and who need to be told that women are capable of achieving something.

This is not to say that I do not believe that there is no hope. On the contrary, these are times of change. The one main reason for this is as more women come into the corporate world, it gives men a chance to build a better understanding on how to behave in a workplace with women around. My first organization was an excellent example of that. Men did not find it odd going out for dinner with a bunch of female colleagues (and they could handle snide remarks about being in a Krishna leela). Men did not crib how the female boss took time off to do female stuff. They were trained into seeing the final results and appreciating all of us had to necessarily do gender based roles in a society. The level of vulgar jokes were far and few in between (and this substantially raised the overall humour and creativity levels of the team). Sure they sent each other pics of naked women. But as long as they don’t crib about how hiring a woman means one less person to send nakes pics to, I am fine. The surprise news is that this organization is not going down the drain on account of the high proportion of females in the workforce. To all men (especially some B-School batchmates of mine), this might come as a shock. But what do you know!

So men are slowly no longer treating workplaces like an old boys club. Yet we are far from achieving true equity. And in some sense, I would think equity is not just about equal representation of women. It is about women being women and not having to completely change themselves to fit into a professional life. It is about not having to pretend that you were ok with that client’s offsite in Thailand involving massage parlours lest you be seen as a ‘non-team player’. Which is where a lot of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives lack. They focus on the number but very few places focus on the culture shift that is required. Of course, numbers themselves would enable a lot of the cultural shift as I have experienced.

There are some initiatives that do help cultural shifts. Firstly consciously hiring more women in the male bastions. For instance, in banks treasury jobs are seen more often than not as traditionally male roles and at some level it is assumed very few women can do the job. Perpetuating the culture that it is ok to act like teenager with a raging hormone in a dealing room. Breaking male bastions would go a longer way than hiring more women in your back office processing.

Secondly, give women more leadership roles. No, I am not saying hire a woman CEO. All things being equal, employees who have had more leadership roles usually have a career path right up to the senior management. Most male bosses bring the typical society attitude to jobs – whether it be of ‘protecting’ women from taking tougher roles or simply assuming that a guy can do certain jobs better. Sadly it is these roles that ensure one has got the ability to finally get to the top. If I had a chance to grab even the smallest of these roles, I would go all out and do it.

Thirdly, encourage your men to be more actively involved in their personal lives. The corporate world can’t single-handedly change society’s attitude to child rearing and the like. But providing day care and encouraging even the men to use it actively, making it easy for men to move cities because their wives got a transfer, giving paternity leave will certainly help.

Finally, senior management consciously taking the effort to get the sexist attitudes out. Right from assuming your female employee will not be interested in an overseas internship to cracking those terrible jokes. No culture forms because the guy who does the photocopying thinks like a mcp. It is bosses who set the standards on what is acceptable speech or thinking aloud. Louder raps on the knuckle need to be given to them for even a hint of inappropriate behaviour.

Perhaps someday women can actually cry in front of a male boss when they get an unfair performance review. Oh relax; I am not suggesting the water pots burst. Everyone knows, when upset, men get angry and women cry. So can women be themselves?
Update: This post got featured in the 49th carnival of feminists. The carnival had some fabulous posts well worth reading

29-Nov-2007

Movie review - Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima, the sister film of ‘Flags of our Fathers’ details the story of Japanese men fighting to retain the Iwo Jima Island. Located at a strategic point, Iwo Jima was attacked by the Americans in the WW 2 to enable easy access to the Japanese mainland.

Within the first few scenes of the movie, the stark contrast in the mood between Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima becomes apparent. The American side had sent a huge flotilla into battle, the impressive columns upon columns of ships providing a sense of grandeur in the former movie. The Japanese side, on the other hand, was already losing and starved for weapons and people and would face the advancing American troops with less than fifty tanks and no air or naval support. The American soldiers thought they were going back home at the end of the battle. The Japanese soldiers knew they would have to stay and defend the island till the last one of them died. This is what makes Japanese General Kuribayashi’s (Ken Watanabe) attempts to lead his team among the fear, bravery and confusion so very touching.

Kuribayashi arrives at Iwo Jima to find soldiers digging trenches in the beaches. Having stayed in the U.S. for a few months, he and Lt Col Nishii are among the few who appreciate U.S. technological capability. Realising that the question is not about defeating the American troops, but holding them back for as long as they can, he shuns the traditional war fare technique of fighting the landing American fleets on the beaches. After investigating the island, he forms an unconventional strategy of attacking from hidden spots. He orders his men to dig caves and tunnels from which to shoot without being attacked themselves.

The movie essentially captures two perspectives. General Kuribayashi portraying how lonely it is at the top. He knows more than anybody else that his death is a matter of time. He still resolutely marches on preparing to fight a lost battle using limited resources and demoralized men. Most of his men find his strategy too non traditional and reeking of ‘American sympathies’. They also don’t understand why he insists that they should not honourably commit suicide when their posts are captured. Instead he urges them to join other posts and continue the battle. Dysentery in the island has already brought down the morale of the troop. As the battle progresses, some of the troops take their fates into their own hands, laying to naught any strategy.

The other is of a fictional character, a baker turned soldier Saigo. Brought into a battle he does not understand or want to fight, he blunders on, saving his skin by twists of fate. Saigo is shaken when his friend dies of ‘honourable dysentery’. He suspects a colleague of being an imperial spy to unearth any disloyal thoughts. The traditional Japanese honour is visibly lacking in him as he curses the battle, refuses to commit Hara Kiri and at some point thinks of turning deserter.

The paths of Kuribayashi and Saigo cross several times in the movie. In the end a wounded Kuribayashi dies in front of Saigo after confirming the island is still Japanese. Saigo is captured by the Americans. Desperately but sincerely he tries to fight for the first time to recover Kuribayashi’s gun from American hands.

The story is of underdogs, so tear jerking opportunities are aplenty. There are a few scenes placed for tugging at your heart strings – Japanese soldiers giving scarce morphine to an American PoW and an American soldier killing Japanese deserters, both nationalities acting contrary to reputation. Lt Col Nishii reading a letter written to an American soldier by his mom where you can almost smell the apple pie. Yet the melodrama is reigned in well. Some scenes are touching. Some are not. There are no overt scenes of bravery. The movie is somehow practical in it’s portrayal of how soldiers would behave. The pace is also faster than Flags of our Fathers. The interesting bit is how cultural conditioning can sometimes make it impossible to think out of the box (Strong MBA course material here).

Worth watching if only to get a sense of how a war is fought on the ground by common soldiers. Don’t expect scientific guidance on how to fight a war or any celebration of the fact that 21000 Japanese men kept the 100000 strong U.S. forces at bay for 35 days.

13-Nov-2007

Movie Marathon

Eyes popping

Ears buzzing from wearing headphones

DVD player in a permanent state of mild heat

My marathon movie watching session came to an end yesterday. Or let us say has been put on pause while I go and pick up fresh DVDs from the store.

Friday night kicked off with Friends with Money. A nice chick flick to bring me into the holiday mood, I thought. How wrong I was. Four women. In different states of singledom, marriage, separation. At different levels of poor, middle class and moneyed. If the word ‘bittersweet’ is popping into your head after the above description, desist. It was just plain bitter.

Saturday, I decided to head out for fresh air and watched Om Shanthi Om in the theatres. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half with its ‘homage’ to the 70s Bollywood. The second half with its ‘homage’ to present day Bollywood had its moments. Overall though it would not merit a second watch

Back in front of the TV on Saturday evening. Cheeni Kum after many months of wondering if a love story between a 60 something and 30 something is really meant for me. Surprisingly the Amitabh – Tabu chemistry worked perfectly well. Other angles in the movie did not have the same natural pace and rhythm.

Sunday night, Johnny Gaddar. Which I had missed in the blink-and-you-will-miss-it show at Satyam Theatre. Made at an amazing pace, with twists and turns worthy of a good heist movie. Neil Nitin Mukesh is perfectly cast. Dharmendra speaking English and spouting quotes like ‘It is not age. It is mileage’ is hilarious. The chemistry between all lead actors is pretty good. Overall it makes you think why the Indian audience flops a movie like this while Raja Hindustani ends up as a superhit.

Wrapped up last night with The Good German. George Clooney and Cate Blanchett act in this I-am-trying-really-hard-to-do-an-intense-40s movie. The movie is black and white. There are dramatic bursts of music apropos old movies. Everyone is captured in profile and in light and shade. Pity the story and the script forgot to keep pace with this intensity. George Clooney talking to himself almost felt like Calvin in his detective moods.

12-Nov-2007

Three Year Olds to the rescue

Traditional Colleague had called us for a golu to her house. This is a function during Navaratri/Dushera where people pull out dolls from their showcase, set up a few shelves in the middle of the dining room and with great grandiose put these dolls on display. After that, they call various people home to admire the handiwork and ply them with food and gifts. Sounds like a good deal, ha? Couples of minutes of muttering how wonderful the display is (which I have seen only all the four times I visited your house) and you are set for a yummy snack plus freebie. Unfortunately, there is a catch. Tradition dictates that visiting guests sing for their supper. Literally. Once the two minutes of muttering is done and everyone is settled, the host innocuously brings up the topic ‘so who is going to sing now?’ in a smooth silken voice. The obliging guests promptly break into Carnatic Kirtanas worthy of Thygaraja Bhagavathar and everyone is happy.

I had dropped into Traditional Colleague’s house with a uniquely untalented bunch. All three of us recoiled from the suggestion we sing. Infact, our hostess was also not expecting a stand out December Kutcheri season performance from any of us. The question had been rather half hearted. The ice was broken when my Male Colleague, his wife and their Three Year Old son made their appearance. Kids have a way of making heads turn the minute they appear in a room (drat. I wish I knew how). Two minutes of polite oohs and aahs happened. Then the dreaded question was asked.

When you see frayed and nervous parents of three year olds waiting for the next disaster to happen, you never realise they could also have positive aspects to their life. For instance the non-kid guests refuse to sing and feel guilty about it as they consume the food on offer. The parents of three year olds merely get their child as a stand in. The Three Year Old was coaxed and finally prodded into giving an operatic performance of nursery rhymes. All of us enthusiastically recited the first few lines of ‘Johnny Johnny Yes Papa’ to get him going. Kid smiled shyly and with the wisdom of kids on display, took his time going about the task in a cutesy manner. Eventually after he mumbled a few lines (which his parents obligingly translated for us), he noticed the next visitor to the house and loudly said ‘Hello Mami’

The new visitor was also the Youngest Colleague in the group. She was not particularly thrilled on being called Mami (Aunty) when she realised the rest of us had been called Akka (Sister). One look at her face and you knew she was not going to sing for joy for a while. Traditional Colleague gave up all hopes of further singing and served us cola. Then we all watched Three Year Old bounce up and down the floor for no good reason (I have since seen other kids do this and have realised it is perfectly normal behaviour and not indicative of potential violence). Singing was all but forgotten.

Three Year Old suddenly broke out with a cry ‘Amma. Fan!!!’. He had just noticed the ceiling fan, which had been turned off as the oil lamps in the room were lit. Turned out he was a major fan of fans (notice pun) and could spend endless hours staring at them. Exhaust fans were his specialty. Traditional Colleague promptly swooped him up and took him to the kitchen to show the exhaust fans. The rest of us relaxed a bit and began chatting about this and that. Eventually, when Three Year Old’s interest in the fan waned (or rather his parents decided more than fifteen minutes of fan gazing was probably not healthy for a kid), all of us dispersed with our goodie bags.

Next time I am paying social calls of the traditional kind, I am going to ensure atleast one kid accompanies me.

08-Nov-2007

Festival season as it should be

What a week it has been. Our office has been all agog with the spirit of the festival season and we have been doing major time pass pretty much everyday.

Monday, I rushed back to office from a client meeting to get to the snack stall before the food got over (my office people believe it is necessary to keep consuming whenever there is any food in sight). I was too early for the snack stall. As it turned out, I was quite late for the pot painting cum rangoli cum crafts competition. In the true spirit of gender equality, all the women in office had been nominated as heads of various teams since..you know..the men can’t draw whereas the women are all oh-so-artistic. So there I was, with a team full of men, who looked secretly irritated to see me back in time to put our team back into the race. However, they accepted my orders to tackle the rangoli and craft with good humour. The pot, I kept for myself. In the twenty minutes left, we all worked furiously. K and C had come up with a pretty picture of a lotus and had filled it with splashes of various colours. The mix of colours and the texturing was truly original and put their work miles above the rest. You just had to ignore the giant kidney bean shaped item near the stem (that turned out to be the lotus leaf). Sadly, this inspired effort was shot down in favour of the conventional rangolis. Our team did not win a prize. We however had lots of fun giving bumps to a colleague who insisted on laughing at the work.

The treasure hunt was good fun. I set out the clues and I must say putting up your feet and watching people run hither and thither gives a kind of sadistic pleasure. The last clue was borrowed shamelessly from Asimov or perhaps I should say it was a tribute to the Foundation series. So we had ‘a circle has no end’ to signify that the hunt ended where you began it. The winning team jumped on the cubicle desks, did a little jig and then gave themselves a loud cheer.

Yesterday was traditional day where new recruits had been bullied into shopping for traditional clothes the previous day. Everyone ate lots at the potluck and then looked like they would burst out of their clothes.

Diwali must have dawned bright and cheerful today. I say ‘must’ because I was fast asleep and managed to sleep through ear shattering decibel levels. At 9, I tucked into a good breakfast of idlis, dosas, mutton gravy, vadas, sweet vadas. Two masala magazines, three books, a decent movie on TV and plenty of snacks should see me through the rest of the day.

This is how festivals should be.

p.s. I have eaten too much. I have slept too much. I have watched more TV than the eyes can bear. I have finished 84, Charing Cross Road (Thanks P. It is wonderful as you said). I know that Babita Kapoor thinks Kareena marrying Saif may not be a good idea. I changed the blog format to look cooler than the staid green that was beginning to get on my nerves. I have also seen the sky light up with tons of expensive crackers that looked like a mega comet shower.

07-Nov-2007

As they say, Peaceful Pondicherry

It is a shame when you think about it. I have spent 4.5 years in Chennai. And it was only last weekend that I finally got around to going to Pondicherry. Pondi has always been a bit of a mythical land to me. I knew it existed. Infact I have even been there. My parents took me there when I was quite young. They took me there again on a hot summer day whose only memory I have is of desperately thirsting for water while everybody else seemed to be enjoying the divine aura of the Aurobindo Ashram.

I however had no clue what it was all about.

Saturday morning, P, N and I were all up and bright and well ensconced in the deluxe bus to Pondicherry starting from the Koyambedu bus stand. Please rem that there is a deluxe bus at 8 (which actually leaves at 8.30 after 80% capacity utilization is reached) and plays trampy Tamil movies throughout the journey. The bus’s key selling point is the curtains on the windows. In case you cleverly parked yourself at the window on the east side of the bus, with the idea of gazing soulfully into the sea by the East Coast Road, the curtains come in handy after 9 a.m. By then the sun is out in its full glory. You can barely squint, forget gaze.

We reached Pondi around 11.30 and promptly set off to explore the first restaurant on our list – Café Rendezvous (pronounced Ren-des-woo by the local auto drivers). Rendezvous’s cool thatched hut and welcoming tables immediately swept us off our feet. We sunk into the chairs and began a heated debate on the menu. I never used to be a foodie but somewhere along the way, I learnt to enjoy food. This means, poring over menus take a long time. Choosing a dish involves active consultation with co-diners and sometimes the waiters. Not talking much during the first few bites and then permitting only sentences like ‘oh this is yumm’. I ended up choosing garlic and cream calamari. P informed me that calamari is fish. So I was rather surprised when the dish came as rubbery ringlets. After the first few mouthfuls I promptly went up to the chart hanging over the washbasin, called ‘commercials fishes of India ’ and did not find the calamari there. The waiter was duly summoned and asked to bring a live calamari. It turned out calamari is squid. I sighed and then began to eye P’s cannelloni and we immediately swapped the food. P is the perfect foodie (unlike the baptized me) and can eat practically anything.

Our rooms were not going to be available till 6 p.m. P and I had faithfully read the very helpful Pondicherry tourism website the previous day and had a long list of museums, churches and temples we could see. Not to mention the famous Auroville and Aurobindo Ashram were on our list too. Post lunch though was not conducive to such touristy stuff. We had already eyed a Fab India nearby and several antique shops. So without further ado, P and I dragged a reluctant N on an aimless walk. Fab India outlets are all different based on the city and can be used as a handy social preferences barometer. Chennai’s has conservative, sometimes outright dowdy clothes. Bangalore ’s has skimpier stuff. Cochin stocks fairly stereotyped Indian ethnic. Pondi’s was pretty similar to Cochin ’s. After half an hour of ooh-ing and aah-ing over the furniture, we stepped onto the street and ooh-ed and aah-ed over the houses.

We were in the French quarters, which was certainly definitely the more charming side of Pondi. Thanks to a well-loved French colonial legacy that outlasted even the British rule in India, the town has two quarters, Tamil and French. The Tamil side is considered to be crowded. The French side on the other hand, had cobbled streets and delightfully French names like ‘Rue Suffren’ or ‘Rue Romain Rolland’. There were huge colonial villas on both sides of the streets. High walls, with a hint of a carefully wild flowing garden inside, lots of windows with shutters and nice iron grills. P and I excitedly peered through the gaps in the gates, took photos outside various houses and just soaked in the atmosphere. Eventually, deciding to get some rest, we headed to our hotel.

The hotels that line Pondi’s promenade are terribly expensive. The cheapest of them would charge 2500 rupees a night. The one loophole is the Ashram guesthouses. They are reasonably priced (around 800 a night) but have strict rules (gates close at 10 p.m. and no alcohol allowed) and are difficult to get a place in. We were staying at the Executive Inn, a couple of streets away from the promenade, in presumably the Tamil quarters (I was not sure since the street was called a Tam-French Rue Perumal Koil). It was at walking distance from the promenade and that is what really mattered. During our walk, we had discovered some reasonably priced and colourful guesthouses two streets away from the promenade in the French quarters and stored the references away for future use.

A short nap, one cup of chai and a plate of bajjis later, the three of us were bright eyed and bushy tailed again. This time the plan was to walk the length of the promenade. Pondi blocks traffic on the Goubert Avenue (where the promenade is) on weekends. So you can stroll down the road all la di dah and not secretly worry about being mowed down by an auto. N, P and I stared at the sea for a while, and then began to walk. Our explorer spirit of the afternoon continued, and we dashed in and out of various restaurants trying to find the perfect one for dinner. The Hotel Promenade was kind of classy and pretty pricey. Ajantha had a nice rooftop with reasonably priced food and a great view of the sea. Le Café seemed to be closed for renovations. Eventually we found a place just off the promenade. Le Club was quite cool, not too pretentious, had comfortable music and a good menu. Plus it had the wonderful virtue of being the place where our legs gave up and would walk no further.

J and S were joining us in the night and we promptly called them and asked them to come over directly to Le Club. The food was as expected, divine. The mood was chirpy. Everyone tucked in well. By the time we left it was already 11.30. The bantering continued at our hotel and finally it was around 2 that the last person fell asleep. P and I slept through breakfast the next day. The other three had breakfast and promptly settled for a nap. It was noon before any of us began to show some semblance of being alive. As we got ready, we began to cluster around the TV and watch Dhoom 2. What can I say? The movie is the perfect recipe for a good laugh when you are with friends. Why, Oh why did God make Ash so beautiful, yet such a terrible actress. Watching her try to pull a Yank accent and saying ‘you are like checking me out?’ is enough to make you lose faith in the casting ability of Bollywood.

The final meal was at one of Pondi’s yummiest restaurants, Satsang. My mashed potatoes seemed to be a tribute to Pondi’s gastronomic delights. After another aimless stroll, it was time to head back. We did not manage to catch the luxury bus but were comfortable enough just feeling the cool breeze on our faces and recollecting the previous twenty four hours.

We realised we had not seen a single place in the long list of ‘must see’ places. Instead we had talked, walked, eaten and slept well.
What a fine weekend.

Jab We Met

Ignore the improbably wildly careening storyline. Pretend you do not notice the overdose of balle balles. Instead just focus on the more-often-than-not interesting banter between the lead pair. Tap your foot to some of the hummable songs. Admire some of Kareena’s outfits. Ponder over Shahid Kapoor’s new hunk look. You will be done with 2.5 hours and walk home with a grin, without recollecting a single memorable bit in the movie.

My definition of a good time pass..

27-Oct-2007

Foundation

Finally, last morning I finished the last of the Foundation novels ‘Foundation and Earth’. Thus comes to an end a five month relationship with a series that kept me preoccupied on treks, travels, office lunch breaks, signals at the road, late nights and early mornings till Hari Seldon seemed like a close friend. I almost cried when I read the novel where he dies.

It all began with Foundation. Hundred pages into the book, I kicked myself hard for having waited this long to begin the book. Foundation is more fiction and less science. And how magnificently so. Asimov focuses on the way human civilization thinks and moves. The story begins many thousands of years from our present days. Pretty much the whole galaxy is under the rule of a giant galactic empire based in Trantor. Unfortunately, the galactic empire is crumbling and the likely consequence is a plunge of civilizations into the dark ages till another empire takes its place. This process should take atleast ten thousand years. Except that the series’ unconventional hero, Hari Seldon, has developed a tool called psychohistory to contract the period of the dark ages into a mere thousand years. To enable this, Seldon forms a colony of scientists, technicians and other such people called the Foundation. The novels trace the challenges the Foundation faces and if it eventually reaches the happy conclusion that Seldon meant it to.

The first novel, Foundation, describes the process of how settlers fit in and they begin colonization through religion and economics. Somewhere halfway down, you suddenly realize that it is almost like reading a book on civilizations of the world – fiction inspired masterfully from a rational view of reality. Panting for more, I grabbed the second and then the third books. Asimov manages to keep the level of interest high in both by introducing various conflicts in the path to the formation of the second galactic empire.

A young Asimov had written the first three novels in his 20s. Apparently the series languished for a while as its original publisher had not really done much in terms of promotion. When a more popular book house acquired the international rights, the series exploded onto the bestseller lists. Naturally this lead to a lot of offsprings and four other foundation novels emerged. In all four novels, Asimov, works in characters and references from his other books of fiction. Two are set before the Foundation saga actually begins and talk about how Hari Seldon makes psychohistory his life purpose. Prelude to the Foundation and Forward the Foundation are both compact works that gives the curious reader another piece of fiction inspired by reality – the struggle of early days when testing a new concept right up to the problem of being viewed as a doomsday soothsayer.

The last two novels Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth were written about thirty years after the original trilogy. Not surprisingly, the novels are more philosophical than fictional. Asimov begins to question the whole premise of the Foundation series, and thereby the premise of normal empire building. Sadly, for me, the endless discussions on single organism vs a single person began to sound quite repetitive and finally the logic for the choice made by the hero of the novels seemed quite inadequate. Infact the distant murmurs of a standard Hollywood pinning for a sequel could be heard.

As a series, Foundation is certainly a masterpiece. A fact, which has been testified by its cult like popularity. And it being an inspiration to some real cults around the world (including the crazy one which gassed a Japanese subway many years ago). Asimov is without doubt is a storyteller par excellence.

19-Oct-2007

Blast from the past

One of the buildings I visited before I left Mumbai for Chennai in mid 2003 was a dilapidated, heritage building in townside. It was typical of such buildings. The lift was cranked by hand and could be operated only when the liftman was around. The stairs were worn so smooth by years of use, that most of them were shallow. The plaque near the entrance said ‘Lakshmi Insurance, Lahore , 1921’. It could have been Lakshmi General Insurance and it definitely was some other year, but I am sure about the name and the era. I do remember my busy day grinding to a brief halt as this living proof of an India before partition came to light. It was like stepping into a moment in history when Lahore based businesses must have had branches in Mumbai and when Hindus living in Lahore must not have worried about the next riots.

I had forgotten all about this till I was surfing yesterday and came across this article http://www.hinduonnet.com/thehindu/mp/2006/04/10/stories/2006041000110500.htm

The article is about a man called Santanam. Santanam was pretty well educated – he had studied in Cambridge, cleared his civil service exams and eventually gave that up in favour of law. Unfortunately, the conservative Tamil Iyengars back in his hometown, Kumbakonan (in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu) were not willing to hobnob with him or give their daughters in marriage (The article does not say why. Obviously the penchant for NRI grooms is quite recent). Santanam promptly pushed off to the North, and the rest as they say, is history. He found a bride and plunged into the non-cooperation movement. Eventually at the behest of Lala Lajpat Rai, he founded the Lakshmi Insurance Company, which had offices in Lahore, Delhi and present day Mumbai. This company later merged into the present day LIC.

Ah. The pleasures of everything falling into place serendipitously

17-Oct-2007

Idiot Box

I have confessed it in the past. I say it again. I turn into a TV maniac at the first sign of a cable connection and a remote control. Last weekend was typical. Uncle and Aunty were sitting by me and trying to suppress yawns. Their beloved niece and houseguest, moi, sat transfixed by the Travel and Living channel. Finally giving up all hopes of having a conversation, they turned in for the night. A fly may or may not have wandered into my gaping mouth. I would not have known. I was only aware of clutching the TV remote and pressing it regularly like a monk turning rosary beads.

This shameless behaviour is probably because we don’t own a set top up box. After months of watching/not watching news, Tamil and other free-to-air channels, HBO and Star World make me react like a pop star about to fail rehab yet again.

The Singapore trip was no different. The TV in my hotel room was on non-stop. I got to watch reruns of Friends, Seinfeld, a Chinese serial and some Chinese pop music. Given that I was diversifying into other languages; it wasn’t really surprising that I managed to watch a reality show (marginally higher in the food chain than stuff you don’t understand). The show was called ‘Superheroes’. Participants had to do superheroic stuff like running across a field full of wild dogs. Wow. Did those chaps have an invisible wall around them or could they fly? It turned out, neither. They were stuffed into well padded costumes that made them look like giant potatoes with helmets. Then they kind of hopped across the field while brushing away the canines. The sort of stuff you don’t want to record to play back to your relatives when they visit home.

We all were kindly given a break by the TV. I managed to snap out of my reverie and do essential stuff like packing my bags. I came back just in time to watch the eliminations. All the participants had changed out of their potato clothes. Instead they were wearing super hero costumes, clearly designed by an eight year old high on reruns of Batman and Wonderwoman.

Was I the only person in the world who realized people in their 30s look like losers in such costumes?

Apparently the biggest challenge in the programme was not to laugh at yourself and your co-stars. A really tough thing to do. One of participants was actually eliminated when he cribbed about how the short skirt made him look like a gay Roman gladiator (Alright, he did not say it. He sure meant it). The next one immediately caught on. When asked to describe how her costume made her feel, she gushed ‘I feel powerful. I feel like I can change the world. I feel like a..like a..like a.. superhero’. Eloquent.

The show finally came to an end. The next week’s preview promised the introduction of a villain in a superb Bombay Dyeing bed sheet tied around his neck. I was not too disappointed at the thought of watching this twist in the tale.

Occasional venturing into the cable TV world reminds me of why we don’t subscribe to cable in the first place.

16-Oct-2007

Falling in love

She says: Who is this strange guy you are setting me up with?

She says: Mom, I am sorry but I absolutely refuse to meet his parents. This chap has not even replied to my mails yet.

She says: They are visiting our house?? And I still have not heard from this chap. I am not going to be there for sure.

She says: No, Aunt. I can’t drop into his dad’s office and say hello.

She says: Alright. If he plans to visit us with his folks, I will certainly not embarrass you by throwing a tantrum. Please don’t expect me to dress up and act coy

She is polite and nice. He is polite and nice. She talks to his parents. He talks to her parents.

Two days later she figures out that he deserves a chance though they met under very traditional circumstances. So she fixes up for coffee sans parents.

She says: Sorry about last time. I am not too comfortable with four adults wondering if we will get along

He says: I totally know. It is crazy

..

She says: Yeah I love reading. Mostly fiction though. And Indian authors

He says: Oh. Actually I like reading too. Mostly science fiction though.

She says: Really? Like whom would you recommend?

He says: I guess it is best you start off with Issac Asimov and Arthur C.Clarke and move onto Stephen Baxter.

He never calls back.

She picks up Asimov’s IRobot.

And that is how I eventually got around to reading more Issac Asimov and fell in love with the Foundation series.

I would rate that date a 4 on 5.

13-Oct-2007

Beg, borrow and buy

One of the sure signs that you are a bookaholic is a tendency to pick up books wherever you go. You could have ten unread books in your cupboard and yet when you see something interesting, you grab it like a refugee reaching out for a food packet in a famine. Friends who gush about a book they have read in the recent past usually know I will request to be put on the list of people who is going to borrow their book. Libraries regularly make their income because I borrowed stuff I just had to read and then realised that I was actually in the mood for reading it a good one month later.

The last few weeks have been a nice combination of beg, borrow and buy. The buy list started with the Landmark sale this year, which was a stellar example of the ‘quality over quantity’ argument. They did not have too many books on sale. However, I found stuff I wanted to read at decent prices. So not surprisingly my book budget for the month was thrown out of the window and I went berserk. Here is stuff I picked up

Sideways by Rex Pickett – I had seen the movie and it was pretty neat. It is a ‘slice of life’ story about two friends on a road trip, checking out the California countryside. Going by the basic truth of ‘the book is always better than the movie’, this book went into my shopping bag

The 6th Lamentation, William Broderick – A friend had been recommending it for a while. Since I loved his last recommendation (Neal Stephenson – Cryptonomicon), this one was picked up

Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George – refer comment above.

Four Blondes, Candace Bushnell – I don’t particularly like Sex and the City. I find all of them wimpy whinny types who spent most of their waking hours agonizing over the lack of men in their lives. However, allowances have to be made to the side of me that digs chick flicks. (I have since read the book and realized that this is worse than the series)

Dilberts – When you are getting a 50% off, you just buy them. Guaranteed to make you laugh.

The super-absorbent biodegradable family-size baby blues by Kirkman and Scott - for a friend who delivered twins about a month ago and is suffering from an acute lack of sleep. Hopefully this will help her see the lighter side of life at this stage. It definitely made my colleagues in office laugh a lot.

Foundation’s Edge – This was not on sale. However, my library has not been able to locate its copy of the novel and I am too involved in the series to patiently wait for my library to order it from its network

Best American Essays 2003, edited by Anne Fadiman– Ever since I read Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris I atleast knew that she had great taste in books. The first page of the first essay sounded quite promising.

Being Human by Mary and John Gribbin – to indulge the side of me that seriously believes that one day I will read all the science books in my cupboard.

All this for roughly 2000 bucks. Not a bad deal huh?

After this blitzkrieg, I managed to pick up Satyajit Das’s Traders, guns and money which was recommended by a friend in forex trading. The book is an absolutely hilarious look into the big bad world of derivative sales. Das is an insider and he has a wicked sense of humour. Sample this. Das believes the difference between buy side and sell side is that the buy side says ‘**** you’ and puts the phone down. The sell side puts the phone down and says the same. Anybody in any kind of a selling job would applaud this insight.

To this happy pile of books have been added two books from my library borrow list - Haruki Murakami’s Blind Willow and Sleeping woman and Edward Luce’s In spite of the Gods. The latter’s blurb has positive reviews by William Dalrymple (wow) and Amartya Sen (double wow). More importantly I am hoping this has a balanced look at the hysterical cries about India’s super growth (in other words, that the writer agrees with my views)

Finally my friends beg list has not met its target. A friend to whom I gifted Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was supposed to lend it to me and we both forgot about it when we met. This just reaffirms my policy that you must always read books that you propose to gift and avoid inconvenient logistics later on.

I am fairly confident that some of these books will probably be stored away for a few months, perhaps even a year before they make it to my bedside table where the current reading lists are piled. Which right now is the rest of Satyajit Das, Foundation’s Edge, Orhan Pamuk’s ‘I am red’ (intriguing historical mystery – the only way I can read history) and Sylvia Plath’s Bell jar that is a terse account of an American girl before her breakdown. Plath is very depressing and it is no surprise she killed herself after writing that book. I am sure I can never finish the rest of the book but I don’t have the heart to put it away either. After all she died writing it and you have to commemorate that.

The really cool moment was an addition to the beg, borrow and buy categories, viz unexpected gift. As I mentioned in my last post, I was gifted Khalil Gibran's The Prophet.
It has been a happy few weeks.

12-Oct-2007

Hampi 2

We had decided to get started early to beat the crowds and the sun. The Laughing Buddha guys had to be woken up from their slumber when we landed there for breakfast and to their credit managed to rustle up a good breakfast with all sorts of leftover stuff. As usual we consumed the yummy and calorie heavy Nutella (possibly one of the world’s most divine food additives) sandwiches and pancakes.

Our transport for the day was a giant ‘Vikram’, a mutant auto that could seat all eight of us, as long we did not mind the sundry body parts hanging out of it. We went straight to Hampi’s greatest wonder, the Vithala Temple.

Built by Krishna Dev Raya, this temple is the pinnacle of Vijayanagara art. The temple is constructed largely using granite. The main mantapa has 56 musical pillars that produce various sounds. Played together, they served as the King’s personal surround sound stereo system. Today the main Mantapa is in a state of ruins and modern day concrete slabs reinforce a lot of the structures. Visitors are not allowed into some of the parts and are not encouraged to tap the musical pillars. Our enterprising guide showed us a few sounds on the pillars of adjoining structures. It was dazzling listening to stone sounding melodious.

Apart from its musical abilities, the temple also had other interesting features. Some of the carvings were three-dimensional. One carving for instance looked like a bull when seen from the left and like an elephant when seen from the right. There are various panels depicting stories of the legends and also pictures of life back in the 15th century. The temple, like other Vijayanagara architecture, borrows heavily from all sources. The most unexpected element is the roof that curls up like the South East Asian Pagodas, with dragons present on some of the walls. Some of the panels depict pictures of Chinese and Arabic tradesmen entering Hampi. It is certainly worth hiring a guide who can show you the intricacies.

We walked about for a while excitedly tapping the musical pillars and admiring the art work on the granite slabs. From there, the walk back to the Hampi Bazaar is about 3 kms. On the way, there are several famous structures. We were thrilled to see the Kings Balance where the king used to weigh himself and give out the same measure of gold or food to the villagers when he felt generous. Guess the citizens must have felt jubilant getting an unexpected tax refund. The Kodandarama temple is also nearby. Hampi is famous as the spot where Rama killed Vaali in the famous battle back during the Ramayana days and the Kodandarama temple is a commemoration of this event.

The walk can get quite perspiring if it is a hot day. Having foolishly forgotten my cap, I was finally forced to borrow an umbrella and spent the rest of the day looking like a teacher in a small village in Kerela, a fact which was pointed out mercilessly by AT.

The Hampi Bazaar is flanked on one side by the Virupaksha temple and on the other by a Monolithic Bull. The Bull’s statue had attracted other animals like monkeys and dogs. As we got closer to take a snap, the lot of them started growling slowly to enforce their territory. We quickened our pace and began the walk to the other end. Going by the stone pillars, it was obvious that the area had been a bazaar back then too. Life seemed to be going on, with new shops having sprung up to replace the old ones. AT, SM and I had fallen into step and we soaked in the colourful atmosphere, debating about various things. Suddenly an old gentleman appeared from nowhere and after politely waiting for us to finish our conversation, gave us a polite sales pitch. He ran a book cum handicrafts cum mini toiletries shop. AT followed him into the bookshop, mesmerized and began to browse through all books on Hampi. I twiddled my thumbs for a while, poking at the new stylish bottles in which mundane stuff like mosquito repellant was being sold. SM seemed to have found a syringe serving as a ink filler fascinating. We decided to ignore the fact that we were already 45 minutes behind our original schedule and had no clue where the others were. After all what is a holiday if you do not browse old book shops. Eventually AT bought one and then decided to buy copies of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet for the two of us, gushing about its philosophy.

Hurrying our pace marginally, we checked the Virupaksha temple, had coconut water and then decided to make our way back to the jetty wondering if we would meet the others there. And just like that from afar, we could see familiar looking clothes crossing the river in a boat. We waved like mad and could see the others gesturing us to come. The boat turned around and began to make its way to our side of the shore. Racked by guilt, the three of us broke into a run and clambered down the steps, landed in the boat breathless and squirmed when we found out the others had been waiting atleast forty minutes for us.

After reaching the guesthouse, it was time to bathe, pack, check out and make one last trip to the Laughing Buddha for lunch. The Bombay guys were planning to stay in Hubli that evening so they would not have to leave early for the next day’s flight from Hubli to Mumbai. So after crossing the river again, the rest of us had pretty much nothing to do. We took turns to explore the bazaar, which befitting its status as an international tourist destination had the ubiquitous Kashmiri Emporiums. After a while, AT wandered off to get a foot massage, the other three decided to recheck the shops and I volunteered to look after the luggage. Parking myself at the foot of a shop, I could occasionally look up from my book and catch sights of a small town life. The sun began to set, lighting up the Virupaksha temple and giving it grandeur not evident in the daytime. And I watched life go by.

It was time for us to pack up and go to Hospet to catch the train. Hospet station was not too exciting, which was particularly sad since we were hoping for a good dinner. A cart salesman told us about a small shop selling lemon rice and curd rice. After a while he came to us and updated us again on the availability of dosa on the platform. He seemed to get as much pleasure giving the news to a very hungry AT as AT got from hearing the news.

All of us were quite tired from the trip and just when I thought we would wisely go to sleep, a heated debate on the merits of Mumbai vs Delhi began. One by one the lights in the other compartments went off and the only other passenger in ours was trying to give obvious hints for us to shut up (such as ‘can you keep the noise down’). We quietened and decided to keep the discussion for the next trip. After all, you need to have an excuse to plan the next one!

09-Oct-2007

Hampi 1


Hampi has been on my list of places to see for a while now. So the long 18-hour journey from Chennai to our resort in Anegudi was something I did not really mind. Actually, ‘resort’ would be an overkill to describe Shanthi Guest house. It was modeled on the sparse shacks found in South Goa and Gokarna. The circular room had two beds, one cement shelf and an attached toilet. The taps supplied murky water. We tied hankies to the tap to filter out the chunkier dust. Through the two day stay, Z and I shared the bathroom with an interesting snail-like creature. It looked like a lazy lump of a creepy crawly till it decided to take action. Then it would unfurl itself and sprout two antennas and keen eyes and slither away to a more convenient place. Notwithstanding the encounter with nature, Shanthi turned out to be as peaceful as its name suggested. All huts had a comfortable swing outside and on all sides we had gardens, farms, river and rocks. At walking distance we discovered an eatery called Laughing Buddha that provided amazing continental food, fresh juices and yummy deserts.


Eight of us were making the trip to Hampi and we were arriving in batches. By Saturday night, seven of us were present. On Sunday morning, we were up and about early to have a hearty breakfast and then catch the ferry to Hampi. Anegudi is across the Tungabhadra River from Hampi. A short ferry ride helps passengers commute. However, if it is pouring and the water is too high, you will end up doing a 50 km road trip to Hampi. We were lucky that the rains took a breather during our stay.
Most people go around the Hampi ruins on cycles or mopeds. Given the group’s general level of inability to handle these, we settled on a combination of using local autorickshaws and walking. We had mapped out the city into two parts. Day one was to be focused on the Queens Bath, Royal Enclosure and all structures near these two. Day two would be dedicated to Vithala Temple and the monuments on the three km walk from there to Hampi Bazaar. SM, traveling by bus to Hampi called us to say he would be late and would join us at whichever point we were.

Hampi architecture borrows heavily from various styles – right from the Dravidian temples of the south to Konark temple of Orissa with a smattering of Islamic architecture thrown in. This is not too surprising since the Vijayanagar kings had made their conquests in all regions. The kingdom was founded by two chieftans, Hakka and Bukka back in the 1300s. After this there were a slew of Muhameddan attacks, largely to plunder. The new dynasty which sprung up after these heists reached its zenith under King Krishna Dev Raya in the early 1500s, finally petering out sometime in the 1700s. The most impressive thing about the site is the number of monuments that seem to exist and are in a reasonable state of preservation. The Vijayanagar kings obviously spent a lot of their time building structures that 21st century tourists like me would gape at and admire. Today the site is a World Heritage Centre under UNESCO. This is reflected in the general upkeep of the buildings and the obvious effort at maintaining pretty gardens in all places.

We began our journey at the Queens Bath. The Vijayanagar kings had a particular fetish for plumbing and any books on the empire tend to mention the glorious water tanks, aqueducts and bathrooms built in this era. The Queens Bath could not have been built by any other race. Large and intricately carved, it could have ensured ablutions for an entire harem. After going berserk clicking snaps, we moved to the Chandrasekara Temple and the Sarasvati Temple, both built in the sixteenth century. This circuit ended at the Octagonal Pavilion.

The next stop was at the Royal Enclosure. Located in an area of 59000 sq mts, the compound walls enclosed forty three structures comprising an aqueduct (but of course), a huge eight metre high pavilion called Mahanavami Dibba that allowed kings to watch the Vijayadasami celebrations, various underground chambers, ruins of palaces and sundry buildings. The Stepped Aqueduct was a highlight. Carved from the delicate Schist stone (that is more amenable to carvings than the sturdy granite used everywhere), there were a series of large steps and small steps within them, all culminating into the water.

After being shooed away by the alert security guard from actually entering the tank and using the steps, we set off to explore the underground chamber. It was pretty dark and emerging into the daylight was a bit of a relief. Unfortunately, a ten year old kid had continued to remain in the chamber. AT generously volunteered DA’s torch to the kid’s dad to facilitate a rescue. The dad smiled gratefully, called his wife to join the endeavor and suddenly the rescue mission became a full fledged family bonding tour. AT smiled sheepishly at an irritated DA.

The rest of us had wandered onto some steps that lead to nowhere. One of the prominent features of Hampi architecture is the amount of defacing and destruction that had happened during various invasions. The steps had originally led to a hall supported by pillars. All that remained now were the sockets on which the pillars had been mounted.

Adjacent to the Royal Enclosure was the Hazara Rama temple, meant for private worship by the kings. Built in the 15th century, this temple had carvings of stories from the Ramayana. It was quite exciting trying to identify what scenes the panels depicted. Behind the temple were the ruins of the palaces of Krishna Dev Raya and Harihara. There was a mosque, standing out in contrast to the architectural styles of the temples and a band tower that looked similar to the mosque.

By now the midday sun and the tourists were beginning to fray our nerves. There was still no news from SM.


The final sightseeing stop for the day was the Zenana area. For some strange reason, you needed to buy tickets to enter this area. As usual Indians had to pay a measly ten rupees whereas foreigners had to pay USD 5 or the equivalent of INR 250 (Notice clever automatic exchange risk hedging mechanism). Z with her ultra-fair Parsi looks was questioned for the hundredth time in her life about her nationality. While the rest of us mused on lofty issues like India ’s racial diversity, Z was not looking too happy being brought forth like a performing monkey to utter a few words in Hindi.


This area housed the famous Lotus Mahal. With a South Indian style base and Islamic walls and roofs, the structure had an air-cooling mechanism where royalty chilled out. Beyond this were the elephants stables and the royal treasury (don’t know how that possibly ended up in the Zenana). After a while, stone fatigue began to set it and we decided to call it a day.


We walked gratefully back to our two autos and five minutes into the journey discovered that one of them had run out of petrol. This did not cause particular consternation to the auto drivers. The driver with the fuel rich auto stuck his leg out and pushed our auto with it. The motor was powering both autos and the groans of the autos plus driver was considerable in hilly areas. Suddenly the propelling auto braked and I cried out ‘stop stop’ to our auto. Z and AT, my co passengers burst into laughter and pointed out that our auto really would not go on a wild rampage on an empty tank. It slid to a graceful halt when momentum slackened.


We were finally put down close to the Ganesha temple and given directions to our lunch venue. Half of the team was keen on seeing the nearby Krishna temple and wandered off. AT discovered an adrenalin rush shooting pictures of the Ganesha Temple . Z and I were the only ones left and had to find our way to the Mango Tree restaurant through the Ganesha Temple . Ten minutes later we were not closer to finding a path. Spotting AT, we walked up to him only to hear a gushing ‘isn’t this fabulous?!!”. Realising AT’s direction sense, if any, would not be used in this enterprise, we wandered off again towards a potential exit path. Ten minutes later, we were retracing our step and looking at us AT cried out again ‘isn’t this fabulous??!!’. The sun was obviously not flagging his spirits. Calmly breathing and counting up to ten, we invited AT to our exploratory team. Eventually we discovered a path through some trash that emerged into the back of the Virupaksha temple. Shooed away by scandalized priests, we made our way to Mango Tree.


The Mango Tree finds mention in every guidebook on Hampi. The food is nothing great but the ambience makes up for it. The open-air restaurant is located in a series of steps constructed on a hill side facing the Tungabhadra. You can watch the river while you eat under the canopy of the mango tree. All of us sunk into our wonderful seats and dug into the meal. Halfway through, SM finally made his entry into the trip and tossing his bags aside after a sixteen-hour journey, joined the attack on food.


By evening, I mustered the energy to lie on Shanthi guesthouse’s famous swings and read a book while consuming various snacks. The sky was glowing pink and the insects of the evening were beginning to emerge. A lizard chasing them lost its balance and fell by me. I was too relaxed to do anything more than push it away. Sunset, book and food. Bliss.


Dinner at the Laughing Buddha was yet another winner. Over olive Zivo and Spitzels and various other yummy dishes, we played Taboo. When it was quite dark and late, we returned and went of to sleep dreaming off ruins and kings and rivers.

23-Sep-2007

Movie review - Dhamaal

I must admit that I never thought I would watch a movie named ‘Dhamaal’. However Outlook’s Namrata Joshi had given it a good review and I respect that dame’s reviewing skills quite a bit.

It was so worth it.

Inspired by It’s a mad mad mad world and generously recycling old school jokes, Mr Bean episodes, Tinkle stories, internet forwards et al, the movie manages to get the comedy element just right.

You need to get past Manav’s and Boman’s introductory scenes, which have the gross kind of toilet humour that makes me avoid most movies with that have a minimum of four heroes in it. Once you cross that, it is pretty much a smooth ride. The five main characters are mostly hilarious, with Javed miles ahead of the rest (Why oh why is he not acting in more movies?). All of them are on a hunt for a treasure buried in Goa. They make the trip down to Goa, fighting amongst themselves, splitting up, making other friends and finally reuniting to make one last effort. It ends with the same lightness that flows through the rest of the movie.

At two and a half hours, it is just the right length. The first half is more hilarious than the second. There are no useless jokes about women and the toilet humour stuff is just about five minutes long. A dozen characters roll in and out of the movie, all of them quite interesting. Stereotypes are shamelessly laughed at but this is the kind of movie where you expect and forgive it. It has definitely been a long time since some really decent slapstick made it to Bollywood big screen. Good time pass.

19-Sep-2007

Azhagiya Singapore

Ok. I knew the Singaporeans were obsessed with method and order. However when I looked out of my flight and saw rows upon rows of trees in neat lines and whorls, I was shocked. Heck! They surely can’t have organised woodlands.

Luckily the Asian aggression and penchant for disorder lay just below the veneer. My cabbies for the trip proved it. The first one had no clue how to reach my hotel and finally put me down outside the convention center of the hotel. The one who took me to Mustafa turned right sharply from the left lane making me get all woozy. Go, guy go.

Mustafa’s bright interiors cleared up my head though. I think the store is an ultimate test of whether you are a true shopper or not. When I saw the rows and rows of cosmetics, electronics, watches, gadgets all stocked closely together, my heart leapt up somewhat like Wordsworth’s when he beheld a rainbow in the sky. I plunged right into the crowd and snaked my way into the digital camera counter and began my crusade. This is in stark contrast to my sister who warned me to stay away from Mustafa if I wanted to keep my sanity intact. The store clearly divides the populace into candidates for shopaholics anonymous and the losers.

Shopping expeditions to other malls revealed that Singapore is a fairly expensive place and frankly India has pretty much everything (smug grin) now. So no point paying for excess baggage and a twisted back hauling an unwieldy large suitcase off the baggage carousel.

I had made a list of places to visit, which is a fairly easy task considering the Singapore tourism website is very comprehensive and given that the island itself is very small and there are not too many things to see. The Night Safari turned out to be a very surreal experience. Credit must be given for creating a very natural habitat for the animals. However, riding in a tram past a tiger ripping apart its dinner, is not exactly a natural experience. Neither is standing on the other side of a glass wall of a sleeping cheetah or patting pythons and posing for a snap. It was almost like being in the cast of Jurassic Park or Jumanji. In contrast, the trip to the Underwater World in Sentosa was excellent. Given that the closest I have come to sea creatures is on my dinner table, I found it entirely pleasant having the various fishes, crabs, sharks and whales in neat titled cages lined up on the walls. I hired an audio tour guide MP3 (Best 5 bucks spent during my stay) and slowly wandered around the exhibits listening to the evolution, history and peculiarities of each creature. The decorative sea crabs that stick bits of sponge and plants to its body were hilarious. The Japanese giant spider crab, the size of a small beanbag was terrifying. And I swear as I stood on the travelator and watched the fishes in the glass ceiling above, a stingray followed me for half the distance with accusing eyes.

Singapore’s most interesting creatures will however have to be its Chinese women. They are all petite, with clear skin and straight hair and dress everyday like they are off to attend the most important event of their lives. And what shoes they wear! Gorgeous, slim, strappy, heeled specimens that deserve not to touch the ground. Perched on these impractical footwear they walk the long distances in the malls and the MRT. My friend told me that one of the nation’s main health concerns is stress fractures and knee problems from which these women suffer. Not at all unexpected.

The one unexpected incident that did happen to me was the earthquake in Indonesia. On the third day after my arrival, I woke up and headed into the wash armed with newspapers. The front-page headlines informed me about a huge earthquake in Indonesia and assured me that tremors had been felt in Singapore. Suddenly, I could feel the tremors. I assumed it was a mere hallucination caused on account of the newspaper article and general morning grogginess. Unfortunately, the tremors continued. Changing into more respectable clothes lest I had to run down was the work of a moment. Then peering out of the window of my 34th floor room, I noticed no one seemed to be running. Then worried I would fall out and die if my window glass cracked, I leapt back a bit and opened my room door and checked for tremor-proof activities. Nada. By then, the tremors had stopped. Later on I found out that there had indeed been some vibrations.

During the weekend, I stayed with friends who were kind enough to take me for a long walk pointing out the important sights and sounds of Singapore (Merlion, Raffles quay, Boat quay, Parliament building) and fed me well. In five days I had seen quite a bit and was feeling claustrophobic from being on such a small island. My body clock was still grappling with the challenge of the 2.5 hours time difference and when I got into the plane back, I slept like a baby.

It was a good visit but certainly not what I would rate as must see. Combining Singapore with some other South East Asian country would probably be a better idea.
p.s. The post title is taken from the slogan used to advertise Singapore when I was a kid and used to enthrall me with the wonderous possibilities in the country.