Alumni party

Saying Hi
Meeting people you have not met in a long time and jabbering away excitedly.

Running out of things to say in roughly five minutes and moving onto the next person

Eventually ending up spending most time with the five friends you have anyway been in regular touch with the last ten years.

Looking good
Noticing that most men have lost their hair or acquired a paunch or both

The guy in the top five heartthrob list ten years ago is now in the top five paunch list.

But then new top five candidates have emerged..

Party time
Being fully prepared to dance and drink the night away

Realising that alcohol is now banned on campus and exactly ten people are interested in dancing leaving you looking like some Prabhu Deva wannabe

Finding out enterprising batchmates have sneaked in drinks and noticing that the other nine people on the floor are providing such enthusiastic company you really don’t care about the fuddy duddies seated elsewhere

The night canteen has extended its menu to unbelievable levels including a patisserie outside

Turns out though that the top most popular dishes are still bread burjee and cheese Maggie noodles

Quickly reverting to the ‘eat as quickly as you can’ mantra before ten others wipe the food clean from your plate.

Staying up
Realising that you have stayed up till 5.30 a.m. on campus not for project deadlines or exam cramming but just to gossip the night away

When actually there is no gossip since most everyone is married, has kids and a stable/boring life.

But then you can always rehash the gossip from ten years ago, find out stuff that you never knew and be totally horrified/thrilled.

Yup, it was a good tenth year reunion


Kung Fu fighting

On the second and last night of our desert camping trip in Egypt we finished dinner and then sat around the fire drinking hot cups of tea and listening to Waleed, our driver and Zamoukha, our cook put up an awesome concert with spirited singing accompanied by a short single sided drum which they called a tabla. At some point, D and I were forced to get up and dance along with W. We did not really mind since W and Z were super-enthusiastic and were singing not just for the mandatory tourist tip but also for themselves.

With the whirling around the fire, we thought the festivities had come to an end, but we had not accounted for W and Z’s plans. Z decided that a neighbouring camp seemed to be having a good time and decided we would all go there.

After a lovely 15 minute walk over the desert sand and rocks in the platinum moonlight, we arrived at the camp. Three Chinese couples were seated around the fire progressing rapidly towards inebriation. Two locals were singing loudly. Z jumped in with his tabla and W also joined. After a while, Z decided that it was time for the visitors to sing and suggested that the Chinese go first after which the Indians would sing.

My heart sank.

Earlier in the night, after much prompting by Z I had sung two lines while D watched proudly.

Let me detour here a bit. D likes a lot of things about me, all of which I like about myself too. But the one thing that stumps me is that he thinks I can sing. My own mother who can stretch the truth by saying I am fair (leading people to expect Kareena Kapoor complexion vs the reality of Bipasha Basu complexion), has admitted that I have a reedy and shrill voice. My sis thinks I could become a good dog whistler at my ptich.

Yet D thinks I can sing and when the situation for public performance presented itself earlier in the night, I had figured a couple of lines would not kill anyone if it made D happy. D himself is way too tone deaf to do anything beyond intoning the mangled lyrics like a newsreader. So I pulled off a solo.

Unfortunately, now we had moved beyond the privacy of our driver and cook and were with a whole gang of other people.

The Chinese enthusiastically took up the challenge (obviously like in all other things) and sang not one but two group songs. Simple group songs have a way of turning a bunch of bad voices into a decent one collectively as long as everyone sticks to the tune. The performance passed muster and there was much applause.

I squirmed wondering how to get off this gracefully, when one of the Chinese women began to wave her hands in a collegial competitive manner and said something about China being great. Then went on to do some Kung fu punches to indicate they were kicking butt.

Sigh. Pride and honour makes a fool even of a cautious person.

So I sang. Since the only songs I listened to often are beautiful, high pitched numbers, I did not know lyrics to stuff that would suit my limited range. Anyway, the first para of a Kailash Kher number was duly performed and a shrill shriek pierced the night air.

Z and W began to clap and others joined in politely. After which Z and W safely took over the mantle of providing our camp’s contribution to the party and my services were not pressed for.

Relieved I went back clapping along and when the time came to dance around the campfire, I was more than enthusiastic and eager to let my above-average dancing skills take over.

The fallout is a stern resolution to learn four lines of some simple song. I am still figuring out the choices..

Egypt travel - Factsheet and tips

We are back from our Egypt vacation with sand in our eyes and tombs appearing in dreams most nights. Egypt is so stuffed with history that the only way to go through them in the 2 weeks one can usually spare is to visit all the highlights. Here is how we did it

Cairo – Spent the first two days here. One day pyramid hopping and the next Islamic Cairo and Coptic Cairo. I was prepared to be dazzled by the pyramids but the latter I had known nothing about and was suitably impressed. We saw the sound and lights show at the pyramids which was not all that impressive.

Cairo is more crowded than Mumbai and has more traffic as well. So it is not a place to linger around and walk about. See the sights and get out. One good thing though is that shops are open until 11 p.m., so if you want to walk around in the night after the day’s sightseeing is done, it is a great place.

We also went to the Egyptian Museum but did it on the last day of our Egypt trip after seeing all the other tombs and temples. This was a good idea because by then we had a sense of who’s who and what’s what. We also did all our souvenir shopping at the famous Khan-el-kalili bazaar on the lost day to save on lugging around stuff during the trip.

We stayed at the Talisman De Charme in the downtown area. Charming and cozy hotel but the area was crowded. I would have preferred to stay in Zamelek area. We did have dinner in Zemalek and managed to see what the yuppies of Cairo looked like.

Aswan/Abu Simbel – We flew out to Aswan from Cairo to visit Abu Simbel and then board the Nile Cruise. Abu Simbel is a one day trip from Aswan and has to be done along with a convoy of other vehicles that leave either at 4 a.m. or 11 a.m. (Obviously we chose 11 a.m.). It is worth going just to see the giant statues of Ramses II seated majestically in front of the temple.

Aswan’s itinerary included a visit to the dam on Lake Nassar (world’s third largest dam and largest manmade lake respectively), unfinished obelisk and the Temple of Philae. The last one was located in a lovely island and the temple itself look quite pretty. Possibly because it was our first temple in Egypt.

Nile Cruise – The cruise takes 4 days when you go from Aswan to Luxor and 5 days if you go from Luxor to Aswan. We decided to take the shorter option and it was not a bad idea since we got a LOT of time to just hang out at the ship anyway. The stops on the cruise were at Kom Ombo and Edfu. Both nice places but not something I would have seen if it had not been part of the cruise. The cruise also arranged for the guide in these places as well as for Aswan and Luxor. We went on Movenpick’s Radimis I, which was pretty good.

Luxor – We spent a day here. Which was a big mistake since as the mother lode of all temples, it requires atleast two days to do justice to the place. The Nile splits the city into two – the West Bank which was the ancient necropolis and is now being rapidly vacated so that the tombs can be an open air museum and the east bank which is the living city.

The west bank contained the Valley of the Kings, the valley of the queens, Hatshepsut’s temples and so on. The east bank contained the Karnak Temple, Temple of Luxor and the hotels, town and so on. We also saw the wonderful sound and lights show and attempted a balloon ride which did not happen due to poor weather conditions. We stayed at the Steigerberger which was smart and well-located

Abydos and Dendera – These two temples are not usually included in tour itineraries but they turned out to the best temples I saw in the whole trip. They were fairly well preserved and one could see the colours on the carvings. Worth a detour from Luxor.

Dahab – There are three famous beaches in the Red Sea – Hurghada, Dahab and Sharm-el-Sheik. Since we wanted to see Mt Sinai as well, the choice was between the last two. Dahab is more laid back and that seemed to suit our style fine. Not to mention we stayed at the Le Meridian which was an awesome property with a private beach and cost much lesser than one would have expected. Dahab is an awesome place to lie in the sun after all the history and walking around. Plus has good snorkeling and diving.

Mt Sinai – This place is loaded with religious history. We visited the Monastery of St Catherine, which had a lovely collection of old Christian iconography. From here, D did the 3 hour easy climb to Mt Sinai. The place is a day trip from Dahab and Sharm.

Desert Safari – Egypt has 5 oasises, the best being Siwa and the next being Bahariya. Siwa was too far to finish in the 3 days we had, so Bahariya it was. From Bahariya we went on a two night camping trip covering the black desert and the white desert. It was absolutely stunning to see the changes in the desert landscape and eating under the stars listening to our cook sing was a good experience.

All this took us 17 days. We could have combined Petra/Jordan with this as a lot of people do, but eventually dropped the idea due to lack of time.

If had just a week and wanted to cover all the historical highlights, I would have done atleast the following –

Cairo – Pyramids, Egyptian Museum, Islamic and Coptic Cairo, shopping at Khan-el-kalili (3 days)
Aswan – Abu Simbel, Temple of Philae (1 day)
Luxor – Valley of Kings, Valley of Queens, Hatshepsut’s temple, Karnak Temple and Temple of Luxor, balloon ride, sound and lights show (2 days) and day trip to Abydos & Dendera (1 day)

Egypt is a highly tourist oriented town and hence a few special things go into the planning

Trip planning -
December is a good time to go but is obviously crowded since it is the peak tourist season. If you start planning and booking in advance, you can still stay in the good places and get the better guides.

If you are planning the trip yourself, it is necessary to be mindful of logistical constraints. Egypt Air flies internally and there are days and times when it won’t ply from city to the next. This needs to be taken into consideration while planning the itinerary. Also the cruises start on specific dates, so you need to be mindful of that. St Katherine Monastery is not open on Fridays and Sundays.

Tour guides are needed everywhere you go or else you will just end up wandering around blindly, clicking snaps. It is easy to find references and book online. Our guide in Cairo, Rasha was pretty good. Our Abydos & Dendera guide John was also good. We wish we had used him instead of the one provided by the cruise at Luxor.

Most cities are like any other cities around the world and have internet, atms, stores for buying prepaid SIM cards and so on. You can easily stock up in Egypt if you have forgotten to carry anything along.

It is good to read a couple of books on Egypt before or during the trip to get a sense of (1) the general timelines of who ruled when and (2) the gods. We got into the groove reading Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt by Robert A Armour. LP provided the rough timelines of dynasties which came in handy. For Abu Simbel, since guides were not allowed beyond a point, we bought a book that told us about the carvings on the walls inside and carried it along during the visit.

Carry along -

Egypt is dry, dry, dry. Take plenty of strong cold cream along (Nivea Crème works very well) and also sunscreen to reapply regularly. I ignored this advice on the first couple of days and paid with rough, red and itchy skin for the rest of the trip. Also, important to keep drinking water regularly (no tap water ever. Only bottled water)

Carry toilet paper with you everywhere and be prepared for dirty toilets.

Carry lots of small change everywhere. We found our 5 and 10 Egyptian pound notes flowing out like water to taxi drivers, bellboys, waiters etc. Our 1 pound coins came in handy at the toilets.

Always check where you are going to have your meals on any trip. If you think there is going to be no decent hotel around then better to pack a food box along. On a couple of occasions we had to subsist on biscuits because the shops at the location had only chips and biscuits.

It is a good idea for women to wear clothes that don’t show much skin. Egyptian women go around fully covered and hence tiny shorts or spaghetti straps tend to stick out like sore thumbs and attract attention from the local men. At the minimum, stick to jeans/trousers and half sleeved tops.

Egypt can also be cold in the winter with nights reaching 10 degrees in some places. We carried along a sweatshirt, sweater and jacket each.

The days can be bright and sunny. Sunglasses and a cap come in handy.

Wear comfortable shoes. There is a LOT of walking around to be done in Egypt. And like me if have been totally slothful in the recent past it may be a good idea to get some exercise before the trip. A lot of days we walked for around 3 hours totally but sustaining that day after day and not being too tired to skip some parts would require some energy

Desert special – apart from the above, the desert requires a bit of additional packing –

Temperature variations in a single day are huge. So layering clothes is a good idea. Apart from the winter clothes mentioned above, I also had gloves and a woolen cap. For the day, I had a scarf to tie around my hair. It is too windy for a cap and the sand gets into your hair real fast.

It is good to check what kind of tent is going to be used and ask for covered ones if needed. Ours was just two walls erected at right angles. So absolutely no privacy to change. However the experience of sleeping under the moon and stars was worth it.

Good to wear floaters and socks instead of shoes since sand tends to get in and stay in shoes. Also good to have toilet paper handy since toilets are usually just a quick dash to the back of some handy rock outcrop.

Egypt is definitely one of those must-see places and thanks to all the planning (mostly by D), we had a pretty good time.


Turning 21

Recently a cousin turned 21. As I began to write her a greeting that sounded sensible without being aunt-ji type advice (and I must say I did not do quite well) I began to think about what things were like when I turned 21.

Obviously I had no clue that life would change within a few years when my academic life ended and worklife started, when I began to live in a home of my own instead of the supervised environs of parental home and hostels and when everyone around me began to test what serious relationships were like. In retrospect, my early 20s was probably the time I actually discovered the ‘real world’.

The change from school to work was the most traumatic one I must have had. In my final years at school, I regularly got good grades. Work was a whole different world.

I could understand that some people were brighter than me and did better at work than me. I was at a loss to explain how some people with obviously lesser intelligence than me shone too. It took me a long time to work out that the parameters by which you are judged at work was very very different from the near black and white evaluation you have at school. You needed to be not just hardworking and sincere but also street smart, networked and have a whole host of skills that never came in books.

Not to mention, the lack of ‘intellectual’ challenges at work also perplexed me. After the exciting world of cutting-edge valuation techniques gleamed from international text books, most of my time actually went into photocopying, working on presentations, inputting annual reports into the risk system and other such tearful tasks.

The question loomed – was I in the right field at all? And within this field, was I in the right role? Was I in the right organization? With absolutely no idea of what to expect from the real world, I was shooting in the dark and incidentally, so were a lot of my friends.

In the 5 – 6 years after we all started work, the batch’s professional profile changed quite a bit. When we left campus, pretty much all of us sounded like high- flatulin MBAs ‘who wanted to work in intellectually challenging careers’ in investment banking, consulting or top IT or marketing companies.

Five years later, people had fanned out. Some had decided they needed to work on a bigger scale and decided to do a second MBA overseas. Some moved into entirely new fields like economics, developmental work, research (one guy from another school even started his own music band!). Some left their jobs and started their own companies. Some had stayed in their own fields, but moved to less ambitious positions and organizations that did not require 15 hour days and politicking like mad. It was as though all of us had been released from the B-School/parental/peer ideal of a top job and come to realize where our strengths, skills and interests lay.

It turned out that unlike our parents, at twenty-something we had not got stuck in the job we would do the rest of our lives. We could change roles, change organisations, change fields and infact even just sit at home to think for a while, without too much of an impact on our CVs or financial status. At junior levels, jobs were so plentiful that the worst that could happen was that you would have to start again with lower-brand name firm. And you were paid peanuts in any role, so the difference in working in an ad agency vis a vis working in a consulting job was not going to hurt for a few months. At any rate, it was worth taking the risk of making changes to find what you really wanted to do.

In the midst of all this existential angst on work, I had totally ignored personal life. Not that I did not care for relationships. However, the way I saw it, my parents would find a suitable prospect and one fine day I would get married. That of course, did not come to pass.

Happily enough, I was not the only one. My generation was lucky enough to push the definition of an ‘old maid’ slightly and change the perception to ‘independent, single woman’. Instead of the giggly, ‘I have a crush on you’ type school girl relationships, everyone began trying their hand at the more serious stuff. And learnt a lot on the way.

Like work, it turned out that you had to figure out what kind of Prince Charming would fit you well to have a shot at the happily ever-after.

Probably the most important change that happened in my twenties was my relationship with my parents. I had finally gotten over my teenage fixation of blaming my parents for everything and being equally dependent on them for most major decisions in my life. Instead we began to drift towards a new territory of an adult-adult relationship from a parent-child relationship. This meant that they had to accept some of the difficult decisions I made and I had to accept that I would have to disappoint them in some ways.

It was not just me. Parents all around were upset when their brilliant child who had gotten a great-paying job out of school had decided to quit and join an unknown start-up. Parents were upset that their children had chosen to marry outside the community or to postpone marriage indefinitely. They were reluctant to cut the apron strings, and when they were ready to do so, they were apprehensive about whether we were mature enough to take our own decisions.

As I said, I was discovering the 'real world'

But boy, was it also fun!

Finally we had the money and the time to enjoy it. We could go on Saturday morning shopping binges and Saturday night party binges without the guilt of spending our parent’s hard earned money. (The thought of saving money did not enter my head till I turned 27 or 28).

We were now responsible young adults, but we were only responsible for ourselves and not even to a spouse, forget children.

We could have a house in which mattresses strewn over the floor replaced sofas as seating, mealtimes were entirely dependent on the sleep/work/party cycle, lighting could be from the cool low hanging paper lanterns rather than the elegant, refined lighting of our parents’ homes.

There was always someone who had a relationship to be discussed and analysed and having ‘girly talks’ was a lot of fun.

We knew that no matter how bad things were at work or at relationships, one could get out and look for something new. There was no pressure to bring a semblance of permanence to our actions. Our options seemed wide, wide open.

One of the interesting things I have always heard about the West is how kids take a break year and ‘find themselves’ when they leave school. Of course, that concept would probably be laughed at in India. Looking back, I realize that we do not entirely skip the phase, especially when one is from a reasonably well-off middle class home in an urban centre. ‘Finding yourself’ is just what you do in your twenties.

Interesting times..


Delhi dazzle

Delhi is a city I have always loved to hate. The scary reasons exist of course – it is not safe for women, people can pull guns at you or worse, pull the trigger at you and all other things associated with crime and violence that come with people having too much power.

Yet perhaps the one reason I don’t particularly like Delhi is that it is so Delhi. This is, understandably a very superficial and highly offensive thing to say. Unfortuantely, this is also a serious drawback as I can see it. Everybody speaks with a slightly nasal ‘haan-ji’ accent. Everyone on the road is aggressive, despite the super-wide roads. Everyone dresses up in a similar manner. Everyone is into the whole ‘my house is bigger than yours. My maid drives a better car than yours’ competition. Somehow, Delhi never gives me a sense of diversity when I walk in its streets.

It also does not help that with my Mumbaiya Hindi (telling auto guys ‘station hoke jaana hai’ is so Bombay), my dark skin and my usually sober clothes, I stick out like a sore thumb in the city.

So everytime work takes me to Delhi, I safely tune out the city and sit in the car waiting to be ferried to my next destination. The one friend I have in Delhi, I explain away as a product of having lived outside of Delhi most of her life.

Yet my last trip made me look at the city with new eyes. I suddenly sounded all arty and French, going on about the ‘light’. The November sun was casting a soft yet sunny glow on the whole city and everything looked majestic, calm and peaceful. Newly cleaned up CP’s beautiful white buildings shone. Humayun’s Tomb and India Gate looked like entryways to magical worlds. Suddenly the roads did not look aggressive. The people looked gentler in the gentle light.

If all of this was not too much of a change in perspective to handle, I also got punched right in the face by Gurgaon when I went to watch ‘Zangoora

Oh Bombay, Bombay, how your glory has been swiped from under your feet by Gurgaon!

Zangoora turned out to be the ultimate Bollywood Musical. The sets were fantastic and state-of-the-art. The story was wafer-thin and was in place just so everyone had a reason to dance to the Bollywood numbers that kept coming in regular succession. The cast did all the Shiamak Davar steps one would like to see. Sure the dancing was sometimes off. The hero did have an annoying voice which did not entirely compensate for the rippling muscles that put in a display when he took off his shirt Salman Khan-ishtyle.

I sat enthralled, tapping my foot to every number while thanking the stars that my friend managed to get the last few tickets (The show has been sold out since it opened).

So the last trip has been an eye opener of sorts. I still don’t love Delhi but atleast it has got a nice roundness to its personality now.


Aha moment

Coming to office on a Monday and finding out
1. Your colleague is on leave
2. Your secreatry is on leave
3. There are too many deadlines to be met and it is a short week
4. You are dependent on too many other people to meet these deadlines
Then you rummage your drawer for a pencil and find a single creamy, crunchy, chocolatey Oreo cookie from a packet from last week.
Suddenly the little stress spot on your shoulder disappears..


Festival time

One of the big debates I have been having in my mind of late is how do I celebrate festivals and what traditions do I follow.

I am agnostic, wearing towards atheist. I totally admire the concept of a god at a personal level since it clearly helps you grapple with issues too large for you to understand (eg. The death of a close friend’s child. The only way they got over those days was to assure themselves that maybe god meant for things to be this way). Or how much faith can help a person (like a friend’s uncle who found battling cancer just a bit easier thanks to his belief in religion).

I also admire the concept of god for society as a whole since it really is a sort of carrot and stick that tells you to behave decently and be nice to others (or else here is your passport to hell, mister)

However, when you have intellectually decided that the concept of a god is really a bit of a crutch and a bit of direction-setting for the society, then it is difficult to cross the threshold back to being a believer. A threshold which I desperately tried to cross back to when a close friend was hit by a serious illness a few months ago. A threshold which I always thought I could easily cross when it came to it. Yet, I could not do more than utter empty and meaningless prayers from childhood, perhaps just to calm myself down.

Now that it is becoming increasingly clear that the bridge to my belief in god has more or less been burnt (who knows, it may be resurrected someday), more practical questions arise.

The most important being, how does one celebrate festivals when one is in a no-man’s land? These things never concerned me much when I was single since really it is no fun celebrating a festival all by yourself and I never even attempted to do that. With D in the picture, there is a quorum to have some celebrations at home now.

I love festivals. I love shopping for new clothes and then wearing them. I love getting together with the family. I love the smell of the feast being prepared in the kitchen, the desperate urgency to string together mango leaves and tie them to the door before the brief pooja starts, the removal of lamps from storage so they can be cleaned and lit. In short, I love all the cultural trappings associated with festivals and I have some very happy childhood memories of them.

And festivals are about both – religion and culture. Unfortunately the two are so intricately mixed up that it is difficult to separate one strand from the other. Is it possible to decorate a statue of an elephant-god, complete with a colourful umbrella and yet not feel slightly hollow about the act?

This is not a big concern when we are with the larger family. The rest of them, while not devout, are atleast still believers and can actually pray during the pooja. So it is almost like somebody else is renewing their faith and I am just celebrating with them.

The real issue is when it is just D and me.

D happens to be agnostic as well. Like me, D also loves the festival food and the celebrations. Yet, can the two of us, by ourselves, sustain the motions of a celebration without touching the religious core of the day? How do we separate the cultural from the religious? Some actions – good food, decorations, new clothes – can be easily put down to culture.

There are other actions that are not as clear. Is it religion or culture that dictates you light lamps at god’s altar? (We still have a mini-alter tucked behind the water cooler, having inherited a god’s picture each from our parents) Can you lamp lights at an altar knowing it is a mere picture and not the supreme being that the day revolves around? If you don’t light the lamps at the altar, is your celebration even complete?

These are clearly difficult questions and the answers are going to take their time coming. Or perhaps they are not difficult questions at all since millions of Indians go through the cultural motions of festivals without consciously thinking about the gods they may be invoking.

For now though, it is Diwali next week and time to shop, eat and have a blast with the family.

p.s. This is not a theological debate on the existence of god. That is a separate issue that may appear some day in this blog.


Smelling good

When Axe first came up with its deodorant ads showing wimpy, loser types suddenly becoming the centre of attraction to hot, sexy women, I was appalled at the blatant objectification of women.

I also laughed out loud, because the ads were indeed quite funny.

Presumably a lot of others did as well, because suddenly it seems like we are on a deluge. One day there is Neil Nitin Mukesh walking down the street, with pretty young things flinging themselves at him. The next day there are billboards of a siren clad in what can only be called a minimalistic saree advertising a men’s deo.

Looking at all these ads, one may easily reach the conclusion that deodorants are magic potions, the application of which will lead to the Ladeez being attracted to the user like steel filings to a magnet.

The truth, as we of course know, is that deodorants are merely personal hygiene products that men use (or atleast need to use) to stop smelling like a bunch of old socks. The Ladeez may not appear, but atleast the rest of the world will not disappear.

So Axe got it first and got it right. But really, can the rest of you read the above explanation on what deos are meant for and come up with some sensible ads?

Sure, some products need the hot models.

SUVs for example. You can't very well say 'buy this, you enivronmentally-unfriendly jerk with loads of money'. Instead perhaps 'buy this, you environmentally-unfriendly jerk with loads of money and the possibility that someone may look at your car and hopefully you'.

Deodarants need them as much as anti fungal creams (oh look, no itchy red scratch marks on any of the three chins beneath my bald head. Bring on the PYTs)

Can all the creative people who design the Amul ads lend a hand here?


Being sharp

As a child, I carried a pencil box to school that contained the following :

1. two pencils, one of which was usually only long enough for my child hands
2. one eraser
3. one ruler (when I grew slightly older)

As one can note, the sharpener is missing in this cozy family snap.

The sharpener used to be kept in a shelf along with other items in the wonder world of stationery that we could occasionally peak into but never enter. The world contained strange and fascinating objects like staplers, scissors, and glue in a bottle and later in a tube (not the glue sticks that come now).

When it was time for my pencils to be sharpened, out came the sharpener and lo behold! I was prepared again to fill pages with my crawly handwriting.

I suppose my parents thought it would be too dangerous to give a small child a sharpener. Though I am quite sure that the one or two times I tried putting my little finger into it to see if my skin would peel off, nothing really happened.

More practically, they must have figured out that keeping the sharpener at home and out of reach ensured that it would be available when needed. In the midst of getting your child ready for school on a Monday morning, discovering that the pencil needs to be sharpened and there is no sharpener in sight, probably tops the list of moments that can turn one from a loving parent to a raving lunatic.

I have to admit that as a kid, I had a tendency to lose anything. Especially when given the warning that I better be careful with it.

With most parents perhaps using a similar line of reasoning, only a few lucky classmates brought their sharpeners along. In case of an emergency (both pencil points breaking), you would request a favour of the lucky ones. They would make a big show of sharing the sharpener. When one classmate got a really fancy sharpener from Dubai, that was the size of her fist, all our pencil points must have broken several times in a day.

I am not sure exactly when the sharpener finally found its way into my pencil box. By the time it did, I was anyway too ‘old’ to use pencils. I used fountain pens and sometimes (wow) even ballpoint pens.

It was a long time before I started using a sharpener again. I realized the need for a pencil at work and began to use one frequently.

Generally, the secretary keeps all the important stationary like the staplers, stapler pins, paper clips, scissors etc. I wander over to her desk when I need something.

The sharpener – that is mine, mine, mine.

I keep it in my drawer at my desk. Everytime I need to sharpen my pencil, out it comes with a flourish and then I watch the light brown peels start curling up within the plastic lid on top.

Then I go back to work, with a little smile, ready to spread my crawly handwriting on another new page.


Games People Play

I finally found it!

After years of searching, I located Boggle. This was a word game the Sis and I used to play every time we went to visit some cousins. For various reasons, that only a ten year old could have come up with, I always used to feel quite superior to the said Cousins. Until their collection of board games would appear. Then I would turn green with envy.

We played quite a few board games at their place and I particularly remember Scotland Yard
and Boggle.

Over the years, I have been trying to locate Boggle but for some strange reason, stores never used to have them. This was till I went to the toy store next door last month.

As usual, I asked (optimistically with no view to actually hearing a ‘Yes’) – “Do you have Boggle?”

“Yes” the spirited salesman muttered.

Buying the game and paying for it was the work of a moment. All the way home, I clutched it close to my heart. Something like what people do when they are carrying state secrets about their person. Though unlike them, I was also skipping a bit.

D and I have spent several evenings now playing Boggle. Despite my super levels of confidence in my ability to win at word games and the prior experience at having played the game, D has been beating me solidly. Think in a short while I will have to stop pretending that it is beginner’s luck for D.

Luckily, we are better matched at Chinese checkers
. I picked up the game in a last minute discovery in the supermarket and it turns out that just like me, D used to play this when he visited his cousins. We had a few tender moments bonding about how much we had in common. Then we got down to the serious business of fighting about the actual rules of the game vs rules we were each used to. (Talk about baggage from your past... )

So I have been on a regular trip to childhood quite a few evenings the last month. I must say that after a tired day at work, it definitely beats flopping down in front of the TV to watch the 25th rerun of Friends.


Gone shopping

When I got my first ever salary, I bought gifts for my family, started investing in my retirement plan and saved the rest in the bank for a rainy day.

Or so I would have liked things to be.

As it turned out, I was one of those monstrous people who you see in the movies – the sight of money turns them into Mammon worshippers who spout dialogues like ‘I have money, I have a bungalow, I have a car etc etc etc. What do you have?’

The other party replies sanctimoniously ‘I have a mother’. This was a good thing, considering mothers back then were like Nirupa Roy who would have such a blind spot for their ill-behaved children that they spent long hours greiving in private rather than giving the offspring a tight slap and asking them to shape up.

My mom turned out to be not so much Nirupa Roy when I confessed that I had blown up most of my salary on shopping. She was more the tight slap variety. Metaphorically speaking.

Anyway, we digress. As the equation stood

Credit into salary account in month end = Shopping till earlier of (next month, money ran out)

My shopping expeditions included things I had always longed to buy, usually books and CDs. However, what I did not see coming was clothes and make-up forming a large part of the spending black hole.

After several years as a student on a budget, my formal wardrobe comprised the two sarees I had worn for my interviews (and never to be worn again till I turned fifty or such appropriate age for saree wearing) and four salwar kameezes stitched for summer training. Naturally, I had to buy clothes since it turned out I had to appear presentable in office every single day of the week

Not to mention, the only personal grooming that one did in school involved a trip to the parlour every time people on campus started mistaking me for a passing orangutan. The intricacies of painting one’s face were still unfathomable.

So it began.

I could have gone through the whole boring ‘try your clothes before you buy them’ routine. Or I could have eagerly run past the aisles grabbing clothes with one hand and waving a credit card with another. I chose the latter. I think what I was largely thinking was that I could buy any outfit since
- I would lose enough inches around the waist
- I would go to the gym, start doing weights and have toned arms
- I could sit at a certain angle and let only the nice part of the dress show

Clearly not the criteria one should use to build a dashing wardrobe.

Before I figured out that human weight usually follows a one-way street, my upper arms will never look slim and there are no angles to make bad clothes look good, I had spent enough money to fund a small house to keep all those clothes.

Eventually, I was wiser, but poorer.

Of course, with clothes one could easily argue that buying is not necessary to learning these crucial facts of life. Mere trials would do.

With make-up however, there is no other way but to drop the big bucks. You need to kiss a thousand lipsticks before you find the one that makes you princess charming.

So I tried.

The band of ‘dusky-skinned’ heroines was on the rise and all I had to do was to take cues from them on what shade might suit me. This was till I caught Bipasha Basu sporting a burnt-orange lipstick that would have definitely made me look like one of those glow-in-the-dark toys of yesteryears.

With that guiding factor lost, I plunged into buying shades of lipsticks titled cigarette smoker, where is the lipstick?, there is something on your mouth, South Indian slut etc. Finally, from the sheer laws of probability one of the colours worked. A couple of months later the company stopped making that shade.

With the last bits of the discontinued line that still survived on my dresser I managed to match it with other brands. Till date, I continue the practice of shopping for the next tube before the previous one is completely exhausted. In a fire, I would probably grab the lipstick and run out of the house.

Similar experiments were repeated with foundation leading to snaps where I look mummified, pasty-faced or like a sad survivor of an oil spill. Eye shadows meant to bring out the smoky, smoldering look have ended up with the ‘raccoon lost in the woods’ look. The lesson learnt from this rampant experimenting is that basic make up works at most times. The rest is just too much money for too little returns.

After all these years and this much spending, am I the nattiest dresser around?

Not really. Most of the effort has always gone into ensuring that I am not bottom of the barrel, with the occasional wow look thrown in. But not a week passes by when I don’t notice a woman wearing smart clothes, with the right accessories and make up that makes her face glow. And when I do spot such people, I can feel the slight stirring at the pit of my stomach, urging me to go out, buy better clothes, better make-up, better accessories and aspire to a smarter me. But then, I just tell myself what I learnt in shopaholics anonymous.

Anyone who dresses worse than me is a slob. Anyone who dresses better than me is just too vain.


Endhiran review (or why you should not watch it)

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

Average Hair Count on each theatergoer’s head at the beginning of Enthiran – 1000,000

Dr Vasigaran or Vasi (Rajini in another age-reversal get up) is a robot scientist who has spent ten years of his life building an android-humanoid (i.e. life like) robot. He is assisted by two imbecile lab assistants who are completely unmindful of the fact that they are privileged to be part of a team developing cutting edge stuff in robotics. Instead they act like two disgruntled code-writers in software companies doing time-pass at work and looking out for jobs.

Vasi’s lab is located in what looks suspiciously like California but emerges into Mount Road in Chennai. When the movie opens, the robot is kicking the two lab assistants (hmmm, hence the job dissatisfaction?). Apparently this is the humour element in the movie, since the two lab guys get beaten up in the movie quite frequently by the robot.

Hair count as one begins tearing hair in frustration – 999,000

Vasi’s robot ‘Chiti’ is created in the image of Vasi and is ready to be tested in a real life environment. Enter Sana (Aishwarya Rai looking quite shapely after ages), Vasi’s super pretty and super dumb doctor girlfriend. Sana takes Chiti home and in two minutes manages to get into trouble with the neighbourhood goons. Sana the HUMAN BEING stands helplessly while Chiti the ROBOT uses his initiative to create havoc. Encouraged, Sana gets into a standoff with some more goons and pleads to Chiti ‘Do something’. Er..don’t robots normally need precise instructions like ‘Take the bad guy’s weapon and kick his ass’? Besides, however did she get through her days before Chiti appeared, considering her penchant for getting into trouble?

From the strong Ramya Krishnan character in Padiappa and the Jothika character in Chandramukhi, women in Rajni movies have morphed into these wimpy eyelash-flashers who whimper helplessly most of the time. If Shriya in Sivaji was bad, watching Ash Rai being saved by a Robot in a proooollongged rape scene makes you want to cry.

Hair count – 700,000

Anyway, after Chiti is exposed to the world of women who exist only in the movies, Vasi reveals Chiti’s purpose. Chiti is to be given to the Indian army so that robots can fight in the place of real soldiers. So basically we find out that a robot, designed to kill human beings has been roaming the streets at will.

Hair count – 600,000

Enter Evil Scientist Bohra (Danny Denzagpo looking suave). Bohra's robots all look menacing just in case we have not already figured out he is the bad guy. Bohra has taken a hefty cash advance from an international Terrorist Placement Agency which has asked for several human looking robots. Bohra's robots are unfortunately not ready for this lucrative market. So he conspires to get hold of Chiti and sabotages Chiti’s attempts to be recruited by the army.

A frustrated Vasi, instead of going back to altering Chiti’s software, decides to teach Chiti ‘feelings’ in less than a month in order to be eligible for the army. The expected happens and Chiti falls in love with Sana (Aha, I always knew Ash Rai's plastic smile could only be a turn-on for robots *smug smile*). Vasi destroys Chiti out of rage and jealousy.

Hair Count – 400,000

Bohra recovers Chiti from the garbage dump – oh yeah, Vasi’s method of destroying Chiti is not deactivating him but hacking him into pieces – and loads Chiti with the ‘Bad taste’ red chip. This makes Chiti go after Sana despite her really bad wig. Chiti converts all the robots in Bohra’s lab into his lookalike, kills Bohra, kidnaps Sana and sets up a house with the intention of living happily ever after.

Hair Count – 200,000

After a couple of stupid attempts by Vasi to disarm Chiti and a stupider robot dream sequence where Sana tries to seduce Chiti (what can one say…), the climax begins.

Hair Count – 100,000. Gosh looks like we can all use Sana’s bad wig.

The climax turns out to be the paisa vasool part of the entire movie. It is a stunning spectacle of mankind’s mastery of graphics (we may suck at robotics but we surely rock when it comes to graphics!). The army of Chiti robots form various shapes and ward off attempts by the Indian army to capture them. At the end of twenty minutes, when Chiti is finally subdued one sits totally stunned by the spectacle.

The red chip is removed from Chiti and Ash’s wig has also become better and is no longer attractive to Chiti. Peace reigns. Chiti dismantles himself while giving a long sermon

Thud thud. Gosh the head hurts without hair to cushion its banging against the wall.

The movie could have been a lot less insulting to the viewer's intelligence if Shankar had handled the whole man vs machine conflict better. Rajni the scientist seems to conveniently keep forgetting that his robot is a machine and needs to be treated accordingly - not slapped around or scolded like some recalcitrant kid. Seriously, a Phd from Carnegie Mellon, a post doc from Stanford and you expect us to swallow this?

Rajini's superstar image is partly to be blamed. After all Chiti may be a robot, but he is still Rajini. And hence he becomes a superman instead of a supermachine. Perhaps if writer Sujata had been alive, the movie may have been dumbed down to suit the average viewer without losing its credibility entirely.

I would sincerely suggest the following to Shankar to ensure that the movie has a longer run at the box office.

Try some serious editing – say about two hours of the movie. Now stitch together the following scenes

- Vasi and Chiti in the car and Chiti with the policeman (that bit was funny)
- Couple of song sequences, especially the one in Peru
- The entire twenty minutes of the climax

I guarantee I would watch the movie again if these were the only things in it.

What say?


A Mumbai cocktail..

My love-hate relationship with Mumbai which was bordering on hate a while ago has been changing towards the love side of late. The hate bit had been triggered off by a house hunting spree. Visions of finding a tiny little nook where we could see trees and perhaps a bit of the sea if we looked out and curly-haired kids playing in the park if we looked down was rapidly replaced by the grim reality. If such places indeed existed in Bombay, we would also have to add visions of both of us starving to death and clinging onto our jobs in order to pay the steep EMIs. The only part of that visual that was true was the bit about the ‘tiny nook’. Houses in Mumbai can be so tiny that they end even before you can step into them properly.

Anyway, after coming to terms with the fact that we probably won’t own a house here and that we should be lucky to be able to rent in a decent place, life has been much better. This has also meant that we are free to do non-house-hunting stuff in the weekends.

It started with a trip to Muhammed Ali road during the Ramzan period. I discovered the world’s best Phirni in Suleiman Mithaiwala’s wonderful sweet shop. It had just the right balance of milk and sugar and a gentle sprinkling of dry fruits, all of which made one mouth watering spoon after the next. The festival season ended with a walk among the Chowpatty crowds dipping their Ganeshas into the sea and having a jolly good time of it.

In between this, came the trip to Lakme Fashion Week. Three times now, courtesy a friend who works in the right place, we have been gawking at minor celebrities and well shod and well clothed people. Suddenly you feel like you are in touch, however barely and briefly, with the Page 3 stardust that most of Mumbai breathes every morning, and experience a cheap thrill from knowing that you can never experience this in any other city. After all, spotting a Deepika Padukone is not the same as spotting, say, a Malini Ramani.

The biggest discovery has however been the concerts at NCPA. I have never been a music person and apart from avidly putting together a collection of Kishore Kumar songs over the years, have not developed any kind of taste whatsoever. Yet, having NCPA so handy, it seemed almost a sin not to experiment a bit.

First stop was at a jazz concert by Joshua Redman. Was it mindblowing! It did not matter that the music and tunes were totally unknown. For a good hour and half, I sat engrossed and mentally decided to attend more jazz concerts.

That successful outing lead to grabbing an offer to accompany a friend to the SOI concert of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. Said friend ditched at the last minute and I found myself seated with D right in the front row. As it turned out, the performance was middling and by half time I was quite fidgety. Which is not a good thing, when you are in the very first row. One feels the pressure to show mild interest, if not rapt attention.

I was quite worried about how the next performance – the Opera – would go.

D and I had attended a free session on ‘discovering the Opera’ at Crosswords. The audience had largely comprised hundred year olds. This was not encouraging. Even worse was the poster of Tosca that showed a sixty year old man with his face buried in the generous bosom of a fifty year old woman. Surely, this could not be the lead pair, which going by the story of Tosca should have been in their early twenties. Despite these misgivings (and the warnings of the above friend that opera is just people wailing iiiiiiiiiiii and eeeeeeeeee all the time), I was still keen to go. After all, it is a word you have heard so often and associated with elegance and grace and fluttering fans and so on. If it was going to be played in the neighbourhood, I was definitely not going to miss it.

As it turned out, I quite enjoyed myself. Firstly, there were sub titles running on top of the stage. So one could catch the witty dialogues and the light jokes. Secondly, the performers were pretty good. They were clearly forty year olds (thank god, not sixty year olds) playing twenty year olds. But for someone used to pretending that the likes of Sivaji Ganesan, Rajini, Kamal, Dilip Kumar and Sanjay Dutt are twenty-year olds, this leap of imagination was not too tough. And finally the music was very very good. There is a good reason for these compositions to have been popular and the occasional goose pimples explained why.

In the midst of the culture overload, we watched the Marx Brother’s completely irreverent Duck Soup. I totally love that Shemaroo stocks all these movies and delivers them at my doorstep.

And, so I am beginning to see that the glass is half full and contains quite a heady cocktail.

Now if only there was a roof under which to down the cocktail…


Various ways to love books

I must have started reading quite early since I cannot really recollect a time when I did not read. Of course, considering my earliest recollection is of reading the Noddy series (which back then only 5 year olds read), I assume my memory is nothing great. I am however told, and was once upon a time shown proof as well, of books literally consumed as a child. Expensive books about happy families who lived in colourful pages and talked about numbers, colours, alphabets and other such things the average two year old may find interesting and their parents brain numbingly boring.

At some point in early childhood, began a love story with books.

Anytime, anyplace is a good time and good place to read a book.

Like reading at the dining table. Something I did not realize was an impolite thing not encouraged in most decent families. Unfortunately in ours, since both the parents had a book each in their hands at every meal, the two of us kids followed suit.

Or reading lying down on the bed or sprawled on the sofa. Apparently it never occurred to the said parents to warn us about spoilt eyes.

Reading on the pot is a wider activity I believe. But only very few institutionalize the activity by having a small book holder built next to the toilet roll.

Countless exams have been sacrificed to the lure of a promising book that just had to be finished. It would start as an innocuous break from geography or physics. The break would extend from ten minutes to half an hour till one realized when the last page came that there was not enough time left to study for the geography or the physics exam.

This unfortunate habit of wrong prioritizing grew into adult hood as well. When I managed to get an interview with an investment bank and was on the threshold of putting away the dreary corporate banking job I was doing forever, one would have assumed that I would prepare like mad. Instead, I chose to peruse the entire second book of the Krishna Leela series, a completely Hindi movie styled story of Lord Krishna, complete with romances and politics. Sure enough, at the interview I could only vaguely recollect concepts on valuation of a company. The fact that I had part 3 of the series to read threw a fairly largish ray of sunshine on the bleak job prospects.

I have been forced to carry books to work and hang around in the train station finishing it off before getting back into normal life. Or read in the bus, knowing fully well that this greed for one page would cost a whole four hours of feeling sick given inability to handle reading in a vehicle moving on the road. Under drastic situations, I have had to take the book to office and then read it in the loo, completely unmindful of the fact that I probably look like I have a really bad case of diarrhea.

Parents, sibling, various friends and now the loving spouse have all been told to defer conversation while I finished an interesting part of the book. Only the fact that most of them are avid readers themselves can explain why I still have all of them around. The only other time I have deferred conversation is when it is naptime or bedtime. Yet, even this sacrosanct schedule of my life has been postponed for the good cause of a good book. How can one sleep without knowing what Lata decided to do in A Suitable Boy.

The only thing more tantalizing than a book one is reading is a book someone else is reading. It has become a habit now to take a quick peak into the books of temporary neighbours on flights and trains. One can talk to perfect strangers because you know that they must be your kind of person given they are reading your kind of book. Or reading a book you have not heard of and which sounds interesting.

A true nightmare is when there is absolutely nothing to read. As a child, it seemed the easiest thing to do was raid the parents small bookcase. My parents preferred to borrow than buy given they moved houses every two or three years. And among the books they considered necessary to own at that stage was one on parenting. Which was good reading for the ten year old me, since I knew exactly what to advise them when they were handling a situation with me quite badly.

Of course this lead to a phase of life where certain books were not considered suitable for ‘kids’. The laundry list also included Sidney Sheldon, whose tantalizing scenes my mother decided was not for twelve year olds of those days. Back then, the only TV channel, DD edited out all scenes which involved two adults actually making any sort of attempt at physical contact. The sex scenes of Sidney Sheldon would have been a shock to the system. This shortly lead to my sister hiding her Sidney Sheldon behind a newspaper cover and reading it in the cover of late night.

Now there are no forbidden lists except by the government. This then leads to picking up a pirated paperback version on the streets of Mumbai, the best upholder of democracy.

But there is a rare situation where you are caught without a book. At the dining table when one is too lazy to go and get a book. Labels of Pepsi bottles or jam jars have been perused under such dire circumstances. There was one horrific flight where I was not carrying anything and did not have the time to visit the bookshop. I spent half the flight wondering if I should quietly filch my sleeping neighbour’s book and read it. To some extent, this shows (and I admit to it) slightly mongrel tastes in reading. But then, I have always maintained a true book lover is not defined by the high brow titles read as by the little acts that show a need to read.

Of course most days, other activities fill a lot of one’s time – going to work, talking to people, hitting the gym, watching TV. Yet at the end of the day I have to spend those ten minutes reading a few pages of the latest book I am reading. And then I am ready to sign off on the day and begin another day and turn another page.


Finding Mr Right

The first time I had to meet someone as a serious prospect to get married, I was totally stumped. Er…me…getting married? At a purely academic level, I knew this is what happened to girls when they reached the ripe old age of 23. However, sitting in my room off the hall where my parents and the eligible boy’s relatives sat, staring greedily at all the goodies spread out in front me but demurely desisting from eating them was as close to an out –of-the-body experience as I was going to get. In a short while, I quickly lost the demureness battle and begin munching the snacks in steady succession. Especially when the eligible young man opposite me launched into a long tirade about the Congress government’s appalling behaviour in the Shah Bhano case.

Crunch.. mind quickly thinking ‘bloody hell, who is Shah Bhano and what did they do to her..is it too early to help myself to the next thatai or should I make some sort of a remark at this stage to show I am not really that dumb?

And boy was I smart. Here I was, a freshly minted MBA from a Top B-School in India. The young man opposite me was from the same school as well, give and take a few years. He was also from my community and fit my and my parent’s requirements of a groom to the T.

In which case, why was I not feeling anything but a slight wish to escape the increasingly stifling confines of my room?

When I was told that it was time to bite the dust like all Indian girls my age, I handled it the only way I knew – making a list of all desirable characteristics in a guy and then throwing numerous tantrums pointing at every shortfall in every potential groom paraded in front of me.

If I thought that my parents where picking out the worst specimens on earth, was I in for a rude shock when I signed up online.

Looking for fair, luvely girl who will be my best friend for life

I come from an educated and broad minded family. I am open to both Iyer and Iyengar girls.

I would like who will help me soar into the sky to reach my ambitions.

Our son is fair, IIT-IIM,,cooks well, is an investment banker who lives abroad and any girl marrying him will the luckiest person on earth

Option A - Archies cards inspired freak
Option B - self-deluded bigot.
Option C – What about me, you MCP?
Option D – ‘No girl is good enough for my son’
Option E - die alone eaten by Alsatian dogs a la Bridget Jones diary
What would I choose from the above?
Option E,E,E

Yet more and more friends were leaving the singleton brigade and walking into the gloaming, glowing.

Another list zeroed in on the various reasons that the right guy was eluding me

1. I belonged to the wrong community. Everyone in my community is an MCP. (Ha, like any other community in India is any different)

2. I was too good for everyone (MBA Pay – check, decent looks – check, intelligent and well read person - check)
3. I was not at all good for anyone (dusky complexion and taller than the average Indian male – check, independent and outspoken – check, on the wrong side of 27 - check)

Sigh. Getting into B-School had proved easier. Being shuttled around like a football in between all these reasons was my ego which had rapidly began shrinking to the size of a tennis ball.

Finally I gave up the search in futility. Various relatives had stopped asking my parents about my wedding and had concluded that I would burn in singleton purgatory. Instead of feeling like the family pariah, I felt nothing but plain relief wash over me.

Why was I so happy instead of anguished?

Time for more lists

I was thinking of getting married

1. because it was the right thing to do when you reached the correct age

2. so my parents would not stand out like social misfits in a culture governed by the progression towards spouse, house and progeny

3. so my ego would be satisfied knowing I was not so repellant that not a single guy liked me

Conclusion – I am not getting married since the above reasons seemed completely inane.

So began a happy existence getting to know the long ignored me. It turned out I loved travelling, hanging out with friends, trying my hand at new stuff and basking in the pride of being an independent woman. And finally when I got to know me better, I realized after all that I would like to give marriage a shot someday because it seemed like fun if you were with the right person.

Of course, that meant getting back into the game. But no more looking for The One like a desperate Dan Brown character looking for the Freemason’s secrets.

It would be more like reading or travelling – something I would enjoy doing but which would not consume my life. The really fun part of my thus-far distressed love life finally began.

Dating, it transpired was not the shrewd psychological game designed to assess a person’s suitability as a life partner over the course of an iced tea at Barista. It could be just plain fun and anyone who seemed intelligent and interesting was fair game for a movie or coffee.

So it was when D came along a long while later. He was definitely intelligent and interesting and probably at an earlier period would have had me stressed about not meeting every single criteria in the Mr. Right list. D also turned out to be smart, kind, fun and we had a vibe that no list could have predicted or I could have missed entirely by being focused on the end result rather than the person.

So it was that we got married.

Of course it turns out that ‘happily ever after’ is a state not caused by marriage but rather by two people working on it. But then, that is a whole new story in itself…


Hong Kong tales

Long before I went to Hong Kong, I had two contrary images of the city. The main one was that of a largely western city, firmly holding onto its colonial past, filled with smartly dressed bankers from all over the world. Infact, a sort of twin to Singapore.

The other impression had been formed by Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. The lanes filled with food stalls. Sea creatures awaiting the axe in the bubbled tubs outside the stalls. The shrieking chatter in Chinese. The quick paced, compactly built Chinese men and women hurrying to their compactly built homes.

As my cab drove into the heart of the city, I was shocked by an entirely unexpected aspect of the city – its sheer height. Hong Kong itself is a hilly island. On top of its natural height, the city had sprouted thin, multi storeyed buildings that made you understand why skyscrapers are called so. Despite being a tall Indian among the short Chinese, I felt strangely dwarfed by the city.

One impression was dispelled though. Hong Kong is not like Singapore. It was definitely efficient, had big roads and like Singapore, had Asians dressed in top line, smart western clothes. Yet, there was a feeling that it is a Chinese city, with cabbies who sometimes needed to hear your destination from the bellman in Chinese and the occasional food wrapper that wouldn’t have dared to float around in Singapore.

Our first tourist stop brought us in touch with its Colonial past. Victoria peak, one of Hong Kong’s highest (and home to it’s poshest homes) points offered a panoramic view of the island. Grinning Chinese couples stood in the chilling air flashing smiles and ‘V’ signs. We followed suit caught up in the general excitement.

Our exploration of heights continued the next day with a trip to the Lantau Buddha Island. The ferry took us past a coastline filled with the same tall buildings we had seen the previous night. Only now, the glittering lights had turned into plain, invincible facades, stern and solid.

The Lantau Buddha was a pilgrim and tourist trap. Wiki says that it “was the world's tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2007”. Despite all these qualifications to its magnificence, and the fact that there have been better and calmer Buddha statues we had seen, we still felt compelled to climb the 268 steps to get closer to the statue. An unwise choice.

The wise choice was eating the special vegetarian meal served at the nearby Po Ling monastery (Chinese vegetarian? Seemed like an oxymoron). The spread included yummy bean curd cakes, lots of leafy vegetables, sticky jasmine rice, watery soup and an interesting array of items that made one realise that there was more to vegetarian than paneer mutter and lettuce salads.

The absolute highlight of the Island visit had to be the cable car ride back to the city. Seated in carriages fully covered in a transparent material, we swooped like eagles, watching the trees, the wide expanse of sea and the roads pass slowly below us.

For all its spots on the tourist checklist, Hongkong’s biggest tourist attraction had to be its shopping and the restaurants. The city offered both high end brands and outlet malls and everywhere you could find something you liked. The locals bustled about stocking their wardrobe and appearing the next morning in offices in clothes found in the latest American magazines and sitcoms. The tourists made their contributions too, grappling with excess baggage.

The restaurants spanned every range and cuisine. Soho and Tsim sha tsui, both had choices ranging from Vietnamese to Italian. I discovered Shanganese food and realized it tasted a lot better than Cantonese food. A Chinese colleague ordered dishes for a couple of meals leading to a culinary exploration of fried eel (quite crunchy and nice) and chicken’s feet (delicate and light but admittedly a disgusting concept). D and I were adventurous on our own as well and ordered snails, cooked in continental style. They were rather like calamari, soft and chewy.

We also discovered Hongkong’s Chinese side in Kowloon and parts of Tsim sha tsui. These areas had made themselves inaccessible to foreigners by sheer virtue of the lingua franca on the streets. We took a shared private van filled with locals and went past relatively run down areas. The buildings were older and more tired looking and washing lines crisscrossed the apartment windows. The streets had Chinese signboards. The community grounds in front of temples were filled with stereotyped images of old men playing mahjong. Glamorous branded stores were replaced by stores selling day to day necessities of life – metal vessel stands, incense, foul smelling dried fish, discounted cosmetics. The ordinary Chinese, like ordinary people everywhere, lived in a relatively duller world, made edgier only in a Wong Kar Wai movie.

Hongkong was a smooth amalgam of both the images I had in mind and just that little something more.


Books I have been reading

When I started reading Pico Iyer’s Cuba and the night I had not expected it to be one of those books, I would read a few pages of and then finish a whole other book before coming back to it. His other book, Lady and the Monk which read in a similar vein – a sort of fictional love story – was an engrossing read from start to finish. This book is engrossing too but there is just something missing in the endless agonizing of the protagonist in sorting out his feelings for his lady love. Move on and stop being such a first world bastard, you feel like screaming.

The first diversion was with the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book’s reputation had reached me before the book. The cover also tantalizingly promised that it was several layers more complex than the ordinary thriller. Which it definitely is, with its patiently drawn out story, characterization and a potent female protagonist that made me wonder when was the last time I had come across such a powerful, disturbed female character. Personally though, I thought that Larsson’s real skill is in describing. With every word, he managed to paint vivid images of Sweden in my head till I could feel the cold in my bones and see the blond heads bobbing in the street. A good read for a long rainy weekend.

The next meandering was into John Grogan’s Marley and me. The book chronicles the life of Marley the dog, who becomes a valued member of the Grogan family. It made me smile a lot and also secretly thank heavens for never having been tempted to own a dog. It is just too much effort! The only complaint was the long drawn out chapters on Marley’s last years of suffering, something incongruous with the cheerful tone of the rest of the book.

This was followed by a few more pages turned in Cuba and the night before jumping into Samanth Subramaniam’s excellent debut novel Following Fish. The essays cover a range of experiences associated with fishes – be it eating it for pleasure, or consuming it as a medicine or having it as an aside while drinking alcohol. For a country with a coastline as large as ours and a fish eating culture as predominant as our, I don’t remember having come across a book covering this topic. That and Subramaniam's ability to suddenly delight with a neat turn of phrase, makes this one quite charming.

I suspect I will leap into a couple of more books before finally wrapping up Iyer. I must admit though that I have quite enjoyed the parlay into all the books and somehow the guilt from knowing I am ignoring Iyer is making the interludes all the more delicious.


Having dinner with kids

Kids hate to sit down. Bring a high chair and they will struggle like you are a cannibal lugging them to the pot of boiling water

Kids hate to eat. After three bites of any meal the parent has carried along, kids will be ignore the meal and engage themselves in other interesting things like testing the candle flame to see if it is really hot

Only one parent will have a conversation with you at a time. If the kid is within striking distance of the candle flame, then both parents will be temporarily unavailable.

Anytime both parents are trying to carry on a conversation with you, you can be sure neither is paying the least attention to you

The strange smell that wafts when you are digging into your roast chicken usually signals a need for a diaper change. The trick is not to visualize further

Sure I love playing with kids and have spent countless hours babysitting various cousins. I wonder though, how it feels to be stuck with one of them all the time.


Rethinking Mumbai

Of late, I have been travelling abroad a lot. And with every return to Mumbai, my heart grows heavier with a question I am too scared to answer.

Is this really the city I am going to spend the rest of my working life in?

Having linked my life to the financial sector, I have long accepted that Mumbai will be karmabhoomi. Yet it has not been a painful or forced decision, considering I succumbed to Mumbai’s charms the day I went out alone in the night at one a.m. without a concern about my safety. I have been loyal to the city.

Recently though, a couple of things have triggered off this morose thought. One has been the rapid descent into domesticity. Like our parents before, we have also decided that it is perhaps time to start investing in a house instead of spending a goodish amount on rent. And like our parents before us, we have also realized that it is going to cost an arm and a leg. Though, unlike our parents who lived on government salaries, we are reasonably well paid and in any other city in India would have managed to find a decent house in a decent locality.

The other factor has been comparing Mumbai with all the cities I have been visiting – Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and London. Sure, we are not a developed country. Yet, surely we are no longer a poor, third world country that cannot afford to spend on infrastructure. When all the large cities of the world can have efficient ways of ferrying people from one spot to another, can have parks and gardens, can have well planned and laid out suburbs, why is it that Mumbai’s infrastructure is becoming a nightmare with every passing day. Why are the roads so congested? Why is it that only South Mumbai has wide roads and public spaces? Do you have to be a billionaire in Mumbai before you can afford to have the same roads and gardens as the average middle class citizen in other countries?

My initial peek into the housing market has already confirmed that after we pledge our souls, we should be able to afford a tiny house in a crowded suburb. If we both stood up together in the house, we would probably bump into each other. And if we decide not to move and stare out of the windows, then we would enjoy a scenic view of the slums nearby. We would emerge from this apartment into the building complex that would have a tiny park and walkway around it (that would have accounted for nearly much as 30% of our purchase price). We would join the dirty streets and the messy office hour traffic to travel to a distant office. If we decided to take the train, then we would be squashed into compartments packed like matchboxes. When we crossed the roads, we would run across like maniacs even if the pedestrian light is on since no one, but no one, respects traffic rules. In the rains, we would brave leaking taxis, leaking trains and flooded roads that carry the city’s muck into our toenails.

Seriously, is this really the city I am going to spend the rest of my working life in?


J'aime Paris

Paris is the type of place where you can wander around aimlessly looking at the beautiful, old buildings on both sides of the street. Or where you can sit in a café and admire the army of chic women who walk past. You can loll around the Seine river and watch boats go by slowly. Or you can sit in a boat and watch Paris go by slowly. Paris, is without doubt, one of the cities to be seen before you die.

When I landed in Paris, the first thing that hit me was how chic my female taxi driver was. Clad in boots, a scarf knotted casually and beautifully and in aviator glasses, she made me go ‘not bad for a taxi driver, huh’. Then I realized every woman in Paris has her own style and is constantly making a personal fashion statement. Every woman seemed to know how to tie a scarf artfully. I cringed as I thought of the years I had spent tying my scarf around my head like a wheezing old grandfather. I never knew it could be an excellent accessory. Clearly everything about this city was going to be beautiful..

Paris of course offers some of the biggest tourist attractions in the world – Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe. The list can go on endlessly. I quickly calculated the list of places and the total time available to us and figured out that at two hours per place, we would be able to see the city’s highlights easily in the four days we had.

Alas, I had not anticipated that queuing up alone would take up most of the time budget. Infact, we waited a couple of hours to get to the top of the Notre Dame. From where, we enjoyed the exact same views we had gotten from the Eiffel Tower, albeit at a lower level. We did a few smart things though. For the Eiffel Tower, we had booked tickets on the net. For the museums, we tried for a museum pass and not getting one, found out about the alternate entrance options. For instance, the Louvre has electronic vending machines at the Caroussel de Louvre that no one seemed to use. Instead everyone just joined the snaking ticket line at the main entrance. Weird..

The Louvre was big. The word big, infact, can be defined by the Louvre. After a whole day and terribly tired feet I had managed to see just the Mesopotamian section and rushed through the Egyptian section. Was it wonderful though! The exhibits were arranged so well that they evoked the grandeur of the civilizations gone by. I wandered in and out of a cell of an actual pyramid. I walked through the reconstructed entranceway of the Palace of Darius. I nearly shrieked when I saw the Code of Hammurabi standing there. I had first heard about in primary school and never thought I would see it. Of course, the big draw is the Mona Lisa, safely standing behind a barricade. It was a beautiful work, with a lot of depth that one cannot see in print versions.

Musee D’Orsay had a great art collection too with Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet and a lot of popular names that even people with very little exposure to art would have heard. Being a relatively small museum, a mere half a day suffices but clearly each place takes definitely more than two hours, even if one were to skip the queues.

If normal buildings in Paris are so beautiful, then I figured out that its churches and cathedrals would be even better and I was right. The Cathedral of Notre Dame was majestic, with a façade filled with intricate and well defined sculptures. The church inside looked awe inspiring. If I had to ever believe in the power of God, it would certainly be easy to do so in such a magnificent and lofty building. I was also reading the Hunch Back of Notre Dame around then and got excited as I spotted areas from the book. It really helps, reading books set in the place or city you are visiting.

Saint Chapelle, was smaller but prettier and more vivid. The tall glass windows around the chapel each had a story to tell from the old (and I think, new) testaments. Eagerly, D and I tried to trace the story of Moses till as far as our necks could arch. Finally dizzy, we just sat down and tried to take in the beauty of the light coming through the coloured glasses.

We missed out on the Basilica Sacre Couer though. Despite being in the district, we did less holy things like watching a cabaret show at the Moulin Rouge. It was a jacket and tie affair. Quite interesting, considering the dancers in the show were frequently topless. I personally thought the show was a bit over prized at 100 euros, considering the seating arrangements were so poor that possibly only ten people in the entire hall may have had a good view. The dancers were good, though for someone used to Bollywood grandeur I enjoyed the ventriloquist, the lady with the python and the flexible brothers a lot more.

Our Eiffel Tower trip happened on a rainy morning. Braving cold winds, we got to the topmost roof and gamely took pictures of each other and of the wondrous view. Paris happens to have several spots from which you can get a bird’s eye of Paris but the highest seems to be the Eiffel Tower thanks to a conscious decision by the city to keep its skyline unmarred by tall, ugly concrete and glass buildings. The Tour Montparnasse was what probably triggered this restriction but it still serves the useful purpose of giving one a view of the Eiffel Tower itself. My most interesting experience atop the tower was not so much the view as meeting my Bangalore college professor from ten years ago. Small world.

We also spent a day at the Chateau Versaille. Comprising a palace, gardens, residences of the king and queen it is the kind of place where I would have expected royalty to live. And if I were a poor peasant with no bread to eat, I would have been very very angry if Marie Antoinette had crooned from the comfort of this estate that I should eat cake instead. The grandeur (and sometimes tasteless grandeur) had to be seen to be believed. The gardens matched the overall luxurious look, but were a lot friendlier. One could stroll past the dancing fountains or cycle by its vast perimeter or play catch. We chose to have a picnic lunch and then lulled by the soft spring sun, lay on the grass feeling at peace with the world.

This was by no means our only enjoyable food experience. We loved the cafes too. Paris makes it its business to provide wonderful streetside cafes and bistros where one can eat and eye passersby – two of my favourite activities. The food was delightful, provided you did not have any inhibitions about eating meat and sticking to a non-Indian tasting meal. I guzzled the beef, ham and veals, cooked in amazing sauces. Though neither of us could bring ourselves to eat one of the more popular dishes – Steak Tartare or raw beef. Every meal was accompanied by a glass of wine and ended with desserts that made me wonder how Parisian women stayed thin. The apple tarts were bursting with apples soaked in the sauce. The macaroons were just so – neither too hard nor too soft. The crème brulee and crème caramel just had to be mentioned to feel your tongue snake out and moisten your lips. Sigh. It is no surprise I put on several kilos at the end of it.

We spent a lot of time running from one tourist spot to the next. I am glad though that we also took the time to enjoy the city itself, not just the tourist spots. We strolled down the Champs-Elysees watching the high end shops, we took the Seine cruise and we sat at the Tulierres garden and read books. I could have gone on and on.

The four days I had, had to end though. Then I boarded an Air France flight that seemed a particularly dreamy experience despite its reluctantly reclining seats, a broken reading light and announcements made in fast, heavily accented English.

Paris does that to you


Anthem beats

Listening to the national anthem being played in Bombay theatres always brings in mixed emotions.

For a second I feel like I am in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and patriotism is being forced upon me. But then the feeling passes and I briefly think of the lone soldier I had met in Ladakh, guarding the road to Siachen. His utter frustration at being caught in an arid, high altitude desert with harsh climate and no entertainment. The cold that he must battle if he is sent up to Siachen on rotation.

I think about the thousands of his counterparts who fight in faraway border areas and die unknown and unsung for people like me. And those brief minutes of the national anthem gives me a chance to honour them in my memory.

Which is why I like my national anthem to be played in a triumphant manner, full of vigour and vim and the feeling that we are a happy, proud and successful nation. Infact, which is the manner in which it should be played.

However, if you ever decide to watch a movie in Metro Cinema, you can subject yourself to the dirge Lata Mangeskar and Asha Bhosale sing. The two old women alternatively appear on screen, with around five chins quivering between the two of them. Atleast one of their voices is so past it’s prime that you feel like India is a spent force rather than an emerging superpower. At the end of it there is this intense urge to run up to the screen and tear it apart. But you are emotionally too drained to do anything but to collapse on your chair from your weak knees.

Some sense seems to have prevailed of late though. The visuals no longer show the sisters but their voices continue to haunt on screen. Which brings me to another issue around this song – Is it the correct version at all? Not the lyrics. But the time taken to sing it.

I remember in school when our music master appeared for our first lesson. He made us sing the national anthem and the bunch of us teenage girls sang it slowly, tentatively, almost defensively at being asked to do something so embarrassing. We finished and the master looked like a thunder cloud. He pointed out that we were well over the 52 seconds or so within which the tune had to be completed.

The Metro Cinema version probably has my old music master turning in his grave, with excellent company in his rotation being given by several founding fathers of our nation.

When we have a perfectly good original version of the national anthem ( I suspect the one played in Inox is close to it), why get a couple of aging stars to murder it? Spare a thought for the lone solder in Ladakh and help us send some thumping, upbeat thoughts his way.


Arriving Early

The computer glows gently as it breathes into life after a long night of hibernation. The morning noises of phone calls and shouted voices have not yet began to usher in the daily office din. Papers on the desk lie solemnly awaiting the inevitable shuffling around that will happen in the day.

All is calm. All is mellow. I login and scroll down my mails.
Penetrating through the still air.
My shoulders tense slightly and my hair stands on end awaiting…
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
The frequency of the sound increases as the unknown person from a couple of cubicles away gathers momentum in downing his packet of chips.
Crunch, crunch, crunccchhh.
The quietness around me is no more as the crunches flow like volleys.
My morning calm has been cut short suddenly and unpleasantly.
Like a bucket of water thrown on you to wake you up.
Or a stray cigarette that wafts amidst the fresh mountainside air.
The crunches have now disappeared into the office conversations which have been gradually growing louder.
My shoulders tense even more as I plunge into another day at work.
The unknown eater goes about his routine without realizing the precious seconds of quiet he took away from me.


Panchgani Strawberry Festival

It was sheer serendipity that I ended up in Panchgani right in the middle of the Mapro Strawberry festival weekend and boy, was it worth it!

It was a simple and neat affair. A huge ground had been emptied out and various levels contained all things related to strawberries. The ground was large enough to absorb the 1000 visitors that the newspapers had predicted.

We were greeted by the sight of volunteers dancing to live drumbeats. All of them were dressed in white kurtas, making it easy to spot someone to help you out, be it at the shops or in the gardens.

The first stop was at the chocolate making area, probably a spin-off business of Mapro or run by local villagers. Free samples were handed out and we gorged on the raisin and cashew dipped chocolates. Close by were stalls selling preserves and juice mixes of all sorts – strawberry (of course), custard apple, litchi, black currant – at decent prices.

The next level contained a food court. The menu proclaimed exotic things like ‘Strawberry bhel’ and ‘Strawberry pizza’. The food court itself had been set up under the trees and you could look at the mountainside while helping yourself to the baskets of free strawberries that had been kept on every table.

Adjacent to this was a nursery which offered an array of plants you could buy. Exotic orchids were within a layman’s reach, finely set up in pots that could be kept in one’s living room. There were tables and chairs around this area as well and an enthusiastic band belted out old Hindi songs.

Finally we went in search of the showstopper – strawberry plants from which you could pluck strawberries and pop straight into your mouth. Sadly, we found out that the fields were in a nearby village. We did manage to catch sight of a few strawberry bushes though, with the lush green leaves bursting forth from the ground and juicy looking red strawberries jutting out of them.

After checking out the grounds, we headed back to the food court and picked ourselves drinks made of strawberries. That done, there was nothing else to do but to bask in the sun and gulp down the free strawberries.

There was something charming about the whole festival. It was well organised, no doubt. The commercial aspect was very subtle and not in your face. The stalls were run by earnest young men who let you sample stuff generously without screwing up their faces if you decided not to buy anything. Most of all, it seemed like the sort of place where a strawberry lover could soak in strawberries and more strawberries for a while. This is a luxury when you compare it with the strawberry experience in Mumbai - a small bowl with cream in some cafe or your house.

We enjoyed the strawberry excesses and ferried some back for later.

I would not mind going for a mango festival now. Or even a water melon festival. Anything that reminds one that fruits are neither indulgences nor health therapies but yummy food to be eaten till your stomach is bursting and you can't move anymore.