26-Dec-2011

Declutter


The last time I shifted houses was because I got married and the one cupboard I allotted to D was just not enough to keep the house looking sane. I had bought a chest of drawers to empty my stuff from that the one cupboard, but we still ended up having stuff lying around in the generously sized 1 BHK we were sharing.

So to a new 2BHK house it was. The first few weeks, my legs actually ached from all the extra space we had gained (Only Mumbai people can know what it means to go from 650 sq ft to 900 sq ft carpet area. Everyone else would probably laugh).

It has now been close to two years and a couple of months ago, I got the nagging feeling that we had two many things piled up on our second favourite clutter spot – the dining table. Freshly ironed clothes, handbags, a shoebox looking for a spot, newspapers and so on. This was partly on account of the fact that the folks were visiting and the first favourite clutter spot – the guest bedroom could suddenly not be used to stow junk away out of sight.

Yet it made me think if I really wanted to go back to the time when we had to pick our way through stuff scattered on the floor. And if we would have to find a bigger house in an expensive city.

That’s when I decided that I was going to reduce our possessions by 25%.

The good thing about being a corporate slave is you can come up with percentages that are randomly chosen. It seemed like a good number though – not pushing us into the hermit zone with barely enough to get by and yet enough to create space and provide a sense of achievement.

The process began slowly about a month ago. Item number 1 on the agenda was to stop buying stuff till we got rid of some stuff. Quite commendable given my shopaholic tendencies.

In the meantime, I attacked the biggest culprit – clothes. Clothes are one of the toughest things to throw away. You know for sure that there are a few items in your wardrobe that predate you by a couple of crucial kilos. No matter how pessimistic you are about the economy, your job, your life and so on, the one thing you are optimistic about is going back to being your thinner self.

I convinced myself that if I threw out the old clothes then I could go shopping for new ones if I ever lost weight and that would be a good incentive to lose weight.

I began to look for a worthy charity till mom pointed out that charity begins at home and told me to just give everything to the bai. I had been doubtful if her daughter who is half my height would fit into my tops. It turned out that we share a shoulder size. Bai was quite teary eyed when she thanked me (surprising since I have regularly passed on sarees but she has never been quite so moved. Talk about motherly love).

Filled with a warm glow, I have gone back to culling out more clothes. Last evening was spent in trying out favourite t-shirts and tops that highlight my burgeoning paunch. Now another pile awaits the bai’s daughter.

The next on my list are the electronics cupboard and the book shelf. The first one has built up through sheer neglect – headphones that no longer work, electronic phones that don’t work either and so on. Books, on the other hand, have been survivors of failed culling attempts in the past. This time, I am planning to give them away to a library so atleast I know they have found a good home.

This set off a much needed round of decluttering at work. After clearing out several piles of important looking papers that largely comprised the company strategy for 2008, training materials from 2009 and so on, I have discovered enough space to move my mouse.

The biggest decluttering at work though, will have to be my mail box. I have mails from 2010 which I had been undecided about at that time and which stayed on. Now, I have mercilessly started deleting mails on which I have been clearly copied in as irrelevant-but-just-in-case person #5. I have started dealing with daily mails before the day-end. As for the exploding archive of old mails, I have been sorting through 30 or so in a day.

My ambition is to have only 10 mails in my inbox at any point. This seems like a tough order and going by my progress, an impossible task. Yet as Farhan Aktar says in ZNMD – ‘Koshish karma hamara kartavya hai’ (it was used in a cute way in the movie)

So if there is a New Year resolution for 2012, it is ‘Declutter’. Now that I have got a headstart on it, I am hoping to see it through next year too.

22-Dec-2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Rating - Read


The Sense of an Ending is a rather short book and can be quickly finished in one sitting. Or one can savour it, slowly letting Barnes’s thoughts sink in. I followed the second option, mostly because I am sleeping even earlier than usual and also because the book is so absolutely shorn of needless meandering that you need to pause a bit and savour.

The story is told by Tony Webster, a sixty something retired British gentleman, with a daughter, an ex-wife he is still friends with and a life that can be defined as normal. Tony recollects events from his youth, centering around his friendship with school-mate Adrian and then with his one serious girlfriend, Veronica. Somewhere in the middle of the book, we flip to the present. Tony’s view of his past has been shaped over the years with his own bit of editing and recomposing memories but as it catches up slowly, he (and the reader) is forced to reexamine his version.

The book kept me thinking long after I had finished the last page. Primarily about how we may be snipping at our memories till, usually, we come out quite decent. (Not such a surprisingly thought given that I have sometimes caught myself editing my recollection of particular incidents).

The fluid writing and the observations make for a good read. Not surprisingly, it was this year’s Booker winner.

Take it straight down with a dash of lemon or nurse it over a couple of days. Both ways work.

19-Dec-2011

Right on Queue



There is something fundamental in our genes that do not allow us to queue. I would not be surprised if Indians originally came up with the concept that a straight line does not exist.

Nowhere is this deep inability to queue in greater display than airports, the mother of all queuing conventions. We queue up just to enter, and then to collect boarding passes, through the security check, to board, to disembark, collect our luggage, with mini queues tossed into the mix if one wants to buy food, shop or use the washroom.

It is almost like someone is wrenching our souls and not merely making us queue up.

With such a traumatic situation, it is not surprising that we break queues more than we keep them.

Like the time, a fat gentleman swaggered to the web check-in counter, with his chest pumped out in pride. He waved a crumpled bit of print in front of the airline personnel and asked for his boarding pass to be stamped. When he was asked by the airline employee to join the long queue of passengers who had already done a web checkin, I could see his jaws drop. As if he could not believe that the rest of us had crawled out of the primordial ooze and managed to discover printers and the internet.

The thought of joining a queue when there had been a hope of a welcome shortcut, was too much for him to face.

Especially since it is not easy crossing over to THE OTHER SIDE. The side where you form a queue and spend the rest of the time looking over your shoulders to defend your spot. Several times of doing this, and you not only develop peaky eyes but also manage to form the perfect lecture in your head to launch on any errant co-passenger.

This lecture is unfortunately mis-directed sometimes.

We were all queuing to enter the Delhi airport. (As an aside – I think the Delhi T3 is just so impossibly glamorous that even the usually recalcitrant Delhites are too scared to not queue up). A lady with three massive suitcases and a small child came to the head of the queue and requested to be let in. The smartly dressed lady at the head of the queue angrily launched into her pre-prepared lecture. Except in this case, it would have been nice to let the young mother go ahead.

Though I sometimes suspect not all young mothers or mothers-to-be are that deserving. Like the one who rushed past my 60+ dad at the security check. Dad began his pre-prepared lecture only to be informed harshly by the lady that she was pregnant. He quickly apologized and stepped aside.

(It got me thinking. When did we begin to assume that the world owes us one? Shouldn’t we be polite to people who are doing us favours?)

By the time we board the flight, things are usually pretty rough, with everyone clustering around the ticket checker. I usually find myself right at the end when the cluster has been cleared. Despite this, I have always managed to find space to stow my luggage overhead. Then I wonder, why the rush to get into the closed (and weird smelling) confines of an airplane.

Getting out and collecting luggage is of course a free-for-all. If you are silly enough to actually not have any body part touching the baggage conveyor belt, then be prepared for someone sneaking into the 1mm gap between you and the belt.

Maybe it is not enough to have a training programme for just airline employees. Maybe we should have one for passengers too called ‘The straight line does exist’

16-Dec-2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett


Rating - Read


I had borrowed my parent’s copy of The Help long before the movie had made an appearance. However, it was only after watching the movie that I got around to reading the book.

The Help is a pleasant read, focusing on the lives of a bunch of white women and their black servants, in the southern town of Jackson, Mississippi. Segregation and the class system are rife . Skeeter, a white plantation owner’s daughter harbours an ambition to be a writer. Tall, with frizzy hair, she is way behind her peers on the husband-and-kids boat. While maintaining a search for The One (prodded in no small measure by her mother), she wanders into working on a novel. Recruiting the help of her friend’s maid, Aibeleen, Skeeter begins to write about the details of black helps in white households.

It is a dangerous time to be undertaking an enterprise like this. Martin Luther King’s star is on the rise. The southerner’s rascist ways are under stress. Yet a lot of white people are hoping to hold on to status quo and would be enraged to know about the creation of a novel like this that could well be another nail in the coffin.

The settings are grim. The author, however, deliberately avoids letting the story to fall into a dark chasm. Instead there is a wry observation of the way things are (sometimes even at the cost of only a superficial glimpse of the risks the maids run)

The movie was a clever retelling of the book, snipping out large back stories and cross -pollinating episodes but keeping the essence of the book.

If you do not expect something terribly serious, filled with gravitas, then this is a good read and the movie is a good watch.

One too many Michael Connelly


Despite my minor grumbling about my last Michael Connelly, I had rated it a 'Read' and began another one a few weeks ago. In Lost Light Harry Bosch has retired from the police service and decides to reopen an unsolved mystery. He is egged on by an ex-colleague, who is now on a ventilator. The story is told in first person and interestingly enough, it makes Harry less unlikeable. Though it does make the story telling more boring. Overall, I had mentally downgraded Harry Bosch to 'Read if you have the time'.

Notwithstanding, I then began Nine Dragons. However, halfway through I gave up. I was simply not keen on knowing if the insufferable Harry Bosch had saved his daughter from the Triad (it is not a spoiler alert if you have read the back page and the first two pages and have half a brain to put two and two together).

I put the book aside, took up another book and felt really light. No more Michael Connelly for me

For a while, maybe? Methinks, I overdid it.



08-Dec-2011

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh


Rating - Read


There are fewer signs of true love than someone letting you read a book they are halfway through simply because you are unwell and need the cheering up. Sis sent me River of Smoke to help me pass time (Why could not I have read something else, you ask. Oh well, being unwell comes with its share of pampering and tantrums).

River of Smoke sort of takes off where Sea of Poppies leaves. Not in the sense of picking off where the cast left as much as in following the opium thread. The first book, based entirely in India, centred around the cultivation and processing of opium. This book brings us to Canton, where the opium is being sold and consumed. Deeti makes an early appearance. Pauline and Neel, who both end up in China appear as secondary characters. The main storyline revolves around Bahram Modi, a Parsi trader who is profiting from the opium trade along with various British trading firms.

The story slowly builds on the events as the Chinese go from being a link in the opium trade chain to an adversary who has finally woken up to the ill-effects of opium.

This book is also filled with little details that soak you in Cantonese China and its streets full of traders of different nationalities. Even as the big picture moves on, it is the little things that hold your attention – descriptions of 80 course meals, Bahram’s own personal motivations to carry on the trade, Neel’s struggles to be a clerk and so on. Ghosh does not hurry through to finish the story. Instead he stops, potters about a bit smelling the roses and then gently pushes along.

Just the kind of book one would like to read with time on one’s hands.

I can’t wait for the final part of the trilogy to come.


02-Dec-2011

Going Solo


The Beginning -


When it became obvious that D would not get vacation time and mine was going to expire, we sat down to consider our options –


Option #1 – I spend my holidays chilling out at home, while cribbing every evening to D about how there were too many places to see and so little time and I was rotting at home (Yeah, the supportive wife-speak)


Option #2 - I travel to places D has seen before


Clearly, for the sake of both our sanities, Option #2 made sense.


So I picked Turkey and began to do the arrangements. The logistics was simple enough. I wanted to be with a group and I needed something organized at short notice. I had planned enough travel trips in the past and had a couple of days here and there of travelling alone, so I knew I could manage quite well by myself.


But boy, the guilt of leaving behind a spouse while travelling alone can be quite overwhelming. I was almost hoping that somehow the actual travel dates would not come and just my looking-forward-to-the-holidays time would continue. However, the day did come and I was off.


A couple of days in Turkey and I had suddenly rediscovered why travel is my passion (next to reading of course). All guilt disappeared while I took in the sights and sounds like someone who had just finished serving a life sentence and had not seen the skies and grass in years.


The highlight –


D loves to travel too and luckily our interests coincide. We both like visiting historical sites and dig good architecture and good food. So being on my own did not mean doing stuff I would have never done otherwise. Except for the one evening when I wandered in and out of bookstores on Istikal Street, avidly browsing the collections and chatting with the locals to find out what they read.


However, travelling solo makes you talk to people around you. I had never travelled for such a long period by myself and it was clear that I had to talk to strangers if I wanted any kind of social interaction.


The first day, I tentatively chatted with an elderly and dignified looking Pakistani couple. Someone from Pakistan’s bureaucratic circles on the way back home after a conference at the UN. True to South Asian form, the sweet lady ‘adopted’ me within 15 minutes of meeting and showed it through little touches like discreetly checking if I was back on the bus after a stop.
The next day, I found out that the only other person by himself on that day’s tour was a Chilean MBA student who was on his way home after an exchange programme at my B-School. I was amazed by how small a world it was!


Gradually I began to chat with everyone.


A couple of Singaporean women my age, turned out to be great fun, sharing my sense of humour. I have since continued a FB friendship with them. I had interesting conversations with an alert 80 year old American lady of Ukranian origin, who was travelling with her talkative daughter. Also with another 80 year old Canadian man, travelling with his extremely talktative 60+ wife. I envied them all their energy and health (touch wood).


I spoke to a bunch of Aussies and Kiwis, just starting their first jobs and was impressed to see what a clear view they had of life. I spoke to Belgian women who politely asked how I managed to travel alone and who turned out to be extremely well travelled themselves. A South African couple who held hands and laughed together after nearly 15 years of marriage. A yuppy-looking Californian who had quit his job to travel. A Canadian of Indian origin contemplating whether to sell off his ancestral property in Goa and showing me how far from home you get when you are a third generation immigrant. And of course, all sorts of Turkish people.


The more I spoke, the more I discovered how similar we were, and then how different we were. One thing did strike me though. My conversations revolved around work, travel, areas of interest, politics and so on. No one asked me if I was married or how many kids I had. Which would have been the main topic in conversations with your average stranger in India (the other option of discussing cricket is out since I don’t follow the game)


Staying Connected


The end of each day found me tired and I was in no mood to hear strangers tell me new stuff. I needed to unwind, chat with D, digest the information I had received and drop a mail describing my day and read up on what was on offer the next day. In other words, I finally found out why Steve Jobs is such a God for having got the IPad into our lives. (As these things turned out, Jobs passed away just when I was discovering my IPad)


D and I had long chats everyday without spending any money. That probably made travelling alone easier. As much fun as it is to chat with strangers the whole day, it was even more fun to describe my day to D.


I also researched on the net, mailed my parents, sincerely read the pdf copy of Lonely Planet which I had downloaded, watched a chick flick on a homesick day and began to read a book.


Would I do it alone again?


Probably yes. The trip was reminder that I need to travel to just energize myself. So while travelling with company is my first choice, travelling alone ranks over staying at home and watching TV.


I would pick a place where no one looks askance at a woman travelling alone and where strangers can provide decent conversation.


I am not sure if I can travel totally alone, without even the fig leaf of a group tour. But it would be an interesting experiment to try some day.


22-Nov-2011

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson


Rating - Read

Bryson is one of the authors I love to reread. His travel books always work as a pick-me-up and many a time I have dreamt about travelling and writing like him (As have many others I believe. When I surfed a site on travel writing, the first warning they gave was that a miniscule few get as lucky as Bryson).

This book follows the author’s travels through Europe. Bryson starts with seeing the Northern lights in Norway and goes in a zig zag manner to finally reach Istanbul. Clearly it is not a guide book meant to tell people where to go in each country and city. It is a tongue-in-cheek observation of the locals. Bryson heaps praise when deserved but his ‘WTF’ observations are much funnier and there are loads of them.

As always, a funny read by a dependable author.

P.S. Maybe I should correct ‘dependable’. Ever since he started writing on non-travel topics, I think results have been mixed. I have still not been able to move beyond the first few pages of his ‘Shakespeare’


The Best American Essays 2009, edited by Mary Oliver

Rating - Read

I have mentioned this series before in my blog but I never thought I would put up a post on this. This for the simple reason that only books I complete find their way to this blog. Since this belongs to the category of books I only dip into, I did not anticipate I would finish reading all the essays in the book. However, being confined to the sick bed for a whole day with just one book can work wonders in making progress even with a book of essays. This makes me wonder if I should take a holiday where all I do is stay in bed and finish reading all the books in my bookshelf. But I digress.

I had earlier read a few stories from this series from some other year and realised most of them centred around the depressing topic of death or illnesses. Luckily this one had mixed essays and none of them too morbid either. My favourite one was Michael Lewis’s ‘The Mansion: A Subprime Parable’ that details the story of Lewis’s family renting a mansion and relating it to how American greed was surely a contributor to the financial collapse.


A Year in Provence


Rating - Read

After my introduction to Peter Mayle as an average author, I watched the rather pleasant ‘A Good Year’ and noted that the movie had been based on Peter Mayle’s book. So when I happened upon this one, I decided to take a chance.

The book is an autobiographical account of the author and his wife’s first year in Provence (and no doubt helped spin off other books based in the South of France). Like so many people the two long to live in constant sunshine, and unlike so many, actually buy a cottage that comes with a winery. Mayle faithfully chronicles each month’s activities – the weather, what the locals do, the progress in their house’s remodelling and so on. The observations are funny, yet show a real love for the neighbourhood and surroundings and a genuine interest in becoming a part of local life.

We learn about the famous lunches that almost always lasts a couple of hours and includes wine, the lack of punctuality, the strong work ethic (when they actually decide to do a job for you) and the weather which is not always sunny.

The book is a pleasant read and launches you into one of those daydreams where you hope to live a relaxed life in the midst of greenery, cultivating grapes or some other vegetable, knowing fully well that you would probably never go the Mayle way. Mayle’s strength lies not so much in concocting detective stories with wafer-thin plots but giving an account of things as they stand.


Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


Rating - Read

Shoba De (or someone equally silly) had mentioned somewhere that every woman should have known a guy like Heathcliff sometime in her life. Curious, I decided that the book mandated a rereading. Besides, now that I am in love with my IPad and can download classics free of cost, I am quite motivated to read the ones I had read back in school and the ones I have never read.

So I read the book and at the end of it my reaction was (pardon my language) ‘What shit’. Who in their right mind would want to have met a psychopath like Heathcliff!

That apart, the book itself is quite interesting. It is set at a time when locals intermingled and inter married depending on their class and the world outside was a place to be visited if you had the means and the need. The story is told through Mr Lockwood, who decides to rent a house in this cold and depressing northern village, with a keen intent to rejoice in his isolation. He soon realises the need for company and get his housekeeper, Ellen Dean, to tell the story of his neighbour and landlord, Heathcliff.

The story takes everyone back by twenty – twenty-five years. Heathcliff is an orphan, taken in by landowner Earnshaw. Earnshaw’s daughter, Catherine finds a kindred soul in Heathcliff’s free spirit, similar to her own. However, when it is time for marriage, she goes with the sensible choice of her time and marries Linton, from the only other family in the same class. Heathcliff is jilted and has his revenge by marrying Linton’s sister. Meanwhile, Earnshaw is dead and his son Hindley is wasting away after the death of his wife, post-child birth. Heathcliff usurps Hindley’s wealth. Catherine has a child and so does Heathcliff. Hindley, Catherine, Linton and his sister, all die one by one.

The stage is set for Heathcliff to continue seeking revenge on the next generation, which is when Mr Lockwood becomes a casual bystander. The story continues as the saga of a man, driven by love and malice to wreck so many lives.

The settings match the story – the village is covered in dense snow most of the time, there are windy cliffs nearby and one needs to be hardy to survive in good health in the area.

The writing, character development and the story are all captivating. There is no doubt that Heathcliff is a special character indeed and fascinates for being so unapologetic about his intent and action. Yet, suggesting that every woman should have known such a character shows a tendency towards masochism.


From the Holy Mountain – William Dalrymple


Rating - Read

This was my travel companion for the Turkey trip. As I have probably mentioned before, I like reading books either set in the places I am visiting or those that give a historical context. The book’s subtitle says ‘A journey in the shadow of Byzantium’. While not strictly about Turkey, it still covers a huge swath of land that saw early Eastern Christianity.

Dalrymple sets out to trace the journey of John Moschos in The Spiritual Meadow. Moschos was a Byzantine monk from the late 500s who travelled through Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt, in the process documenting a lot of life back then.

For most of us used to pictures from Western Christianity, this is a fascinating journey. During my last year’s trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean looking Jesus was a bit of a surprise. Despite knowing that Christianity had its origins from thereabouts, actually seeing a non-cherubic baby Jesus is quite an eye-opener. This fascination continued in Turkey as well. Thanks to the book, I also began to notice the subtle features of frescoes that showed the transition from earlier religions to the monotheist Christianity.

Dalrymple traces Moschos’s journey but as can be seen from the list above, most of these are not easy countries to visit. Even in the relatively easy countries, the areas visited are not especially safe. Dalrymple gives a current day context to his travels. More often that not, it is quite depressing to read how current day politics and religious priorities have contributed to the slow decay of oriental Christian sites.

Some of the stories, both current and historical are wonderfully bizarre and provide much entertainment. Where the rituals have survived even now, it is amusing to note how much of oriental superstitions prevail in a religion more famous for western superstitions. Djinns and other such characters are happily believed in and the pope is a central villain for most of the orthodox types (One of them even sincerely urges the Catholic Dalrymple to change before it is too late).


And other books

Rating - Read if you have the time

I have been quite lazy about updating my reading list and begin by clubbing a couple of books meant for ‘timepass’ reading

By the water cooler by Parul Sharma – A breezy read about two girls who quit their jobs with an ad agency to move to the corporate world. The heroine (whose name I now forget) learns about office politics, taking responsibility and falling in love. Her friend learns about organising a wedding and finding her true calling. Excellent if you are taking a two hour late night flight and can’t sleep but can’t tax your brains either

My friend Sancho by Amit Verma – The premise is quite interesting. Journalist hero ends up being present at a staged shoot-out that has killed a possibly innocent Muslim. Instead of further exploring how such situations come to be, the story turns out to be a love story, with the Journalist hero pursuing the innocent man’s daughter. Cute read but it could have really been so much more.


14-Nov-2011

Puskhar Camel Fair 2011


We knew we were entering Pushkar when we saw a bunch of policemen diverting traffic that comprised doddering state buses, eager tourists in air conditioned cars, masses of locals footing it and the camels looking serene in the midst of all this.

The Pushkar camel fair is an annual melee that attracts people from all over Rajasthan. People walk through the deserts and villages with camels, horses and cattle and camp in Pushkar’s fair grounds. At the end of ten days, the animals would have been bought and sold. On the side, the stocking of vessels, clothes and knickknacks for the year would have happened. Everyone goes back home, ready to come back the next year.

It was sheer coincidence that we had ended up in Pushkar at this time of the year but what a good thing to have happened.

The driver dropped us off at the outskirts of the town. We made our way past the crowds and reached the Rajasthan Tourist Information centre (No doubt set up to cater to the burgeoning tourist crowd, who were luckily outnumbered 1 to 5 by the locals...yes, yes we were tourists too). The helpful volunteers handed us a brochure listing all the delights that were in store in the coming days.

A quick scan revealed that the camel dance competition had already taken place the previous day. We were disappointed but could not stay so given the huge rush of colour and action around us


Clutching our brochure with its map, we tried to figure our way around. It became amply clear after a while that the map's creator had used his artistic license. Where we expected a vast, paved main road, we noticed a tiny muddy road stuffed with people.

We managed to make our way through the crowds to our first stop, the Brahma temple. Pushkar’s avatar as camel trade hotspot is only an aside. On regular days, people come to visit one of Pushkar 400+ temples and famous ghats. The Brahma temple is especially special since there are very few temples to a god who has been cursed by mythology to remain temple-less

Sadly when we saw the crowds, we decided to quickly abort the visit and instead go in search of food

This also took us through a crowded street

But food has always been a bigger draw than religion and we stuck at it. Raju’s restaurant was tucked away on the first floor. Raju (or his Man Friday) made us scribble out our orders. After this unorthodox start, everything else went smoothly – the food, the calm above the streets and the undisrupted view of the ghats.

Fortified, we explored the ghats and noticed the stern sign issuing orders on decorum to ‘foreigners’ –

Lest you think that Pushkar is all work and no fun, there were also posters like this –

(Gleeful boys no doubt waiting for the belles to show up)

And this

Doesn't the gentleman in the middle look like the dictator of a minor country? Surely, the first gentleman is being sought by Interpol for some crimes?

Taking in all these little features of Pushkar, we finally reached the mela grounds where all action was afoot. We hired a young man's cart to take us through the camp

The sight was unbelievable. Tents, animal and people stretched for miles ahead.

Our young driver updated us on various aspects of camel trade. (If you are curious – a camel costs between 30000 Rs and 50000 Rs). I loved the cute designer motifs on this one and was nearly tempted…

There are also designer camel accessories –

Our day in Pushkar came to an end with a kabbadi match between locals and outsiders

The crowds could not have been more attentive or enthusiastic had it been IPL. D and I were drawn into it as well, and watched from the sidelines cheering along with the locals.

We were ready to keep going on but these darn timebound travels do put a stop to such plans.

Maybe next year?


p.s. We heard an advertisement on radio on the way back to Jaipur. Stuck innocuously between two romantic Shah Rukh numbers, the male voice laughed and said ‘In reel life, you can survive gun shots, but in real life can you?’ Then sobering, the voice continued ‘Bodyguards are of no use when bullets hit you’. Finally the radio ad concluded with ‘use so and so brand bullet proof vests’. Surely we were in the same country..

I’m not twenty four…I’ve been nineteen for five years by Sachin Garg

Rating - Do not read

When I signed up for BlogAdda’s book review programme, I had dreams of laying my hands on free copies of books. I knew they would be unknown authors, but then a book is a book, right?

Er..wrong.

Atleast if this one is anything to go by.

I have been hearing for a while that Chetan Bhagat has spawned a new generation of writers who appeal to the humongous group of people who can speak English but just about. Sachin Garg is clearly one such author. I have no qualms with Bhagat-repliacas and I agree that anything that makes someone read is worth writing.

However, there is a difference between writing stories that appeal to the average Joe and just bad writing. Simple–to-read sentences should not translate to bad grammar and bad spelling, both of which find a place in this book. At the very least, the editors should have cut out repetitive sentences.

The protagonist, Saumya Kapoor, is a B-School graduate (not again) who is posted to a factory in Northern Karnataka thanks to a HR mix-up about her gender. Saumya gets there, learns about safety issues in steel factories and falls in love. This sums up the story.

In the first half, Saumya sounds like the kind of flaky character that could have been dreamt up by men who have always seen Delhi University girls from afar but never actually had the luck to get to know one. Saumya spends a lot of time shopping or talking about shopping. Then spends a lot of time visualising how she would impress everyone with her sexiness.

After Saumya lands up in the steel factory, the story picks up. The author puts his personal experiences to good use, though the series of gruesome incidents that happen are given lesser space than Saumya’s shopping stories.

Finally Saumya is made to fall in love with a Hugh Grant-look-alike who is high on drugs and alcohol. (Again, author’s fantasy scenario on what sort of guys DU girls dig?). Saumya reforms him and turns him into a ‘good boy’.

The most interesting part of this book however is the bit where Hugh Grant-look-alike and Saumya sleep with each other. Has Chetan Bhagat finally reshaped the Indian youth’s moralities? Is it now considered ok to sleep with someone before getting married? Infact, is it ok to sleep with someone just because you love them and not because you are going to get married to them shortly? If this book is representative of today’s lower middle-class youth, then perhaps there is change afoot. Methinks it is an interesting sociological theory to be examined…

When you think about it, the story is really not bad. However, if this is what is being consumed by thousands and thousands of people, then it would be a huge favour to the nation if someone did a good job of editing the book.

p.s. This is the author's second book. What else can I say!


13-Nov-2011

Jaipur


Given how intensive a ten-day trip of Rajasthan can get, we had long decided to tackle one place at a time. Mount Abu and Udaipur are accessible by train from Mumbai if one does not mind the 14 – 15 hour overnight journey. Jaipur, on the other hand, requires some planning to get a good deal on the tickets. We did it over a three-day weekend.

Where we stayed –

Practically everyone in Jaipur has an ancient lineage and an old haveli which they have converted into a hotel. We stayed at the Deviniketan, which was quite well rated on Tripadvisor. We quite liked the non-fussy Admiral Singh who runs it and its central location in C-scheme, which is 2.5 kilometers from the Old City.

What we did –

Jaipur has phases to it. The nearby Amber area was where it all started. The Old City in Jaipur came next and then the rest of the city developed.

It is easy to hire cars to do a rushed tick-off tour of all the places in one day. However, we preferred to savour each place. This meant on the first day, we managed to get through exactly three places in the Old City – City Palace, Hawa Mahal and Jantar Mantar.

All three places have helpful audio guides and also regular guides with published rates. The good thing about audio guides is you can do the tour at your own pace. The downside is that the numbers are not clearly marked and that makes for a bit of running around trying to figure out where the next number is located.

The City Palace had some delicate carvings on the buildings and gave an overall feeling of being quite large. Inside, the two things that impressed me most were the clothes museum and the armoury. Some of the clothes were so large, you rather wondered about the size of the kings who wore them. The armoury had all kinds of weapons from them – state of the art I would say.

Hawa Mahal is quite pretty and amazing, mostly for the wonderful jaalis through which the queens watched the world go by.

Jantar Mantar, on the other hand, was a bit of a mental challenge. The place was filled with all sorts of astronomical instruments. It did not help that by the time we got there, it was nap time and we had just finished a heavy Rajasthani lunch. I was ready to snooze (which I shamelessly did for half an hour in the lawns under the trees). After that, trying to figure out the latitudes and meridians was a bit painful. I wish we had taken a human guide who would have simplified it for us, instead of taking an audio guide.

With just these three, we called it a day, without having visited the Birla Mandir, the Birla museum for personal effects of the Birla family (modest, wouldn’t you say?), any of the normal museums (which was a pity) and the sunset from a temple filled with monkeys.

The next day we went to Pushkar via Ajmer. Ajmer has a famous Dargah that is super-crowded. Pushkar has a famous brahma temple. Personally, I could have lived without seeing those. However, we were lucky that the camel fair was going on and that made the trip worth it (separate post on that)

On the last day, we set off early to see Amber Fort. Though the place was already crowded by the time we got there and we could not take up the elephants to go to the top of the fort and had to stick to our car.

Amber Fort is a good place to potter about with an audio guide. The first challenge is getting hold of one on a crowded day, since they have limited number of machines. The second is figuring out where each number is (it is worse than the Old City). The third is getting around the disjointed quarters accessible by numerous stairs and ramps placed in random order. It was great fun though. The complex was large enough to absorb all the tourists and you could have enough privacy to let your mind wander to what it was like back in the days of the yore.

We could have seen Jaigarh Fort after this, but got lazy and just decided to act like decadent tourists, spending a bomb on a luxurious lunch.

What we ate –

The Rajasthani lunch at LMB on MI Road is so filling that at some point, your stomach no longer registers the food. But a good experience.

Devi niketan was located close to Four Seasons (not ‘The’ Four Seasons) and Little Italy, where we got a chance to see how the upper middle class locals ate (dress up mostly in fancy Indian clothes and go out in large groups)

The splurge meal was at the terrace in the Rambagh Palace, run by the Taj. After the hustle and bustle of three days, it was shocking to be somewhere this quiet and classy. Not to mention, the palace itself gave us a glimpse of what it was to have been rich and owning those views.

How we got around –

We took autos to the Old City and within the Old City, one can even take cycle rickshaws. For Amber, a car is required.

Where to shop –

Jaipur is a shopper's paradise. MI road in the Old City has everything to cater to the tourists. You can pick up textiles, lac jewellery, silver jewellery, blue pottery, jhoothis and other stuff here. However, if you have the patience to go to the specialists, then here is a list to get started with –

Johari Bazaar – Jewellery and furniture and tie & dye

Sanganer village – blue ceramic pottery

Maniharon ka Rasta – Lac Jewellery

Pahar Gunj – semi precious stones and silver jewellery

There is also a state emporium run by the Rajasthan government opposite the Ajmer Gate, if you don’t want to bargain.

Of course, after all this research we did the tourist thing and let ourselves be lead into one of the many shops that have tie-ups with the travel agencies.


02-Nov-2011

Turkey Factsheet


Travel, both work and personal, has meant a long break from blogging. So I get off to a restart with my Turkey trip factsheet.

The trip to Turkey turned out to be a solo visit, thanks to D’s lack of vacation time. At any rate, he had been to the country before and was not keen on visiting it again yet. This meant that my itinerary was shaped to some extent by my desire to stick to a large group rather than travel alone. I contacted Backpacker Co. who did a very average job of putting together the trip. The itinerary worked out well but their service could have been better. Their partner on the other side, Fez Travels, was quite efficient and came recommended by the Lonely Planet.

This is how it went –

ISTANBUL – Spent 3 days here while going and 1 day on the return. Istanbul is a fascinating city – a crossroads of sorts where the new jostles for space with the old and where the European veneer hides an Asian heart.

Tourists normally stay in the old city, close to the central Sultanahmet area which hosts the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. You need one day for the old city tour. I did it with a group (Plan Tours) but it is quite convenient to do it alone. There is a good tram network that stops all the sites and I noticed audio guides were available at most places.

I spent one day on a Bhosphorous Cruise (highly recommended), which was combined with a visit to Dolmabache Palace (Can be skipped if there is no time).

I went for an evening to walk around the Istikal Street in the newer parts of the city to check out the local population and tourists browse through stores stocking contemporary brands.

One evening was spared for the Turkish Hamam experience (must do) at the 500 year old Cemberlitas Haman.

An acquaintance was kind enough to meet me for dinner at The House Café in Ortakoy, located on the Bhosphorus. It is mesmerizing to sit by the Straits, taking in the wonderful Turkish food. If one wants to spend more money and check out Istanbul's hip nightlife, popular nightclub Reina, also on the banks of the Bhosphorus is the way to go.

On my way back, I spent a whole day in the Eygptian Spice market and the Grand Bazaar buying various gifts and souvenirs. Both are worth exploring just for the bustle and worth buying in, if you are upto some solid bargaining (think half price).

I stayed at Hotel Polat Demir on the first three days. The staff was friendly and it was close to a tram stop. However, the air conditioning made noises and spewed dirt on all three days of my stay. This would not be my first choice for stay. On the last day, I was at the Q-Inn and quite liked the place. It was close to the Tram stop, walking distance from the old city and the bazaars. No noisy air conditioners either. Besides I have come to realize that the old city is full of hilly ups and downs and if you are not located on flat ground, just walking around can be painful on the knees.

GALLIPOLI – Since I was on a tour from this leg onwards, I had little choice on the places to visit. Though except Gallipoli, I would have definitely visited other places.

Gallipoli is the site of the infamous landings by the British and their allies in an attempt to access Russia via the sea route, during WWI. Many Australians and New Zealanders lost their lives here and it has become an important stop for these nationalities during their Turkey visit. I realized later that many Indians had also lost their lives there. Yet, unless one is a WWI buff, the detour is quite unnecessary.

We stayed the night in Cannakale, a small little town which I might have explored had the hotel been located somewhere centrally. The Iris Hotel where I stayed was comfortable and a good place for a night’s rest.

TROY and PERGAMUM– Ignorant me did not realize till I began planning for the trip that Troy is located in Turkey. There is nothing to actually see in the site, since it is full of broken walls which are still being excavated. Yet the idea of actually standing in Troy is fascinating and you can almost see the wooden horse in the green fields that now cover the spot. Besides it is UNESCO World Heritage site

Pergamum, on the other hand, is filled with beautiful Hellenistic and Roman ruins. We spent all our time on the top of the hill (reached by a quick ride on a cable car) which covered the famous temple, library and amphitheatre. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to see the Asclepion, the famous ancient medical centre from which the serpent sign for medicine originated.

EPHESUS – This is again filled with Hellenstic and Roman ruins and is only second in importance to Pompeii given the scale of excavations. A whole town lies, right from the wash area in the front, to the streets that lead past public toilets, libraries, rumoured brothels and amphitheatre. The special entry ticket to mansions of the Roman rich men was worth it. Ephesus is simply marvelous in its scale and the crowds spoke volumes about its popularity. Our meek-voiced guide gave up trying to keep the group together and offered snippets of wisdom to anyone who cared to ask her questions. An audio tour would be a good choice here.

We also stopped at the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. Only 1 pillar of the 127 original ones stands today and it is a bit difficult to imagine the scale of the original temple. A visit to the Ephesus Museum helped us get perspective on some of the ruins.

We stayed overnight at Kusadesi, a vibrant little town with a lovely promenade and brightly lit restaurant area. I was at the Ozelick Hotel, facing the promenade but quite ordinary otherwise. A lot of people also stay in Selcuk, a smaller town.

PAMUKKALE – Pamukkale has been a medical centre since ancient times, when the ill and feeble came for a dip in the thermal spring atop the hill. A series of ruins exist here as well. But the star attraction is the cotton-like calcium terraces through which hot water springs flow. The sight is quite ethereal and not something that one would see normally. Pamukkale, alongwith Cappadocia, would be on my list of ‘sights which you can see only in Turkey’. Not surprisingly, both are UNESCO WH sites

I parted ways with my group tour here and took an overnight bus to Cappadocia.

CAPPADOCIA – The region is famous for volcanic rocks that have been eroded to pillars and mounds over the centuries. Early Christian monks made their homes in these pillars, inhabiting the caves that had been formed by the erosion of the soft Tuff rock, protected by a layer of the harder Basalt.

The tours are split into Northern and Southern Cappadocia tours and you usually do one on each day. I did the Northern Cappadocia tour, which included the famous Goreme Open air museum with its beautiful frescoes from early Christianity and the Pasabag Fairy Chimneys that make you pinch yourself to see if such things indeed exist.

The Southern Cappadocia tour includes a visit to underground cities. Being slightly claustrophobic, I decided to forgo the visit. Besides I was getting a bit tired of being on my feet daily.

There were numerous treks that one can do through the valleys. The highlylight of my trip was the hot air balloon ride. It is expensive (mine cost USD 200) but a wonderful experience akin to being on a magic carpet.

I stayed at the Cappadocia Palace hotel, an old Greek house converted into a cheery little hotel. This was based in the town of Urgup. A lot of people stay in cave hotels in the town of Goreme.

Cappadocia is not known for its efficient planning and organization unlike other parts of Turkey and it is better to reconfirm everything twice and assume people will mess up things. This way you won’t end up with your baggage having been dropped off in some other hotel or you getting off in Goreme when your hotel pick up is actually at Urgup.

GENERAL NOTES

Turkey has amazing food. Most hotel breakfast buffets have all sorts of cheese and you can just live on them. The kebabs are amazing too but better to stick to kebabs for only one meal a day since they can get quite heavy


Best time to visit is actually before and after the peak season of July, August. I went in end-Sep/early – Oct. It was rainy one day in Istanbul but otherwise the daytime temperature was usually 22 – 26 degrees C and the nights were around 15 – 18 degrees C.


Book for the Cappadocia balloon tour in advance. Or else you won’t get the first slot for which the pick up is at 5 a.m. Later slots mean you can’t see the sun rise and you get late for your day tour.


It is quite convenient to take domestic flights. Buses are good but the price differential between flights and buses should not really matter unless you are on a budget.


Souvenirs – The delectable Turkish delight made of nuts. Olive oil, apple tea and cheese are also good buys. If you are in the mood for expensive stuff, there are carpets, leather jackets and beautiful silver jewelry to be had. I saw some beautiful lace table clothes at the Cappadocia sights but unfortunately did not buy them and could not find them later on. Keep your shopping for the last day so that you are not travelling the whole of Turkey with fifteen boxes of Turkish Delight.


WiFi - Every hotel had free WiFi and that made all the diffrence to the trip. Thanks to an IPad, Skype and WiFi, staying in touch was no problem.


Turkey also has some wonderful beaches and if I had had the time or company, I would have definitely chilled out for a couple of days in one of them. Worth including in the itinerary.



26-Sep-2011

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami


Rating - Read

I became a devoted fan of Murakami after reading Norweigian Wood (as did many others, going by the fact that it was Murakami's best selling novel). Till then, I enjoyed his writing, but not quite enough to actually admire it. Now, I was interested in knowing the person behind the writings.

And what a person he is. I had somehow envisioned Murakami as an old and wise Japanese guy, with withered hands, wise eyes, long white hair tied into a pony, and a thin, frail, mien. A man who slowly and sincerely wrote in a notebook, sitting in a house located in a picturesque place in Japan, while wearing a slightly flashy traditional dress (Even as I write this, I realise I sound like one of those people who think that everyone in India does the rope trick and has a pet snake).

Anyway, assuming he was more likely to be the type who carried the latest notepad and wore normal everyday clothes (considering the Japanese are considered to be 10 years ahead of the rest of the world), what I did not expect was to learn that he was passionate about running.

Murakami makes it quite clear, that he is first of all a writer. He runs in the time he has, over and above his writing and is not a professional runner at all. But for an amateur runner, he does very well. Having started running in his 30s, he has taken part in several marathons and started participating in triathlons sometime from his 40s. Every year, he does a marathon in the winter and a triathlon in the summer. The book covers his training while preparing for the 2005 New York City Marathon. Murakami talks not just about this race, but also about the preparations and the various races he has participated in, the feeling of doing long-distance running where you are competing mostly against yourself, the sincerity and discipline that is needed to keep going and the feelings that come during a race. In between, he also digresses into life in general, and his writings.

All of it is interesting reading despite being about experiences which an average bloke is unlikely to have in a lifetime. Murakami goes about quietly cataloguing the hours he puts in, the people he runs with, the places he lives and works in. I especially liked reading his descriptions of his body, as a machine independent of the author’s mind.

Presumably runners would be able to identify with it a lot more than I can. Infact, the book was bought for D, who participated in a half marathon for the first time last year. Yet, non-runners like me have been brought closer to the strange world of plodding on and on.