Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruis Zafon

Rating – Read if you have the time

This book was gifted by a friend. This meant that I had not heard about the book or read a review somewhere. This can be a scary gift if it comes from people who don’t know you or who don’t like reading (Once I was gifted Paulo Coelho’s Brida. Ouch.). It can also be a good thing when someone whose tastes you like, gives you the book. Even if they have not read the book, you know they would not have picked it up unless it sounded promising.

The book begins in a very promising manner. Young Daniel is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten books, a place where books that have faded out of circulation are kept. Each visitor to the cemetery picks up a book which they are supposed to protect for life. When I read about the cemetery, I thought it was a brilliant concept and waited for the story to develop the concept more fully. This explains why the rest of the book was a tad disappointing despite being a reasonably well-spun out tale.

Daniel chooses ‘Shadow the Wind’ by Julian Carax. Needless to say, someone is out to destroy the book. He starts digging deeper into the story behind the book and ends meeting various people, all of whom will become part of the giant puzzle on what is really going on.

The book is set in post war-Barcelona of the 1940s. The descriptions of Barcelona are lovely enough to make you look wistfully at Thomas Cook ads. The segments on the war are however, not too informative or insightful. The characterization is above-average, with a few characters like those of Fermin, really standing out.

The plot is reasonably predictable as one crosses the halfway point. When one can already guess what is coming in the end, it is the little twists and turns during the ride that keeps interest alive. This book managed to do it well enough for me to stay up late one night to finish a particular segment. I cannot say the same about the whole book.

The World According to Garp by John Irving

Rating - Read

I have long been fascinated by the title ‘The World According to Garp’. It is one of the very few titles that would have made me want to pick the book off a shelf and atleast read the back cover and the first few pages to see if I wanted to read the book. Since this one was on Librarywala, I could not do the usual tests but nevertheless I went for it. The book turned out to be good.

The central character, Garp, is born to a single mother who goes from being a nurse to a famous feminist author, without really having targeted that path. Garp’s literary skills exceed those of his mother and he spends most of the book trying to reach his potential or being a famous author (and sometimes the two are very different things). During the course of the book, he marries, has a family, goes through loves and losses. All of this of course sounds like the standard family drama, except that the characters are preoccupied with completely non-standard stuff.

Garp’s mother never understands why people are so taken up by physical intimacy and her book flows from her thoughts on this. It becomes a cult classic and is taken as a bible for many a young woman beginning to embark on the path of feminism.

Garp has a more balanced, infact, open view on the topic. His neurosis is being obsessed about his family and his constant worry about keeping them safe. He is talented at writing but struggles to reach his full potential. Much as he loves his mom, he fails to understand why his mother is a feminist icon or why she accepts the role. He does not respect or comprehend most of the women who becomes his mother's followers but develops a lifelong friendship with her devoted transsexual ex-footballer follower. His is an open marriage, yet his rage at one particular affair of his wife's leads to big consequences.

Garp’s world is complicated in a way that he can help sometimes and which is beyond him at other times. And that is what makes the book a good read. The whole book just rolled on from one piece of absorbing action to the next. There were a few dialogues interesting enough to be read out and shared.

Book updates

I have long been attempting to write brief notes on books I have been reading. Not just the ones which blew my mind but anything at all. Since most of the friends who read my blog are also avid readers themselves, hopefully I update them on what I thought of my last book before I forget all about it.

I am going to use a three point rating scale –

Don’t read
Read if you have the time.

Obviously, the Read category can include all time great authors like Marquez and lesser authors who have managed to get one book right (see review that follows). While I am not happy about bunching them together, for the sake of simplicity the scale stands so.

Here is hoping I remember I resolved to do this.


Eat and be merry

My mom still tells me the story of the day she decided to let me continue playing without summoning, coaxing and the pleading me into having a meal. She had already clocked in hours persuading me to eat. I would be so preoccupied with playing, and so utterly unenthusiastic about food, that each meal would be a battle of wits. Eventually one day an experiment was carried out. I would be left to my own devices and would be fed only when I was hungry. Morning turned to noon to evening without any signs of hunger at my end. A panicked mom eventually gave up and got back to the old routine.

Whenever I hear this story, I always ask myself ‘who is this kid and do I really know her?’

The present me needs to be fed roughly six – seven times a day. Breakfast before work. Mid morning snack around eleven. Lunch promptly at one. Mid-evening snack at four. Mid-mid-evening snack at six. Finally dinner at eight. Any delay and the stomach growls in the most threatening manner. Luckily most of the meals comprise reasonably healthy food.

Come weekend or any meal during a holiday and immediately the main meals of the day are consumed with the roving greed of a food reporter who needs to get through three restaurant reviews in a day.

Given a choice, my meal would comprise one or all of the following – cheese-jalapeno nuggets, rice and sambar and chips, curd rice with potatoes cut thin and fried, tamarind rice with chips and/or potatoes cut thin and fried, risotto, white sauce pasta with chicken bits. For dessert, the list is limited to only cheese cake, rasagolla, caramel custard and crème brulee.

Clearly the child is the not the mother of the woman.

As far as food is concerned atleast.

Which is quite a pity because till twenty five I had the metabolism of an Olympic swimmer. I was skinnier than average and looked gaunt quite often. By the time I discovered the delights of Italian cooking, I was already twenty two and only a few more years were left before the cheese started going directly to the upper arms and thighs.

If a time machine were ever to be built, I would probably go back and knock some sense into the little kid who refused to eat her meals.

I realized though that I do have a future me in my life who is trying to knock some sense into me.

My grandmother discovered the joys of eating varied food only at fifty. She now scoffs every time we turn away an extra helping of rice or meat. At eighty plus, she is luckily in reasonably good health but has to follow a strict diet imposed by high sugar levels and blood pressure levels. She simply cannot understand why all of us don’t consume copious quantities of food when the doctor still allows us to do so.

She clearly does not realize that unlike her, who used to be constantly engaged in physical labour just preparing meals and taking care of her house and kids, all of us only exercise our fingers the whole day long tapping away at the computer. Not to mention, in her day, high-calorie foods only appeared during festivals and functions. It was not like she could go out for a cheesecake every weekend.

Still, there is a lesson in it.

So lately, the goal has been moderation. Even when all the favourite foods listed above are present in a meal, I try not to go overboard. Plus, I indulge because I feel like it, not because the food is available. And if a day/week has been tilted heavily in favour of rich food, the other meals are kept light. Finally I have decided that half an hour of walking a day is better than making grandiose plans to join the gym and also learn tennis and actually not do anything (but that is another story).

While clearly I cannot make up for lost time, I can atleast enjoy the present before the future hits me.


Sing a song

Being a child of the 90s, I have had no great illusions about the quality of songs back then. Infact I will be the first to admit that the only reason they are still played today is because people from my generation are currently high spenders and if a little nostalgia is required to humour us, so be it. Hence, the cheesy ‘Saath Samundar Paar Kiye’ at all discs without fail every time there is a Bollywood night.

However, as anyone from then knows, Saath Samundar Paar Kiye was not the worst of them.

In the last couple of weeks, I have discovered more gems.

Has anyone seen/heard the title song from ‘Chandni’?

It has a middle-aged, pot bellied Rishi Kapoor wearing the signature loose sweater he began to wear in his downturn years. It has an approaching-middle age Sridevi doing the cute-as-a-button act. However it is not because of either that the song is unbearable. That credit goes to Sridevi’s singing which somehow never manages to cross over from tuneless to melodious. I am not sure who had the inspiration to get her to sing but singer she ain’t. A ‘trying really hard to be girlish’ voice tries desperately to grapple with the pitch. In the end, the pitch runs miles ahead, leaving the female voice just plain screechy. Viewers who sit down to watch such songs without a remote control on hand can only be pitied. Like me.

The next song is from my favourite nominee for the ‘most nasal voice’ award. Kumar Sanu spawned an entire generation of singers, reaching a zenith with Himesh Reshmiyya, who figured that if he could, so could they.

However, having digested Kumar Sanu’s voice a long time ago, I could focus on the visual of the ‘Nazar ke Samne’ song. Anu Agarwal looks very tense and stressed as a supportive Rahul Roy leads her to the exam hall. One would have assumed that she was going to write her GRE or IAS exams. Turns out not. Anu Agarwal is appearing for a typewriting exam. Not to demean typists but honestly woman, a typewriting exam? Surely that can be done without much eyelid-batting and whimpering.

Finally, the ‘gazab ka yeh din’ song from QSQT. Juhi and Aamir both looking deliciously young, wander through a forest with a couple of lightly loaded rucksacks. The song itself has always been a favourite and years later, it still retains its melody and freshness. It is the run up to the song that had me gasping in astonishment. Juhi turns out to be a spirited girl, who goes out of her way to keep chasing and flirting with a shy Aamir Khan (gasp. Where is the modesty for a 90s girl!). Then she manages to lose herself in the forest, get chased by a bunch of baddies looking to rape her, runs through the jungle replete with wild animals and just when you think she is going to come to a sticky end, manages to meet Aamir Khan. One would have been traumatized to say the least after the fairly biblical tragedies. But nay sir. She is up and about the next day singing the famous song and darting coy looks at Aamir.

It may not be the most real version of life as we know it. Still, it is a lovely contrast to the whimpering Anu Agarwal and cutesy Sridevi


KL Kalling

Kuala Lumpur is an easy city. The transportation network, the signboards and the non-fussy people make it easy to start acting like a local who knows her way around from the moment you land.

‘Easy’ was the key word for the brief break I had been looking forward to. KL has its tourist hotspots but nothing so breathtaking that you would drag tired feet to tick off a checklist. So the agenda was going to be a very relaxed one, guided by our whims and instincts.

D has fewer holidays than me this year, leaving me with plenty of time to tick all the places that he has seen and does not propose to see again. So P was roped in for my first all-girl holiday in a longish time.

P and I began exploring the city with a Roti-Canai dinner at the Indian part of town. The locals, especially the women, looked like their attire had not evolved since the 80s. Trying not to gawk, we joined the crowd, relaxed and eventually began to discuss dishes with a local who shared our communal table.

Satiated and energized, we wandered onto Central Market, which abounded with overpriced tourist trinkets that we were happy to ignore. The highlight turned out to be the adjoining ‘Kasturi Walk’ which had a local band, with a super-cheerful lead singer, performing Malay and English songs.

Next stop was Petaling Street in Chinatown, where the hawkers displayed amazingly well-made fake Louis Vuitton and Gucci handbags in narrow and crowded lanes. We walked a bit to soak it all in and then called it a night. We had an early start to the one thing on our agenda we definitely wanted to do – going up Petronas Towers.

Petronas is a bit of a let down when you first spot it in the day. It looks like any other glass and metal structure with just a little bit of height to boast about. However by the time we returned to our hotel (the centrally located Concorde Hotel) in the evening, the two towers were lit up like a glittering and classy space age building. The other buildings around had faded into darkness and Petronas shone like a beacon. We could not wait to be a part of its magic.

The next morning, jet-lagged and sleepy, we reached Petronas five minutes before opening time to see a crowd that looked like Dadar station at peak hours. It was no surprise when five minutes later we spotted a board stating that the tickets for the day were sold out. Petronas permits roughly 1200 visitors on the sky bridge everyday and while we had been warned that this quota usually got over by 11.30 a.m., we were not prepared to be turned away at 8.55 a.m. Disheartened, we wandered past the KLCC Suria mall that was slowly stirring to life and the aquarium that showed no signs of waking up. Finally we decided to head to Masjed Jamek to get started on our sightseeing.

Masjed Jamek has a pretty North Indian look-alike façade and a rather serene environment. Unless you are Muslim you are not permitted inside the buildings and have to be satisfied with a tour of the compound. And if you are female, you are politely told to pick any burqa (all dark blue) and a headscarf (throwing me into palpitations over potential infections, allergies and lice I could catch) that the mosque provides. Both of us were rather taken in by the elaborate outfits we had to don and suppressing big grins, did so. When we finally reached a slightly private spot in the compound, we must have spent a good half hour laughing at each other and taking snaps.

From here, most of KL’s wonderful historic buildings were quite accessible. We walked down the road, taking photos from various angles till we reached Merdeka Square, where KL’s independence had been declared. The Square was big, green and a wonderful spot to sit and watch the world go by. Which we did till the sun began to get too hot for comfort.

Then it was onto the cool confines of KL’s famed shopping malls. For the next couple of hours, P and I were in shoe-shopping bliss and emerged, with happy smiles and a shopping bag each. Post which, P decided to check out the aquarium and I chose to head back to the hotel and read my book.

We were meeting a couple of my friends in the evening. S and F had just moved to KL and were discovering the city as much as were. After quick dinner at one of KL’s many mall-based food courts, we headed to Jalan Ramlee (a.k.a Ramlee road) for an evening out. And somehow ended up in what must have been a small, concentrated form of Pattaya stuffed into a night club. Partly curious and partly depressed, we watched the hoardes of dolled-up women try to chat up a customer for the night. When we had managed to finish our first order, we beat a hasty retreat to the totally touristy but wholly reliable confines of Hard Rock Café and spent the rest of the evening listen to a short, old , Chinese man belt out Beatles in the most wonderful voice ever.

The next morning, we had only a couple of hours before the long journey to the airport. Petronas was closed that day. Both of us decided that if it was not going to be Petronas, then Menara KL it would be. Menara KL is slightly shorter than Petronas but on a higher elevation and with a viewing bridge at a much higher floor. It turned out to be a brilliant move. We could see the whole of KL spread out under KL Tower's feet. Most of all, we could see Petronas in all its glory, piercing the skies with the twin antennae. Petronas does grow on one...

From there, it was the reverse loop back to the airport. I could have easily gone on for a couple of more days, checking out the rain forests, more malls and perhaps a side trip to Batu Caves.

Atleast I got the three days I did!


Getting the cup

I have never been a big fan of sports. The occasional tennis finals are taken in. Especially during Federer’s peak when I used to love the way he gracefully sailed through the air. Football finals also make it the calendar. It is highly entertaining to watch macho men run behind a ball, pushing each other around like little boys. On the other hand, I have been happy to ignore cricket. It is just too long. The people don’t move around much. Unlike football or tennis, cricket does not make interesting TV unless you really understand the technicalities of the game.

However, an India-Pak match or the World Cup finals is an entirely new ball game (aha. Unintended pun). It is about raw emotions flowing through the body of an entire nation. This means that I am quite happy to be swayed by the mood of the fellow citizens and give up my sitcoms on Star World for an evening.

As it happened, we were away on a company programme that weekend. The bosses had wisely decided that it would be suicidal to continue the seminar into the afternoon and had instead generously organized the match screening on big screen. There was beer, snacks and a wide variety of noise creating devices like whistles and mini-horns. To this melee was added a DJ whose only job was to play thumping songs like ‘Jai Ho’ or ‘Chak De’ during ad breaks and reruns of key scenes.

By the time I joined the action around 8 p.m., the match was in full flow. I always knew we were a cricket obsessed nation but I had never experienced it in its full form till that night. People were sitting on couches or even sprawled on the carpeted floor looking intent and serious. Every eye was tuned to the flickering screen inside the dark room. Every time some hit a four or a six, a whole bunch of people would jump onto the middle of the room and do a jig to the DJ’s song. Then everyone would go back to their positions. As the match progressed and every run brought India closer to victory, the atmosphere became more charged. A couple of people left the room, unable to handle the stress. A few people refused to get up lest a change of their sitting position caused a cosmic change in India’s fortunes. Yet others shouted instructions to the players on screen to stay calm and steady knowing pretty well that the TV would not carry voices in reverse to Dhoni’s ears. One of the guys fell prostrate in front the screen whenever the umpire ruled yet another ‘not out’ decision.

Finally, the dancers got out of their seats for every single run to do a jig. It was not so much for the joy of a single run, as it was to simply release the stress. Then the final fantastic ball was hit and India won. Mayhem reigned. Everyone erupted into loud cheers of joy. The DJ did not have to play his music since the screen and the viewers were making enough noise of their own. A couple of people looked slightly teary eyed. Colleagues, who never saw eye to eye at office, hugged each other in joy. People took the Indian flags which had been plastered around the room as décor and began to wave them high and mighty.

It was almost like each one of us had hit that last ball and personally lead the team to a cheery victory.

I checked back with D who had been watching the match at home in Mumbai. He had watched the closing ceremony and hotfooted it to Marine Drive to join the throng of people who had began to pour out onto the streets. Later I read that it was 5 a.m. before the impromptu party ended.

I think I finally understood by what people mean when they say cricket in India is a religion.