Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Rating - Read

The first time I read Jhumpa Lahiri, it was right after her ‘Interpreter of Maladieshad become famous. The book had opened to rave reviews, Lahiri won the Pulitzer, and she was also very attractive to boot. Everyone was reading her. I read the first story which tried landscaping a relationship no-man’s land and did not get it at all. I dismissed her as yet another Indian writer who was riding the India wave.

So, when R gifted me Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I let it rest in my book cupboard for a few years. Late last week, on a lark, I brought it out of the back row and dusted the top and killed a couple of tiny bugs that crawled out. I sat down to read.

And read. And read. Interrupted by office and some welcome visitors.

Lahiri’s oeuvre had changed very little. This collection of short stories was also about Indian Americans, specifically Bengalis. Perhaps it was I who had changed in the more than ten years that had elapsed and could appreciate all the nuances that had gone into the stories.

The stories are all about the second generation of Bengali immigrants, touching upon their lives and the life of their parents seen through their eyes. The challenges faced by the parents, who had moved to the land of dreams, largely on their academic merit and who still try to clutch at their roots is portrayed quite well. The second generation, which is more American than Bengali, but still ill-at-ease with sharing their entire truth of their double personalities with their parents, is also captured nicely.

The writing flows smoothly and sometimes is a little melancholic. The observations are quite spot on and don’t miss the smallest things. The characters are not stereotypes from Bollywood movies and even in the generic issues of each generation; there is a broad spectrum of people and problems.

I finally finished the book yesterday in perfect settings yesterday – a rainy Sunday with nothing to do and a wind howling outside the window by my comfortable sofa.

One of things I have learnt in my reading life is that it is just not the right time to read some books. Either you are too old for it or you have still not grown into it. Which is why, I am glad I kept my copy of this book (and of course R – because you gifted it!).

Well worth a read.

(SPOILER ALERT. Following bit for people who have read the book)

The last three inter-connected stories were pretty good and I was waiting rather eagerly for the end, prepared for both a happy and a sad ending. What I did not anticipate till just before it came was the natural disaster playing a role! Given how much this kind of ending has been milked, it just fell too flat for me. Perhaps if I had read it when the Tsunami killing off people still had novelty value, I would have been more impressed.


Night in Bombay by Louis Bromfield

Rating - Read if you have the time

I happened upon this book in an airport bookshop (which by the way, contrary to general opinion, can actually yield some interesting stuff). It was a Penguin publication, originally from the 1940s and which had been republished recently. The title was tantalizing enough and the backcover promised a view of the 1940s Mumbai with its mills and its parties and so on. I could not imagine a time when the mills where not dilapidated buildings waiting to be taken over by builders to be sold at exorbitantly high prices. I promptly bought the book.

As such things tend to turn out, the mills only got a passing reference in the book. Still, there were enough other references to the Taj Mahal hotel, Juhu Beach and Malabar Hill to give me a peek into how these areas were back then. (Not too different as it turns out. Just that the skin colour has balanced out. The money quotient remains the same)

The story starts off with the arrival of rich American heir, Bill Wainwright in Mumbai to handle some business matters. Bill is hoping his wild past is finally behind him and this trip is a chance for him to show himself that. Bill meets his ex-wife Carol and his old friend Buck Merrill. The trio rapidly ends up in a love triangle. In the background are various interesting characters – a down-on-her-luck Australian woman, an ugly and mysterious baroness, a rich and perpetually tipsy Indian Maharaja, a slimy Parsi suitor, a hardworking doctor and his beautiful dancer wife.

It has been a long time since I have read a story where the Indians are not well-rounded characters but some sort of stilted stereotypes – either noble like the doctor or vicious like the Parsi suitor. (This strangely enough was not particularly annoying now that we are largely past the time when the general assumption was that all Indians were buddies with snakes and spent their spare time doing handy rope tricks.)

Ironically, the story itself was vaguely Bollywood, what with a love triangle, sacrifices, just desserts and so on. Some of the characters are fairly well developed, especially the peripheral ones. You expect them to come in and out and provide background prop, but they end up evolving over time. The pace is also fairly taut. The observations can sometimes by startlingly true, though not necessarily flattering. The writing may get melodramatic at times but keeps you engaged throughout.

The book is good for a read on a relaxed weekend.

Incidentally, googling revealed that Louis Bromfield won a Pulitzer.

The strangest thing though was that he started out by being a writer but spent the latter half of his years pioneering scientific farming practices and gaining recognition for that. Sort of like he started out being a F1 driver but spent the later half of his year studying newts in Minnesota or something like that. How does one move from doing two seemingly disconnected things at different ends of the 'interesting' spectrum...?


Show me the money

For the longest time, I carried around a wallet gifted by my friend, C. The wallet was a vast improvement over the one I had procured by raiding my parent’s cupboard of gifted-items-to-be-passed-along. C’s wallet had plenty of space for storing my various credit cards, debit cards, store cards, coins, I.Ds and so on. The only issue was that it folded three-way, making all my bank notes crumple spontaneously the minute they were deposited in the wallet. An issue definitely, but not enough to assuage the guilt of buying a new wallet (not that I have ever been bothered by guilt when it comes to practically any other type of shopping).

Eventually when C’s hardy wallet began to show enough wear and tear, I delightedly began to keep an eye out for a new one.

Easier said than done.

My favourite leather-goods shop, Adamjis, did not have something which I particularly liked. Most of the other places did not either. So slowly, the activity was pushed to a recess of my mind.

Then I went back home and raided my parent’s cupboard again (one is never too grown up to do this). Voila! There it was – a smart, black, leather ladies wallet. It was long, meaning notes did not have to be folded. It did not have as many card slots as I would have liked, but I figured that my poor shoulder would get a break if I did not lug around so much stuff each day. Swapping wallets was the work of a moment.

As it happened, a few weeks later I found myself browsing through the Samsonite sale when the clouds parted and the heaven above placed a wallet right in front of my eyes. It was one of those moments when you know you have found your one true love – angels began to trumpet, everything felt slightly pleasant and hazy and dropped into background. The wallet alone glowed…

It was longish, so I did not have to have crumpled notes.

It had plenty of compartments, so I could keep various denominations of notes separately.

It had plenty of card slots. So all the cards which I was beginning to miss by now could come back in.

It had a section at the back where I could tuck in bills for dry-cleaning and other stuff which I usually pick up on the go

To top it all, it was quite sleek.

Look –

(Pics from the Samsonite website)

I did not even feel the earlier guilt. How could one? In the face of perfection.

It has been a few weeks now and I make it a point to pull out the wallet ostentatiously at every occasion. The only minor quibble I have is that the card slots in the front are slightly reduced on account of the buttons. I would say that was put in deliberately to ward off evil eyes.

This is my secret cheap thrill for the time being.


Chick Lit fest

This time, during my visit home, I decided to indulge in my favourite brainless reading – chick lit.

Before we go on, I must clarify that chick lit is not the same as romance. The latter, I could somehow never really digest. Handsome dark heroes, who catch their innocent (or stupid), blue-eyed, blonde heroines in the grip of passion is not my thing. However, give me a lazy day, with a brain too fed up to process too much and I am happy to read a mindless woman-centric story.

This time, I borrowed the latest novel in the Shopoholic series. I was introduced to Sophie Kinsella through Undomestic Goddess. This book told the story of a burned-out female lawyer who is forced to get away for a while from the heat at work. She somehow ends up working as a cook cum housekeeper in the house of a nouveau riche couple. The story is about how she blunders through the job, falls in love with the gardener and makes her peace with her career. It was mostly light and funny and provided an excellent escape outlet for anyone who has ever daydreamed about stopping to question her job.

Then I moved on to the Shopaholic series. The first book was quite funny too (especially given my secret shopping addiction. Not as drastic as the protagonist but enough to sympathize with the glint-in-the-eye that comes from knowing there is a sale in your favourite shop). Unfortunately the series became progressively worse. There is a limit to how much you can stretch the shopping addiction bit. Surely everyone grows up after a while.

Which is why Mini-Shopaholic continued in the same vein of being quite unconvincing and trying to find the funny moments as the shopaholic’s daughter begins to shop.

If you are in a mood for Sophie Kinsella, then try Undomestic Goddess and Shopaholic

The next pick was Nanny Returns, the sequel to the supremely successful The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. The first book told the story of Nan Schuester, an educated college graduate who works as a nanny to Grayer, the progeny of the successful New York couple stereotype – rich father who works in investment banking and the trophy wife mother who puts up with all kinds of nonsense, including her husband’s affairs. The book provided an interesting insight the dark side of the Upper East Side world, a world that looks absolutely fascinating in various movies and sitcoms. Infact, I would classify the book as regular fiction given that the book was never superficial despite its easy-to-be-lost-in-stereotype premise and was based on strong field experience.

The sequel unfortunately is not quite as well written. The premise here is interesting. Twelve years have passed and Nan is no longer the wide-eyed innocent young girl. She has a business of her own, is married and is back in New York. She ends up meeting Grayer and sets out to help him and is once again plunged into the dark side of the glamourous finance set. The book has been updated for current events – MMS scandals, privileged kids, the mayhem in finance and so on. Yet, halfway through the book, I was bored and just ended up abandoning it.

The two books vetted my appetite for a rereading of my favourite chick lit, Bridget Jones Diary by Helen Fielding. One of the things I realized about the earlier two novels was that I really did not like the movie versions. The Shopoholic heroine was dumb and old-looking. Scarlett Johansson was nice in the Nanny Diaries but somehow I could not picture her going through the story in the sequel. On the other hand, Rene Zellweger added to the Bridget Jones character and was brilliant as the average-IQ, thirty-something singleton who goes through life hoping to fall in love, having a good set of friends, changing jobs, handling menopausal parents and so on.

So in between my other reading, it has been a few pages a day just before going to bed. I fall asleep chuckling over the mundane yet quirky life of Bridget Jones.


The gang

One of the toughest things about growing up is the challenge of making new friends. At school and college, there was a ready pool of people in the same age group. I just had to figure out who I could get along with and then hang out with those kids. The first job had plenty of comrades from my own college. If anything, I was spoilt for choice with students from other colleges joining in as well. A couple of years later though, it became obvious that people were changing jobs, moving cities, getting married and my circle of friends was only shrinking.

For the first time in my life, I was faced with the prospect of actually not having enough people to hang out with.

I am not a particularly shy person. Having been through six schools when growing up, making friends was a cinch. The issue was who to make friends with. I seemed to be going to work and coming back home to an empty house. Most people I was friendly with at work had moved jobs and the rest seemed to either be preoccupied with their own lives or on a completely different wavelength. Most women I could have shared a house with were all married or getting married.

I moved back home to Chennai to get some sort of a change. Unfortunately, work colleagues were nice but had gotten worse in terms of hanging-out value. Luckily, being home with the folks provided a welcome change from spending the evenings watching the idiot box.

Still what self respecting 20-something can depend solely on parents for conversation and entertainment without having the ‘LOSER’ tag slapped on the forehead. Besides, it is just plain impossible to have your parents substitute for friends.

My excess time and energy were channelized into various attempts at exercising – aerobics classes, tai chi classes, gym and so on. Eventually I ended up joining Salsa classes.

I am all for dancing. Put on solid Bollywood and Tamil dance numbers, and I am one of the early ones on the dance floor. Salsa was a whole different ball game. The music was unfamiliar. You had to move your hips and hands in an exaggerated manner. I was totally humbled by the difficulties of learning the dance. Yet, it was good fun. The teacher was quite enthusiastic despite the class’ extremely amateurish attempts at being Enrique Iglesias.

So I hung in there. Slowly a few faces started getting familiar with a twice-weekly viewing. Some of the folks had come with other friends of theirs. Some, like me, were there by themselves. We began greeting each other and making light conversation. Till the day came when P invited us all over for a birthday drink to a nice place in the neighbourhood.

I landed up, wondering how it would turn out since I had never hung out with anyone other than my ‘friends’. ‘Friends’ defined as people I knew from school, college or early days of working. It turned out to be good fun. I felt terribly guilty for not having bought a birthday present and made amends quickly by contributing for the cake. I did not really speak to everyone, maybe just P and a couple of more people. I did remember having a good time that evening.

Soon, we began to hang out more and more frequently. Till one fine day, we realized that we had become a ‘gang’.

When I look back, I realize that everyone in the gang had their own little story on needing friends back then. P and J were already good friends but were more than happy to find a big gang. J was getting out of a bad marriage. EX was rediscovering life in his late – 40s after having spent a lifetime dedicated to work and a tough personal life. C loved dancing and was looking for a diversion from the routine of marriage, a job and two kids. S was trying to woo P but the gang seemed to provide a nice cushion for the ups and downs of romance. Other people also came and went but somehow the core gang remained as it was.

It was a very motley crowd. Our age ranged from the late – 20s to the late – 40s. Our educational backgrounds and job profiles could not have been more different. Our social and economic backgrounds were not particularly homogeneous either. I guess we all just loved doing new things and hanging out with people and shooting the breeze.

The gang could be depended upon to provide weekend entertainment, and sometimes weeknight entertainment too. We soon became a travel group, exploring nearby places. We were shopping companions. We readily checked out new restaurants. Everyone joined in crazy but fun activities like doing a hash run or doing a car rally in a dinky, old Maruti 800. The gang provided endless support when something was bothering someone. Or something bad happened to someone. Like the death of a spouse or a bad breakup or a big family issue.

It has been over five years now (or maybe longer). I have moved cities, gotten married and can no longer enjoy the day-to-day companionship of this bunch. Yet, I make it a point to meet up whenever I am in town and spend the rest of my time persuading one or all of them to visit me.

The gang taught me that getting out of school and college need not necessarily spell the end of endearing friendships. You can still make friends as you grown older. You can make friends with people seemingly different from you. And you can stay friends despite the distance and the differences.

One of them sent a friendship day mail in the weekend. Normally something that the cynical me would have laughed at as yet another Archies initiative. Yet thinking back of how it all began and where it has gone so far, I had to admit it was something to be celebrated.

Happy Friendship day


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Rating - Read if you have the time

Thanks to an attempt at exchanging books with voracious reader friends instead of just buying them all the time, I ended up reading this book.

The Colour Purple starts off well enough in its straightforward and unapologetic story of a young black girl in post-civil war America. The first few pages statesmatter-of-factly that the protagonist, Cecie’s, ‘Pa’ has been repeatedly raping her and has given away the two children produced as a result of this.

From here the book slowly begins the story of Cecie. Cecie’s forced marriage to Mr (the name is never told) primarily for the purpose of looking after the latter’s children. Mr’s love for his glamourous, singing diva mistress, Shug Avery. Cecie’s one love in life – her sister Nettie and the disappearance of Nettie.

As the tale continues, Shug Avery begins to help Cecie grow as a person. From accepting her lot in a non-confrontational way, Cecie starts to pay more attention to her own needs. On the way you meet a lot of interesting characters like Mr’s son Harpo, who dithers between treating the woman he loves with respect and treating her like filth as his father is wont to do. Harpo’s wife Sophie, is one of the book’s most charming characters – someone who is born into a world where black women are second class citizens but strongly believes otherwise. Sophie’s brothers and sisters also have uncharacteristically tremendous amounts of self respect.

I liked the beginning. The lackadaisical manner in which Cecie observes her own life, as if all the injustice and violence is happening to someone else and not her, strangely makes you empathise with the character. Ironically, only as Cecie begins to take control of her life, the book begins to falter. The author takes on too many things and it comes out a bit too pat.

A quick Wiki check tells me the book has won a lot of awards and has been popular enough to be made into a movie. For good reasons too. Some stories, no matter how many times you have heard them before, need to be retold again and again. Yet, as a book, I would say it is good but not brilliant.


Green Power

I have long considered carrying a camera along with me to capture candid moments. The temptation is usually strong when I see some ridiculously misspelt word in a slogan or shop name. Now though I think I may actually end up doing so.

Simply to capture the little spurts of greenery in Mumbai.

The chawls near my house all have faded flower pots neatly lined up in the tiny balconies of the crumbling fa├žade.

The big houses facing noisy Peddar Road, have a row of greenery in special stands installed outside their windows.

In the crowded Lower Parel area where concrete and construction rules, I spotted a small, lovingly tended plant next to a tiny front door as a sea of traffic did its best to kill the plant.

Looking out of a restaurant window, I noticed plants lined up on the concrete compound wall of the adjacent building.

For a city whose denizens do not think twice about spitting everywhere and throwing trash everywhere and whose real estate is so valued that the concept of balconies is going the way of Dodos, I am amazed that there is space in people’s homes and hearts for a little bit of greenery.

Sometimes Mumbai totally surprises me.


Twenty three years too late

Have you been through geography classes that involved endless hours staring at an India map?

Colouring the mountains, the fertile plains, the rivers and what not?

Trying hard to remember exactly which were the states that went into the North-Eastern bit?

In one such Geography class, a ten-year old me was seated in front of yet another map.

This time of West Bengal

Marking out the districts in the state.

I diligently coloured and named all of them.

Then doubt began to gnaw my mind.

If Calcutta (as it was then called) was supposed to be the largest city in the country, then why was the district of 24 Parganas larger than Calcutta?

Clearly after a whole month of classes, the concept of districts being distinct from cities was not something I had caught on.

And so I sat with a completed test paper on my desk, hovering over the map. Till I finally decided to just create a new district called ‘Calcutta’.

Of course the paper came back with a big red mark provided by an exasperated teacher.

Today I read that Kolkata (as it is called now) will start functioning as a district.

Call me visionary?