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.


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.


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’


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.


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.


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.