Home sweet home

I love the view from our house. In all the nitpicking about the inconveniences associated with the house, I had not realized one of the simple joys of life is waking up to a nice view. Our apartment faces a school and a bunch of short and beautifully built buildings and houses. These are set in a carpet of green. This is a bit unusual since most apartments we saw faced other tall condos and hence did not provide much of an incentive to stare out of the window.

Just outside the condo is a canal and a small, well-laid out park. Beyond that is a girl’s high school. Most people say that schools can be very noisy but being on the 16th floor we don’t really hear much. Except on that one Saturday morning, when we woke up to noises that sounded like an elephant in heat. I peeked out of the windows to see the school band, practicing bright and early. The sound was thanks to the trumpet player, whose skills still had some catching up to do. Clearly she realized it too since she diligently played (?) the trumpet the whole morning.

The girls also play a lot of sports, mostly soft ball. However, there was a particular day when I noticed two lines of girls practicing shaking hands with each other the way they do before important football matches. I watched fascinated as they did the same thing over and over again for almost an hour. Even if they turn out to be the least competent team when they play a match, no one can ever accuse them of not being able to give a firm handshake.

Despite these minor distractions, sleeping-in, however, has mostly been an easy exercise. The curtains that came with the house are made of some super-thick material that does not let light penetrate easily. So we are usually blissfully unaware of the fact that a bright morning lies outside. Bliss.

About a month into our stay, D made an interesting observation. We had not got any bills so far. This was a bit strange. In Bombay, the bills were normally slipped under our door and we had subconsciously assumed the same would happen here. Then D decided to check our mail box in the basement, and sure enough everything was there. Some dangerously overdue. The water bill (yes, the government charges for water. So the beautiful tub in our master bedroom will have to be used judiciously), the electricity bill, gas bill, cable TV bill, internet and phone bills. Whew.

The house is still work-in-progress while other priorities dominate. One disappointment has been the amount of dust. I had assumed that living in such a clean country, I would be able to display my books in the open bookshelf or put out our souvenirs in open shelves. Unfortunately, while dust does not gather in the prodigious amounts it used to in Bombay, it is still disappointing. However, as the mater pointed out, it is impossible not to have dust. So for now, everything that is purely decorative has been kept inside and will be hung up or displayed when the time is right.

We are also slowly beginning to use the condo facilities. D went to play a spirited round of tennis and then came home and panted and rolled in front of the fan in the manner of someone poisoned in Bollywood movies. Clearly, we can both get more exercise.

Our settling in is slowly turning into a much more stable phase. Things are growing more familiar on the house front. I have still not been able to explore the world outside our four walls. I guess slowly that should also come to pass…


Happy Diwali

Last Saturday we went for the Diwali party at our condo

We met around 15 Indian families all in their Ekta-Kapoor serial finery

We ate the spread comprising of Indian food including the filmi gajjar ka halwa 

We watched various kids and some enthusiastic middle-aged ladies perform to Bollywood music

We had a blast.

Clearly, it is time to eat the humble pie. In my long ruminations about finding a condo, I had pondered upon the wisdom of finding a place run over by Indians. A few weeks later, I am wiser. While I still shudder at the thought of going for Satsangs every Saturday, I must admit that it is nice to go for a Diwali party.

The story begins when we moved into our house under the impression that the condo was mainly inhabited by Japanese and a few Europeans. A few days later, a friend told us about someone who lived in the condo and who had served time in the same organization as me several years earlier. Using this rather flimsy excuse of familiarity, D and I immediately went over and introduced ourselves and came back with a lot of practical info. Had we waited to get to know our neighbours better and then began to find out neighbourhood information, it would have taken us a really long time. A network does toss up information much faster

The same ex-colleague cum current-neighbour also told us about the Diwali party and we decided to sign up.

I have seldom attended functions organized by apartment complexes. Mostly because the older I got, the more boring they seemed. Children chasing each other in circles while the adults eyed each other politely and entered into the most boring conversations ever. Besides, does anyone in urban India actually take the effort to create a bond with neighbours anymore?

Over here, it is different. For one, there is the beneficial effect of knowing your neighbours, especially if you are new to the neighbourhood. For another, I have already come to realize why Indians overseas take such pains to congregate and celebrate festivals. In India, you could blissfully ignore festivals, happy in the knowledge that the whole city was anyway celebrating it. Over here unless you marked a particular day it no longer held any significance. It turns out I do like my life being punctuated by these few days even if it holds only cultural importance and not religious importance.

So off we went, dressed nicely too. As anticipated, it was nice to have a whole bunch of people for whom Diwali meant something (In reality of course, Singapore has a public holiday for Diwali and it is an important festival. So it is not like we are living in some strange European country where the day goes unmarked). Also, as anticipated we got tons of useful information. We now have a part-time maid and have located an Indian grocery store closer home thanks to the pearls of wisdom gleaned.

The nicest thing was that apart from all the practical benefits we anticipated, it also brought us the simple joy of spending an evening chatting with people whose conversation we actually enjoyed.

That really is a wonderful thing.


Settling In

We seem to have finally convinced people to rent us a house and are gearing up for the move. I began to go through our list of goods to mentally plan which box had to go into which room. I am quite sure that we had around 40 boxes. But when I saw the list, I realized the actual figure was double that.


This despite a month of concerted efforts in Mumbai when I gave away tons and tons of stuff. Clothes, shoes, books, electronics, general junk.

On closer look, I realized some of the parcels contained just one bed headboard or box drawers under the bed. Not so bad then. Yet, quite a few boxes seemed to be mysteriously marked as ‘decorations’.

Do we really have so many decorations? Infact, what exactly are these decorations?

Houses in Singapore don’t seem to come with the generous Indian lofts that let you store unnecessary stuff unseen.

Infact even the cupboards don’t come with too many shelves. They have a couple of elegant rods in which I suspect you hang your limited and tasteful collection of designer clothes. Not designed for a person whose clothes, when ironed and folded used to fit snugly into multiple shelves

The sad thing is even if I do a further culling, I don’t want to dump stuff into the garbage. I would have found enough needy people back home, but here I am not so sure who to donate to.

Update –

Since I wrote the above bits, we have actually moved into the house. The first couple of days went in just enjoying the unbelievable luck of finally finding a house (which now sounds stupid to me because we would have of course found a house at some point!).

I was apprehensive about this house because we found out 2 new buildings are going to be constructed in that area, in addition to the one ongoing building. Then we realized that every area in Singapore is always going to have some construction nearby. I made my peace with it and have realized that the ongoing construction is really not so bothersome.

The one pleasant surprise has been the view. We look out over a series of low rise, posh buildings and lots of trees. This is apparently a bit of a luxury since most buildings would overlook other high rises.

After the initial euphoria of moving in died down, the tiring process of settling in began. This is the part I normally love – thinking where things would go, how to set up the house etc. Unfortunately between work and not keeping too well, this is the one thing I am unable to do at the pace I like. D, meanwhile is also super busy getting things like cable, phone, internet etc up and running. Plus a lot of unpacking will also depend on getting shelves for cupboards.

Like everything else, I assume the house will be set up in good time. Meanwhile, I am trying to see the positive side of living out of boxes (Verdict – there is no joy in that)

It is overall a nice feeling though, to come back to your own house instead of an impersonal serviced apartment.  

I remember an ex-colleague who moves countries every two years. He just has a suitcase full of some clothes. He just rents fully furnished places wherever he lives. When our stuff was getting packed, I was really tempted to simply my life and just have a suitcase too. Now that I am unpacking at the other end, I realize how nice it is to sleep in the same big wooden bed that says ‘home’, to see a bookshelf full of books you know and to have the morning cuppa from the same old green mug your friend gifted

Oh familiarity apart, some of my stuff is definitely going to be thrown out. Especially the ‘decorations’ which turned out to be code for souvenirs picked up during our travels.

Update –

Again, there has been some progress (?) since I wrote the last few lines. It has been almost ten days since we moved and we have seen one full weekend. The kitchen has been set up. To avoid washing all the utensils till we hire a maid, we cleverly use the same set of vessels everyday and stock it separately. There is a rack with two plates, a few spoons, 1 cup, 1 bowl, 1 saucepan.

As one can guess, no gourmet meals are being prepared. Just breakfast. It is the good old food courts for lunch and dinner. Talk about simple living and high thinking and all that stuff…

The weekend was meant to be my massive ‘Operation Clear-Up’ time. Instead it turned out to be the ‘Hunt for a bed’ day. Moving countries means you don’t have a frame of reference if you want to make a big buy. On recommendation from friends, we hit the first mall, where much searching turned up something which was twice our budget (the rest were well over that).

Hmmm. Do we change the budget or do we change our quality requirements?

Then we hit another mall which had more affordable stuff. Finally, it was time to enter the holy portals of Ikea.

I have heard so much about Ikea from the folks when they used to visit the Sis in the U.S. that I was really looking forward to the trip. Over here, friends say that Ikea is part of any parent-visit itinerary.

Ikea turned out to be ok despite the build-up. They really do stock tons of tremendously useful stuff which you never think you would need till Ikea shows how it can be used.

We checked out the bed and with that research was completed and on Monday, a final decision made.

The unpacking faces another week of slow clearing up. There is a long weekend coming up and instead of travelling or doing anything exciting, we are going to be stowing away stuff.

I am rather looking forward to that!


House hunting

It has been a month since we arrived on the shores of Singapore, clutching our suitcases, our hearts aflutter. It has also been a month since we started looking for houses and I must say that our experience so far has been less than pleasant.

Agent A (short for any expletive starting with ‘A’) took D around in a plush BMW, complete with tiny, expensive waterbottles and showed him 9 houses, of which 1 met our requirements. Unfortunately the landlord changed his mind before I could even look at it. Agent A showed us a few more houses and then pretty much told us that we could either take our pick of the sorry ones he had or face the option of staying on the streets (metaphorically speaking of course. No one stays on the streets here. I think you get arrested or something).

We were a little tired of Agent A. He had a disconcerting habit of talking non-stop. And he did little to shield us from some of the harsh realities of searching for a house in our specific situation. Infact, he seemed quite keen to update us on why we were not ideal tenants and pretty much presented us that way to others. We persisted with Agent A since he had come with some recos and he had told us in no uncertain terms that he would only work with us if we used him exclusively. (And I think we were so busy running around doing other stuff that we were too tired to listen to well-meaning friends telling us to lose him). When we fixed up other house viewings surreptitiously on the side, Agent A found out and moaned for an entire car ride (Thank God, Singapore is a small city. I wouldn’t have lasted a Bombay car ride). Two weeks passed by and we finally settled on a house which passed muster. Sadly the landlord pulled out of the deal in the last minute and Agent A washed his hands off us.

Singapore’s landlords have their own agents. So it is effectively the agent who meets you and passes on information about you to the landlords. I guessed that without having the benefit of meeting us and being dazzled by our scintillating personalities, landlords were rejecting us.

So last Sunday, we set out with another agent to see a house in which the landlord was actually residing and going to meet us. We were at our polite, courteous best during the visit and shortly thereafter negotiations began. Then, suddenly we find out the landlord has changed his mind.

So much for impressing with our personalities…

It is probably just a case of market supply not fitting our requirements at present. Besides, one month is not really a long time to get your bearings in a new city. So we are working with other agents now, all of whom are far nicer and we are widening the net and giving up some of our original criteria.

There is another issue that has come up during househunting.

Living close to an Indian community was not a search criteria for us. So we were primarily shortlisting based on access to the public transport and proximity to our travel locations. Now that it looks like those apartments are not working out for us, we have included condos that are a 5 – 10 minute walk to the metro. So I ended up making inquiries about a condo which turned out to have a huge Indian population.

So far, I was indifferent to the ‘should have Indian neighbours’ criteria but now I am forced to actively consider it. Especially when a friend’s friend I spoke to gushed about the satsangs his parents attended, the yoga class his wife had signed up for and the Art of Living courses he went for. “You can get them all in the condo”.

I got deep into thought.

One of the things I loved about my Bombay apartment was that it was a very cosmopolitan building. Fifty percent of the houses were owned by the navy and the multicultural crowd moved in and out. The rest had an assortment of parsis, gujjus, maharastrians, south Indians and so on.

In Singapore though, should I want the same thing or is it good to have a lot of Indian neighbours? On the one hand, there is the advantage of having an ecosystem handy (Indian grocery stores etc), the immediate availability of help and assistance (I assume Indians would be less shy about helping each other out) or the shared festivals. On the other hand, if I wanted all this, I could have as well stayed back home. Another friend described how their multi-cultural condo had a small celebration for the mid-autumn festival, lighting lanterns and eating mooncakes. It sounded fascinating.

Will the curiosity stop after a while and would I crave familiarity?

For now, I think that if I wanted Indian company, I would just have to reach out to any of my friends, all of whom are Indians. On the other hand, living in a mixed crowd would be the easiest way to get more out of my Singapore experience.

Nevertheless, the slightly desperate position we are in now, I am not sure if we would really have a choice.
The house hunting story is not yet over but I do hope it ends soon.


New beginnings

So as these things happen, one fine day I was asked at work if I wanted to consider moving to a new office location. Given my long term love-hate relationship with Bombay, I was quite happy to consider the idea. A few months later, we now find ourselves in Singapore, complete with bag and baggage.

It has been three weeks and finally I am beginning to absorb my new city.

My expectations from Singapore were quite low. Earlier business trips did not particularly mark this out as an exciting city. The buildings looked nice, the roads looked nice, the neatly manicured trees looked nice. Everything looked pleasing and safe. Nothing had a buzz to it.

Three weeks on, I cannot say I have discovered the buzz. Partly because I have been too focussed on work, househunting and other personal issues to go looking for it. But boy, have I underestimated the virtues of ‘pleasing and safe’. It has been terrifically easy to get things done – employment passes, opening a bank account, getting used to the MRT, finding cheap, hygienic Indian food and so on and so forth. I must admit that administratively it has been a lot easier arriving on this side, than winding up in India. The Bombay end required endless follow-ups, lot of procedures, beaurecracy and I was quite tired by the end of it all.  

It also helps that we have friends here who had been through the rigmarole before and were happy to dole out advice. Plus who are happy to have us visit. 

My only sore point so far is the real estate agent we have been using to rent a house. Sulky, overly talkative, undiplomatic are a few words that can be used to describe him. By the time, we realised that he was really not helping our case at all, two weeks had flown by. We have switched to other agents and hope for a better outcome in the househunt. I am trying to be wise and consoling myself that there are bound to be teething issues in any relocation. However, I secretly know that if I did get a chance, I would gladly give him a resounding slap.

The big draw so far has been interacting with a number of nationalities, mostly on work. I can see some major broadening-of-the-horizons happening. It is quite exciting and I am sure one day I will be able to comprehend the accents of everyone in my team and vice versa. The good news is that most people speak a little slower at work to combat this exact issue. I will have to learn to do so too.

The city itself dresses up far more chic than Mumbai (though South Mumbai can still give these guys a run for their money). Skirts and tiny shorts are all the rage. Designer bags are not classified as ‘luxury’ but as ‘necessity’. Smooth footpaths and even surfaces make it easy for everyone to strut around in heels. Even some of the men, with their carefully groomed ‘dandy’ looks merit mention. I try not to stare too hard. Infact, I am quite mastering the art of looking through the corner of my eyes. And I do do a lot of gaping at shoes or clothes.

Safe or buzzing, it looks like it is going to be fun discovering a whole new world.

Relocation though comes with a period of transition when you still don’t know enough about the new city to feel at home. Yesterday, we watched ‘Barfi’ and emerged from the theatre and I was a little disconcerted to find that I had not stepped out onto the bylanes of Metro or the side staircases of Inox. Suddenly, nothing seemed familiar and a sudden wave of homesickness hit me. I had never been more thankful to have D by my side. It is nice to not have to do this alone.


Internet maladies

I don’t know if anyone else has shifted to the new Yahoo mail format but my personal experience so far can be classified under the ‘tearing hair out of the roots’ segment.
Frankly, I was not going to change. Then I was tricked into it. While contemplating something deep at work, I clicked on Yahoo mail and noticed an ‘Upgrade, you unsuspecting moron’ button but no ‘Don’t Upgrade, you cautious user’ button.
I upgraded.

And clearly landed in some beta version with yours truly being one of the first users.
Every single mail I clicked, I was presented with the message that the mail was temporarily not available. This would not have mattered so much had I been checking one of the ten forwards I get daily. Unfortunately these are also the last days for filing IT returns and I have been engaged in furious correspondence with my auditor. Not the best time to be a beta user.
Incidentally a friend sent a forward that assessed one’s personality based on one’s email servicer. Apparently Yahoo users are yokels who usually WRITE THEIR MESSAGES ALL IN CAPS. I protested but not anymore.
In other internet news, I have been alarmed by the levels of mediocrity to which Facebook’s entertainment value has shrunk. People have started bombarding FB with all sorts of random messages and posters. There was one that especially puzzled me

“Falling in love is like jumping off a high rise. Your head says you will die but your heart says you will fly”

At first sight this looks like your usual gag-worthy poster. Then you give it a second glance and realize it is quite Nietzsche-like in the bleakness of its message. Falling in love can have happy endings sometimes. But everytime you jump off a high-rise, chances are you find your innards splattered on a concrete floor or at the very least break a limb. No matter how much your heart is flying. Does that mean falling in love is a suicidal endevaour? I would have been admiring the person for this underhanded manner of laughing at people who produce mushy posters were it not for the fact that the person concerned is a leading perpetuator of this crime. If you are being mushy, atleast stop to think a wee bit.

There is also a new function on FB that allows people to let the whole world know what they are reading. Presumably one uses it alert the world to all the intelligent and interesting stories they are reading. Except that most stories are along the lines of ‘Will Saif and Kareena marry this year?’ thereby possibly destroying a carefully cultivated intellectual veneer. Unless of course you belong to the post-the-posters category in which case people will just nod their heads and say ‘what else will she read’. See, no happy ending again.

Luckily I have finally learned how to block updates from specific senders and also block specific messages. Suddenly my FB space has opened up to accommodate the less prolific but vastly more interesting people who post something that I actually enjoy.

Which means I am also tempted to be a lot more active on FB. However as a lot of FB users have realized, it is difficult to be a hands-on FB user without giving away a lot about yourself, whether it be by way of hard data or just preferences and opinions. So for now, I continue to enjoy the relative anonymity of the blog.
Or so I think


Back in those days

The 84-year old granny was visiting a few weekends ago. D, as usual, gave a warm welcome and promptly retreated into one of the rooms while Grandma and I caught up on family gossip and so on. Eventually the conversation turned to the time when she was a young mother.

Grandma was married to Grandpa, who was employed in a humble, transferable and low paying government job. She had to manage the household with practically no help in every new town/village they lived in. Which back then seemed to have involved a lot of physical labour given the lack of equipment (think mixie, fridge, washing machine, grinder, vacuum cleaner, aqua guard, microwave, oven etc).

Like all women her generation, Grandma also began to have kids as soon as she got married. A process that went on to the end of her reproductive years.

Her first three boys were born within a span of 4 – 5 years

‘Good Lord’, I asked ‘How did you manage the house and three boys?’

Grandma thought and said ‘I spent a lot of time before and after the baby in my mother’s house. I would usually come back only when I thought I could manage’

Then she added, ‘But yes it was getting to be tough managing the three of them’.

I could understand. My dad and uncles are hyperactive even today.

She continued ‘So I kept the elder one with me and sent off the other two to be brought up by my mom’

I rolled my eyes, aghast. ‘And?’ I asked.

‘And’ she continued, ‘they studied there till high school, I think’. Details which she sort of knew but being busy with the other kids that came after, she really did not fuss about.

Apparently she did not worry much about the children developing ‘attachment issues’. Infact I am quite confident that she must not have heard of the concept. As long as they were taken care of by a loving adult and were well-fed, she seemed to have been quite ok about where they were. This way, they got some attention, she got some respite and there was peace all around.

This story came back to me when I was going through the comments about the new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s impending maternity leave. As expected some people had pointed out that the only way the CEO would be able to manage in her new job would be through hiring a nanny and letting someone else bring up the kid. Naturally there were a lot of remarks about what a bad mother that would make her.

Then I thought of my dad, uncles and aunt, all in their 50s and 60s, leading ordinary normal lives with nothing more than the usual share of angst and joy.

Perhaps our generation has given motherhood such an apple-pie sheen that we forget it is just another job to do and each one does what works best for her and her child.


Mum's the word

Mom and Dad are staying with us just now. Mom is in the midst of reminding me why there is quite nothing like mom’s cooking.

The timing could not have been better. The bai (maid cum cook) has usually churned out good food. Unfortunately she has been going through a low phase and has become incapable of producing anything edible on a consistent basis. While I have put it down to bad spirits and am waiting for a recovery, I have also been starving a bit given my lack of interest in the kitchen and D’s lack of time and inclination to do anything less than a perfect dish.

So the arrival of mom is as welcome as can be.

The magic began almost as soon as she arrived. One evening of eating dosas made from the unfermented batter stocked in the house had wizened her to our drastic situation. Stocking fresh, edible batter was a matter accorded great priority. Since then breakfast or dinner has been a series of hot and soft idlis or hot and crisp dosas. This is usually accompanied by atleast two side dishes (a far cry from our habit of just eating podi or pickle). For variation, she has thrown in adai, puri/bhaji. Lunch or dinner is no longer a boring affair with thick dal, random sabzi and rotis dry from being stocked in the fridge. Rotis are made fresh and again accompanied by a variety of side dishes. I get veggies and packed rice for lunch – lemon, coconut, sambar, tamarind. My colleagues have caught onto the taste and can barely wait for me to make my polite offer to sample the fare . To top it all, I also get a light snack when I get home – puttu, idiappam, vadai, bajjis. If there is no hot snack (and there is no danger of that yet), there are always the readymade snacks which the dad has thoughtfully brought from home – thattais, chips, mixture.

Weekend meals are more special. Last Sunday was a perfect ten when the visiting 84-year old granny presided over the cooking and produced mouth watering mutton dishes (mutton kozhambu, kola urundai, mutton rasam). Mom added to the melee with her chicken curry. The poor bai, sadly no longer a force to compete with, produced a veggie that had become over ripe and could not be eaten and quick substitutes had to be found for the vegetarian uncle and cousin who had been invited. The rest of us were too busy gorging to care that all they had to eat was rice and beetroot.

Mom has been here less than a week and already my life is a gastronomic heaven. Of course, the thought that haunts me is what happens when the folks go back home.

It will be back to bai’s cooking which I am hoping would get inspired and improve.  And going back to letting my mouth water while the Sis sends me detailed mails of how Mom is in fine form these days.

Which is probably why I have thrown all caution to the winds and am eating like there is no tomorrow.


p.s. The Mom thinks that some day I shall produce such delectable stuff and has stored all her recipes here -  http://malarumninaivugal.blogspot.sg/


Borrowed books

Thanks to the circulating library I have discovered in my neighbourhood, I have suddenly had the pleasure of reading a whole lot of books I did not really want to own. They are not bad books but I really don’t see myself reaching out for a copy to re-read or even gaze at it lovingly to think how much pleasure I had while reading it.

A Game of Thrones by George R.R.Martin – The book came highly recommended by P, and then J. It had been a while since I had sat down to lose myself in a fantasy series, and the book was much welcomed. Especially since I had only recently become aware of how many games, TV shows etc this book seems to have created.

The book itself was quite entertaining. Told from the points of view of different characters, it spans an area that covers the cold North and goes down to the Southern seat of the ruling kings and further below. The focus is largely on the northern based, Stark family. When the king requests Eddard Stark to take up a position in the court down South, a chain of events is set in motion. Needless to say, passions run high, betrayals are strife and the story takes major twists and turns. In between there are events happening beyond the Northern wall. Also, the surviving heirs of the erstwhile ruling family are in free lands.
When the story ended, I was craving for more and promptly borrowed the second book in the series

A Clash of Kings by George R.R.Martin – The book begins with the civil war for the king’s throne. As the war progresses, the general garb of civilization deteriorates. There is no sanctity attached to one’s position, noble or otherwise and most characters can only hope not to fall into the wrong hands. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the warring clans, the activity beyond the Wall has become more eerie. This book is a lot darker than the previous one.

By the time, I ran through this book, my enthusiasm for the series had dimmed considerably. Personally, I think that each book in a series should have a segment neatly wrapped, while keeping the main theme alive for the next book. The Lord of the Rings did that well (maybe except for Part 2, which was mostly a journey, connecting books 1 and 3). Harry Potter does it well. This series, on the other hand, falters here and hopes that the reader, after 1000 pages can still focus on the main storyline, without having the satisfaction of atleast one segment completed.

There is still a part 3 to go but I am going to wait a while before I get there.

After this I wanted to read something that I knew would reach some sort of conclusion at the end of the book. So the long neglected The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai was picked up. This book was yet another reco by P and J. Infact both had gifted it for a birthday knowing fully well that since I was not particularly impressed by the author, I would not buy the book left to my own devices. At that time, Kiran Desai had been all over the news with her Booker prize and her annoying giggle. Besides, I had just read her mother, Anita Desai’s Fasting and Feasting and considered it terribly over rated and assumed that the daughter must surely be too.

Oh well. As these things turn out, I quite enjoyed the book and the writing style. There are two parallel stories in the book, that of Sai and Biju. Sai lives in Darjeeling with her rather aloof grandfather, Jemubhai Patel. Having studied in England, and having picked up a culture that alienates him from his known world, Jemubhai is happy to have succumbed to the life of a pucca gentleman in an alien place, till orphaned Sai appears at his doorstep. He tolerates her presence and the young Sai grows up with no real sense of her identity. Meanwhile, their cook’s son Biju, has ended up as an illegal immigrant in America. He realizes that this is the best shot that life is going to offer him to make money and be a success but learns that being poor, illegal and away from home is not a happy state of affairs. In the background of all this is the Gorkha agitation for their own land. Sai and Biju try to make the best of their separate but similar situations.

The author is particularly gifted when it comes to observations about how people live and think. Worth a read.

Arranged Marriage by Chitra Divakaruni Bannerjee – A collection of short stories, most of which have to do with arranged marriages and living overseas. A lot of immigrant stories one may have heard before, redeemed by the author’s ability to narrate them differently. A quick and pleasant read.

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro – R had recommended this book a while ago and Z surprised me by showing up with her copy of this book during a recent visit.

It is such a good feeling when you discover an author whose writing style you fall in love with at the word go and Alice Munro was clearly going to be such an author for me (Thanks R and Z).

The short stories are set in small town Canada and revolve around the daily lives of people populating these areas. It is amazing how small town stories often tend to be similar. Yet Munro gives it a strong Canadian flavour and paints such vivid pictures of the characters that you can almost see into their heads. I enjoyed each story, losing myself in them and savouring them long after I had finished. Comfortingly enough, the characters all don’t come to a sticky end (my greatest worry when I find a good writer is that they will end up writing depressing stories). You find a mix of the good and the not-so-good which is what the real world is usually about.

Two Lives by Vikram Seth – So right after I read this book to remind me that even a great author may not have books that will consistently interest me. Vikram Seth tells us the story of his grand-uncle, Shanti Behari Seth who was married to a German, Hennerle (Henny for short) and lived in London. Shanti’s story is quite interesting in itself. He studied in Germany, and then served in the British Corps in the WWII as a dentist. Henny, whom he had met in Germany, meanwhile escaped the Jewish persecution in Germany but sadly her sister and mother did not.

Shanti’s story is unique since not too many people write about Indian dentists serving in WWII. Henny’s story, though tragic it is, does not offer any new insights into what it must have been living as a displaced German Jew in those times. However what could have been interesting is the story of them together but unfortunately it is not. This is partly because while the author is able to interview his uncle, his aunt is long dead before the research on the book begins. Seth tries to piece together her story based on a bunch of letters he discovers well after her death. Also, Henny herself never confided into her husband about the trauma of having suffered the loss that she did. Even what intimacy there must have been is not captured. So you can never get a clear picture of how the relationship between the two was.

The most interesting nugget of information I learnt was that a lot of the key characters in Seth’s masterpiece, A Suitable Boy was based on his own family. Mrs Mehra was drawn based on his maternal grandmother, Lata was probably his mother and Haresh was definitely based on his father. This is by no means new information to anyone who had bothered to do a Google search but I was delighted to find out more about one of my favourite books. I would have loved to meet the Chatterji family!

I must say borrowing books has been good for my reading given that I enjoyed most of the books I read. Not to mention, it is always wonderful to have friends who point you towards interesting books leading to limited downside risk of a bad book and the chance to discover good books.


Reading Updates

The last month has been quite interesting in terms of reading and I have managed to diligently stick to reading books I own/have borrowed rather than buying a bunch of books and then ignoring them. My latest decluttering drive is beginning to hit my book purchases too.

The Troubled Man by Henkell Manning. In my search for interesting new thrillers, I decided to try this one out. The book features popular fictional detective Kurt Wallander. A friend had mentioned the series long ago and I knew a TV show was running somewhere. So it was with great expectations that I began the book.

The story was intriguing enough. Set in Sweden, the story revolves around a highly decorated and retired naval officer who disappears one fine day. Wallander’s daughter has had a child with the naval officer’s son and the family ties pull in the detective though it is not really his jurisdiction. Wallander digs into the past and unearths secrets from the time of the Cold War, when Russia was a huge threat to Nato forces till he finally figures out ancient secrets that have lead to the present day situation.

Somehow, I get the sense that fictional detectives have become a morose lot. Wallander is no different. Besides being old and living in a country where isolation can hit one quite easily, the tale becomes a shade more depressing than regular ones. I suspect earlier Wallander books may not be quite so morbid since this book seems to be a culmination of sorts to the detective’s career. Going by the plot, I think it should be worth trying a Wallander if one is interested in reading thrillers but maybe this is not the best book to start off with.

Verdict - Read but pick another book in the series

Smokes and Mirrors by Pallavi Iyer – After the bleak, fictional landscape of the previous book, I turned to this delightful account of living in China during its ‘coming out’ days. Iyer follows her boyfriend to China in 2003 and in her five years there as a teacher and then a newspaper correspondent, she gets to observe China’s growth story. She comments on everything from the change in skyline to the pre-Olympic drive to learn English and the changing economy. She also comments on her personal experiences in getting to know her Chinese students, neighbours and acquaintances better and gives a good sense of how the local populace thinks. My own favourite part of the book is her ‘Indian’ insight that come from a middle-class upbringing in Delhi. It leads her to ponder over questions like ‘would I prefer to be a Dalit in democratic India or a toilet cleaner in single-party rule Beijing’. (The answer is the latter since the Chinese don’t treat toilet cleaners like they were born to do the job). It is slightly dated now but that makes it all the more interesting to read since you can compare how two neighbours with potential have been taking different paths.

Verdict - Read

The Feast of Roses by Indu Sundaresan – I had borrowed this book a while ago but was not quite sure if I really wanted to read it. This is a fictionalized account of Mughal empress, Noorjahan’s life from the time she married Jehangir to his death. In the end it turned out to be fairly absorbing. The book provides an account of how court intrigues would have been back then, which is fairly standard stuff if one has read enough historical fiction. The interesting parts are the author’s imaginative account of how events would have affected Noorjahan personally in the historical context of then. A quick page turner for a slow day when you want to read something more engaging than chicklit.

Verdict - Read if you have the time

Serious Men by Manu Joseph – The book works on a good plot and touches upon the sensitive topic of caste divisions without making any pretensions about ‘how everyone is really equal in the end’. They are not.

Ayyan Mani, the dalit clerk works in the prestigious Institute of Theory and Research, a formidable bastion of intellect populated entirely by upper caste staff. His boss, the brilliant and well-connected Aravind Acharya is up against a bunch of scientists with a contradictory agenda. As events unfold, Acharya tries to hold his own. Ayyan, meanwhile fights the system in a subtle manner with his own little games involving his young son.

None of the characters are particularly likeable in the book. Ayyan is the sort of person, were he to sit as a clerk in a government office, you would feel like slapping but would not since that would ensure your work never got done. Acharya is the pompous sort of person, so absolutely confident in his own theories that he cannot give space for a contradictory viewpoint. Yet, it is Ayyan you feel for. Stuck as he is in the bottom of the caste food-chain and trying to make up little subversive games to provide vent to his frustrations, he nevertheless has to face live with his station in life.

It is interesting to see a mainstream book that weaves the reality of India’s caste system into an entertaining fictional narrative. In my personal opinion though, it could have done even more.

Verdict - Read

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht - The book came much recommended in various forums and I promptly bought a copy (yes breaking my no buying books rule). The story is set in a Balkan country (read Yugoslavia) and jumps and back through the country's fractured history and how war impacts its people. The book jumps from history to allegory to folk tales and so on, making it a clever enough book though not quite ever making the point it sets out to make. 
The narrator is a young doctor, Natalia, whose grandfather has just died. Living with her grandparents and her mother, she grows up listening to the stories of the tiger's wife and the deathless man. As she journeys to deliver medicines to a distant village and makes a side trip to collect her grandfather's belongings, she takes us through both stories.

The story is entertaining for most parts in its own steam, even if you lose the complex background sometimes.

Verdict - Dithering between Read and Read if you have the time.

While I was trying to figure out what to read next, I dipped into my reserve of the American Book of Essays series (which I have plugged in quite a few posts before) and spent several evenings engrossed in essays on how to do French cooking and what to do about a dog that is not endearingly mad but is aggressive enough to be a risk to everyone around it.

Any book recos welcome – particularly in non-fiction that is well written.


And one big hug

If there is one thing that defines the innate Tam-ness in me, it is my utter reluctance to publicly hug anyone. You won’t see people folding each other in bear hugs at family gatherings. Usually a beaming smile does the trick. Or if you are quite overcome, then a clasping of hands. An exceptional few can give a sideways hug. But a full-frontal hugassault, complete with planting of kisses on the cheeks is usually left to really old grandmothers.

Of course, there were hugs and kisses aplenty when we were kids. But at some point in time, as we morphed into adults, body contact also became quite limited.

This, compounded with my own personal preference to not invade each other’s body space, meant that I was not prepared in anyway for the north-of-Vindya’s style of greeting people.

A bunch of us from B-School had started getting quite friendly with each other and commemorated it with a meal at a nearby low-budget restaurant. Someone had gotten along a camera to celebrate the occasion and we huddled closer together to fit into the frame. One second, there was I was standing without touching anyone and the next second a friend had me encased in a sideways hug. When the photograph was developed (yes, it was before the ubiquitous digital cameras), the look on my face said it all.

There were occasions when I sensed that some of my Delhi-friends (who seemed to greet even a relative stranger with all-encompassing hugs) were actually getting withdrawal symptoms from having to hold back the hugs.

Over time, I became a bit more relaxed about this strange cultural phenomenon. With friends, it became perfectly natural to greet someone with a hug. And the longer one had gone without seeing a friend, the longer the hug lasted.

Finally I had unlearnt the Tam hugging-etiquette.

Or so I thought, till I began working with a bunch of Europeans.

If American companies taught you all about firm handshakes, the Europeans taught you all about a quick hug and kisses on both cheeks. Of course, one did not do that with perfect strangers/business acquaintances or clients. However, if you had been working with someone for a really long time and got along very well with them on a personal level, then this little ritual was considered quite normal.

My first hint of this happened on a business trip overseas, where a colleague grabbed me and blew what seemed like a never-ending series of air kisses near both ears with a ‘happy new year’. My startled deer-caught-in-the-headlights look did not help matters at all.

So now only was I meant to hug people, I was also supposed to lean in and make these kissing noises near their ears. Besides these were friendly acquaitances, as opposed to friends. The latter you really don't mind hugging after a while.

This was only getting worse and worse.

Frankly, on grounds of hygiene, I much prefer the traditional folding of hands greeting. One did not have to worry about spreading germs with needless hand contact. Still, when in Rome do as the Romans do.

So the next time, I decided to go on the offensive. A chance run-in into a colleague’s wife provided an opportunity to do the air kiss ritual. I went for the hug, leaned in and began the air kisses. Except she withdrew after a couple and my pursed lips were still hovering in the air ready for the third air kiss. One can look pretty foolish and pretentious doing this on Mumbai’s streets.

Time had come to observe when to stop with the air kisses, the way kids learnt when to stop with the ‘na’ while spelling ‘banana’. Careful observation showed that two usually did the trick. The most important thing was to hold the other person in a vice grip till you were done so you would not look terribly foolish with the pursed-lips-in-vacant-air look if the other person withdrew.

This does not mean that I have tried going on the offensive again. I have learnt my lesson and have decided to go back to my old way of only reciprocating these hugs. But atleast now I know how not to look like a jackass while doing the new ritual.

Here is to hoping this is how much I will have to learn about hugging in the name of social etiquette.


What have I been reading

All my good intentions to write about books I am reading disappeared with the New Year. Rather ironic considering a new year is when people start new habits, not stop them. Now I cannot remember too many of the books I read but here are a few I remember

Suits by Nina Godiwalla. The author is a second generation Indian (Parsi) in the U.S. who works as an analyst with Morgan Stanley. Starry-eyed and fresh out of her college, she is bowled over by Wall Street till she realizes how soul-sucking the experience can be. For someone who has worked in a similar atmosphere where people think their jobs make them the most important persons on earth and should be prioritized over a personal life, the book has several ‘ah-ha’ moments. Even otherwise, it is a good insight into what lies behind the glamour of sharp suits and an expensive lifestyle on Wall Street.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson - This book was borrowed from P who recommended it as a nice and entertaining read. Indeed it was. This is a charming tale about a stiff upper lipped British widower who gradually falls in love with his Pakistani neighbour while trying to get used to the man his son is growing into. The book gave an insight into the other side of the ‘Desi’ experience viz how provincial white locals see immigrants.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Last year end was also a time of thinking about stress and its effects on health. This meant that I was scouring the book shelves to find books on happiness, spirituality and all the other fluffy stuff that I had considered fluffy for a long time. In the end I settled for this book which was really secondary material considering it documented the author’s year long project at finding happiness and her view of the literature she had read on happiness and spirituality. (I was much too lazy to read primary stuff). However, unlike what I had expected out of a book that veered very dangerously into the Self-Help category, this seemed like a cheerful first person account of their own experiences, much like writing about discovering trekking or something similar. The book is divided into twelve months and in each month, the author focuses on a particular feature of her life to work on making it better. The part I liked the most was about learning to be content. When it comes down to the basics, almost all of us have highs and lows that veer around a median. Unfortunately as the years get on (or perhaps as one moves towards an early mid-life crisis?) the focus on the lows make things look bleak. This is where the insight about ‘It is not enough to have stuff’ but ‘it is also important to be able to appreciate the stuff you have’ begins to make sense. A good read if you are looking to connect with the general world in its search for happiness.

In between all these books, I am quite sure I did a bit of other reading too but now my memory falters. However, the Pench trip did provide some interesting reading.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - I had been wary of this author for some time from a previous experience of reading a rather depressing book (cannot recall this one). However quite a few people, including the Sis had recommended this book. The book tells the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. Needless to say, it is coloured by contemporary feminist views and hence makes for interesting reading. The author also introduces a whole new angle (or is it not that new?) about Draupadi having a thing for Karna. This becomes a bit tedious after a while since it takes away from the main events themselves and Draupadi’s take on them. However that is a minor quibble. The book shows Draupadi’s rise from a willful and innocent young girl to a woman who plays politics well and eventually causes the Kurukshetra war. It also shows Draupadi’s view of other characters, primarily the female ones given that they are the ones she interacts most with. I quite liked her analysis of Kunti, which was quite contrary to the image of a pious mother and regal royal you normally have.

Where the Shadows Lie by Michael Ridpath – Another thriller. Two things made me happy about the book (a) I had picked it up on a whim and was happy to note that it was not of the factory-churned pot boiler type (b) the book is set in Iceland and it is always fascinating to read about a culture which you have never bothered about before. Infact, I felt a keen kinmanship with the Icelanders because they have a very Tamilian way of using surnames. You just keep your father’s name as your surname and add ‘son’ or ‘dottir’ as the case may be. Say someone is called Harald and his son is called Magnus, the son’s full name would be Magnus Haraldsson. If Magnus had been a Tam, his name would have been Magnus Harald. Cool, huh?

Nation by Terry Pratchet – Continuing with my on and off love affair with Terry Pratchet, I had picked up this book a while ago. Nation is standard Terry Pratchet – takes on a serious topic and tries to lighten it up. So there are a lot of questions about gods and science and colonialism and evil and so on in the story of Mau, a ‘darkie’ in an island in the Southern hemisphere and Daphne, a ‘ghost girl’ (as white-skinned people are called) who finds herself in the same island as Mau. After my increasing disillusionment with the Discworld series, it was nice to read this book.

Unfortunately my reading has suffered in the last month on account of being drained at the end of some heavy days at work. Not that any of the above books are really winning any prizes for intellectualism, but some nights I would go to bed too tired to read beyond two pages and it is a dampener trying to pick up from where you left after every two pages.

Fortunately this meant that I could rediscover Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series that was one of the books that Sis gifted me on my birthday. It is so strange to read this series as adult. The first few chapters had me shocked. As a child I must have been fascinated by a giant tree in the middle of the forest in which lived all sorts of interesting characters and on top of which all sorts of interesting lands appeared. As an adult, I was suspicious about the characters the kids were associating with, about the fact they were wandering into a forest by themselves, worried about their safety and wondered how in the world did Blyton-parents turn a blind eye to their children’s activities. And I don’t even have a kid! Luckily after the first few chapters, I discovered my inner child and began to enjoy all the adventures. The timing to read this book could not have been more appropriate. The Famous Five series has been in the news for completion of 70 years of existence this year and there a lot of articles on how politically inappropriate Enid Blyton’s books were, all of them true. However, everyone agreed that she is a master storyteller. And the Faraway Tree series reminded me of how right that is.

Work is saner now and I am quite looking forward to going back to normalcy when it comes to reading. The happy news is that I discovered a library next door to the grocery store. So I see myself making yet another concerted effort at borrowing books instead of buying them and overcrowding the house.

Resolutions, resolutions. Let us see how that goes