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


Pench National Park

Pench had been on our list for quite some time. Using the long weekend, we found ourselves on a flight to Nagpur early Friday morning. We had initially toyed with the idea of taking the overnight train on Thursday but eventually this worked out well since I was working till the very last minute on Thursday (continuing with the crazy amount of work I have been doing the whole of this month). For once in the time I have known D, he actually had his packing done before me.

On Friday morning, we landed bright and early in Nagpur and were picked up by a prearranged taxi. The drive to Pench is about two hours (can be much longer if you are unlucky enough to be caught in the long line of trucks crossing the border to MP).

We had made reservations at Kipling’s Court, MP tourism’s neat little abode near Pench. I must say that I never expected a tourism department’s accommodation to be so nice but indeed it was. The service was quick and efficient. The hordes of people actually did some work instead of walking around in a desultory manner (this has been my experience in other tourism homes). The cottages themselves were built quite cleverly. Each cottage had its own path to the common area, so you did not have people walking past your open doors and windows at all hours. The food was good and there was a serviceable pool in which all the male Indian guests flaunted their round bellies in the mornings.

On Friday afternoon, we set off on the first of the two safaris we had prebooked. There are two safari slots every day – at 6 a.m.and 3 p.m. Only 50 vehicles are permitted at a time and during peak seasons and public holidays, it is better to do the booking through your hotel/agent beforehand to ensure you find a slot. (Our safari agent, Ajay Bhavre 09424364217/ 09770732319 came well recommended on the net and was quite friendly and efficient)

Pench can get very hot in the afternoon, even in March. It was forty degrees as we set out in the open Gypsy van. I tried not to move around too much in the vain hope that staying icy calm would be the way to beat the heat. The forest itself was brown and stark, the green leaves appearing in rare and welcome patches. D and I gulped down water regularly. Even as we stopped at the first watering hole to wait for the tiger, I was seriously tempted to go and lie down in the water myself.

After two hours, the sun began to grow more tolerable. We had seen a few birds and a lot of deers and monkeys and hardly any of the bigger animals of note. But honestly, I did not see which animal in its right senses would want to be prowling the forest at this time. However, as evening came and the temperature began to drop we could feel the forest stirring to life.

We were driving on yet another route filled with deers and monkeys when we spotted four vehicles parked around the same spot. The guides in each of them were standing with their bodies tense and alert, listening to the sounds of birds and deers screeching away. This usually means an ‘alarm call’ is out for a predator. We joined the parked vehicles. As the calls got more intense and louder, more and more vehicles converged on the spot, all waiting with eager anticipation.

Finally, someone spotted a striped creature among the trees. A hushed whisper ran around the parked vehicles. The guides began to hiss to each other their prediction of where the tiger would go. No one really had an idea though if the tiger would walk away into the woods or if would it show itself more fully.

We waited. And suddenly, belying even our wildest hopes, the tiger began to majestically stride forward. It crossed the road between two vehicles which had been parked at a good distance from each other. Everything was quiet except for the steady clicking noise of cameras. As she (for it was a she) retreated into the forest on the other side of the road, some of the vehicles started and began to go further down the road.

We had seen ‘Badi Ma’ as the tigress is fondly known among the guides. The oldest in the region at 11 years, she had spawned several new generations of tigers and was still in good health despite approaching the end of a tiger’s life span (usually 13 – 14 years)

We were really content and happy on the drive back. Spotting a tiger is luck of the draw. You could go on 3 – 4 safaris during a stay and still not see one. Or you could just get lucky like us and see it on your first evening.

The good thing about having spotted the tiger was that we could now just stay in and chill for the rest of our stay. So that is what we did the whole of Saturday. I steadily finished reading the book I had been carrying. Then moved onto the next one and finished it that evening. And began the third one post-dinner. Some reading days are just perfect.

Sunday morning, we set out into the forest again for our second and last pre-booked safari. I was quite looking forward to this since the weather would be much cooler. It was indeed cooler. And there were tons and tons of birds around. We (or rather the guide) spotted beautiful woodpeckers, rollers, hornbills, black orioles, serpent eagles, ibis’, herons and so on. It was lovely being in the forest just after day break and watching the birds.

We also saw a couple of jackals looking most annoyed by our morning perambulations. However, we did not spot anything bigger than that. The usual deers and monkeys were around. No tiger though. Certainly there was no sign of a leopard, which a few people had spotted the earlier day and which we were really hoping to see.

Safaris are strange activities when you think about it. Fifty vehicles go up and down the same routes, passing each other at regular intervals. The guides nod to each other to indicate that they have not spotted anything. The city-bred passengers meanwhile sit in their sun glasses, carrying expensive cameras fully expecting to see a tiger or a leopard. It takes a while to realize that just because we have made it to the Reserve does not mean that the tiger/leopard has an obligation to show up and pose for photographs.

Still, we had seen the big cat and had something to say to the folks back home if they asked about the trip. We had also seen a few other animals and birds of great beauty. Baby bisons (weighing a mere 500 kilos unlike their parents who weighed a ton each) were my favourite. Their coats were absolutely lustrous and the little patch of fur on their heads provided a beautiful base for the pink and white horns. The peacocks we saw had coats that sparkled like jewels in the sunlight. Being in its natural environment certainly does wonders to the skin! We saw baby boars with squirrel-like marks on their backs to help them camouflage themselves. We saw Nilgais looking dangerously huge for an herbivore.

Yup, it is good to get away from the urban jungle once in a while.


Movie watching

It has been raining films after a long, dry spell. First the Oscar nominees made it to the halls nearby. Now a couple of Hindi movies have provided much needed succour from the horrendous lull in Bollywood.

The first one, Paan Singh Tomar tells us the story of a National Games winner who goes on to become a dacoit. It is a rather simple one-line story. Here, meet Paan Singh Tomar, national athlete. And lo behold! Here meet Paan Singh Tomar, dacoit. The why and how of the situation is told in the movie in an unhurried manner. I quite liked the movie, but was not totally moved by it. It just goes to show how used one is to watching stuff about the badass Hindi heartland. This was till two incidents in the newspapers shook me up a bit. One was the murder of an IPS officer in the Morena region that took place when he tried to stop the mining mafia. Paan Singh Tomar is infact based partly in Morena and you suddenly realise that cold blooded murders are very very real even in this day and age. The second was the story of a BSP village pradhan’s husband being killed, allegedly by a SP MLA. The story of how he was surrounded by goons, was hidden by his second wife and was eventually dragged out and hacked and shot, got me to gulp. There is a lawless world out there somewhere and suddenly you can understand why Paan Singh Tomar did what he did.

The second movie, Kahaani, is a laudable attempt at suspense by Bollywood. Set in Kolkata, the movie traces the travails of protagonist Vidya Bagchi (played wonderfully well by Vidya Balan) as she tries to track down her missing husband. Suspense stories usually work well when you suspend your disbelief and do not question the premise of the events when they unfold. A trick that Hollywood is excellent at pulling off through it high budget, sleek visuals. Kahaani gets the viewer from thinking too much by loading each scene with heavy visuals of Kolkata. Every scene is filled with details and before you can actually grasp them, process the scene that is going on and move on to question the logic of it, you have moved to the next scene and need to start the process all over again. When you come out of the theatre, your mind begins working the questions. During the movie itself, you sit back and enjoy the ride.

Both movies are worth a watch.