Saturday, December 25, 2010

This Christmas Day

Thank God my parents never believed in Santa. They never took me to an old, fat guy with a fake beard and asked me to sit on his lap. Subsequently I never suffered  from the trauma of discovering Santa Claus did not exist.

They did believe in plum cakes and a good Christmas feast though. So my brother and I always looked forward to the 25th. That was the night we went out to eat. 

When my kids were born, I tried to tell them that Santa existed. Truly I did. It worked also in the beginning. "Eat your lunch or Santa won't give you any toy, " or "Behave or else Santa will give your share of candies to your sister," but they were pretty smart. They figured out all by themselves that good old Santa was just a figment of mommy's over active imagination. So they took charge of the whole festival, bought a big tree that almost touched my ceiling, bought Christmas presents with their own pocket money and rented some Christmassy movie to watch on Christmas Eve. To be honest, as long as they did not expect me to bake a turkey or wrap their presents, I was quite happy with this arrangement.

This Christmas however every thing has gone wrong. Their father has gone on some long official trip up north. Their mother has forbidden them to put up the big tree that overwhelms the rather small living room. Their exam schedule, (especially the older one's) has clashed with the festival. The friends of the older one are all at home studying for the board prelims. The friends of the younger one have all gone out of town to celebrate the holiday season. So this year there have been no plum cakes, no presents, no tree and definitely no Santa.

We have spent this extra-ordinary day doing ordinary stuff. Got up rather late in the morning. Had Maggi 2 minute noodles for lunch and lazed around the whole afternoon. The kids have demanded pizza for dinner. So the evening will probably turn out a little better.

So how did you celebrate the holiday this year? Did you get a completely useless gift? And did some of you spend the holiday getting over a hangover? Whatever it was, I bet it was better than mine. 

So I thought I'd cheer myself up with this hilarious video. What do you think of this? Isn't this awesome? Enjoy people, and have a great holiday season!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Decisions, Decisions...

Sometimes we are pushed to one, some times we make a conscious one- but we all make choices. Everyday.

The day starts with the most important one. What do I pack today for my kids' lunch? At 6 o'clock in the morning, when admittedly I'm not at my best, I often make the wrong choice. The result? The lunch boxes come home with the food barely eaten. Apparently nobody eats rotis and vegetables anymore in the class. The super cool moms have graduated to making pastas and pizzas. I, being old fashioned and 'uncool' still persist on packing rather orthodox meals. Decisions. Do I make something nutritious and hope hunger would compel them to eat it? Or do I make something tasty but junk just to make sure they have something in their stomach?

Then later, do I laze around with a cup of tea and read the newspaper? (Which I badly want to) or do I go for my yoga/walk/pranayam routine which I badly do not want to? That is a tough one indeed!

Sometimes the decisions are fun. Which place to go to this summer? An ancient city or a modern one? Glam and glitz or quaint and serene? Mountains? Beaches? Architecture? We argue, discuss and finally come to a conclusion. This time, looks like an old civilization would win over everything else.

Do I go and meet my cousin and stay with her for the weekend or do I stay at home and help my younger daughter to study for her exam on Monday? The cousin has come from abroad and I get to meet her only once a year. The exams happen all the time. So the cousin wins. And the daughter gets 90 in the exam. She usually gets 100. So was that a wise decision or a stupid one? I think a wise one. Quite a few don't agree.

The older one will be appearing for her all important class 10 exams next year March. Like all typical Indian parents, we too are feeling the pressure. The boards are almost here. How many hours is she studying? Is she still watching T.V.? Is she studying at least 6 hours a day? Have you got the last 10 years question papers? Is she solving them? Science, Arts or Commerce? Has she made a decision yet?

The latest to join the bandwagon is the IB curriculum. The schools are wooing all the students to join this prestigious board. Apparently this board has the best methodology and offers the students a shot at world's best universities. The schools are inviting the parents of class 10 students for a presentation. The fees are too high. Around Rs 6 to 10 lakhs a year. But what is a little money compared to your precious ones? Think about their bright future. Never mind the fact that the curriculum is rigorous and not many students perform well enough to get into an Ivy League college. So decision time once again. Continue in the same school? Transfer her to CBSE? What about the junior colleges? Though that would mean changing over to the State board which many consider slightly inferior.

So what decision do we make about that? My daughter is not one of those highly motivated, super brilliant, overly ambitious teen. She is just a normal 15 year old who deserves to have a decent enough education without feeling the constant pressure to do well. We talk to other parents and read about all the possible systems. We discuss with the current students of all the boards. Hopefully, the decision regarding her education will be based upon her needs and not what others expect her to choose.

And if I've not blogged lately, there is a reason. My electricity bill hit the roof last month. And I've been thinking, do I continue to be a net addict? Surf, Facebook, Google and blog? Or do I save electricity?

Life is tough sometimes.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Fear Of Flying

Every time I travel by an aeroplane, my insides drop to my feet. I hear a roar in my ears, my stomach muscles work overtime and my heart beat accelerates. A friend, who also happens to be a doctor, tells me that I have some "underlying issues" and I need to go through some "cognitive coping strategies to deal with the anxiety disorder". Remind me never to have a doctor for a friend.

I feel if some one up there wanted me to fly, he would have given me wings. It is unnatural to fly strapped in a weird giant bird making a strange noise.  Every time I fly, I make it a point to sit next to my tolerant husband. That way, I can really grip his hands hard, twist his fingers  and squeeze his palms almost to a pulp. That is the punishment the guy gets for insisting I fly with him. If I had my way, I'd be walking or driving every where.

This time, when we went to Rajasthan for a short trip, I flew in the smallest aircraft I've ever flown in. The damn thing did not even require proper stairs. You could just haul yourself up the plane. And there was only one door. The familiar claustrophobic feeling slowly engulfed me. I thought a strong cup of tea or coffee would settle my nerves.  (Damn the puritan Indian airliners for not serving liquor on board).
 "Sorry ma'am, for your own safety, we would not be serving any hot beverages in flight," the cheerful air hostess informed me.
 " Why the hell not?"
 " Because bad weather and turbulence might cause your coffee or tea to spill."
 I nudged the husband. " Honey, may be we should just spend Diwali in Mumbai. I hear the lights have a spectacular effect on the otherwise dull city and makes it almost pretty."
"There, there," my husband just patted me indulgently. " Take a few deep breaths and count backward from 100 to 0, you'll be just fine."
 "Yeah but did you hear the air hostess? Turbulent weather ahead. What will happen if lightening strikes?"
"Chances are the bolt would pass through the nose or the wing tip and exit off through the tail." That explanation did not sound very comforting. What if the bolt decides to enter through the fuselage? That would be a disaster, right? My husband of course was blissfully unaware of my incessant worries. The flight was at an ungodly hour and he had slept off even before the plane took off.

Rajasthan is a lovely state. I have been there countless number of times and every visit I discover something new. This time the discovery was in Ranakpur temple, around 100 kms from Udaipur.

I saw this temple for the first time when I was in IInd year college. A gang of us had gone there during our
Holi break. That was quite a few years ago. The temple had looked absolutely breathtaking. Exquisitely carved pillars, underground vaults, beautifully sculpted domes, the temple looked majestic amidst the Aravalli range.This time though. it was a disappointment. The light marble looked black and ugly. There were too many people inside and we were barred from going up.Somehow the temple had lost its pristine looks. The peace that we found there so many years ago had disappeared.

Perhaps we looked lost. Or perhaps we looked disenchanted. A little girl came to us and offered to show us around. Her name was Yogini and she was the priest's daughter. Since the temple's inception, the men in her family had been the priests there, performing the Puja every day.. Her brother, who was only 5, would be the  the 20th generation priest one day.

She acted as our guide, telling us various stories associated with the temple, expertly weaving fiction with facts, history with mythology. She knew the story behind each pillar. She knew the temple like the back of her hand. Her command over Hindi was impeccable and I could not help but be impressed. She was only in Grade 5.

End of the tour, we asked her if she liked to study. Her beaming aunt, who was standing behind us for sometime, informed us that the girl stood first in her class every year.
" So what would you like to be when you grow up?" We asked, expecting the answer to be the standard 'a doctor' or 'a teacher'.
 " A pilot," pat came the reply.
 I was flabbergasted. " Why a pilot? Wouldn't you be scared to fly a plane? Going so high up in the sky?"
"Not at all. To be able to fly, to be able see the earth in a whole new way, to be able to soar... it would be so liberating"

So there. That is what I found in Rajasthan this time. The cognitive coping strategy to combat my anxiety.

 There is joy to be found in soaring after all. Even a little girl knows it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Say A Little Prayer

Yesterday one of my friends took me to her Nichiren Buddhism chanting class. Though she is a practising Hindu she has been attending this class for a year. She says this has helped her tremendously. Chanting, she feels, has made her serene and tranquil. Out of sheer curiosity, I decided to go there to figure out what made her so enthusiastic about Buddhist chanting.

The class started with a chant of  Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, (I bow down to the mystic laws of cause and effect). The group, which consisted of women between 30 to 50, also chanted some other prayers, which went completely over my head. They were all in Japanese.

I am not very religious, though religion fascinates me. I do not perform  Puja every day. I rarely go to the temple. I do not believe in rituals. But I do have a strong faith. I believe there is a power above. I firmly believe if offered sincerely, prayers come true. I have experienced it many times myself. For me, understanding the language of that prayer is very important.Though the chants were mesmerising and sounded really beautiful, I felt completely out of place.

The leader of the group, who thankfully did not take offence at my scepticism, asked me if I understood all the Sanskrit prayers that I was more used to hearing. Most Hindu prayers are from the Vedas or the Upanishads. They are in Sanskrit which has been dead for centuries. If I could place my faith blindly in them, why could I not show the same faith in this. In my defense, I did point out that I do not chant mantras blindly. The few shlokas that I know and chant, I know their meaning. Moreover, even now, in India, there are people who can explain the philosophy behind these mantras. Sanskrit is still not so dead that we do not have teachers. How many people would I find who can explain some 13th century Buddhist texts in Japanese?

But the whole session did make me think. Is language really important when it comes to religion? How many Muslims are there in India who can fully understand the Koranic verses which are in Arabic? How many Hindus have studied the Vedas or the Geeta which are in Sanskrit? But does that make these people less devout? Do they really need to connect with the language before they connect with the faith?

You decide. All I know is that though God is universal, my relation with Him/Her is private. My prayers are unique. They are not found in any religious texts. When I chant some prayers, I want to know what they exactly mean. I pray because I want to be a better human being. I pray for strength. I pray to be a better mother. I pray for the well being of the society that we live in. I pray for my family and for my near and dear ones. What good is it to me if I do not understand that prayer?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Itchy Feet And Painted Shoes

Every six months or so, the travel bug bites us.

We get this sudden, strong desire to travel.We feel a strange restlessness, an irresistible impulse to get out of our house and see some new places. Even when we go away for a short weekend trip, we come back to Mumbai recharged and refreshed.

The summer holidays, which are longer, are reserved for international travel. We have been to a lot of countries in Europe, renting apartments and staying like locals. Which means doing the grocery, getting the laundry done, travelling by local trains and buses, cooking our own dinner.We walk a lot, travel by trams and trains. The kids love the experience, and so do we. The shorter Diwali breaks are meant for India. We just choose a city or a state and experience the marvel that is India. The food, the customs, the markets...we can never have enough of it.

My kids, who have been travelling since they were knee high, are seasoned travellers. They never complain about the pace, the food, the journey. Like us, they too have itchy feet.

Every year, they also do something different. Like when we went to Austria, they made a scrap book. They collected every scraps of paper, their entry tickets to various museums, the information booklets, the maps. They collected things like fallen leaves and pine cones. They beautifully stuck these things in a small notebook and wrote their memories of the places they visited. Along the margins, they drew pictures of the things they saw and stuck the relevant photos. One day, when they are all grown up, these scrap books will bring them happy memories.

This time,my daughter Ayushi, who is the artist in the family, has painted the shoes she plans to wear. Ordinary Bata canvas shoes, now look exciting. She coated them with acrylic paint, drew flowers, painstakingly filled them with her favourite colours and gave her cheap shoes that special touch. She is happy knowing wherever she goes, people are going to stare at her shoes and admire them. The shoes look so stunning that now she plans to gift her younger cousins shoes painted by her. Inspired,the older sister, also plans to make her own pair. And so does the mother, some day.

After all, itchy feet deserve beautiful shoes, don't they?

I wish all of you a sparkling and happy Diwali. And if you intend to travel this holiday season, do post about your experiences. I love to read itchy time tales...

Monday, October 25, 2010

One World

A friend of mine recently became an US citizen.

He is not the only one. Over the last decade, a lot of them, my childhood friends, my former colleagues, my family members, have surrendered their Indian passports and have adopted a new country as their own.
Every time that happens, I feel sad. Not just because I see India losing some fine people to some other country but because each time I feel I've lost a part of my former life to a foreign land. Some where back in time, these people were a big part of my life. Now they are gone from me forever.

In August I went to US for a fortnight. Some of my friends who were very close to me once appeared distant. They now have a life I no longer understand. They talk about school districts and health care policies in the US.. They discuss how the recent recession has affected their lives. They discuss the latest Apple products and the best GPS system for their cars. I do not understand their world. Some of my friends told me they chose the schools of their children keeping in mind the number of Indians and Chinese studying there. Apparently the more Indians and Chinese, the better the schools.

Every year they come to India for a visit. They shop and eat. They complain about mosquitoes and pollution. They invariably pick up a stomach bug.They talk about their lives in America. About how wonderful things are there. Meet friends and family. And after the mandatory two weeks, they leave. They do not understand our way of life any more. They do not understand why we tolerate the inefficiency of our people.Why things remain the same all the time. They do not understand why we wait for things to happen. They certainly do not understand why we are never punctual. They have spent half their lives here, and yet the land appears alien to them. There is a gap between us that no bridge could ever connect. I do not belong in their world, they do not belong in mine.

I know it is possible to stay in India and have a good career. It is possible to earn a decent living and send our children to good schools. (Schools that are full of Indians, may be the Chinese will join some day too) It is possible to live in big homes (though in Mumbai that is next to impossible if you are not Mukesh Ambani). It is possible to hold a good job and not worry about recession. So what is it about the distant lands that beckon my friends? A country that nurtured them once, why is that country no longer good enough for them?

Perhaps my views are parochial. In today's world, where going global has become the catch phrase, who cares what colour your passport is? Travel has become easy. Communication easier. No longer we book trunk-calls to talk to our family abroad. No longer we scream into the phone late night hoping to be heard across seven seas. We chat, mail, skype. Distance does not matter any more. Neither does citizenship. To the 33 Chilean miners trapped in the mine for so many days, their citizenship was the last thing on their mind. The NASA along with the Chilean Navy designed the pod that finally brought them up. The drilling equipment Strata 950 came from Australia. To speed up the drill, the supplemental motor was sent by Germany. Japanese cameras were used in the rescue operation.The world took care of these ordinary people, without caring about their nationality. Borders are after all artificially created.

But still, a woman like me, living in a country that is still years away from being fully developed, wonders what is it that makes people leave their country of birth and settle down somewhere else? Is it money? Is it opportunity?  Is it freedom? Is it the convenience? What do they look for? Do they really find it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mean Kids

My school days were all about innocent fun and everlasting friendships. I could not wait to go to school every day to meet my friends. My friends put up with my idiosyncrasies and bad humour. They helped me with my homework. They shared their food and class notes.They supported me when I went through any crisis.

My daughter however disagrees with me. According to her, school is full of mean boys and meaner girls. Kids take every opportunity to pull down each other in her school. They wilfully hurt and spread rumours about each other. They kick, slap, punch and call each other names.

There are days when she comes back from school in tears just because she has been insulted. Her friends sometimes do not invite her to their birthdays and gleefully inform her that she has been deliberately left out.  Once, a girl walked out of my daughter's birthday simply because the food served was not to her liking. ( I had served aloo parathas instead of pizzas)  Just a few days ago, she cried the whole afternoon because some girls called her gay as she did not have a boy friend.

My daughter is now in tenth grade. She goes to a prestigious school in Mumbai that figured in the top ten schools of Mumbai recently. The boys and girls are all above average students. They come from supposedly good families. I have met the parents of her class mates, they all seem rather nice. Then how come these kids find such inexplicable delight in ruining some one's art work or taunting some body's hair style or making fun of some one's body? My daughter is not like other 15 year olds. She finds it difficult to make friends. She finds it difficult to fit in. Therefore she has been a natural target for bullies on more than one occasions.

She is not the only one. There are many more like her who are bullied every day. The teachers complain about lack of discipline at every student-teacher meet I have attended. The kids write cuss words with permanent ink on the class room walls. They disrupt lectures. They bunk classes.Sadly, they are not even in high school. What will happen when these children enter India's work force? Will they carry this behaviour to work place?

 The innocence that I expect from a 15 year old has vanished. These days, kids say "Screw you, bitch/man" and show each other the middle finger all the time. They use the F word like some punctuation mark in their sentences. They call each other ugly names and mean them too.They are often cruel to their class mates Is it a big city phenomenon? Because I often get the same response when I talk to my friends from Delhi, or Bangalore.

My daughter identifies more with the characters of Glee than with the eternal friendship of Jai and Veeru of Sholay. She thinks school is all about peer pressure and politics. She thinks childhood is a phase she has to quickly grow out of as it is very cruel.

I am devastated to know from her that school is no longer fun. It is apparently, a jungle out there.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Sticks

The summer time in Kolkata was idyllic.

Every year in May, my mother, my brother and I would travel to the city and spend 2 whole blissful months there. Since there was no television in the house, the long, hot afternoons would be spent playing with cousins or cooking up some trouble. The curtains would be drawn, and the carrom board would be out on the floor. There would be Ludo and card games and there would be a huge pitcher full of homemade lemonade.

There was also another event that all of us would wait for every day. At exactly 4.30 pm, we would hear a strange guttural sound from the distance. " Ice-creeeeam wallah...Kwality ice-creeeeam..." That cry was what we waited to hear every day. A shabbily dressed man of indiscriminate age pushing a cart through the neighborhood and calling to the children. We would scamper down and order what our budget permitted. An orange bar which cost 25 paise. It was a princely sum those days, specially when you consider the fact that we had an ice cream almost every day. When an uncle or an aunt came to visit us, we would shamelessly ask for a special treat, a choco bar which cost Rs 1.50. That day was like a celebration.

The parents trusted only Kwality's, my mother thought any other ice-cream was made with  gutter water. The image of someone making ice cream with sewage water and dirty ice was so horrifying that even looking at some other carts gave us stomach cramps. So every evening, Kwality's  it was. The guy would stop at our doorstep and look up hopefully, knowing full well there would a small army of children noisily descending down the stairs. My brother, who hated orange flavour would always ask for a chocolate bar and for some reason my mother always indulged him. I strongly suspect she was biased towards her first born, but that is of course another story.

In Delhi, there was another popular brand, called Gaylord's. Now when I think about the name, it makes me burst into laughter. But those days our vocabulary was pitifully limited and we never thought about the significance of the name. Every year they would run a promotional campaign to con us into buying more from them. Some book where we would have to stick hundred stickers.Or save the wrappers of the ice creams for some prize. It goes without saying that we never managed to win anything. But the ice cream memories were priceless. Sticky fingers, dripping cream, orange tongue, and the fine art of finishing off the ice cream before the hot Delhi sun melted it down. I did not care about the hygiene or the man's filthy fingers or even those sometimes dirty wooden spoons to scoop out the ice creams. I would continue to lick even when the poor spoon broke down filling my mouth with tiny fragments of soft wood. Precisely why I personally think I never had typhoid or jaundice or even mild diarrhoea.

The ice cream experience is different these days. There are hardly any hand carts to be seen and we go to sanitised air-conditioned  parlours that boast of hundreds of flavours. Names I had not even heard of in my childhood. Tiramisu. Kiwi. Hazelnut. My ice cream vocabulary had never gone beyond orange, vanilla and chocolate. The men (or women) serve wearing disposable rubber gloves, no dirty fingernails visible. They ask  if you want an ordinary or a waffle cone (never knew about that too) and are kind enough to give you tissues to wipe those sticky fingers. There is an alternative to licking your fingers clean that I never knew existed in my childhood. The prices are unimaginable. A small, tiny cup is now Rs 60. On a single day my children spend twice as much as we did on our entire vacation.

The idyllic days of summer are long gone. Nobody stays home playing ludo with cousins anymore. We are all very busy zipping off to exotic locales for our summer vacations. The Kwality's that we knew is long gone, taken over by an international giant. But on a hot day, under the scorching sun, I still stop by, with my kids, to indulge my taste buds. Take a stick of coco-vanilla, lick it, swirl it around my tongue and savour the taste of unadulterated joy. "Ice-creeeam..."

Some children obviously never grow up.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Lost Childhood

My local grocer has a prized employee. He is quick and agile on his feet, obeys each command instantly, smiles all the time and is ever ready to please all his customers. It also helps that all the people who buy groceries there, like him too. I was in fact shocked the first time I saw him. He was trying his level best to carry a 10kg sack of rice to a car parked near by. He did not look strong enough to carry the load, Tiny feet, tiny hands, he could not have been older than my younger daughter, Ayushi, who is nine.

"Do you go to school?" I asked. He just smiled. "Do you know you have the right to go to school now?" He smiled again. He did not know what 'Rights' meant. All he knew was he had to some how get the sack to the car.I was angry that an able bodied man, who was more than 3 times his age and size, expected him to carry his rice. The heaviest burden my daughter has ever carried was her school bag. Most mornings, her father, taking pity on her, carries it himself to her school.

"Why do you employ him?" I asked my grocer. " Where will he go ma'am? He has nobody. He works here. Sleeps here. Most of my customers pay him some money when he delivers their grocery home. He keeps that money plus his salary here. If I turn him out, he will have nowhere to go. He will probably end up in a home for juvenile delinquents. Do you know what goes on there?" 

I do know. But still it was heartbreaking to see a boy that small work for his keep. I also knew he was not alone. There are millions of little children in India, working in worse conditions just for survival. They peddle books at traffic signals, work at road side tea stalls, pick rags, clean houses. Their parents are too poor and too ignorant to know how education can change their lives. Sometimes even knowing does not help. They need the money the little ones bring home. Childhood, a tender time which should be reserved for play, laughter, exploration and reading, is forever lost to these children. The condition of the girl child is of course much worse.

India, which is slated to be one of the top economies in the year 2020 does not care for its poor and homeless children. Neither do the Indians. The local schools will not take such children. Neither will any family agree to offer street kids free food and boarding while they completes their studies.The child working in a grocery store of a prime area of Mumbai knows that. That is why he does not complain while carrying those heavy sacks. 

He has no body to complain to.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What Indian Men Can Learn From Our Favourite God

There is a perfect role model in our own homes and our men never even noticed.

Born bang in the middle of India's cow belt, adopted by Yadav parents, he is amongst our top 3 Gods entirely due to his own merit. He never thought of using the 33% reservation quota, did he?

All of us know he was dark. So did he start using the Fair and Handsome? The girls fell for him anyway. It was his charisma and his personality. It's time Sahahid Kapoor, John Abraham and Shahrukh Khan acknowledge the fact that to us girls, fairness is not the priority. The personality is. Hindustan Unilever, are you listening?

Never was he scared of wearing yellow. Never was he scared of accessorizing his outfit with something as outlandish as a feather. It's all about style baby. We women prefer a bit of daring. Blues and blacks can be boring after a while.

And what about the musical instrument? We all love a man who loves music. There is nothing as romantic as being serenaded with a classical piece. It was the flute that was with him all the time, not the Blackberry. 

He gets extra brownie points for coining the country's (and the world's) most popular spiritual expression of all times, Karma. Who can forget "Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana?" Every Indian mother quotes these lines to her children before exams, interviews or before any other challenging times. Wisdom at its sublime best. 

No , he didn't go to Harvard. Or even to the IIMs. He simply created a Management School of his own. One of the best books I've ever read on management issues happens to be the Bhagvat Geeta. He convinced a  disillusioned and devastated warrior to pick up his arms again to fight for a just cause. Let's face it. He was history's first and the best Motivational Speaker and he didn't even charge money for it.

He was not scared of loving a woman older than him. And though he was supposed to be a lady's man, none of the women he was involved with were bimbettes. They were all women of strength, unafraid of speaking their minds.  He respected women. Didn't he come to Draupadi's rescue while all her five husbands, including Arjun, sat quietly? I love him for that.

I know there were too many women, but let's forgive him for this transgression, shall we? He, after all was the God of Love. And don't believe every thing that you read. Some reports were probably just publicity stunts engineered by some gopis.

He ran wild with his bunch of friends, he stole butter and cheese, he gave his mother apoplectic fits. But he also talked of war and peace. He talked of love and duty. And most important, he tried to tell a nation that  work can be the only solution. We unfortunately have still not learnt this lesson, even after 5000 years.

So here's wishing  my favourite God a big Happy Birthday. While I celebrate it with some thick aloo parathas with a big dollop of white butter on top and some fresh home made lassi, you guys think about why we constantly look westward for inspiration. Let me know if you come up with some valid answers.

By the way, I am eternally grateful that I was born in a Nation that values freedom of expression but still, do not tell any SS, MNS or Shri Ram Sene activist about this post, OK? I do not want hate mails (males?) flooding my inbox.. After all, this post just exposes my quirky humour and is not meant to offend any body, or any religion. I hope you understand...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Break Ke Baad*

I was on a holiday that took 25 years to plan.

It all began in a small town called Kharagpur. There, a few boys barely out of their teens, regularly discussed their aspirations and plans. They were all students of an engineering institute that was "Dedicated to the service of the Nation". Through the years, the 'ser' of the word 'service' had worn off, inspiring laughter and jokes. The college building was rather ordinary. The hostels were even more spartan. In one of those hostels, named after the first President of Independent India, these boys shared their notes, shared their tea, shared their limited wardrobe before a big interview and shared their dreams. Just before their graduation, they made a promise. They vowed to meet again, after 25 years. Rather like 3 Idiots, right? But unlike the reunion in the movie, this meeting after 25 years would be to celebrate life. It would be to celebrate their successes, their marriages, their kids. It would be to celebrate everlasting friendship. Most important, it would be to celebrate the institute that would ultimately change their lives forever.

This celebration happened in August this year. And that is where I was. In Orlando, Florida to be a part of this big event that was planned almost 25 years ago, on the fourth floor of a nondescript hostel. As you might have guessed, my husband was one of the planners.

Why USA? Simple. Most of the ex-students were now settled there. A fact that continues to sadden me. As we were the only ones from India, (two others from here had to change their plans for some reason) it made more sense to meet them there than to fly all of them here. Although the party was for the kids as well, I had to leave mine behind. My children had school. I really hated leaving them here but there was nothing much I could do about the situation. The American kids had holidays in August and this was a suitable time for all of them. Majority, after all, always wins in a democracy.

The seven days that we spent in Orlando were amazing. There were unlimited fun and laughter, plenty of impromptu songs and dances and many anecdotes to share from the past. Of course the splendid view of the Atlantic did not hurt. Early morning the pelicans would dive to the ocean for their breakfast and the dolphins would perform synchronized jumps. As the ad says, it was priceless.

Florida was hot and steamy but as Mumbai has a very similar weather, it was hardly a bother to us. What surprised me though was the temperature of the water. I guess I was used to the warm Arabian sea. The cold water of the Atlantic came as a shock to me. But you get used to it after a while. The kids went crazy trying to surf and I missed my older daughter so much. She is a water baby. She would have loved it.

In the last 25 years, there have been some changes in the institute. The 'ser' in the 'services' has been restored to its rightful place. There are more girls to be found there, making the place less drab. There are some new wings, new buildings. Modern technology has made the lives of the students easier. But the boys still dream. They still study hard and make plans. They still talk about reunions. I just hope the reunions they talk about, happen in India. It would be so wonderful then.

                                               The view from the place where we stayed

                                       Just some ordinary birds, trying to make a living

Shopping for breakfast

The planners, they may have lost some hair and found some weight but the twinkle in their eyes remain the same

                                       Not all of us are there, but you get the picture. I'm the woman in red!

America was beautiful but every time I go away from India, I realize how tied I am to this place. It may be maddening, it may be chaotic but this is a place I call home. 

And it feels so good to be back.

* After the break.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Dragon Slayers

When I was small, it was my brother who took on that role.

Delhi, like the rest of India, was not a stranger to insects, rats, spiders, lizards and other creepy-crawlies. And where I grew up, a flat in a government colony in Minto Road, New Delhi, there was no dearth of such creatures.

Often I would find roaches invading my study table. Or spiders in my cupboard. There was once a lizard floating in my bath water. No matter how hard my mom tried to keep her home clean, there was always an alien lurking somewhere to invade her space. My brother, who for some reason found such creatures rather fascinating, was the designated bug buster. Broom in hand, he would gleefully chase the offending creature, driving it away. I, being petrified of it, would stand on the tallest structure in the room, a bed, a chair or the table and try to direct him to his prey. " There, there, behind the T.V., strike, whack, swat..." Or, "There it is, climbing the curtains, kill it, kill it". Fear turns the best of us into killers. My brother, who was not a killer, would hold the creature in his hands, (eeewwww) and release it outside. That got him another round of blood curdling screams. " Why did you not destroy that damn thing? Now it will come back again."

For all his faults, (he was a weak wimp after all) he took his role as the dragon slayer rather seriously. His primary job was to defend his little sister and he never forgot to inspect the bathroom before her bath or the bedroom before her bedtime. He kept an hawks eye under the sofa, behind the curtains, inside the shoe rack and all other such vulnerable places. He spoiled me to such an extent that I'd often wonder how I'd ever cope without him in my life. Being a brave girl of the New World, I could fight my battle against any two-legged beast and win, but who would chase away the anthropods and the reptiles?

So, when I decided to get married, one of the first questions I asked my husband was " Are you scared of cockroaches or lizards?" If he thought I was mad, he never let me know.

Over the years, my husband has protected the women in his life, his wife and his two daughters, countless number of times. He saved us from those big brown cockroaches with beady eyes and long tailed lizards with clawed feet. He saved us from smelly rats and ugly spiders. Over the years, he has been able to gauge the seriousness of the threat by just listening to our screams.  He now knows whether to pick up a rolled up newspaper or a long handled broom just by hearing how much stress we put on our vowels when we say "Aaaaahhh" Choosing the right weapon is half the battle won.

So my house, thanks to my husband and my pest control agency is normally alien free. The problem arises when he travels. Like now. There is a big, revolting, lizard on my kitchen wall and I do not know what to do. I gave my kids bread for breakfast, I asked my mother in law to make the morning cup of tea and I'm here now, in front of the computer blogging, when I should be thinking of lunch.

The fire breathing, broom weilding Dragon Slayer is quite appropriately in China. And I'm missing him terribly.

Monday, July 12, 2010

India Through Their Eyes

Last week I had some guests at home.

Though they were of Indian origin, they had not been a part of my country for a long time. The husband was an American citizen who left India almost 25 years ago. The wife was an Australian who had never lived in India. Their laptop was stolen at Mumbai airport. The wife sheepishly admitted they were pretty lax when it came to such issues and the thought of locking their suitcases had not occurred to them. "We no longer have the habit" was what she said to be precise. Traffic snarls, potholes and numerous questions later, (What are these? Slums? Is it where Slumdog Millionnaire was shot? How come there are so many people on the roads? Why do trucks have Horn Please written? Isn't it impolite to honk here?) when we finally reached home, it was almost as long as their journey across an ocean and several seas. The weather was gloomy and it continuously rained which created further delays.

And I kept on thinking, what do they see when they look at my country? When they see barefoot children playing in the rain, do they see the poverty or do they see happy children? When they see policemen taking bribes from commuters, ( happened right in front of us) do they see how immune we have become to corruption? When their laptop went missing, did they think this was inevitable? And the unruly traffic and the constant honking? What do they think of that?

When they see my India, a country that I think is vibrant, colourful, confusing and endearing, what do they really see? A billion people working hard just to survive? A dirty, messy, smelly country? A country full of crooked people trying to con the foreigners? What do they see? Do they see the love?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

He Said She Said Part II

He said: Wan't to go for a walk?

She said: Are you crazy? In this rain?

He said: I thought you loved the rains.

She said: I do, but not the Mumbai variety.

He said: So what do we do? Want to eat out tonight?

She said: OK. Let's go to McDonalds.

He said: McDonalds? That's hardly suitable for the occasion.

She said: Who cares? The kids will love it. Moreover I don't want to change out of my track bottoms and sneakers.

He said: What happened to your high heels?

She said: I packed them off. Mumbai monsoons are shoe-killers. Moreover, I get my sciatica pains if I wear heels for a long time.

He said: Alright, that's settled then. I have to check my mail and make some calls. We'll leave at 8.

She said: And I have some groceries to pick and vegetables to buy. 8 seems perfect. Oh, don't forget to sit with the older one with her math problems. I will be teaching the younger one for her tests tomorrow.

He said: Right. Remember to buy Ma's BP medication when you go out.

She said: And you don't forget to return your cousin's call. He has called twice already.

He said: Sure. Hey kids, guess what? Tonight is special and we are going to celebrate it by going out to McDonalds!

They said: Awwww, can't we order some pizza instead? We don't want to miss our TV show.

He said: (Looking slightly relieved) Well, we can do that, what do you say?

She said: (Looking relieved too) We can certainly do that. Let's order pizza. I have to get up early tomorrow morning. And I have this book to finish. May be this Sunday we all could go out.

He said: I have to go over some reports. And make a con-call. Fine, next Sunday kids. Meanwhile let's call the pizza guy.

They said: Yayyyyy!

The story actually started like this. And then continued like this. But that was some years ago. He is still gallant, she is still romantic. But for both of them, the definition of love has somehow changed...

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Carousel

I slid into the driver’s seat, let in the clutch, and we were off. I knew it was illegal, but it didn’t matter any more. All that mattered right now was where I was heading. What I was doing. Saving a life.

8 hours before…

“I’m so excited. I’ve never been to an amusement park with so many rides before. And they’re all so high. Wow.”

“Ok, I need you to keep quiet. For a while at least, I’m going to make a call. So don’t move.”
We both knew that I had just wasted my breath. As if keeping silent was possible for Libby. She had yakked all the way to the park.

“Ooh ooh! Look at this!” Libby cried.

God, when is she going to shut up?
Ignoring Libby, I continued to argue with my agent on the phone. She hadn’t managed to land me a role in months.


“Shhh!” I waved my hand at her without turning around, motioning her to stay shut.

“Ishitaaa!” Libby cried again.

“What is it?” I snapped, turning around. “I thought I told you to–“
There was no Libby. Only a large throng of people enveloping me.

“Libby?” Great. Just great. Now she got herself lost in the crowd. “LIBBY!”

My phone rang. “What?” I angrily snapped into the phone, seriously considering hanging up.

“Looking for Libby?” A sinister voice called from the other side.

“Who is this?” I said cautiously into the phone.

“Now, how does that matter? All that matters is that you want Libby back. Am I right?”

Who is this? Where is Libby?”

“Oh don’t worry, Libby is with me.” He snarled into the phone.

“Then give her back to me.”

“Of course I will. Why would I keep her from you? I just need something in return.”

“You want to trade her?”

“For a price, obviously.”

There was silence. I had just received a ransom call from a stranger who had my niece, and I didn’t know what to do.

“How much?”

“Ah. There’s my girl. It’s not much. Only five lakhs.”

My mouth went dry. I hadn’t had a job in months. Where was I going to get so much money?

“You’ll get it. Just don’t hurt her.”

There was a sinister laughter on the other side. “You just get the money, I’ll take care of the rest.”

“How do I know that she’s alive?” Immediately I heard Libby scream. “Libby!”

There was that laugh again. “Oh and just one more thing.”


“You have only eight hours. Or she’s dead.”

I closed my eyes and prayed to God, asking him to help me through this. Taking a deep breath, and pulling my ski mask on, I slunk through the huge backyard. Reaching the building, I broke the window with one swift kick. Jumping in, I loped to the large safe.

“Fifty five, thirty one, six, and ten, two to the left… ah!” I muttered; as I cracked open the safe. All those years of safe - cracking finally put to some good cause, instead of stealing. Everything should be a safe - cracker turned actor. Both skills were useful during a crisis. Like now.

The safe had opened completely, and in front of me, I saw bundles of cold, hard cash. It was everything I wanted, everything I needed. And more. Taking exactly five lakhs from the safe, I put it in the bag, shut the door, and fled.

I should be counting my blessings. There had been no alarm, no hidden cameras, no police, and best of all – no one had seen me. And everything contained in the posh abode screamed rich. It was as though God had willed this crime. How ironic.

Pulling off my ski mask, I jumped into the car, and immediately sped to the amusement park. The journey to the park felt like eternity. I just couldn’t get there fast enough, all the while hoping, praying Libby was safe, and unhurt.

Reaching the park, I tried to jump the turnstile, but as soon as I did, I was stopped a security guard.
“Ma’am, the park is closed. You can’t enter.”

“But I need to go. My niece is in there.”

“We will go look for–“I silenced him with one swift punch to his nose, and I heard the sickening sound of cartilage snap as he fell unconscious to the ground.

“Sorry.” I muttered, as if he could hear me, and ran to where I had lost her first.

“Libby!” I screamed desperately searching. “LIBBY!”

And then I saw her, taped to the carousel. Screaming her name, I ran to her, but I was stopped by a man. It was he.

“You came.”

“Here’s your money.” I said to him flinging the bag at him. He let me go, and I ran to her. Libby was bleeding, and her breath was shallow. I could feel tears roll down my cheeks, but I didn’t bother to brush them off. I gently removed the tape of Libby, as fast as I could. When I was done, I picked her up and ran to my car. The man was gone, I noticed.

I slid into the driver’s seat, let in the clutch, and we were off. I knew it was illegal, but it didn’t matter any more. All that mattered right now was where I was heading. What I was doing. Saving a life.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Love, Like, Hate, Adore.

Do you remember your first crush? The thrill? The madness? The excitement? Do you remember the anxiety?

I remember. I was 14 and so was he. He was a geek, (how I loved those glasses!) Had an overbite. ( Isn't that better than saying he had buck teeth a la Dharmendra in Ghazab?) He spoke with a slight South Indian accent. ( I found it super cool....would have used another word but my daughters read this blog.) In other words, I was totally mesmerized.

I remember talking about it with my friends. I remember writing down my name on a sheet of paper,  A-P-A-R-N-A and then writing down his below mine , V-I-, well never mind, my husband reads my blog too. I remember striking off the letters that were common to both our names and softly counting the ones that were left. Love, Like , Hate, Adore...ticking off the remaining letters one by one till I arrived at the conclusion. It was such an innocent, silly game.

Two of the books that I read last week dealt with first loves. In Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Johanna, the protagonist of the title story is a strong  yet vulnerable woman. The story centres around a deception two school girls play on her and the unusual turn her life takes due to this childish prank. Incidentally, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship Marriage is also the childish game the two preteen girls play to determine the fate of Johanna's love, something very similar to my own Love Like Hate, Adore. Interesting, isn't it?

The book has 9 stories in the collection. Alice Munro, a Canadian author, sets the stories in provincial towns of Canada. The stories are of ordinary women and their ordinary lives. Their dreams, love, fate and aspirations. Nettles, a story that I particularly liked, dealt with a girl's chance meeting with her first love after many years. The story is poignant, reminding us nothing remains the same forever and fate can be cruel at times. Some stories in the collection are simple, some are more complex. The author, the 2009 Man Booker International Prize winner for her lifetime work and a contender for the Nobel Prize, deftly unwraps the lives of women in small town Canada and moves you with her simple and powerful narration.

I do not know whether I should recommend the book. Authors like Chekhov, Saki, O Henry or Edgar Allen Poe, to name a few  short story writers, have impressed me more than Alice Munro. But you can try out her books, they are definitely worth a read.

The other book that I read was South Of The Border, West Of The Sun by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author, now settled in the USA. This 186 page novel, which you can finish in 2 days, is a somewhat touching tale of Hajime and Shimamoto who were classmates in an elementary school. They have similar taste in music ( the title of the book is taken from a song by Nat King Cole) and spend hours listening to songs in the girl's house.They are perhaps in love but are too young to know for sure.Years later, Hajime,  now a successful owner of a jazz bar, married with a pair of kids, meets Shimamoto again and they begin their clandestine love story.

This book is about wrong choices we often make in our lives. A flawed man, Hajime is not your typical hero. He is selfish and insecure and he ultimately does something that causes his almost perfect life to come crashing down around him. A lot of people would perhaps identify with his character. His lady-love Shimamoto on the contrary is a mystery woman. Till the end the reader has no idea about her true nature. All we get are some small glimpses into her life. Sometimes sappy, sometimes touching, the book left a lasting impression on me, though I admit I really hated Hajime at times. I loved Murakami's style. I now know why there are some people who swear by him and I would definitely love to read more of his work. His language is soft and rich and each word dazzles. He creates a strong imagery in your mind and you can see his characters right in front of you. Although, this perhaps is not the best work by Murakami, it still is a highly enjoyable read.

There was a delightful book that I picked up called In The Pond by Ha Jin, a Chinese writer, settled in, you guessed it, USA. The literature students would be familiar with the Picaresque novels of Europe in the 17th and 18th century. In The Pond reminded me of those novels.The protagonist, Shao Bin, works as a  pipe fitter in a fertilizer factory in a small village in Northern China. He is a senior worker and deserves an apartment in the Worker's Park Apartment Compound. But he gets passed over for the corrupt officials of the Communist Party and their cronies. The episodic novel tells the story of how Shao Bin, with the help of his art (he is a calligrapher) and a few journalist friends, takes on the commune's Party Secretary and fights for his rights. I loved the book. The book (only 178 pages) made me realize how similar the Indian Babus are and how the common Indians, waiting for a telephone connection, a house, a gas connection are harassed every day by these corrupt bureaucrats of our country. The Indians and the Chinese are not so different after all. The Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai slogan may actually mean more than we ever thought! Who else will know better than the officials who coin such terms! I highly recommend the book. It is funny and entertaining. You will not be disappointed.

The other book that I finished was The Bookseller Of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist. The story is an account of her stay with an Afghan family in Kabul. It is yet another tale of Afghanistan's tyrannical male dominated society and the brutal treatment of Afghani women. Apart from making me happy about the country of my birth, the book did not do any thing for me. It lacked the raw emotions of A Thousand Splendid Suns or the poignancy of The Kite Runner. This was nothing new and can be completely avoided. Those who have not read Khaled Hosseini's books on Afghanistan however should definitely pick up his books. I simply adore them.

I am thoroughly enjoying my journey of the world through books. The next few books on my list are

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I love her poetry and I did not know she also wrote novels. This apparently is the only novel she wrote.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, in fact I have already finished this one. It is a superb read.

In The Country Of Men by Hisham Matar.

I hope you will keep on recommending books for me to read. This is such a wonderful world, this world of books...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Phish, Phutball And Jamai Shashthi

My husband has been excommunicated from the Bengali community.

He does not have the typical Bengali traits and hates everything the community loves.

In the current football crazy Bengali world, he is showing utter apathy towards the game. He does not know how many teams are playing in the FIFA World Cup, he does not know the names of the players, he has no inkling as to who Ronaldo is and what colour jerseys the Brazilians (the eternal favourites of the Bongs) wear. His sins do not stop there. He hates fish, the Bengali's staple diet and has not touched the creature in the last 20 years. He hates Rabindrasangeet, every self respecting Bengali's pride and joy and he absolutely abhors eating rice before going to work. Naturally the community took major offence and finally kicked him out.

But my mother, the most loyal supporter my husband ever had, of course is not giving up. She uses every trick in the book to convert him back. And the most lethal weapon that she ruthlessly uses for this noble cause is the Jamai Shashthi.

For the uninitiated, Jamai Shashthi is celebrated all over Bengal on the sixth day of the Shukla Paksha of the month of Jyeshtha. (Translated into English, it means every year in June, around this time.) On this day, the mothers-in law prepare mouth watering delicacies and invite the jamais, or the sons in law to their homes. It goes without saying the food prepared by the moms-in-law happen to be the favourite of the jamais. Bengalis love to eat and on this day, tradition demands a grand feast. The more exotic the food, the better. Since my husband hates the traditional Bengali food, my mom actually serves him Chinese. Then there are the sweets. There are at least 5 varieties of them.  And yes, in between the sweets and the fries and the lunch and the dinner and elaborate tea, there are also huge plates full of fruits. After this, a lot of jamais simply collapse and are unable to attend office the next day.  Most bosses in Kolkata also suffer from the same condition and hence fully sympathize. The leaves are granted without any hesitation. They later on compare notes on whose mother in law prepared the best fare and who got the best gifts. (Did I tell you the jamais get gifts also? Shirts, trousers, wallets, books, watches...whatever they fancy) The daughters, though lament the fact that there is no special day assigned to them, do not really complain very loudly. Along with the jamais, they are also invited to their parents' homes for the feast.

Today happens to be Jamai Shashthi. My mother has been calling me for the last 2 weeks, nagging me to take my husband shopping to buy him whatever he wants. My husband asked if he could buy a BMW but my mom said she only had the money to buy him a cycle. So he had to be content with some clothing. She again called me last night, and then this morning to check if I had prepared his favourite stuff.  Not satisfied with the food cooked at home, she demanded I take him out for, you guessed it, Chinese.

This has been going on for the last 17 years. Since my mother and I stay in different cities, she sends me some money every year and coaxes me to take my husband out for dinner. Next day she calls me again to know what all we ate. As he loves sweets and fruits with passion, she expects me to fill up my refrigerator with his favourite stuff and feed him all that periodically.

Today Kolkata would be wearing a festive look. Over too much food, the jamais and the rest of the gang would be discussing the rising prices of the fish, Brazil's not so charming display of football this year and the latest spat between Mamata and Budhdhadev. There would be a smattering of jokes that only the Bengalis could come up with, there would be some Rabindrasangeet and of course there would be enough food to feed the entire country. My husband, who is going over to Delhi on work, would be missing out on all that fun. In the morning he surreptitiously tried to find out what all my cousins would be eating today at their sasural and seemed a bit unhappy for missing out on all those jamai shashthi sweets.

BTW, the other day I said, "Did you see Messi? Absolutely dazzling foot work!"
He replied, "Your masi came? When? How is she? And since when has she dazzled with her foot work? She can hardly walk...."
And then he said, " Your Kaka, Masi are all in South Africa to watch  football? How come I did not know?

So guys, do you think the Bengalis were wrong to throw him out of the community?

Friday, June 11, 2010

No Country Like Home

I have some memories of that year. Vague sketchy memories. I was too young, but I do remember the blackouts, the siren, the impassioned "Jai Bangla" cry. For those of us who were in Kolkata at that time, the war had entered our doorsteps. Millions had entered our country as refugees and the air was thick with tension.

The year was 1971. The Bangladeshis were fighting for liberation. Indira Gandhi was pledging full support. And India's Sam Manekshaw was masterminding strategies to win the war. Unlike the author of The Golden Age, children in India did not grow up listening to war stories. That perhaps is the reason why I found this particular book so fascinating and engrossing. The war was so near to me, yet I knew nothing of it.

The Golden Age by the Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2008. It is the story of a woman, Rehana Haque and her two children Sohail and Maya during the Bangladesh war. It is the story of a mother who held on to her two children with all her strength and never gave them up. It is the story of a country, battered and bruised but never giving up hope and it is the story of an obscene war, tearing apart ordinary lives and ordinary families. This was one stunning novel I hated to put down, 

To be honest, the novel's first half did not impress me so much. I found some discrepancies in the initial pages. A Hindu neighbour of Rehana, called Supriya Sengupta wears a heavy gold mangalsutra to show she is married.  Bengali women wear the mangalsutra as a fashion statement and not as a sign of marriage. We wear the 'loha' an iron bangle for that. We also wear the the traditional shankha-paula or the red and white bangles. Mangalsutra was never a part of bridal jewellery. It is only now, seeing women of other regions proudly flaunting this sacred thread, we have started wearing it. But we have no hesitation in taking this off when the saree or the outfit that we are wearing does not match with this accessory. To think that a woman in 1971 Bangladesh would wear one to indicate she was married seemed a bit unlikely to me. My mother's generation never wore the mangalsutra.

The story also mentions how Rehana took her children to see Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra in 1959. The reference of the movie is important here as this is one of the reasons Rehana lost custody of her children. I feel the author should have researched a bit more on this as the movie in question was released in 1963. A little bit imperfect history, but still the novel is powerfully written.

The other book I read in my quest to go round the world's libraries was Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. If the earlier book was gritty, this one was taut with emotions. This is the story of Stephen Kumalo, a black priest in a tiny village of South Africa who went to the big, bad city of Johannesburg to find his son. The book takes us through the black and white South Africa, the prosperity of the whites and the abject poverty of the blacks, the  Shanty Town of the blacks and the beautiful houses of the whites. It explores the racial injustice in a country where the whites controlled the blacks and completely destroyed their tribal culture.

The book is remarkable. This is what I would call a true classic. Each word, carefully chosen is full of beauty, wisdom and despair. You have to read it. There is no other way to describe it. Grab your copy today.

One book set in Bangladesh. Another in far away South Africa. One place where heavy monsoon rains mercilessly destroy the lives of the people but make the land lush, green and fertile. Another, where there are continuous droughts and the land is almost always parched. Two different cultures, two different races. And two authors deeply in love with their land, their despair and their hope of renewal for their own countries. 

So these were the books I read last week. I have already finished another book this week. But that is of course for my next post. Some of the books that I've shortlisted are as follows:

1. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro, a Canadian author. I fell in love with the name!
2. South Of The Border,West Of The Sun by Haruki Murakami, a Japanese. Again I loved the name and that is why I picked this up.
3. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist.
4. In The Pond by Ha Jin, a Chinese author, settled in USA.

I have been unable to decide on books from Australia and New Zealand. If you have a suggestion, then let me know. Till then I will be reading the ones listed above...  

Friday, June 4, 2010

The World And The Lover

What does the word 'World' mean to you? Earth? Human population? Civilization? Countries which have borders created by people? Geographical landmarks?

I have been thinking about it a lot ever since I read the book 'Around the world in 80 days' to my child. As most of you know, this classic book tells us how an English man Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passespartout travel around the world in 80 days to win a wager.

While reading the story, my daughter Ayushi, who is passionate about books, said,''Imagine how wonderful it would be to go to the different book stores of this world! Imagine how many books we could then read! I would call this adventure Around the world's libraries in 80 days''...

The child's imagination has set me up on a journey. I have decided to read as many books as possible from across the world in 80 days. There are many wonderful authors all across the globe. Some we have read, some we haven't. Many books are not available in Indian bookstores. But today, who really cares for such trivial difficulties? Books are available online. So I decided to read books set in various parts of our world. This would be my way of circumventing the world in 80 days. By doing this, I hope to learn more about the terrain, the culture, the people of this wonderful planet we call home. This would be my tribute to the world of literature.

My reading list as of now, is a bit sketchy. I have not decided still what all books to read. A lot depends upon the availability of a particular book. All I know is that I would like to read as many international authors as possible.

My 80 days started on June 1. I finished reading The Lover by Marguerite Duras. She was born in Saigon, a French colony which is now in Southern Vietnam. At the age of 70, she wrote L'amante, or The Lover which won her the Goncourt Prize (Le Prix Goncourt). She was an avant garde writer, and her writing style can be a bit ambiguous. But her words stay with you for a long time. And it's only later, once you have finished the book and put it down, her story starts to make sense.

The Lover is a gritty story of a poor French girl and her forbidden love affair with a rich Chinese man. When the story starts, the girl is fifteen and half. The man is twenty seven. Their troubled affair continues for one and a half years. Her manic-depressive mother encourages the girl to continue this affair for money. Her family feels this affair is a favour granted to the man as the girl is white and hence superior. Set in Saigon and Sa Dec during the French rule, this is a story with veiled references to racism, colonialism, poverty and lust.

The book is autobiographical. The girl in the story is the author herself. The novel's narration is in the first person but it often jumps to the third person. This can create a bit of ambiguity but as I said, slowly this starts to make sense.

I wish the book showcased more of the Indochina culture and way of life in the '30s. But it only talks about the love affair and very rarely discusses the cultural issues of those times.

Did I love the book? I can not say. I felt disturbed by it. I felt a little sad but I loved the ending, I thought it was a bit like a Bengali book I'd read many years ago called Na Hanyate (It does not die) by Maitreyi Devi. Those of you who have read that one can perhaps understand.

The book has only 120 pages, so I managed to finish this in 2 days.

The next one on my list is 'Cry, the beloved country' by Alan Paton. I have already finished about 100 pages of it. As this is a very famous book, a lot of you would have already read it. I hope to finish it in another 2 days.

I can not write book reviews, I do not think I am qualified to do so. Moreover, reading habits are rather personal and what appeals to me may not appeal to you. I only hope by reading about different people on the earth, I can understand our world a little better.

Those of you, who would like to join me in my quest can feel free to do so. You can either read the book that I am currently reading or pick up any other book that you would like. If you recommend it, I may include it in my reading list. I hope, after 80 days, I will be a little more literate. And don't forget to hold my hand, I will need a lot of support to finish my journey...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Where's Your Body, Woman?

As a raw, completely wet behind the ears 22 year old, I had joined the big bad world of advertising. Man, was it a shock to my system? There was no respect for age, gender, race, creed, religion or whatever. People used four letter words as punctuations. They came in late and worked till early mornings. Men talked about various body parts without any shame or inhibition and women did the same. To top it all, I was the only female in my creative team. And I loved it.

I loved the energy, the fun, the excitement. I loved the challenges and the camaraderie. I loved the whole creative process and most of all, I loved my team and my creative head. It was another story that my copies always ended up in the garbage bin. My boss would often scream at me, "Aparna, don't write a press release, write a copy. Write better, shorter, crisper.Write sexier."

Derik, my boss, was always trying to teach me to write better ads. Write an attention grabbing, riveting headline. Write a mind boggling, jaw dropping body copy. Most important, write a hard hitting punch line. The ad should make the readers salivate. It should make the poor guys or gals want to jump up and buy the product then and there. Unfortunately, my attempts were almost always the non-salivating types and ended up as paper planes flying towards the bin.

The first product I handled was a lingerie brand. Lacy and sinful looking underthings used to be strewn all over the office. The creative and the client servicing team discussed the merits of the straps, the hooks, the designs of the inner wear so clinically that soon my initial embarrassment disappeared. I felt absolutely no hesitation in discussing the product with the boys. The final ad had no eye ball grabbing headline. It had no body copy describing  the various merits of the undergarment. There was no tag line urging the reader to buy the brand. It had a visual of a beautiful woman sitting on a beach, looking at the sea. A four line poetry described the inner beauty of the woman. The result was a beautiful, subtle ad that our entire agency fell in love with. The client promptly rejected our effort. He wanted a woman posing half naked looking lasciviously at the camera. All efforts at trying to tell him this kind of ad may appeal to the baser instincts of a man but would put women off completely, went down the drain. He just would not accept the ad. Derik lambasted the client, raged against such sexist behaviour and tried his best to convince him. Nothing worked. He finally accepted his wish and asked us to create a crass and tasteless ad for him. We were heart broken but finally got around to accept that not all clients were as intelligent as us. And the fact that Derik loved our ad meant more than the client's approval.

Our team of four, 3 boys and 1 girl, loved him fiercely. He was our mentor, our support. He was a father figure to all of us and we went to him for advice even when the problems were personal. He shaped our thinking and helped us to hone our raw talent. He was the best boss I've ever worked for.

Our superiors influence us for lives. When you work for a boss you love, the results show.The work becomes  more exciting. It is not a chore to go to work every day and slave over tough projects. The men and women who mentor budding talents, I wonder if they realise that how important their roles are. Their mentoring ultimately affects the whole industry.

Even now, when I write a blog post, I keep thinking, would Derik approve? Would he find my head line captivating? Would he like the body? The last line? Or would he say, "What happened to your head woman? And where's your body?"

I would love to know. Unfortunately my all time favourite boss, Derik Fernandes Prabhu, an award winning advertising guru,died suddenly around fifteen years ago. He was in his fifties. And I never got to tell him how much his mentoring meant to me.

But if he is up there somewhere, drinking wine with the angels and looking at my head or body, then "Thank you Derik, you were the best and I loved you. Now, how's that for a punchline?"