Monday, August 10, 2015

Four books


My Kindle cracked from side to side,
With a heavy heart I put it aside,
For now, I return to books unread,
Till a new one arrives in its stead.

Here's what I finished over the past month:

A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin

I'm nine years late to the party, but Book 1 of Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" fantasy was still a fun read. I took it slow and steady, watching the corresponding episodes of the TV adaptation after every few chapters. The TV series is fantastic, but they do leave stuff out while fitting 700-plus pages into 10 episodes. I believe reading the book does enhance the experience. But be prepared for some surprises. Martin killed off one of the main characters towards the end of Book 1. And it felt as if Harry Potter had died in the first book. GoT addicts warn me there are major shocks ahead, and I’m intrigued enough to continue. I'll go slow, and hopefully Martin will be done with the sixth instalment by the time I catch up.

by Stephen Fry
Volume two of the British actor's autobiography is just as engaging as the first. This one describes his early years at Cambridge, his theatre collaborations with Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie (Dr. House), and his foray into television. Sounds boring? Ah well, if only I could be as funny and witty as Fry - the P.G.Wodehouse of his generation. Up next, Fry's best-selling novels.

MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides
This Pulitzer-winning work is ostensibly about its protagonist, an intersex male of Greek descent. But this sweeping novel also traces the lives of three generations of the Stephanides family, and their dark secret. Some critics found it verbose, but I feel "Middlesex" would’ve lost much of its appeal had the author stuck with the slim fictional account he initially set out to write. Highly recommended.

MUERTE EN VALENCIA by Loreto de Miguel and Alba Santos
Detective Pepe Rey has a new love and a new case. While celebrating the traditional fallas in Valencia, a theatre actor is found dead with a dagger through his heart. In this 40-page novella, part of a series for those learning Spanish, there is enough mystery to keep one hooked until the end.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

In Lansdowne, the crickets drown out John Denver

In Lansdowne, the crickets drown out John Denver.

We sit outside in the gathering dusk, our ears attuned to the insects in the trees.

Swaty is quiet. She slouches in a plastic chair with her feet up on the parapet and a steady smile on her lips. As the strains of "Annie's Song" fade, she puts down an unread Haruki Murakami novel and picks up her phone to play a Don Williams number. The country singer's baritone fills the air, but the crickets prevail.

Lansdowne is a sleepy colonial-era hill station a few hundred kilometres from India's capital. Six of us are here for the weekend, escaping the everyday worries of city life in New Delhi and renewing decade-old friendships.

When not ensconced in our cosy wooden cottages, we stroll up and down meandering mountain roads, staring into the wilderness, our incessant chatter interspersed by moments of satisfied silence. A brown calf walks past, looking askance at this motley group of humans. At Bhulla Tal, a man-made lake and tourist magnet, we embark in our pedal boats with great enthusiasm. Only to tire and return to shore before our allotted 20 minutes are up. A family of ducks mocks us. At the nearby eatery, a box is filled to the brim with packets of Maggi instant noodles on sale. Ban! What ban?

Anima buys a packet of locally made chips, and makes a face as she bites into one. The six of us are lounging in the shadows of St. Mary's Church when the monkeys come. One, two, and then they multiply till a sea of brown blobs closes in on us. We move away in time but, in her haste, Anima leaves the chips behind. A monkey stumbles upon the spicy wafers. But he doesn't like them. A second primate gets his hands on the loot, and flings it aside. The monkeys retreat into the darkness, leaving us to ponder over a vital question - does anyone like these chips?

We stay at a government-run tourist centre, perched on a hill that overlooks Lansdowne, and any illusions of our seclusion are dispelled on the second day. Hordes of daytrippers visit the adjacent Tip-N-Top point for a glimpse of the Himalayas, and invariably traipse up the walkway outside our cottages. Honeymooning couples, restless children, pot-bellied men, high-heeled women, and bevies of giggly, pimply girls. They all pose on our porch, brazenly taking selfies as we stare them in the face, horrified at this invasion of our mountain retreat.

One of the girls wants to use our washroom; we reluctantly agree. But her companion riles up Swaty with an insolent remark about us owning the place. And Swaty, usually the epitome of sunshiny happiness, retorts that we do - at least for the weekend. When we walk down to the café, the girls are there. They notice us and break into fits of giggles. We ignore them, but their ponytailed ringleader -- in heels and a denim miniskirt -- has the last word. As they walk past us, she turns to her companions and says, "I hope you don't have to use the washroom."

To be honest, the chilli chicken and cottage cheese served at the café is so orange (thanks to dollops of added food colouring), that tourists may feel rather safe in the sanctuary of the washroom. My cottage is almost certainly meant to be a honeymoon suite; the artistic designs of our bathroom tiles are meant to echo the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. My friends don’t see any resemblance and say I'm exaggerating.

The TV sets in the cottages do work, but only a few Hindi channels are on offer. Which meant that Upasana, controller of the TV remote during our stay, juggles between one or the other music channel and subjects us to trailers and songs from "Dil Dhadakne Do", "Hamari Adhuri Kahani", and lesser known Bollywood films of dubious origin. This goes on till Anima has had enough. Anima, introduced to the music of Yo Yo Honey Singh during this trip, rolls her eyes and nearly faints when apprised of the hit-churning rapper's status as Bollywood's next A.R. Rahman.

We stay up at night, playing Bluff - a popular card game of deception. I struggle to make sense of the game, invariably finishing last each time, but luck favours me in the final game. I raise my arms in triumph, gloating as if I've just won Wimbledon, and my friends collapse in a heap of merriment.

A dull throbbing in my head, which had manifested itself in the evening, had by now mutated into the frenzied tom-tomming of the African jungle. I bid my friends adieu and went to bed. My roommate Sumit, a stoic chap of the first order, endured my snoring all night. Unverifiable reports say my snores were audible outside the cottage. Apologies again, Sumit.

Sunandita, our ever-dependable guiding light, takes charge of toting up our bills the next morning, and ensures we are bathed and ready for the trip back to New Delhi. As the clock strikes 8 a.m., the deadline insisted upon by our driver, we park ourselves and our luggage next to the car. But where is the driver? Several frantic and unanswered phone calls later, we spot him walking towards us, freshly showered and clad in a towel. We eventually leave a half-hour late, taking in the sights and sounds of Lansdowne one last time.

Who knows if there'll be a Lansdowne in the coming years? At the local museum, adjacent to a parade ground where errant Garhwal Rifles cadets roll about under the hot sun, I overheard a man and a woman talking about a proposal to rename Lansdowne. In the Indian tradition of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, there are moves afoot to rename it Kaludanda (black hill), the name of the site where the British established the cantonment town in the 19th century and christened it in honour of the reigning viceroy. That would be a pity.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Why you should watch "Tanu Weds Manu Returns"

While the rest of India sizzled in the 40 degree heat, Bollywood baked some unexpected May treats for movie fans. And set up a tough fight for this year's best actress honours. Deepika Padukone ("Piku") squares off against the twin heroines of "Tanu Weds Manu Returns", whose charm stems largely from the effervescence of Kangana Ranaut.

Back in 2011, when Indian audiences lapped up the oddball pairing of Ranaut and Ranganathan Madhavan in "Tanu Weds Manu", Ranaut was a relative unknown who played neurotic women on the big screen.

But that was before the success of "Queen" (2014) catapulted Ranaut into Bollywood's big league, ensuring enough eyeballs for the sequel to Aanand L. Rai's unconventional rom-com. She does not disappoint in "Tanu Weds Manu Returns", playing a double role with such panache that audiences find themselves rooting for one Ranaut over the other.

Four years after feisty Tanu (Ranaut) hitched up with the imperturbable Manu (Madhavan), there's trouble in paradise. The seven-year itch comes prematurely for a couple constantly at each other's throats. Long story short, they separate in London and fly back to India. The seemingly alcoholic Tanu heads to her hometown Kanpur, getting chatty with her former lovers while Manu picks up the pieces of his broken heart in New Delhi.

While giving a university lecture, Manu sets eyes on Tanu's doppelganger and is intrigued. But pixie-cut Datto and curly-tressed Tanu are no two peas in a pod. Datto hails from a pastoral setting in Haryana, is training to be an athlete and speaks in a heavily accented English that sparks a few laughs. But it's her unflappable determination to conquer the world that endears her to audiences. When street-smart Datto flashes her smile, she projects an underlying goodness that makes it impossible to begrudge her the love Manu showers despite being at the receiving end of her hockey stick.

Things speed up when Manu is served divorce papers from his wife, done without Tanu's knowledge by one of her spurned lovers. A wedding date is set and all interested parties, including a repentant Tanu, turn up in Datto's village for the big day. Will Manu's mind waver?

No spoilers here, but Manu's eventual choice is no surprise for audiences used to happy endings. Faced with the same choice in the Hollywood rom-com "Sweet Home Alabama" (2002), Reese Witherspoon wavers between her recently divorced hubby and the handsome New York boyfriend - and follows her heart.

"Tanu Weds Manu Returns" is not a film without flaws. The first 10 minutes are insufferable, with an unrealistic castle-like setting for couples therapy and Manu getting locked up in a London asylum. But things get better as director Rai gives audiences an insight into the beehives of middle-class life in New Delhi, Kanpur and a nondescript village in Jhajjar district. Screenwriter Himanshu Sharma impresses with an inexhaustible supply of one-liners, most of them uttered by Manu’s sidekick. The music, including Banno's swagger (a whole other blog post), is catchy. And the talented cast, too numerous to name here, steps in to plug the occasional loopholes.

But Ranaut's nuanced performance is the show-stopper, one that cements her place as a Bollywood heavy hitter and helps "Tanu Weds Manu Returns" outshine the first film. Not to be missed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sweater? Swagger? What Banno needs most is a Swatter

There's that song again on television. Bollywood film "Tanu Weds Manu Returns" features a peppier version of a popular folksong performed at north Indian weddings. The lyrics have been updated to reflect the times, making present-day "Banno" an unabashed bride surrounded by people who find her sweater sexy.

"Sweater?" asks my colleague Anupriya.
"Yes, they are referring to Banno's sweater."
"It's not sweater," she sighs, rolling her eyes. "It's swagger."
"Swagger? But that doesn't make any sense."
"Banno tera swagger," she enunciates, marvelling at my talent for mishearing Bollywood lyrics. [I was initially under the impression the song Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan was about women who wrote a lot of letters, but that's a whole other blog post on mondegreens]
"Swagger?" I repeat, somewhat disbelievingly, until a quick Google search proves Anupriya right.

I am not happy. I could live with a sexy "sweater" but Banno had no business having a sexy "swagger". Well, she could obviously do so if the rest of the lyrics were in English, but "swagger" is violently yoked to the Hindi words "Banno tera", producing an effect akin to a teaspoon of vinegar in a Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino. It just doesn't work.

Not that "sweater" sounds better. It's tough conjuring up images of sweaty wedding guests getting jiggy on the dance floor while commenting on the bride's woollens. But at least it's plausible.

And there's nothing else that goes with it.

Sexy "sweeper". Nah, unless he sweeps Banno off her feet.
Sexy "sweetener". Nah, unless Banno has Type 2 diabetes.
Sexy "swatter". Hold on. "Swatter" isn't half bad. It's India and it's summer and a fly swatter might do Banno a world of good. What do you think?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 3 - The Tulian trek

The Lidder is ice-cold. I dip my toe in the water, but instinctively retract it. I marvel at my colleague Sankalp and two Kashmiri friends who shed their clothes for a quick dunk in this burbling river at a campsite some distance from Pahalgam. They badger me to join them, but I dig my heels in and park myself on a boulder on the Lidder's banks.

A dozen kilometres away from Pahalgam, Aru makes for a pleasant car ride on a winding hillside road that mostly runs upstream, never too far from the Lidder. This scenic meadow is a tranquil spot often upstaged by the touristy Betaab valley, named after the Bollywood hit that was filmed there three decades ago. But locals prefer Aru for weekend getaways.

We amble past grazing ponies and pick a spot to rest with pine trees and snow-capped peaks in the distance, while the tin roofs in the village below glint silver in the August sun. The conversation turns to Kashmir's troubles (and it didn't take into account the devastating flash floods a few weeks after our trip).

My Kashmiri friends, both journalists, describe their lives growing up in Srinagar - the narrative is dispassionate, but there are occasional flashes of smouldering emotion. I look at the wired fencing behind us (put up illegally by nomadic goatherds); it's conspicuous in the landscape. A microcosm of Kashmir.


Early next morning, Sankalp and I set out for Tulian lake at an altitude of 11,000 feet (3,350 metres). We were riding ponies. Sankalp was on Chetak while eight-year-old Raja, older and more experienced, was chosen to bear my heavier frame. Munir and Shabbir, their handlers, walked with us.

The ascent was easy at first, aided by breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas. We passed the meadow of Baisaran, which is where most tourists turn back. The never-ending trail headed for what looked like a sheer cliff, but we didn’t stop. The handlers prodded the ponies, but about halfway up the narrow zigzag trail, Raja struggled to cross a jutting rock. I dismounted gladly; the prospect of hurtling to my death didn’t appeal to me.

We later ran into another group of pony riders, a Gujarati family settled in Leeds, England. And an Australian - a weatherbeaten, sinewy old man who had been trekking alone for two days, and easily overtook us on foot.

When we reached the point where the ponies could go no further, it was a welcome break. My buttocks hurt and I was desperate to walk. But then the guide pointed up, towards our destination a kilometre or so away. Only a couple of glaciers and a sea of boulders to cross. My heart sank at this last-minute addition of obstacles to what was becoming a ‘Hunger Games’ quest. To add to our troubles, the Australian trekker returned, saying the first glacier was too dangerous to cross. But everyone was going on ahead, with the exception of a woman with a sprained ankle.

I straggled behind the rest, lost my footing several times on the glacier but eventually slithered across. I lost sight of Sankalp, who had been bounding like an antelope from one boulder to the other. It was getting colder by the minute and I was wearing a T-shirt, but thankfully the sun was still shining brightly. But I lost track of time, and was struggling to place one foot above the other.

Tired, cold and irritated, I was ready to give up. And to my relief, so was a fellow trekker. A sullen teenager from the Gujarati family had thrown in the towel, and was leaning on a boulder, staring into nothingness. His dad offered words of encouragement and eventually, the boy struggled to his feet and pressed onwards.

I sighed. If he could do it, I couldn't stay behind. Damn this Tulian trip. Sankalp got a few mental curses, for not gauging how difficult this trip would be for all my 83 kilos. I brushed  the dust off my jeans and trudged on. After what seemed like an hour, I reached the summit for my first glimpse of why this expedition had been worth it.

I did not dip my toe in the lake. One of our pony handlers said the water was poisonous; legend has it a Hydra-like serpent dwells within its blue depths. I don’t believe in monsters; I was just too tired. So I rested on a boulder, clicked and posed for photos, and gathered energy for the descent.

I wouldn't have believed it, but I soon realized going back down was the hard part. I kept slipping on the boulders and small stones that littered the path, landing with a rattling thump each time. Sankalp, who has good climbing genes (his family is from hilly Nainital), came to my aid and held on to my arm as I slowly made my way down the sea of boulders, and past the twin glaciers.

Near where our ponies were grazing, a Bakharwal (a nomadic tribe of goatherds) woman took us to her hut for refreshments. I don’t drink tea, but even I couldn’t resist a glass of steaming, milky tea that day. The wrinkled old woman said she had been serving trekkers to Tulian during the climbing months for as long as she could remember. Outside, a few Bakharwal children are playing with a goat and I was going to have a sense of déjà vu at Thajiwas glacier near Sonamarg, a trip we were to undertake a few days later.

But I wasn't quite in the home stretch yet. As the afternoon wore on, our guides lost track of the trail and blundered further into the forest. As the slope was very steep, I preferred to dismount and let the ponies go on ahead. As Sankalp and the pony handlers quickly disappeared down the hill, I straggled behind. I took tentative steps and found gravity was working just fine. Losing my footing, I slid down the hill, grabbing nettles to slow my fall. I steadied myself and looked around, trying to map the best way down. But I slipped again, turning over on my back and sliding. Pebbles and sticks tore into my limbs like razor blades till I caught hold of a low branch. My head was aching, there were burrs stuck to my midriff and there didn’t seem any part of my body that wasn’t bruised or sprained.

I was just entertaining dark thoughts when I heard Sankalp and Munir call out, trying to figure out my location. I reply, relieved that I wasn’t going to meet my maker after all. Someone told me to hurry up, there are bears in the area and they come out in the evening. That did it for me. I stood up, slowly digging my feet into the mud and shuffled along in a zigzag line. Munir caught up with me, grasped my arm and helped me down, steadying me whenever I slipped, my legs flailing out under me. They had found the trail again and I climbed on to the pony, dead tired and aching all over, but knowing that within a few hours I’ll be at the hotel, where I hoped to crawl into bed after rubbing pain reliever cream all over. And I did just that. I felt much better the following morning and the Tulian aches and sprains had healed by the end of the Kashmir trip.

After our stints in Srinagar and Pahalgam, Sankalp and I spent the rest of the week in Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Manasbal; the first two are regular tourist haunts. Gulmarg has its gondola car ride and overpriced "self-service" eateries where employees ask for tips. Sonamarg has its pony ride and sledding on the glacier. But Manasbal is somewhat off the tourist trail, with an army camp and a village adjacent to a tranquil water body.

The ruins of Jharokha Bagh overlook Manasbal lake. Four centuries ago, Mughal Empress Nur Jahan spent several summer hours here. There's something to be said for the beauty and quiet of Manasbal, still unfrequented by most tourists traipsing across Kashmir. Were she alive today, I can just about imagine Nur Jahan curled up in her terraced garden, immersed in a book of Persian poetry on her Kindle, occasionally lifting her regal gaze towards the placid waters.

(Photos taken on my Nokia Lumia 925 phone. Some photos have been Instagrammed)

Part 1 - Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection
Part 2 - The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

Friday, October 17, 2014

In Pics: Weekend trip to Manali and Rohtang

Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with added Instagram effects.

A couple near the #Rohtang Pass    

This cyclist is a long, long way from home. On the way back from #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali

A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Pedestrian bridge over the Beas river, on the road to #Manali

Shorn sheep block the road near Manali

A view of the road to #Rohtang Pass

Horsing around near #Rohtang Pass, #Manali

Tourists paragliding in the sky as trucks trundle by on the road below.

Tea? Coffee? The beverage man on the way to #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali

Neigh, neigh. Happy horse near #Rohtang Pass, near #Manali.

Rock formation on the road to #Rohtang Pass

Rock formation on the road to #Manali

A tourist paraglides over #Manali

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Notes from Darjeeling, Gangtok, Mirik and Nathu La

Perhaps my most abiding memory of last week's trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim is that of taxi drivers obsessively cleaning their cabs. Having spent much of my life avoiding rides on New Delhi's smelly cabs, it was good to see people caressing their vehicles as they hosed them down.

As we drove around Darjeeling to take in its sights, our driver took advantage of every halt to flick imaginary insect carcasses off the windshield. As we walked back from a temple complex in the nearby town of Kalimpong, we found our cabbie scaling the front wheel, trying to reach with his duster what appeared to be an unblemished portion of the SUV's roof.

And he wasn’t the only one. Cab drivers in the region seemed to spend a lot of their quality time tending to their cars’ needs. On the drive to Gangtok, we stopped for steamed chicken dumplings at a roadside shack in Lopchu. Our driver Sohan Lama took a break too, but not before instructing a labourer to soap down the car. I am not sure if any money changed hands, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Of our many cabbies during the week-long visit to India’s east, Lama was perhaps the most interesting. A Nepali Buddhist from Sikkim, he supplemented his income with a store that sold herbal medicines championed by Baba Ramdev, a saffron-robed yoga guru adored by millions in the country.

Lama, an amiable man in his 40s, beams even more when talking about his teenage son, who’s training at a prestigious football academy set up by Bhaichung Bhutia, arguably India’s most famous player.

Lama’s son may have been among the dozens of excited pupils we saw, rather heard, at Gangtok’s Paljor stadium adjacent to our hotel. I say this with no particular joy, for this army of shrieking children invaded my sleep each morning and pried my eyes open.

I endured other early risers in Mirik, a hill station in West  Bengal. This time, a flock of pigeons rustling up avian buddies for a 5 a.m. conference outside my window. But not one bird was as irritating as the Bengali tourist seated behind me on Darjeeling’s heritage toy train. Each time the clouds parted and we caught a glimpse of the majestic Kanchenjunga peak in the distance, this woman screeched the equivalent of “Look there, can’t you see? There, there, not there, there,” in her native tongue, till everyone in her extended family had witnessed the spectacle. There was little to choose between her shrill voice and the blaring train horn - both were enough to cause a headache.

What was music to my ears was a pair of Gorkha teenagers rapping to Kanye West in the Himalayan village of Sukhia Pokhri. A friend and I were waiting in an empty restaurant for Lama, who was stuck in traffic several kilometres away in Ghum, home to India's highest railway station. The siblings trooped in and fiddled with their mobiles for a bit before breaking into song karaoke-style with the background music on at full blast.

An old woman walked in and apologized to us, saying the wannabe hip-hop artists were her grandsons - they responded to her censure with gap-toothed smiles. “This is what the new generation does,” the woman said in Hindi, clutching her forehead in a gesture of disdain, but with a smile trembling at her lips.

After several hours of a back-breaking ride on barely-there roads and a dash through the yak-infested banks of the Tsomgo lake, our shared jeep finally reached Nathu La - a mountain pass at an altitude of more than 14,000 feet - only to be told by military guards that our mobile phones couldn't be taken past the entrance. We dumped our bags and smartphones in the jeep, and trudged onwards in a sulk that lasted till we caught sight of the Chinese soldier just across the barbed wire. He smiled and walked past us, brazenly taking a photo of the milling tourists. I shook hands across the border as we attempted to engage him in conversation. "I don't talk," he said, and with that, he walked away to his post.
(Photos clicked on my Nokia Lumia 925 with some having added Instagram effects.)

The stupa at Duddul Chhoedten in Gangtok, Sikkim

A red panda at the Darjeeling zoo

A pet dog at the China bazaar, on the way to Nathu La

Yak on the loose at Tsomgo lake on the way to Nathu La

A cloud trapped between two hills in Sikkim

A tree stands forlorn near a Darjeeling tea garden

Tea gardens at Mirik, West Bengal

Rusted vehicles at the BanJhakri waterfalls park near Gangtok

Young monks play football at a monastery in Kalimpong

Young monks polish shoes near to the Mirik monastery

A double rainbow on the way down from Nathu La

Cable car dustbin at Darjeeling

This dog got a bird's view of Darjeeling
A couple of frisky goats on a rock on the way to Darjeeling
A crystal clear view of the Kanchenjunga from our Darjeeling lodge

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