Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The tree of books

Close your eyes and let your thoughts take you away from the city where you live. Your destination is a nondescript village deep in the Indian hinterland. You find yourself gliding through the air and looking down at an enormous tree. An unusual one. Instead of seeds, this tree sprouts books. Thousands of them. Thin and thick and big and small. The book covers - red and blue and green and more - glint in the morning sun.

You marvel at the beauty of this remarkable tree, encased in books of every hue. And yet, there is a faint smell of rot in the air. The books are ripe and ready for release, but have nowhere to go. You'd been so dazzled by their lustre that now you notice, for the first time, the quagmire that surrounds the tree. Barren and marshy land with no signs of human life.

And then, at the periphery of your vision, you spot movement. You take a closer look. It's a boy. And next to him, a girl. And then another child. And many more children standing at the edge of the bog. Looking longingly at the books in the distance but unable to approach the tree. They stare unabashed. Helpless and sad.

A woman approaches. She stops at the edge of the marsh. But unlike the children, she sees you floating near the tree of books.

"Will you help us?" she says.
You look at the woman and then at the children, who haven’t noticed you yet.
"How can I help?"
"The children in the village need the books but can’t reach them."
"This must be a dream. I’m floating in the air."
"That may be so, but you are from the city and can help."
"But how?"
"Help spread the treasure of knowledge."
"Blow on your thumbs and then blow on the books."

I do as I’m told, unsure of what would happen next. Nothing happened at first. And then, the sound of rustling filled the air. The book closest to me broke free of its moorings and floated away. I gaped at the little red book, with a skittish lamb on its cover. Then I blew some more. More books escaped. And like newly freed seeds, they swirled and fluttered in the air like confetti at a wedding.

I watched as the first few books glided across the bog. The children were radiant as they leaped in the air to pluck the seeds of the tree of knowledge. The woman turned to me and mouthed a thank you. As I turned to leave, she spoke again.

"Spread the word! Our children need many books."

This post was inspired by Rohini Nilekani's talk at TED - click here for YouTube link. As founder chairperson of not-for-profit publisher Pratham Books, Nilekani hopes to give each of India’s 300 million children a good book to curl up with. In her 15-minute speech, she compared India to the United Kingdom, where each child has access to an average of six books. Statistics suggest that in India, one book would be shared among 20 children. The problem is getting good yet cheap books and making them available to children in the poorer pockets of India. Nilekani shared her experience and some incredible achievements. But her ultimate goal of a book in every child's hand is still a challenge. I hope this post will inspire some readers to be a part of the solution.

(Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The pregnant queen, the stinkiest fart and the perfect road trip

The human baby had gone back to the house, leaving one of his dinky cars behind. It was my only chance and I took it. Grasshoppers have a reputation for being good-for-nothing insects, but I am never lazy when it comes to stealing a ride.

The Porsche Panamera was green and matched my skin tone. All the better to camouflage me from the prying eyes of humans. Just to be doubly sure, I pushed the dinky toy towards the lawn and headed for the protective shade of its green grass.

I was going to take my usual route home, avoiding the waterfall where humans shed their outer layers, to the denser parts of the grass where they rarely ventured.

It was getting dark and I struggled to take the car in a straight line, narrowly missing some pebbles. It was just after I manoeuvred the car around a discarded human matchbox that a puny worker ant blocked my path.
“Get out of the way!” I said.
“Please, Sir Grasshopper …”
“Shut up and move.”
“… I had accompanied my queen on a royal walk but she’s pregnant and in pain and about to give birth.”
“Please give us a ride back to the ant colony.”
“Eeeew! And spoil my shiny car with millions of slimy ant eggs.”
“Please hurry. You’ll be rewarded with the finest honeydew our aphids can produce.”
Dear reader, if you’ve heard the ancient fable of how the hardworking ant left my poor ancestor to die of hunger in winter, you’ll understand why I wasn’t too keen to let these hitchhikers ruin my car. But there was this teeny, tiny vial on the dashboard that emitted such a heavenly fragrance that my anger melted. I was in a good mood and beckoned the ant over. I even helped him carry his visibly pregnant queen to the back seat.

“How far apart are the contractions,” I asked her, trying to lighten the tension.
“Ooooh!” she screamed, and I turned my attention to the road. It wasn’t easy. The way to the ant colony was unfamiliar territory and the worker ant wasn’t very good at giving directions. The car headlights didn’t seem to work and our path was blocked by twigs, seeds and one giant puddle. The last was probably the handiwork of a sparrow with diarrhoea.

Just when I was about to give up hope, along came my next-door neighbour - the firefly.

“Glowy! Need your help, buddy.”
“Wassup Grassy?”
“Can you light our way to the ant colony? Mother-to-be in back seat”.
“Aaaoooooo!” said the queen.
“Here you go,” said Glowy and switched on his tail-light.
“Much better,” I said as the road lit up and the car sprang forward.
Glowy was perched on my sunroof and staring at the royal passenger.
 “How are you doing back there, Your Highness,” I asked.
“Eeeeaaaaooooooo!” she replied.
“Grassy, this is a really cool ride,” said Glowy, ignoring the queen and admiring my car.
“Isn’t she?”
“Greased lightning,” he said. I smiled at the compliment, rubbing my antennae with undisguised glee.
“And what’s that wonderful perfume?” Glowy asked.
“Aaaaoooo! Is that Chanel No. 5?” asked the queen. “I want it for my chamber.”
“Nah! Just Ambi Pur for the car,” I replied.
“Oooooaaa! Can you … Aaaooo! bring me some … Aaaaaaaa! next time you are near my kingdom.”
“Certainly, Your Highness.”
We were making good progress and I could see the mound of the ant colony in the distance when Rocky the cockroach joined us on our road trip. He jumped in through the open windows. The queen squealed in terror as the cockroach squeezed into the back seat.

“Move your butt, missus!” said Rocky. I didn’t intervene; he’d been a bully even in school. The worker ant sensed this and kept quiet.
“Aaaaoo!” said the queen.
“Sorry about this, queenie,” said Rocky.
“Oooaaa! But you shouldn’t push,” she said.
“Not that,” said Rocky, as he let one rip. “This.”
The car lurched as its occupants screamed in unison and moved towards the vial of Ambi Pur to escape Rocky’s fart. But the stink dissipated in a matter of seconds and the cockroach was disappointed.

“What magic is this?” he shouted. “That was one of my best efforts.” “It’s a fragrance that can repel the stinkiest of farts,” I replied, smiling again.
It was the first time I’d beaten him at anything. Rocky didn’t reply and sulked in the corner.

We reached the ant colony without further ado. As her servants carried the queen away, she beamed and gestured with her antennae.

“Thank you, Sir,” she said.
“Sorry for the rough ride, Your Highness,” I said.
“Are you kidding me? It was wonderful.”
“You are too kind.”
“Aaaaah! Can you get me … Ooooooaaaah! more of that perfume.”
“Yes, Your Majesty, there’s plenty more where that came from.”
“Aaaaah! I’m going to name my first-born after you.”
As the queen disappeared within the portals of her kingdom, the worker ant arrived with two buckets of fresh honeydew. I glanced at the car but Rocky had slunk away. Glowy and the ant helped me load the nectar into the back seat. I took a sip and it was heavenly.

“This is the life,” I told Glowy as we got in to drive home.
“It sure is wonderful,” he replied and switched on his tail-light.
It had turned out to be the perfect road trip.

(This post is an entry for the Ambi Pur contest on Indiblogger)

(Image courtesy of SweetCrisis at

Monday, July 01, 2013

Movie Review: Melissa McCarthy turns up "The Heat" as Hollywood's new queen of comedy

The adorable school teacher from the TV sitcom "Mike and Molly" was destined to be an audience charmer. Remember Melissa McCarthy as Molly? The one who fell in love with a policeman at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

If that's all you've seen of McCarthy's work before "The Heat", you are in for a shock. She reverses roles in this Friday's Hollywood release; she's in law enforcement now. As Detective Mullins in Paul Feig's film, McCarthy is in no danger of whispering sweet nothings in her lovers' ears. She curses and crushes; she plays Russian roulette with a suspect's balls. If lovable Molly's students were to see her now, they would be scarred for life.

Feig also directed McCarthy in the 2011 comedy "Bridesmaids". But that was a supporting role and in "The Heat", McCarthy shares top billing with Sandra Bullock.

And in case you were wondering why I haven't mentioned Bullock till now, that’s because McCarthy easily outshines America's sweetheart. Bullock is good (as usual) but McCarthy is better.

Bullock reprises her "Miss Congeniality" role as the hard-nosed loner FBI agent (although not going undercover as a beauty pageant contestant) in pursuit of a Boston drug lord. At stake is a promotion but first, she must team up with the irascible Mullins. The two don't see eye to eye on anything -- interrogation techniques, using curtains for windows or the edibility of week-old sandwiches.

Don't worry too much about the film's plot - it's predictable. It's an R-rated comedy and it's easy to see why. There're enough four-letter words (mostly courtesy McCarthy); a flashback to Bullock's bus-driving initiation in "Speed" (here, she rushes to the rescue of a diner choking in a restaurant); and bullets, blood and brotherhood to satisfy your Hollywood movie testosterone needs.

But who needs heroes? McCarthy and Bullock are an oddball pair with top-notch chemistry. "The Heat" pulled in $40 million at the North American box office this weekend and rumour has it work has begun on a sequel. And that's a movie I would watch.

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