Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Replugging the Eid trip to Gwalior

A bird was trilling somewhere in the branches above my head as I walked towards the tamarind tree next to Tansen's tomb. Legend has it that chewing its leaves bestows upon the eater a singing voice akin to that of the 16th century musical genius, one of the Navratnas (nine gems) of Mughal Emperor Akbar's court.

The tree was fenced in, probably to deter wannabe singers, but no one was watching as I plucked a leaf and swallowed it. It tasted weird. I tried saying something, but it was more croak than song.

"There's no way this tree can be that old," said Ankush Arora, a colleague and fellow explorer on a two-day trip to Gwalior city in central India.

"But this is the one I saw the TV anchor eating from on that show," I said, standing my ground, but wishing I hadn’t tasted that horrid leaf. I could still hear the unseen bird trilling nearby. Maybe it’s been feasting on these leaves for days.

While I was bidding my non-existent singing career a premature goodbye, Ankush was in a good mood -- but not for long. An hour or two later, he was trying to get an auto-rickshaw to take us to Sarod Ghar, the ancestral house of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. As the scorching August sun beat down on our necks, driver after driver gave us baffled looks when asked about the tourist landmark.

"Saroj Ghar?" asked one guy, craning his neck to hear better.
"Sarodddddd," said Ankush, beginning to lose his cool.
The driver had apparently never heard of the place, and was entertaining suspicions that we were drunk hippies trying to lead God-fearing auto-rickshaw drivers astray.

Ankush was offended. He is a true disciple of Indian classical music -- despite a penchant for frenzied bouts of hip-shaking to Bollywood numbers at Punjabi weddings -- and it seemed all of Gwalior was proving to be a hindrance in his quest for sarod nirvana.

Eventually -- and by eventually, I mean an hour later -- a Good Samaritan driver who knew the city dropped us at the museum at lunch hour. While we waited, I sneaked a look at the visitors' book. We were the first tourists in a week. It's a wonder anyone in Gwalior knows about this place.

But Ankush's knowledge of all things musical held him in good stead. The museum curator, a retired army man, was delighted to show us around and regaled Ankush with tales of rulers and their favourite performers, and how the rabab eventually became the sarod. I nodded along, eager to hide my ignorance. When the guide asked me something about my favourite musician, I hemmed and hawed and stared at one of the sepia-tainted photos on the wall.

Gwalior is like any other Indian city, one where tradition meets modernity; bustling streets lead to an oasis of quiet; and the all-present dirt hides the spotless hearts of its residents. We saw everything of note -- the opulent Jai Vilas palace and its miniature dinner-table train; the grand city fort in the rain and its 'I-love-you-Jaanu' graffiti; the Teli ka Mandir and the nearby saas-bahu temple; not to mention another city museum where an untimely power cut left us in the dark in a room full of life-size replicas of crocodiles. We also stuffed ourselves at an Awadhi food festival buffet at a city hotel (the dinner was delicious although it had too many Punjabi elements to be the "truly authentic cuisine" they promised us).

But the one person I’ll always remember from the trip is the receptionist at the no-frills (and no hot water) hotel where we stayed. He was one of those eternal optimists who smile from ear to ear -- Gwalior's very own Cheshire cat.

(Gwalior Trip: August 10-11, 2013 | More photos from the trip here)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Three books

"Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe"
Bill Bryson is one of my favourite authors and with this book I crossed another of his humorous travelogues off my reading list. This time Bryson is criss-crossing Europe, detailing his experiences in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Austria. Being a Bryson book, there are several laugh-out-loud moments -- whether cheating death by crossing a road in Paris traffic, being robbed by a gypsy girl in Florence, or trying to order something edible from a German menu. Highly recommended even if you are not planning a Europe trip.

"Third Girl"
Chanced upon this Hercule Poirot mystery that I don’t remember reading over the past two decades. It’s also an uncommon one since the murder is not actually committed in the first half, while Poirot is left to wonder whether the weird girl who confessed to a murder in the first few pages is insane. I have read most of Agatha Christie's 66 detective novels, and while I was happy to discover one that I hadn’t, “Third Girl” (1966) was a let-down in terms of plot, motive and characters. And there are far too many coincidences. Not among Christie’s best.

"The Devotion of Suspect X"

This crime thriller by Japanese author Keigo Higashino was a pleasant surprise. In the first few pages, we know who the murderer is, why the victim is dead and who is responsible. What we don’t know is how the murder was hidden, and the reader looks on as police detectives piece together clues to catch the killer. Will they get him (or her) in the end? A truly 'different' thriller. Highly recommended. A Bollywood version to be directed by Sujoy Ghosh is in the works.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Movie review: "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania"

It's tough to think of a Karan Johar production that doesn't have memorable music. But "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" is no "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani". Indeed, there were moments in the movie hall when I wished I owned a universal remote to fast-forward through all the excruciating songs.

It's a good thing that Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt are there to save the day and put "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" on 2014's list of unmissable movies.

It's been two years since Varun and Alia made their Bollywood debut as a pair of high-school brats in "Student of the Year". By the time "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" came along, baby-faced Alia had two other commendable releases ("Highway" and "2 States"), while Varun's second movie outing ("Main Tera Hero") didn't quite drive him into the big league. Which is why "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" had a lot riding on it:

a) Prove that Varun wasn't a one-film wonder.
b) Give Bollywood's reigning queen Deepika Padukone the heebie-jeebies thinking about Alia's back-to-back successes.
c) Pay homage to "Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge" -- the "Titanic" of Indian cinema -- and expect adherents to forgive and forget.
d) Woo audiences with a protagonist (nick)named after a nursery rhyme character, namely an anthropomorphic egg that falls from a wall.

Director Shashank Khaitan, yet another first-timer from producer Karan Johar's hit-churning movie factory, succeeds on all counts. And before I start gushing about "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania", here's a look at the film's storyline (with no spoilers, of course).

Humpty Sharma (Varun) is a happy-go-lucky Punjabi munda at a Delhi college who spends a lot of time with loyal sidekicks Poplu and Shonty. Enter Kavya Pratap Singh (Alia), who travels from Ambala to Delhi in her quest for the perfect designer lehenga that would embellish her upcoming wedding to a rich NRI doctor.

Sparks fly, Cupid strikes, and before long Humpty turns up in Ambala to convince Kavya's dad (Ashutosh Rana) to bless the duo. Unfortunately, Dad is one of those I-hate-love-marriages guys who has his heart set on getting Mr. Perfect Angad as his son-in-law. What could poor Humpty possibly do?

If you can't see the similarities with DDLJ, do not worry. Director Khaitan thrusts it in your face with situations, characters and dialogue, not to mention that scene at the beginning where Humpty is in tears watching the star-crossed lovers of the 1995 blockbuster.

Well, if the plot of "Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" doesn't sound too epic -- and believe me, it isn't -- everything else makes up for it. Endearing characters, witty lines, laugh-out-loud situations and crackling chemistry between the lead pair. Both Varun and Alia are funny and adorable, although they face some serious competition from Sahil Vaid, who plays the goofy Poplu, perhaps the film's most memorable character. Watch him and you'll know what I mean.

"Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania" may not be an Oscar-winner but it's guaranteed to entertain you. Just find something to do when the songs come on.

Rating: ****

Monday, July 07, 2014

Two books

I've just finished reading two books. Both were a delight and are highly recommended. The first - Donna Tartt's "The Goldfinch" - is a monster tome at nearly 800 pages but Tartt is brilliant and this modern-day David Copperfield had me hooked.

Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother and leaves him with a priceless work of art called 'The Goldfinch', which is to be the bane of his life. This Pulitzer prize-winning novel is a journey through life, love and art. I wish I’d a better understanding of art; I could have connected with this novel even better. But it’s still worth it.

From New York to across the Atlantic in 1950s England. Alan Bradley's "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie" is set in the Buckshaw mansion, where 11-year-old Flavia de Luce gets embroiled in a murder mystery. Flavia is no saint; she knows her poisons; and she could flummox Hercule Poirot.

Just who is that stranger who died in the cucumber patch after eating a piece of custard pie? Flavia will find out and this precocious detective makes it a perfect debut for her 70-something Canadian creator -- mystery writer Alan Bradley. Make no mistake; this is not a children's book. Flavia just happens to be the pre-teen protagonist of a book for murder-mystery-loving adults. There are more books in the Flavia de Luce series and I intend to read them all.

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