Friday, December 27, 2019

Happy hobbies

No, this is not a happy hobby post. In fact, that is the problem. I do not have hobbies. Whatever I have doesn’t make me happy. Let me back up and explain a bit.

I love playing the Veena. Whenever anyone calls it a hobby (for me), I smile politely and say, “No, actually it isn’t a hobby,” and they walk away thinking it doesn’t qualify to even be a hobby for me. In reality, all I am thinking is how far from a hobby it is because I freak out over getting my songs in order, making no mistakes, and polishing the performance off perfectly. Every rendezvous with my Veena is like a performance, even though all of it is to an audience of myself, within the four walls of my bedroom.

I enjoy writing. I use it as a way to get my thoughts in order. After putting those thoughts to paper, I go over the writing to edit the English, weed out repetitive words, use my favourite words, sometimes complicating passages, sometimes over simplifying them. I love the process, but I also hate it. The pursuit seems relentless, and an activity that started as a mere hobby is one of toil and passion now.

Reading is a part of me today. It was a part of me 2.5 decades back, when I was a kid. It was a part of me during all those quarterly after-exam rituals, when my parents would take me to the Landmark (Nungambakkam, Chennai) to buy a truckload of books to get through the holidays. It was a meticulous process of poring over the shelves with a long list in hand, picking and choosing, never discarding anything picked up, dragging them home and finishing them off, one after the other after the other. Nothing has changed in the years that came after. Except, the list has moved to goodreads, the shopping to Amazon, and the hole that is burnt is through mine own pocket now. The deadline is in my head, as, year after year, I compete with myself, racing against time, to read the choicest possible, as if I will not be around to finish them next year.

These are no hobbies. They are passion projects, as Google faithfully informs me.

So, a few years back, I decided to fall headlong into some hobbies, things that I absolutely suck at and have no hope or wish of excelling in. Namely, stitching and painting. Perhaps, it was knitting and coloring. I wouldn’t know the difference. One needles and threads, another makes a splash on paper with crayons, or water colours. Anyway, I got myself a Stitch Kit and threaded away feverishly at a Krishna outline. I got so involved, that I forgot it was supposed to be a hobby meant to calm me down. I stitched one of the parts (the hair perhaps) in red instead of black. And, I got very frustrated with the lack of perfection and gave up. Maybe, that’s why it remains a hobby I look back on fondly (or otherwise). The key is to be able to give up and try it again some other time, without taking it personally. I have mastered the first half, which is giving up. But, the whole hobby thing is too daunting for me to try again, without any stake in the game.

I am on to Mandala coloring these days. The book and colour pencils have been procured. A good start is a job well done. Or some such. I am told Mandala coloring is the most peaceful thing on Earth. Let’s see how I break it to pieces.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Me-time is overrated

No - the title is purely click bait. Or is it? I need to go back a few days in time to narrate this story so you can decide for yourself whether the title is really click bait.

You can read the entire article here.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

2019 - My year in books

Since I read 40 books this year, I am considering myself eligible to make “My top 10 books for the year” list. These were the ones that stood the test of being read in bits and pieces, in nooks and crannies of time, without a care for ambience or setting, or medium, started on the kindle, continued on the phone, finished on the kindle or the other way round. 

So, here goes, in no particular order:

Bad Blood - The con that was Theranos
Investigative journalism can be a potent tool, something we do not see much of in this day and age of click bait articles and hurried breaking news. This book talks about how one start up conned Silicon Valley out of billions of dollars, with only a vision and a dream, and no output at all. 

Circe - When a God wants to be human
Circe is a riveting book, and for no particular reason. It is neither a thriller, nor a murder mystery. It is mythology, fantastical, about Helios and Odysseus and a slew of other characters we have read about in various other books. Circe, the ‘weird’ daughter of Helios, goes through thousands of years of existence with Gods and Humans before figuring out what she wants.

Less - No reason to avoid this Prize winner
I am very wary of prize winning books, particularly Pulitzer Prize ones. I have had more than one “struggling to finish” experience. Less is nothing like that. Less is more than any prize winner. It is hilarious, breezy, deep, easy to read, nuanced, joyful. It’s the story of a mildly successful but perfectly forgettable gay author and his lovers, young and old. Makes you root for a happy ending, for no particular reason!

American Gods - A shopping Mecca
I have feared picking this book forever. It’s long, for one. And, it sounds a bit too quirky for my liking. I don’t really relate to this genre much, except I really really like Neil Gaiman’s works. “What genre is this?” you may ask. I don’t know. It seems like fantasy, but also reads like a thriller, is humorous, but also makes you think philosophically. If this book were refreshed today, a number of the “Modern Gods” that we swear by day in and day out will join the list. I still get nightmares of Shadow’s dead wife, Laura, so is it horror? Perhaps. But it’s worth the time, as you shop around for Gods. 

A gentleman in Moscow - Very gentle, very Russian
If I had to choose a favourite book this year, it would be this. And since I dedicated an entire post to this book, I am not going to trouble you going into the details again. But, pick it up. If you want to refresh your memory about or learn about 1900s Russia, through the eyes of this very perfect gentleman. 

The Testaments - A story of hope
I read Atwood’s now universally famous (thanks to Hulu), Handmaid’s Tale quite late in life, only a couple of years back. I have a thing for the dystopian. I have read that notorious 1984 but also many of the not so popular dystopian novels with the abject goal of wanting to feel terrified about the future. This was no different, I thought. But Handmaid’s Tale left me hopeless and desolate, giving up on the world in general, waiting with fear for the day when my bank account would be wiped out because I don’t matter anymore as a person. The Testaments gives me much needed hope, that it will all be ok in the end. Much needed hope in this rabid world. Perhaps, that’s the reason she deserves the prize this time. I don’t know, I am no judge, only a fan. 

The widows of Malabar Hill - The early days of India’s equality movement
The only paperback I read this year, because it isn’t available on the Kindle. This story is a mystery of sorts, but for me, it is just an eye opening account of how far we have come as women. Set in 1920s Bombay and told through the eyes of the first woman lawyer (fictional character based on more than one living person of those times), it puts out the struggles of being accepted in a fully male profession. Of course, privilege and her dad’s backing help; despite that it’s an uphill task. As you read about how men wouldn’t listen to an intelligent and successful lawyer because she is a woman, you do tend to think, “Have things really changed fully?” No, there’s so much work on our hands yet. 

City of Thieves - Fun yet sorrowful
I was quite wary of picking this book given Benioff’s horrible Game of Thrones season finale. But, it turned out to be a surprisingly good read. My second book for the year set in Russia, right in the middle of World War II, where two accused set out in search of eggs for a senior military official’s daughter’s wedding cake so they can be given back their food coupons. It is tragi-comic, and the ending made me tear up a bit. But, let me not give the story away, in case you plan to read this one.

She Said - For all the Me Too movement supporters, and the non supporters too
This book takes us behind the scenes of how the Harvey Weinstein story was broken, and the ripple effects it caused across the US and the world. Investigative journalism at its best, it is a must read to understand how important it is to corroborate evidence, put together events in chronological order, identify credible witnesses and test them. Because, “He said, she said” is the trap we need to come out of to take it a notch beyond just what’s ‘said’ by both parties and provide watertight proof so the movement endures the test of time. 

A Crooked House - Only comfort food
My reading lists are never complete without an Agatha Christie or a PGW thrown in. I am just old fashioned like that. This book has no Poirot, no Marple. The story’s a bit strange, crooked if you may. The ending even more so. There’s standard Christie template at work, but it does leave you with a strange after taste. That’s what murder mysteries are supposed to do, after all. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Learnings from a pig

That pig has taken over the world. At least the world I inhabit today. She is smiling at me from bookshelves, laughing down from stationery aisles, filling up my recommendation lists on YouTube and Amazon Prime, sitting on my kid’s shoulders as a backpack. Oh! You name it and she’s there.

You can read the entire article here.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The trauma of decision making

She was singing the national anthem in her sleep last night, complete with the ‘Jaya He’ with hands raised, and the Jai Hind salute to top it off. It was a tough night for her, with intermittent fever and coughing. I had just then decided that she should skip the Sports Day celebration at school this morning, when the national anthem happened. My heart stopped for a second. This little one had practiced hard for almost a month, learning to run in tracks, marching past left-right-left, and mugging the national anthem up, impeccably so. It was not fair to take D-day away from her, I tried reasoning with myself. And, then, the fever hit again.

You can read the entire article here

Sunday, December 08, 2019

More bitter than sweet

I wake up (very early) in the morning and hurriedly edit and push two blogposts out, random scribbles that have been sitting in my drafts on the phone for days now. It is a race against time, as I pick up the newspaper in a bid to read my choicest columns in the Mint Lounge. It is a race against time, even though it is Saturday, an off day and I have woken up well before the roosters can have the advantage of crowing me out of bed (actually, that’s a hyperbole, because Mumbai has only pigeons and a whole lot of their shit).

You can read the entire article here.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Dadar - the dada of all markets

There is many a written word on the beauty of Colaba, the allure of Bandra, the homeliness of Matunga. But, what about Dadar? Dadar deserves an essay of its own, if not a book. 

As I sit in a cab that’s unmoving on top of the Dadar bridge overlooking the station, some things are hard to miss. An entire army of people that might pass off for the population of New Zealand on that foot over bridge jostling towards (or away from) the train station -  if there’s an award winning claustrophobic site / sight in the world, that’s the one. Up ahead, a decrepit building is being refurbished. Rather, attempts are being made to salvage a room and cement it in white. Windows in other parts of the building are open, giving a sneak peak into those lives, their TVs and their file cabinets. Yes, it’s a mish mash of work and home, papers and paper dosas. Then comes the flower market. One shop is enticing, at least from the bridge. The board proclaims “SNB flower designer”. Quite a connoisseur this one must be. No ordinary flower vendor but a boutique designer, a stand out amongst mere mortals. 

Traffic is at a standstill, and I let my thoughts wander beyond the views of the station and its vicinity. I have never really got a hang of Dadar, the market. Which road leads to the highway and which one my way, has always been cause of great consternation to me. So I walk through the roads, mingling amongst the cars and bikes, and the never ending human populace, playing a game of elimination to extricate myself from the maze. Not before ‘intricating’ myself within, because there are things to be purchased. Do you know that a single store in Dadar (perhaps 100 sq ft in size) houses all the things on my list at any given point of time, ranging from screw drivers to scissors, paper clips to tea strainers? There’s another store with all the cooking utensils I will need in life, in brass and stainless steel, with copper bottoms and insulated handles, suiting the cooking styles of the South and the North and the home ground of Western India too. There are rows and rows of shops selling children’s tricycles in all colours and styles, genial shop owners encouraging kids to sit on them and try before buying. Fabric stores and saree shops beckon, with bright coloured and sequinned wear, that the South Indian conservative in me would never wear but would love to ape at from the windows. There are jewellery shops hiving off from the main market where one can buy that quick silver (not quicksilver), a gift for someone, or perhaps even gold. 

It is futile trying to drive through Dadar  market, obviously because there is no space. Not so obviously, because Dadar has sights and sounds you don’t want to miss, where the lane leading off from the flower seller has knick knacks that you urgently want, even though you may never need them in your life. 

The only time you can drive through the market is after 11 pm, but the time I like the most is 4.30 am. The market doesn’t really sleep, but it wakes up from a quick nap then, with the industrious sellers setting shop already getting their wares from wherever they get them from, fresh flowers and vegetables and fruits, as they get ready to hustle and bustle around for the day. 

Apparently there is a paan kulfi fellow somewhere there, that I haven’t encountered yet. His kulfis are to die for, I am told. Perhaps this weekend I will die for them, lost in the labyrinth and not finding my way out. 

A Gentleman in Moscow

After a long time, I am feeling a strange sense of yearning after finishing a book. Like a part of me is over, a part of me that was vicariously living through a gentleman in an attic, as he went about his strange life of being a Former Person. His breakfast of cookies and coffee, his lunch of veal and chicken, his preference of entrees and appetisers, his wine pairing skills, the knack of placing customers at dinner such that no fights erupted in a freshly minted Russia just out of the revolution, the very beauty in being a Highness and being a waiter with the same aplomb. 

If Scarlett O ‘Hara is the protagonist with whom I relate the most, Rostov is the protagonist that I wish I were. With his keen curiosity and zest to take life on, be it on the rooftop or in the basement, Count Rostov has no dearth of variety in him, despite not having stepped out of The Metropol Hotel in over 35 years.

A Gentleman in Moscow is poetry, with symphony running in the background, in our minds, taking us through the life of Count Rostov as he begins his indefinite imprisonment in the hotel he was staying in, deigned to ignominy for the rest of his life. The story isn’t about his trials and tribulations, about him talking to himself and getting philosophical or about his learnings and appreciation for the smaller things in life. The story is his journey and a certain subtlety in romanticising his predicament, if you may call it a predicament. Many a book has romanticised sorrow, there is merit in beautifying the everyday struggle. It gets to the reader’s heart and tugs on it making her want more of the book. But, what Amor Towles has done with this piece is create a lilting melody that the reader doesn’t realise her heart is being tugged with. There is no moment for pity or nostalgia. There are friendships to be made, promises to be kept, surprises to be sprung, romantic rendezvous to be kept, and amusements to be had, many times at others’ expenses. 

This book could easily pass off as historical fiction, for it takes us through the journey of the Revolution, the rise of industrial Russia, the agricultural famine of the 30s, briefly touching upon world war 2, and ends around when Stalin dies. All through the Count’s eyes and his experiences, of course. Which is limited to the people he meets within the hotel. But, you need to be the Count (or vicariously him, or Amor Towles) to know that there is more to be learnt inside a hotel than in any other place in Moscow. 

Anyway, I am going to end this here, I need to taste my packaged honey to figure out if there’s a hint of lilac or apple in it, for where do bees in the highly polluted city of this millennium’s Bombay source their honey from? If you didn’t get that reference and you would like to, maybe it is time to spend some time with a certain gentleman who lived in the attic of The Metropol hotel in 1930s’ Russia. Meanwhile, like how the Count would go to bed after a snifter of Brandy every night, I would keep revisiting passages from this book on and off, because it’s that kind of a book, a sort of comfort when all else might be shaky and uninspiring. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Saree connoisseurs

My mother and I, we are saree connoisseurs. My mother more so than me I guess. Well, she has had the advantage of being older, hence starting earlier. I remember my mom in the 90s, carrying off super cool sarees and blouses, ranging from cotton to chiffon to soft silk. And the lady would have bought each one of them for less than 300 rupees. That’s some smarts I don’t have. What I do have, is the love for saree. I can gaze at sarees online for ages, the sight of the pictures calms me down, makes me happy, whatever. I like adding them to my cart, gazing at them lovingly for another few days, and never checking out. It’s such a brilliant pastime.

You can read the entire article here.

Saturday, November 09, 2019


That’s what I wanted to message my near and dear, after an 18 hour long flight all alone with my 2.5 year old. But, what did I anticipate would happen otherwise? That I would run away midway? Jump off the aircraft perhaps? Die from hypertension?

You can read the entire article here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Don't worry, we are in this together

Last evening, we went out for dinner, having left little person at home to dine and milk without us. A baby in the restaurant started wailing inconsolably, the dad rushed out with the child, then the mom, then the grandparents. I could hear the wail from outside, and as I saw the faces of the parents, all I wanted to do was to reach out and tell them, “Don’t worry, we have all faced this and continue facing it. You will get through this.”

You can read the entire article here.