October 13, 2012

Bowl Baby Bowl!

Stories heard in one’s childhood can leave a strong impression. I can never forget one my grandfather used to tell me: about a prince who rode up to a stream on a hot summer day, and as soon as he bent to scoop some water to drink, a village girl dunked mud into the water. She did this twice or thrice, and he finally asked her why. She told him cold water drunk when one is hot and sweaty makes one ill, so she was preventing his mistake. Impressed by her good sense, he made her his queen.

I have more than a few problems with that story of course, but I always know better than to drink ice-cold things when I’m just out of the blazing heat, thanks to the village girl. However, this post is not about that story. It’s about a story that perplexes me no end as an adult: the story of the wooden bowl, originally, I believe, by Tolstoy. It’s a simple tale: Grandpa’s hands tremble and he spills food frequently -> son and daughter-in-law get angry -> son makes him a wooden bowl ->grandpa humiliated at having to eat from it -> kid sees this and starts hacking on piece of wood -> his parents ask what he’s doing ->kid says he’s making bowls for his parents’ old age -> parents are extremely apologetic, and grandpa gets back crockery privileges.

Either I had magical powers to understand the emotional aspects of this problem, or I never gave it enough thought, but I was sure it was wrong to shift a person with a challenging condition to a tool that was more conducive to his/her situation. The parents were just solving a very real problem. Did they stop feeding grandpa? Did they make him clean the mess? No and no. The son made “by hand “a dish that grandpa could use without trouble. Did grandpa like spilling? Unlikely. So maybe the problem was that he felt singled out. Why did the parents then solve the problem by taking grandpa back to difficult crockery? Why not shift the whole family to wooden bowls?

It’s not a trifling matter, one’s reaction to this story. It reflects your attitude to family, to old age, and to problems vs. emotions. It could determine how you choose to live a large part of your adult life, and many decisions that you make!

Personally, I just found a beautiful  news story online, which got me thinking about this childhood tale again, and if you’re feeling too lazy to click today, a 10-year-old girl, whose father is a product designer, created a special spill-free mug for her Parkinson-affected grandpa and her klutzy dad.  She’s now looking for funding. I cannot think of a better resolution to this story.

Do share your reaction to the tale if you’d like. I’ll be grateful. If you think I'm dead inside, do not hesitate to point out.

September 03, 2012

Swiss Diary

Growing up in India, it was impossible to escape visions of misty green mountains and flowing chiffon sarees that are the cultural ambassadors of Switzerland thanks to Yash Chopra & co. Would it not then be sacrilege to live so close by and not pay Switzerland a visit? As I explained this fact to my husband, he did what any long-suffering married man would do. He handed me his credit card, blocked 5 vacation days on his calendar, and went back to work. It takes ages to get your man to this level of give-uppyness, but ladies, you must persevere.

Off to Switzerland we went then, on a train so sleek and fast that it has often swept the eyelashes off my anatomy when it has whooshed pass my platform at small stations in Amsterdam. Never able to sit peacefully in one place, I managed to find unreserved seats right behind the driver, and get a cockpit view of the journey through Germany.  As I type this paragraph, I realize that writing about the next eight days will take me reams and reams of virtual paper, so I’m just going to write a helpful article for any of you planning to undertake a Swiss odyssey.

Where to stay: Look at the map of Switzerland. It’s a fairly big country. Now zoom out and look at the map of Germany. THAT is a really big country. When in Switzerland, just stay wherever you find affordable (good luck!) and comfortable accommodation. We had booked ourselves into a number of different cities, but in hindsight, seven nights in Basel or Bern would have been more or less the same. If you’re staying at hotels that are a notch below your usual standards, make sure to include a night at an Etap hotel, which makes everything else feel miles better. A big thumbs up to the YMCA hostel in Basel, which has clean and comfortable en suite rooms, an affordable breakfast, and access to a sparkling communal kitchen, which brings us to the next point:

What to eat: Euro notes or, if you want a colourful meal, Swiss Francs. About 6 hours into your Swiss visit, you will realize that you cannot win the battle against food bills. When McDonalds is twice as expensive as back home, and back home is a fairly expensive Western European country, then you know you’re in trouble. Fortunately, two gigantic supermarket chains: Coop and Migros have stores almost everywhere, and if you go in the summers, you’ll find that spending under 20 francs on yogurt, salads, fresh fruit and some cheese and bread for two makes for a very satisfactory compromise, at least once a day. Sit down for a hot meal, and you either lose no less than twice that sum, or you ingest good old McDonalds, (I bet the 100% recyclable burger boxes come back as coffins for the patrons). Of course our vegetarianism means that we go prepared to just eat our own socks if needed when we travel through Europe, and things might be different for you.

How to go about: As soon as you land in Switzerland, throw your bags in the hotel, eat the Toblerone on your pillow, grab something cold to drink before you get a heat stroke (Yash Chopra, I want my money back! I got sunburn and rashes in "misty" Switzerland) and head to the ticket counter at the station, and get your Swiss Pass. One magical ticket to all the trains, buses, trams and boats for the rest of your trip. It’s not cheap by any standard, and you’d probably not spend that much money if you just did what you came to Switzerland thinking you’ll do, but when you’re on a train with your Swiss map spread in your lap, and you see a darling little station that you just MUST hop out at and explore, and you can guess with a little common sense how you will find an alternate route back, then the Swiss Pass lets you do just that! The map that comes along with the pass is your best friend. We took a total of 21 train rides within Switzerland, about 5 boat rides and a cable car ride as well. Would we have done as much without the pass? Never!

What places to visit: That’s something we can all safely agree to disagree about. Of all the places we managed to visit, Bern was my favorite walk-through city, Zurich my favorite overnight halt, and the hike down from Lake Trübsee to Engelberg my favorite scenic bit. The best thing about Switzerland is that if you find yourself travelling to a tourist trap that’s a big letdown, you can go visit something cute or surreal or sublime that is always just half an hour away! We ran from Interlaaken within an hour, and took refuge in a small lakeside town till our train back showed up, with our grocery store yogurt to keep us company.

Trains: The Swiss Pass says on the back that we’re in a country where transport runs on time. They are not exaggerating. It’s only because the Swiss are a peaceful and non-violent nation that half-severed bodies who did not board their posteriors at 9:00 sharp are not seen regularly on trains. Also, every train has unique character and charm, and the ones with pull-down windows can con you into thinking trains are something you stick your head out of. I was pulled back into the coach by the husband’s aghast look and an approaching electric pole that almost gave me a new hairstyle. The Glacier Express was beautiful despite the dismal lack of glaciers in the summer, and though civilized folk will tell you otherwise, it is quite ok to carry your own sandwiches on board and refuse the criminally expensive three-course meal everyone else chooses to have on board.

What to carry/buy: Carry a camera with a decent memory card and a reliable battery, and everything you need to charge it up and take hundreds more pictures the next day. There are some kooky safety plugs in many hotels that do not let you use even European plugs, but you can get convertors from the hotel. And whatever else you might need, because Switzerland is not a great place to be buying clothes and essential supplies from. In fact, unless you have cow-bell dementia from too much Shahrukh Khanning, you needn’t buy anything except some chocolates for folks back home. Buy coffee at Starbucks once or twice a day, and four francs will get you a visit to the loo, a drink of water, a laxative (can’t call that sludge coffee, I’m afraid), and 20 minutes of Internet time to download the map of whatever city you’re in.  

And finally: The famous sights are so full of tourists that you’d think the roads of India and China would be empty all summer. To avoid rib-cage fracture and the frustration that comes from the vague sense of unreachable aloo parathas or sambhar cooking somewhere nearby, study the itineraries of tour companies online. Note down the 10-odd places in Switzerland on their  “must-see” list. Don’t see any of them.

June 28, 2012

Your Mail Has Been Archived

News of Nora Ephron’s death prompted me to revisit an old favorite: You’ve Got Mail. It was probably one of the first few films my sister and I saw alone in the theatre, and then we often revisited it thanks to a VCD we bought. In 1998 when I saw it first, it was the cutest, romantic-est, absolutely the best thing ever-est to have ever released, and it was to re-live that romantic euphoria that I kicked my husband off the sofa last night, put my feet up, clicked on the play button, and invited Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to sweep me off my feet. 

14 years, you are an awful lot of time. Not only was the courtship quite cheesy and the plot borderline silly at times, grey-haired old me was also unable to focus on the mush! All I could think of was the chain bookstore vs. mom-and-pop bookstore showdown, and how the very Internet that gave the smug and idle book mogul the opportunity to meet and date an idealistic-yet-hapless “shopgirl” has fantastically pulled the rug from under the mammoth bookshop chains around the world. 

We were in the US recently, and the husband (whom I trapped online, perhaps encouraged by this same movie, I now realize) took me around Seattle, his favorite city in that large and scary (to my now-rural senses) country. Most of his time on his earlier visits there was spent in bookshops, and over the years I was wooed with beautiful books, bags and umbrellas (don’t ask) from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and others. I was lucky to browse through Borders in my London schooldays, but they had vanished by the time I finally made it to the US. We visited Barnes and Noble four times in our three days there, and I am sorry to say that not only did we not find a single book on our reading list on their shelves, but we shamelessly used their free wifi to compare price labels with Kindle prices and found the difference quite drastic. A second-hand bookstore fulfilled all our wildest bibliographic fantasies, much to the amusement of our friends, and we lugged home a bargain (by European standards). We went to the chain bookstore only for the novelty of the experience, the very thing that Meg Ryan’s shop was providing in 1998 New York. 

Meanwhile, big chain stores continue to swallow small businesses whole, and You’ve Got Mail2.0 could well be an online (preferably over iPhones) romance between a local baker and a grocery chain owner, a tailor and a department store heir, or a carpenter and whoever (God bless them!) runs Ikea.

May 20, 2012

A Random Sunday In the Life Of, etc.

The rain this morning gave us a great excuse to veg out at home and watch Satyamev Jayate (after the CSA and the dowry episodes, gender determination will double, I’m sure) and read in ghastly postures all over the house. After a very basic lunch, my toes found their way into the side of the sofa and that strange bone sticking out of my skull (since forever) was merrily burrowing its way through the husband’s leg, and I was ready to nap for two hours and repent for four, when the sun showed up, Bangalore kicked their own butt out of the IPL, and we decided to head out for a coffee and a walk.
The girl at the neighborhood coffee parlor calls us “chocolate cake” (Racist? Maybe. We’re brown and bitter for sure), and served a nice thick slab of our favorite coffee accompaniment as we read some more on her sofa.  After that, we decided (as we do every other day) that we’d go shopping for shoes. Both of us have this perpetual vague need for new shoes (although we own only two pairs each at any given time in history) and today we randomly chose the husband as the shoe-shopping candidate. After trying on some fancy ones and lusting after some obscenely expensive ones, he settled on a simple pair and for the first time in about 6 months, our shoe-shopping expedition actually ended up in a purchase.
As our pupils adjusted to the sunlight outside the shoe shop, we spotted a secondhand books fiesta! No doubt the rain had ruined half their day, and probably half their books as well, but there they were, in all their glory!  Our first forage yielded three books and after a long search for the absconding stall owner, we were cheerfully greeted by a gentlemen who said life was very simple, and three books were two euro fifty, and he did not want the books anymore... they were ours. The next stop had us fall in love with a quaint little Dutch comic book on which no price was mentioned, and the surly gentleman at the stall said it was five euro after careful study of the comic and of the books jutting out of our bag. When I smiled and put the book back, he scowled and said “don’t want it for five? It’s twenty then!” I smiled some more and walked on. The husband, spotting a good book that was threatening to shed its cover, asked if I’d like to read it. The pencil mark said it was fifty cents, and the stall owner shrugged hopelessly and said he’d have to give it for that price then, wouldn’t he. As we counted five and ten cent coins to make up the fifty, he was sure we were about to ask for a discount, and we assured him that we were not those people. Everyone at the book bazaar is bitter in his or her own way, and why wouldn’t they be? Many of them were probably around when books being available to and affordable for every one was still a fascinating idea, and in their lifetimes, they’ll probably have to throw away half their stock because nobody wants it anymore! For a change, we were not really bitter today, as we found our first real bargains books-wise in this lovely but expensive city of ours.
We lugged the books around town on a beautiful walk, and are now back on the sofa and it’s time to read some more. Shoes and books and sofas and coffee…what more does one need in life? 

May 09, 2012

Of Human Bondage

Just finished reading Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. The ghastly-looking paperback edition was one of the husband’s wise purchases on our recent trip to Bangalore, and once I started, I did not know much peace or quiet till I finished it.

My mother started feeding me “good” literature from her dad’s collection in early teens when it was, among other things, a practical way to keep noise levels down in the house. Quite cocky and self-assured at 17, I embarked on a 5-year study of English literature and read most of the defining works of fiction of the last 500 years or so, and perhaps these shaped the kind of person I grew up to be. At the same time, I’m not sure I did (or indeed could have done) justice to the brilliant writing and thinking I consumed, and there was a considerable element of pearls-before-swine in my history of burying my nose into books.

In recent times, while I’m surrounded by a very diverse selection of books courtesy the husband’s myriad interests, my own purchases are of dubious literary standards, and seem to be evading the truths of life, much like me.

(If you’re married to me, do not read beyond this line. Hugs.)

It was wonderful, therefore, to come across this semi-autobiographical work by Maugham, and as the bildungsroman progressed and a philosophy of life unfurled, the air was knocked out of me more than a dozen times. The academic or casual study of a writer’s perspective is a faint spark compared to the blazing fire of near-complete identification with a world-view espoused by someone decades before you were born, and who came to it by a path completely different from yours. As the book came closer to its end, the sense of identification started to wear off a bit, and the final resolution offered by Maugham disappointed me immensely, but as he and I believe, there are other ends to stories.

April 02, 2012

Looking Before and After

We’ve all been the age when present actions and long and short-term consequences do not seem to have a direct correlation. Try convincing a six-year old that because she’s going to bed without brushing her teeth tonight, in a few years her tooth will break off and she’ll pay a fortune to have it fixed in an emergency. Life doesn’t work that way when you’re a kid.

We’ll all, well many of us, will be the age when our mental playlist is an endless loop of things that should have been, decisions we ought to have made differently, and choices we would have made had we known better… If I had a penny for every time I hear people say “I didn’t know better then,” I’d have paid off that dentist’s bill without feeling a pinch!

And then there’s the difficult bit. The being 30 (ok 30+) and making decisions… the really big ones… knowing that there will be consequences, and knowing that when you’re blaming you past self for your bungled up life tomorrow, you’re very likely to remember that you knew full well what you’re getting into. You could not have seen into the future, but you could have made some very good guesses.

Dear past self: I’m glad you had some fun, and it wouldn’t have hurt to have had a little less of it. But it’s ok, you didn’t know better.

Dear future self: YOU knew better all along. Stop that whining.

March 30, 2012

Ciao Venezia!

About 50 tourists crowded around the bus door, trying to get a seat on the bus for the ride from the airport into town. The driver told them the ticket-punching machine on the bus was broken, so they needed to use the one at the bus stop. After punching two tickets, the other machine also sputtered and died. Like lost pigeons, they turned their heads back to the driver with blank expressions. He shrugged, walked up to the machine on the bus stop, gave it five tight slaps and a good shaking, dislodged about a gazillion bits of paper from it, and then took one passenger’s ticket and punched it successfully.

Italy. India. Same difference.

February 29, 2012

2012: A Love Story

They sat side by the side on the couch near the window, reading their books under the warm, fake sunlight of the powerful halogen bulb they had bought along with a lamp Ikea decided to call “Not” (usage: The Sun is shining…Not!)
Her toes tucked under his leg, his foot resting on the ugliest coffee table in the universe, and only the intermittent sound of flipping pages breaking the silence of their comfortable companionship…
Suddenly, his heart racing, he put down his book, turned to her, put her book down as well, and removed her spectacles. Unaccustomed to romantic outbursts, she waited with bated breath for his next move.
“Multiply 17 by 24” he said, a manic excitement in his voice. “Do it in your head!”
Now THIS was the kind of romance she had come to expect after five years of marriage. She started crunching the numbers in her head. He gazed into her eyes with the passion of either a psychopath or a scientist, or perhaps both.
“It’s TRUE! Your pupils! They’re dilating when you’re straining your brain!” he shrieked, pointing at the book.
She had to see it for herself, of course. So off came his spectacles, 15 was multiplied by 27 in his head, and his pupils dilated to her satisfaction.
With their spectacles back on, they resumed their reading, and lived in considerable happiness for a fair number of days in the future.

February 12, 2012

Please collect your belongings from Belt Number 13

The big black bag
has my husband’s name
on a blue tag

The small blue case
has his parents’ address
on its face

The brown one unlocks
with the address
where I grew up in frocks

Every now then we do this little dance
Going home to home, and back home
For the benefit of KLM and Air France

The carousel goes round and round
Till my luggage, and I, are found