Sunday, October 27, 2013

Home: A Safe Haven?

It was ironic that she died at home, when everyone warned her of the dangers that lurked outside.


Home was a haven, everyone said. Elsewhere in the world, there were robberies, rapes and murders taking place. But home was where one could forget that one lived in a cruel world. Home was where one was safe. One could shut the door on all the negativity and the horror that prevailed outside.


They forgot that trouble often does drop in unannounced.
Across the street from their home was her husband’s new office and barely 200 m away was the local police station. Children played outside her plush ground floor apartment. The neighbours were home too.


Help was close at hand. She was surrounded by it, and yet she died struggling and fighting for her life, alone in her last moments.


This happened in 1995, so a number of the safety measures that are considered hygiene today had not yet been learned by society. It is only Experience that teaches us the lessons we know.


She was a family friend of ours, a gentle and kind lady whose personality, from her simple slippers to her cotton sarees, was far from flashy and never gave an inkling about the wealthy family she hailed from or was married into.


No one could have wanted her dead. She had a kind word for everyone. She never raised her voice when talking to anyone, not even to the servants that worked in their home, the man as a cook, the two women as general help. She would relay instructions to them in her quiet voice, and they would go about their duties respectfully.


And so her routine went on. Her husband went to his office in the morning, coming home for lunch in the afternoon, then heading back to the office and returning home rather late. Their only son was working for a bank in London. But she was not one of those that spent her day idly, pining for the two men in her life. No TV serials or kitty parties for her either.


She spent her time reading. And teaching English speaking to some underprivileged children.


That day, her husband had had lunch and had returned to the office. She had settled down with a quiet book, when there was a knock on the door. The security guard of the building later revealed that it was the cook with one of the maids and two unknown men.


What happened next was a knowledge that the hapless woman took to her grave. But the police speculated that perhaps the four asked the woman for the key to the safe where the husband kept the money, and when she refused, they must have hit her on the head with something heavy. They then stuffed her mouth with a rag to prevent her from calling for help, and tied her hands and legs. They also ransacked the bedroom and the kitchen to find the hidden key. But they found nothing.


Furious with her, they must have attempted to strangle her but she passed out before their eyes. Fearing that the commotion might be heard by someone, they grabbed the gold jewellery and left hurriedly.


The post mortem indicated that she was alive for at least half an hour after they left. The report surmised that she must have been in considerable pain. The slow decline had begun. Her life was being snuffed out. But it wasn’t peaceful.


How she must have thought of her husband and son, and wished she could meet them one last time! Had someone come to her aid then, she could have received timely medical attention. Perhaps she would have been alive today.


I was quite young when she died, and honestly, I never gave her much thought in the years since she died. But when I heard about the Smart Suraksha app, just like that, her face rose before my eyes.


And I thought of her.


I wish she had Smart Suraksha with her.


I am sure that if she had had the Smart Suraksha app, she might have lived. Her life would have had a kicking, struggling, fighting chance. 


At the press of a button, the Smart Suraksha app enables one to alert five pre-set mobile numbers besides the police to the fact that one is in danger and needs help.


Additionally, it also enables the police to trace one’s whereabouts regardless of whether the GPRS is on or not.


After she died, there were the usual things people said to console one another. They said, she was a good woman, and God has need of good people. Some said that she was in a far better place, removed from the misery and the pain that afflicted the rest of us.


None of this meant a thing to her husband and son who were devastated by her death. Nearly 18 years later, there must still be a large hole in their lives where she once was.





I am participating in the Seeking Smart Suraksha contest at BlogAdda.com in association with Smart Suraksha App.




Friday, October 25, 2013

Book Review: TRANSFERENCE

Title: Transference
Author: Jeff Fuell
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Pages: 158








Transference by Jeff Fuell is an easy and engaging read, and succeeds in keeping the reader's interest going. 


The book starts from the viewpoint of the unknown villain, the man who wants the hero, who we haven't met yet, dead. All we know is that this bad guy works in an office and hates cell phones. This we know through a long and pointless rant about cell phones, which does nothing to fuel our interest either in the activities of the bad man or the book.

Thankfully, the pace picks up soon enough when the contract killer answers the phone and the villain asks him to bump off the hero.

Next the perspective shifts to the third person viewpoint of Michael, who has lost his wife to lung cancer and is busy trying to be a single father to his 13-year-old son, David. At work, he comes to know of large amounts of money being siphoned off to certain bank accounts fraudulently. He tries to inform his boss, Mathew, about this suspicious activity, and finds his boss anxious to get out of the office. 


Suspecting that his boss is behind this fraud, Michael leaves office on a Friday evening, but is killed by the contract killer. He dies. 


But that is not the end of the story.


He wakes up in the body of Tommy, his son's best friend who, following an accident, had been in a coma for three months.


Now Michael has a completely different set of problems to contend with. Not only does he need to get answers to who wanted him killed and why, and what happened to the real Tommy, he also needs to get ready to live life as a young pre-teen boy, without raising any doubts or suspicions in the minds of those who knew Tommy well.


But the search for answers will not only endanger the life and welfare of his own son, but also that of Tommy’s mother and sister.


Clearly, it’s not easy to be a young boy, particularly the second time around.

Fuell has done a good job of recreating dialogue. He also manages to make some good observations, "Nothing made people move faster than a clock that said quitting time on a Friday."


Bonus points to the author for handling the father-son sections so beautifully. 


The character of Stacey, the younger sister of Tommy, is another treat. It is wonderful to see her precociousness and the spiritedness with which she offers to assist Michael in what is, from her point of view, clearly an adventure. She is mature beyond her age, and yet she is endearingly still a child.


I particularly liked the sections which take Michael back to school. The characters of Leland, the skinny hall monitor who is repeatedly thrust into a locker by sundry people, and another kid who suffers from a severe case of flatulence not only serve as instances of unique characters but also perform important roles in the story.

Transference suffers from the lack of grammar checking that is the bane of indie authors. For the most part, the language is clean, but clichés sometimes upset the flavour of the reading, as in the first chapter. Here, the killer thinks to himself: "Yes, he probably has an unusual lifestyle, one that I really do not want to know the ends and outs of, but still!"


I also encountered another slight error in continuity. After Michael is dead, he realises that he cannot see his own reflection in a glass door in the hospital. And yet, moments later, Fuell tells us that he looked at the door and saw nothing, but himself waving.

Aside from these minor quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed Transference


Fuell has not only succeeded in keeping the pace swift, he has also managed the difficult task of helping us to make Michael's quest our own.




(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)




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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Like a Drop of Water on the Parched Earth

The best definition of encouragement I have ever read was supplied by author Claire Gillian. She said, “Encouragement is like a drop of water upon a parched earth.”


I have heard other definitions of encouragement, but this one remains one of my favourites. It may not seem like much, particularly if you are a pond or a lake or even a puddle. 



But at various points in my life, I have been the parched earth and I know the value of that drop of water.


I know what it can do to you, when it seems that the only water around is muddled by the salt of your tears.


I know how it can uplift you, and give you the strength to wipe your tears and rush back to the heat of the battle. Suddenly the haze is lifted, and the sweat and exhaustion and even the blood may be forgotten in the relief that comes from knowing that there is one person out there who believes, without the slightest doubt, that you are capable and that you can do it.


It is very easy to offer encouragement to those who are successful. To those who are talented and have already proved their competence. But to encourage those who have been losers in the generally understood sense of the term, that is difficult and it takes a very big heart to do that.


I want to share with you a video. I found it on YouTube. It shows a boy who had been getting Fs in Maths. Apparently, the boy had to keep taking the exam because he kept failing. I imagine his father must have been at the end of his tether, as he wondered if his son would ever get through this bugbear of a subject, which has caused greater minds to quail. Mine included.


The boy studied hard and went on to get a C. That’s a quicker way of saying Average or Mediocre or Ordinary or Unexceptional.


But not the way this young lad’s father saw it. His father recognized the hard work his son had put in, even to get that C, and he appreciated it. He saw the determination that the boy had mustered in order to conquer defeat, and he thought it worthy of celebration.


Pay special attention to the boy’s reaction to his father’s response to the news of his C. Mark my words, whatever the problems this boy faces in life, a fear of Maths will never be one of them. Nor will this boy be constrained by any obstacle, with a father like this.


Watch this video and feel as thrilled as I did. And yes, watch it till the end.










(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)





Every Person Has a Story


Every person has a story.


So they say.


For a long time, I took that to be a literal statement. I thought of the story as being a finished work, written and published, a novel, a short story, a play. I couldn’t understand how that could be true. How could every person have a story?


Did that mean we were all writers waiting to happen?

Did that mean that there were publishers out there waiting to be interested in our stories?

Did that mean our lives were bestsellers that were going to make us famous?



It was only when I grew older and wiser that I realised the nature of those stories. That was when I learned to keep my mouth shut and my ears open.

I saw that everywhere, all around me there were stories happening. Every moment of every day of every week, month and year. Down the ages, there were stories. 



The big ones were designated as histories. 

The smaller ones slipped through the cracks.
Every day we hear a number of those stories but not all of them leave an imprint on our hearts.

Why is that so?

Perhaps we do not let them.



Yesterday on my way home, I shut my novel, and began to read the stories around me instead. It was a privilege to be able to get a glimpse of some of these stories. There’s a lot you can learn if you’re willing to shut up and listen.
One woman was telling a stranger how nothing she did ever earned her mother-in-law’s approval.
An old woman in her 70s was talking about her daily struggle, how she left home at 6.30 am every day to reach the place she worked in at 8 am, how she struggled all day and then left for home late in the evening. How after a hard day’s work, she could not bear to stand on her feet on the hour-and-counting commute, and how the young things wouldn’t get up and offer her the seat that was reserved for senior citizens.


A young newlywed bride, her plastic red bridal bangles still tinkling on her hand, looked out of the window with unseeing eyes. Her kohl was smudged, and the remnants of tears still hovered in her eyes.


A woman, on the phone with her ex-husband, pleaded, begged, threatened, too distraught to care that her co-passengers may hear her and worse, judge her. “Give me my son,” she said, “I shall give up my plea for maintenance.”


A vendor of plastic folders spoke of the husband who left her for another woman because she bore him four daughters. Presumably the other woman would guarantee him a son. So here she was, having married off two daughters and looking after the younger two. A gold chain she once owned was now in the safe of a local jeweler. Every day it seemed to recede further out of her reach. Already it was three months. In another three months, the interest would overtake the sum she borrowed.



These snatches of conversations, some of which I eavesdropped upon, some of which clamoured for my attention, gave me a glimpse of the untold stories that we all bear within ourselves.

Stories of secret sorrows and joys, betrayals and promises, loves and hates, fears and insecurities.

Stories that are at once heroic and ordinary.

Mundane yet sublime.

Stories of struggle and death and mortgage and making a rupee stretch as far as it will go.



So like the pearl that the oyster carries within its shell. The world sees the pearl as a thing of immense value, but to the oyster it is nothing but a hard reminder of the pain it has endured. A bauble that was formed when it sought to protect itself from the grain of sand or other irritant that cut into its flesh and wounded it.

And that is how pearls are made.

Is the making of stories any different?



But who cares for these untold stories?


Each of us, immersed in ourselves, sees nothing of the pain embedded in the flesh and being of those around us. We grunt and growl our way through life, believing that we bear the heaviest burdens, that others have it easier. If we could only see, hear and experience others’ stories, we would know how blessed we truly are.



From now on, I’m not giving up any good opportunity to shut up and listen to the wealth of stories floating unwanted around me.












Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Goodness of Amla


Everyone knows that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Even the grammar books, Wren and Martin, in particular, used to reiterate that fact.


Few people know about the goodness of amla. Sigh! In this world, PR is everything.


The truth is that this small fruit is a nutrient-rich powerhouse; it is an excellent source of Vitamin C and is high is antioxidants, thereby helping to prevent cancer. Regular intake of amla enhances the body’s immunity, aids in digestion, enabling the body to assimilate nutrients from the food we eat, and strengthens the liver. Amla is also good for the hair, skin, bones, teeth and nails. Do you need more convincing? 



Amla helps to flush out the toxins from the urinary bladder. It helps to nourish the brain and strengthen the functioning of the liver, the heart and the lungs. It helps the body to produce more red blood cells, prevents constipation and increases vitality.


Having been a proponent of amla eating for years, I have in recent times become something of an amla evangelist. I love eating amla in the raw form and am always trying to convince others to do so too. In spite of all my advocacy, I failed to get my kids, known on my blog as La Niña and El Niño, to eat the amla. Then a friend told me about amla candy, and shared her recipe with me. I tried it successfully and now I have the satisfaction of seeing my kids eat amla regularly.


Incidentally, October and November is when the fruit is in season. So I ensure that I make sufficient quantity of amla candy for my family to enjoy all through the year.


Yesterday while going home, I saw a woman sitting just outside the railway station with a large basket filled with amla in front of her. One of these days, I shall make the coming year’s stock of amla candy. Meanwhile, you can read my doodled recipe and try your hand at it too.




My Doodle recipe is a part of Easy Doodle Recipe contest at BlogAdda.com in association with TastyKhana.com


(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)




Arthur Hailey's Hotel: Lessons Learned

Arthur Hailey's Hotel gives you a behind-the-scenes backstage peek into what keeps a five-star hotel in ship-shape condition. As guests and visitors, we see the glamour and the glitz, the ornate pillars and the marble balustrades, and it is easy to forget the army of worker ants, the housekeepers, room service attendants, cooks, chefs, telephone operators and others that work in spite of relentless pressure, their movements perfect, offering service with a smile. Because even one disgruntled customer is bad news for the whole business.


Since the book cover had the legend, A Master Storyteller, emblazoned upon it, I took it upon myself to study the novel in great depth and learn something of the art and craft of writing from it.


Here is what I learned:


In spite of having a plethora of characters, a necessity when the setting is a luxury hotel, Hailey successfully manages the tricky task of creating back stories for a number of them. The back stories themselves have to strike a fine balance. Too little and we don't know enough about the character, preventing us from investing in them. Too much and we've got needlessly caught up in the past. 


The moment a character is named, he becomes real to the reader. We must know more about him. If you, as the author, don't mean us to get too close to a particular character, don't introduce us to him/her. If you tell us a character's name, make sure that character plays a significant role in the story, even if the role is brief. 


Hailey succeeds in keeping all the sub-plots afloat at the same time. Not an easy task.


There is Warner Trent, owner of the St Gregory Hotel in New Orleans, whose hotel is under mortgage, and who is desperate to avoid both a foreclosure and an acquisition.

There is Curtis O'Keefe, who owns a chain of assembly-line style hotels and who, knowing that Trent is in dire straits, is eager to add to his bouquet of hotels.

There is Peter McDermott, assistant manager of the hotel, eager and efficient, but tied down by the lack of power.

There are the Duke and the Duchess of Croydon, who are desperate to cover up their guilt. 

There is Albert Wells, who is hiding a secret of his own.

There is Keycase Milne, an inveterate thief.


These are just a few of the many sub-plots that Hailey twists around his fingertips all at the same time. To do this successfully, he ensures that the development of the story is arrested at a crucial place, one at which much has taken place, and much that is important is going to take place. Even though, we, as readers, would have liked to hang around that scene to find out more about that character, the author wants us to know that there is something that more urgently needs our attention.


None of the characters are perfectly good or perfectly evil. They are all real, with flaws in their make-up and personalities. For example, McDermott suffers errors of judgement, and has a tendency to get carried away by the good life. Trent is charitable towards his employees, but only because it serves him well to receive their gratitude.


Reading Hotel gives one an idea of the kind of research that must be done in order to write a story fully. Hailey becomes the consummate hotelier, one that knows his hotel inside out, upside down, and can see through the beams and the rafters, the walls and the floor, the electrical wiring and the plumbing.


I was also impressed with the manner in which Hailey expressed the race issue, through Warren's patronising of Aloysius Royce and the matter of the dentists' conference and the issue of accommodation for Dr Nicholas, the black dentist.


The entire action takes place over five days. So you can imagine the skill and the dexterity involved in juggling multiple characters and their actions over the space of such a brief period to ensure that the various events did not clash with each other in terms of the order in which they take place and the bearing they have on subsequent events.


I can't even begin to imagine how Hailey must have set about writing this novel. But I presume that there must have been a lot of research and a lot of writing of back stories, long before the first word was typed.


There are many ways to become a published novelist. But they all involve tons of hard work and effort, with a little bit of daydreaming about being a bestselling author. 


Am I up for the challenge?




(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)


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Monday, October 21, 2013

Book Review: CHAKRA: CHRONICLES OF THE WITCH WAY

Title: Chakra: Chronicles of the Witch Way
Author: Ritu Lalit
Publisher: Author's Empire Publications
Pages: 319









Move over, Hogwarts. We have our own desi witches now. And they don’t need props such as brooms, huge cauldrons and pointed hats to prove they are so. Nor do they need to display rotting teeth and long dirty fingernails to grab your attention. And screaming abracadabra is so passé.


In Ritu Lalit’s Chakra: Chronicles of the Witch Way, the witches, known as japnis or Tais, and their male counterparts, the Japas, all lead normal lives. But there is no mistaking the power and the energy they possess, an influence that allows them to curse and heal, to perform astounding feats and to command the elements to do their bidding.


Having lost her brother Ashok and his wife Meera in a bloodbath initiated by warring clans to disrupt a ritual for ensuring peace, Nita Mohan, short for Parinita, blames the Japa way of life for their deaths and turns her back on her heritage. Preferring to live an ordinary life, she brings up her nephew Sandeep and her niece Samaira to remain unaware of their powers. The two kids, along with their cousin Roma, daughter of Nita’s older brother Ankur, lead a normal life as teenagers in cities do.


When Samaira unwittingly displays her powers following a harmless prank at school, Japas everywhere come to know of their secret. Soon after this, the three children disappear. Nita must find them before her family’s enemies do. She knows that those who have killed her brother and sister-in-law will stop at nothing to destroy the family and prevent the prophecy from coming true, the prophecy that decrees that the age of the Japas is long gone and that the age of the Japnis is nigh.


So well does Lalit succeed in creating this strange world where mythical beings with supernatural powers walk the earth that it almost comes as a surprise when we read of these characters doing banal activities like answering telephone calls or getting into cars. It is these acts that point to the vividness of her imagination, and draw us into the alternate world that is her creation, from the very first page.


Soon we get acquainted with these fantastic creatures belonging to five clans, each having an affinity to one element of nature. We become aware of the sometimes subtle, but mostly overt games they play in a bid to establish their own power and pull down the others. The politics of give and take, where allies turn into bedfellows before stabbing you in the back.


The women are all strong and feisty, capable of hastening the story forward and of turning it on its head. From the combat crazy Meera, to the feisty Nita, Samaira and Roma, they are all fiercely driven by their emotions and their tempers. Introduce into this volatile mix characters like Sinduri, the vindictive clan leader of the Varunis, Lata Irani, the librarian who is also a Tai, Panna Bagri, the warrior woman, and Neelam, who is actually a koyla, a being that can suck out the soul out of men, and you are bound to have a tantalizing book on your hands.


In contrast, the Japas appear to be the weaker sex, at least in this world. For, although they are fierce warriors and birathars who do not flinch from dying for their comrades, their energies and powers seem to pale against the might of the Japnis. Even Jorawar, a powerful and muscular Jalaj warrior, blessed by the author with hair up to his waist and an over-active libido, cannot match the vigour with which the women hold the reader’s attention.



While the pace remains easy going when describing the ordinary lives of the young Mohans, the sense of urgency rises dramatically when Samaira, Sandeep and Roma disappear. Thereafter the tempo picks up, and we become aware of the darker forces working behind the scenes to prevent the prophecy relating to the japnis from coming true.

Lalit’s hold over her narrative does not falter, as she leads us through numerous locales, as events race towards a thrilling finish. Her descriptions of the baoli and the temple are detailed, and help us visualise the scene better. Bonus points for thinking up the entire premise of the koylas and the manner in which Lalit has treated Roma’s character.

The only two roadblocks are posed by the manner in which the meanings of Indian words have been clarified and by the errors in the story. Putting the meanings of the desi words into brackets is an unnecessary distraction. A glossary or a footnote would have served far better.

The many inconsistencies in the book also hurt the enjoyment of the read. I wish the editors had spotted these before they were printed. Bhoomar is spelt with a 'u' the first time, and with 'oo' therafter. Also, Akshat is described as a Jalaj in one sentence and as a Pallav in the next. In one place, Akshat is spelt incorrectly. A character, Marjina, is referred to as Sinduri in one place. Lata is referred to as Maya in one place.

In another instance, Mickey, a nearly 16-year-old Japa, who has worked as a household help for a widow ever since he was eight years old, claims to have set by Rs3,41,00,000. (That kind of money in eight years? I wonder if the widow is still hiring.)

These and other such errors are annoying but since the story itself is spellbinding the reader learns to shoo them aside as if they were pesky houseflies. Lalit’s triumph lies in the fact that her story manages to hold our attention in spite of these errors.

Even as the characters wrestle with life and death issues, Lalit’s penchant for humour makes itself felt in the T-shirts with sexually provocative legends preferred by Nita. In fact, Nikhil, Nita’s assistant at the detective agency, stares at her breasts and even talks to them. Even though it makes one mad when that kind of thing happens in real life, it sounded funny on paper.

The book ends with a wedding and a sense of peace that is fraught with insecurity, a sober Roma and the likelihood of sisters pitted against each other.


Stage set for a sequel.


Ritu Lalit, here's to your next book!



(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)



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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Adventure, Enid Blyton style

As a child, I longed for adventure. The hunger for adventure had been enkindled by the books I read and the characters that peopled them. These were the Five Find-Outers, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, written by a certain Enid Blyton.


In those days, there was no real market for children's books with an Indian ethos. Enid Blyton ruled the Indian market. And almost every Indian child who read had a lot of Blyton books in his/her treasure hoard.


I took to Blyton pretty late in the day. So I didn't have any acquaintance with The Faraway Tree or with Noddy. It was the stories about children aged around 9 to 14 that charmed me the most.


The children in the Five Find-Outers, Secret Seven, Famous Five etc had a raucously exciting life. Together they explored deserted islands, hidden cottages, ruined castles and underground tunnels.They would carry packed lunches and set out on their adventures, and exciting and exhilarating things always happened to them.


The characters in each series were different, but the basic premise was the same: islands to explore, solve mysteries, even crimes. They got into trouble, of course, but they managed to get out of it using their intelligence, common sense and wit.


I longed to be part of a group like that. When I tried to recruit my older brother into a group of my own, he told me to get real and grow up. He said real life wasn’t like that. At that time I was greatly disappointed. Since then I’ve come to realise that real life is a much larger adventure. Sadly, packed lunches aren’t always a part of the deal.


My desire for adventure was not thwarted by his refusal to join me. So I tried to talk my childhood friends into being a part of a group that boldly went out in search of adventure. Not being voracious readers of Blyton, they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. In fact, quite a few had never even heard of Blyton.


When I explained the whole concept to them, I had the satisfaction of seeing their eyes brimming with suppressed excitement. I smiled like one of those Happy Buddhas, at a task well begun. But it was not to be.


It seemed that my friends had managed to get hold of the wrong end of the adventure. Considerable vehemence was expended on the contents of the packed lunches. Traditional Indian cuisines are rich with varieties of gravies, dals, pulaos and biryanis, one-pot meals, bhajis, rotis of all kinds, milk-based desserts and sweetmeats. Not the sort of thing that one can carry around, certainly not on an adventure. 


Having read one Enid Blyton too many, I was fixated on the lunches she described. But none of my playmates had any idea what muffins and scones were. I had heard of them, but only because I had read about them. I had no idea what they looked like.


Mercifully, I knew some of of my friends were strictly vegetarian so I didn’t bring up the subject of ham rolls. Or of ginger beer, for that matter.


One of my friends, who hailed from the state of Andhra Pradesh, said her mother would never let her leave without idlis, dosas and chutney. Another friend from Gujarat said theplas and chunda were a hardy food that feared no spoilage.


The noise around the subject of meals to be carried with us had taken so long to be resolved that I didn’t quite have it in me to introduce the subject of a password to be resorted to in moments of difficulty. Or a secret badge and a headquarters where we would meet, a la the Secret Seven.



I also longed to join a boarding school. Mallory Towers was just so much fun. Since we were generally well-behaved children, my parents never felt the need to threaten to send us to boarding school. Since they weren't bringing up the subject themselves, I once told my Dad that I'd like to go to Mallory Towers. He told me that boarding schools weren't as much fun as they seemed to appear to me. That there would be strict regimentation, and that I would have to fend for myself, and pick up after myself etc. 


I told him that I didn't want to go to any boarding school. Only Mallory Towers for me. I also insisted that Mallory Towers was different from all other Indian boarding schools. I wanted to play lacrosse, and ride horses and engage in midnight feasts, and learn the piano.


Today I wonder if any other children's writer has fired the imagination of little children as much as Blyton did. JK Rowling has breathed life into the world of magic with her six Harry Potter books and the movies. But do kids these days want to join Hogwarts and become wizards?


Sigh! Maybe we were just more naive back then.





(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)




If you like my writing, consider heading to the top-right corner of this page and clicking on LIKE to get notifications about new posts.








Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Thinner: the curse undone


Thinner.

One word – A curse.

Thinner is a novel by Stephen King. It is the story of Billy Halleck, an overweight and arrogant lawyer. In a moment of distraction while driving, Halleck hits and kills an elderly woman on the street. He manages to get away thanks to his connections. But he cannot get away from the revenge of the old gypsy whose daughter he killed. The old man curses Halleck with just one word, “Thinner.” And then begins the creepy nightmare as Halleck begins to lose weight, little by little, until he comes dangerously close to death. Even as the clock begins to count down to his death, he must find the old gypsy and get him to reverse the curse.



Born chubby and having been pleasantly plump, as they say, throughout my growing years, I nevertheless managed to be slim for most of my adult life. When some friends of mine asked me how I could have such a healthy appetite (I was raised to finish whatever was on the plate) and yet remain trim when they managed to put on weight just by glancing at an ice cream or a slice of cake, I used to laugh. I’d accept the compliments of course, even though they weren’t always meant to be so. But I had no explanation really for why things were as they were. I could sense their frustration at not being able to lose weight. At having to gym, diet and crash diet, and look away from the desserts in restaurants, while it seemed as though I was blessed beyond compare without any effort on my part.


Bending low under the weight of the undercurrents of resentment I sensed, I would apologetically try to talk my way out of the situation, hoping words like metabolism and catabolism would rescue me. Then one day, I read King’s book. Overnight, I had an answer that would amuse my interrogators and diffuse the tension around the issue of weight. I would recount the plot synopsis of the book, and surmise that perhaps I too had been cursed to retain a certain weight, no matter what I did.


Of course, at 45 kg, I was underweight, and concerned friends would advise me to put on a few kilos. I would remind them that just as losing weight was a big challenge for them, gaining it was difficult for me.


Somewhere along the way, I managed to hit 50 kg. I retained the weight even after I got married. I ballooned to 65 kg during my first pregnancy, but managed to bounce right back to 50 kg after La Niña was born. Three years later, I became pregnant again. Losing the pregnancy weight wasn’t so easy this time. I didn’t need the scales to tell me that. The mirror spoke loud and clear.


When I dared to stand on the weighing scale, a few six months after El Niño was born, my fingers trying to shield my eyes from the ghastly shock I was in for, I was relieved to see the digital scale read 52. I was happy. Not happy as in happy, but happy as in as-happy-as-could-be. 


The birth of two children was bound to change the topography of my body, I reasoned. It could have been a lot worse. As it is, at 52 kg, I could still fit into my old clothes. Those that were loose accommodated the new me without a grunt. Those that were close fitting and well tailored in the good old days now required more than a little stress and strain. Wearing them also put into sharp focus an unsightly paunch, and I regretfully folded those clothes and put them in a corner of my cupboard.


In a recent exercise of spring cleaning, I gave away a lot of my wardrobe. But those old clothes of mine, reminders of a time when I was young and slim, and the closest I’ve ever had to what they call a washboard stomach, those I couldn’t bring myself to give away. I almost felt as if giving those up would mean never becoming thin again. Hope refused to shrivel up.


52… I sighed. 


Was 52 so bad? After all, mothers had to look as if they were mothers. They had to look motherly, matronly.


52 is the new 50, I told myself. 


I also never stood on a weighing scale again. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Between looking after the kids and working full-time, I just never found time for this activity. In any case, I saw myself in the mirror every day. If there was any change, I’d see it for myself, wouldn’t I?


The weight issue was dispelled to the unreachable recesses of my mind, not unlike my slim and trendy clothes that occupied the far corners of my cupboard.


So well had I buried the issue that when I went shopping for formal shirts for myself some weeks later, I unthinkingly picked some S-for-Small shirts off the rack and went into the trial room. Suddenly I began to sweat and heave as I tried on the shirts. The puffed sleeves got stuck around the elbow, and when I huffed and puffed and pulled them on, the buttons wouldn’t fit.


What horrible quality control! 


I came out and told the Husband, “This country has no measurement standards whatsoever. Looks like this brand has revised its idea of Small.”


The Husband appraised me and said, “Yes, these clothing manufacturers are like that. Why don’t you try Large?” I glared at him. He quickly explained, “I’m sure they’ve messed up the Mediums too.”


Before I knew it, I was buying Ls. 


Some months later, we went shopping to another shop. I picked some T-shirts in size L, with a twinge of regret, and headed to the trial room. But it seemed as if I was doomed to wear new clothes by the sweat of my brow. I came out shamefacedly, and picked up an XL instead. 


Going home, I dug out my old treasures and hugged them. I wasn’t naïve enough to blame the clothing manufacturers this time. Like it or not, I was on an expansion spree. 


Last Thursday, I checked my weight again. 57, it said. 


After all those years of joking about being cursed to be Thin, had someone put the opposite curse on me? 


But the shock died soon enough. I now realize the truth.


I have been cursed.

  • By wrong eating habits
  • By my tendency to gobble up filling and high-calorie but nutritionally empty and unwholesome food at work
  • By a sedentary lifestyle spent in front of the computer all day, with almost no form of exercise 
  • By a huge drop in the amount of water I drink while at work. From drinking almost 1½ litres of water every day, I now barely manage to drink 500 ml. 

And to think I insist on my kids eating healthy. 


It isn’t vanity alone that is pressuring me to lose weight. It is also the desire to live a healthy lifestyle, and practice what I preach to the kids. I’m not about to starve myself to become a Size 0. But I’m also going to stop treating my stomach like a waste paper basket. And I’m going to try to eat only when I’m hungry. Not when I’m bored, or frustrated, or just feel like eating.


I don’t hate this slightly-overweight me. I’m not obsessed with being skinny. I just want to be healthy again.



In King’s novel, the gypsy tells Halleck that the curse cannot be reversed. It can only be passed on.

Fortunately, the curse put on me by my bad habits can be reversed.

Here’s to wearing that old dress again. 

Wish me luck, would you?





(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)




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Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: THE ILLICIT HAPPINESS OF OTHER PEOPLE



Title: The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Author: Manu Joseph
Publisher: WW Norton & Co
Pages: 336








Manu Joseph, author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, succeeds in creating conflict and grabbing your attention with his opening line itself, when he says, ‘Ousep Chacko, according to Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.’ Who could resist an opening line like that?


And so we get sucked into the very ordinary, shame- and poverty-ridden lives of the Chackos, journalist father Ousep, housewife mother Mariamma and younger son Thoma. Before long, we become aware that the family is incomplete, that the family will never be complete again. Because 17-year-old Unni, the pride of his father and the joy and confidante of his mother, when she isn’t talking to the walls, has fallen head first from the balcony of their third floor flat.

When the novel begins, we meet the Chackos three years after the death of Unni. Ousep has just received a package containing the last cartoon that his son made. The package re-ignites his search for answers to the mystery of why his son died.

While Mariamma resigns herself to life, or a pretence of it, Ousep is unable to do so. He cannot bring himself to go on with his life until he figures out the reason for his suicide. In order to do so, he relentlessly tracks down every friend and acquaintance of his son, to see what they knew of him and to piece his life together and figure out what prompted him to take this extreme step.

Slowly we come to know Unni through the eyes of his friends, neighbours, classmates, the members of a cartooning society, Mythili, a beautiful girl who was friends with both Unni and Thoma, a sadistic teacher, and most of all, through his comics. We come to know of a boy who should not have died, a brilliance that ought to have continued to illuminate.

For the major part, Unni seems like a great guy, as seen through the eyes of his classmates and the boys he used to hang around with. Halfway through the story, however, Balki, a genius and friend of Unni, reveals his memories of Unni and a distinctly darker picture of Unni emerges. A 15-year-old boy who wandered the streets late at night to see the underbelly of Madras, sometimes returning home only at dawn. A mere boy of 15. The age of innocence and of knowing. The age of coming to know.

It gives one an unsettled feeling, as layers emerge to reveal facets of Unni that might not seem so appealing in broad daylight and to people of a middle-class mindset. Do I belong to that mindset? Unni does and yet he doesn’t.

Unlike in novels and films, where witnesses being questioned always reveal valuable information that serves to lift the curtain on a secret, here the many people that Ousep interviews only remember random bits of information that are trivial in themselves and serve no purpose when considered as a whole.

As Ousep’s investigation goes on, it becomes clear that the Chackos are no longer a welcome part of the housing complex in which they reside. The father’s drunkenness, the mother’s insanity and the family’s poverty have done it. And then Unni’s suicide.

The story is set in 1990, a time in which Mikhail Gorbachev was elected the executive president of the Soviet Union. Words like perestroika, GATT take us straight back into the 1990s.

Joseph is a great observer and here he captures the nuances that make us smile expansively. The scooter drivers sitting at the edge of the front seat, for example.

His descriptions make us think of everyday things that we take for granted, stuff that does not merit any attention from our conscious minds. Ordinariness of life filled with pressure cooker whistles and school going children and husbands leaving for work every morning. Children memorizing their lessons. All staid and commonplace.

It is the turns of phrases that are the most interesting, that invite you to go back and read a sentence or a paragraph over and over again. ‘The past of an old man.’ ‘The good boy hairstyle.’ ‘How strong the legs of dumb parents, how strong.

The milieu of the Malayali Catholic family is unmistakable. But Joseph never gives us a description of the three living Chackos. The only description we get is that of Unni.

The writing it was that I found most refreshing, shorn of all pretensions to literariness. And yet there were times, so many of them, when I read a sentence more than once.
The narrative does not follow a linear style. So we zigzag our way through the lives of Ousep and Mariamma and reach the past and go back and forth time and again. The backgrounds of the grieving parents help us to understand why they have become the kind of people they are.

For the most part, the novel is dark, understandably so considering that it is a bereaved father’s search for the reasons behind his son’s suicide. But when the sub-plot introduces Thoma, the story becomes truly comical, causing you to laugh out loud. This is a dark book with so many shades of lightness in it.

Joseph paints a vivid picture of the ordinariness of life, of the inevitable sameness of our behaviour, and how we treat death, others’ deaths, others’ sorrow as a spectacle.

Bearing the stamp of reality, it is hard to imagine this story as having a beginning, a middle or an end. Characters casually walk across these pages like unimportant side-actors who must speak their lines and disappear. And above it all, the voice of the omniscient narrator, as he watches over and recounts the life and times of the Chackos with an eye that is at once indulgent and satiric.

Eventually, Ousep does discover the reason why his son decided to kill himself. But the resolution of the mystery doesn’t come until the very end. A time, when we, like Ousep, are thoroughly exhausted by the dead ends that plague the investigation. We begin to feel for this alcoholic father and this crazy mother who resent the illicit happiness of other people.

The end leaves you more than a little unsettled. The resolution of the question that has haunted Ousep brings closure, but not of the soothing kind. It almost made me want to plod through the book again.



(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)








Thursday, October 10, 2013

Book Review: FOREVER FRIDAY









Forever Friday is the story of an old-worldly romance, of complete devotion and sentiment of a kind that is seldom seen in this day and age.


Adam Colby, a 38-year-old estate sale businessman, finds a collection of more than a thousand colourful postcards, all with a romantic poem on them, hidden in a photo album at the home of Gabe and Huck Alexander. He learns that the postcards had been sent by Gabe to his wife every Friday over the course of their 60-year-long marriage. A divorced man, Colby begins to wonder how any couple could have sustained love for so long.

He also learns that the Alexanders never meant their Friday postcards to ever be seen by strange eyes. But Colby is intrigued, and must know more. After being married for 12 years, Colby was heartbroken when his wife, Haley, told him that there was somebody else in her life and that that she wanted out. Colby hopes that through a reading of the postcards he will get a glimpse of where he and Haley went wrong. 


But a mere reading of the poems leaves him no closer to understanding the life story of the couple. In order to make sense of the poems, Colby attempts to get an insight into the Alexanders’ extraordinary story by talking to various people, including a neighbor, some relatives of the couple and Yevette, the daughter of Priscilla, their housekeeper of 26 years. 

Colby’s journey towards understanding the mystery of how the Alexanders could have stayed so committed to each other for 60 years is greatly hastened by Yevette, who has always been treated by the Alexanders as a granddaughter. Yevette has learned of their story from Huck herself.

Through Colby’s conversations with Yevette, we come to know about the romance that hinges on the Friday postcards. Yevette reveals that when Gabe came to know that the husband of a waitress who worked at the diner where he ate had let her know that he was leaving her through a postcard, he recalled a letter that his father had written to his mother. It contained a two-line poem which his mother had treasured all her life. There and then Gabe made the decision that he would never let an opportunity go by to let his wife know how he felt about her.

We also come to know of Huck’s early years with her large family, her relationship with her mother and with her childhood friend-turned-fiance-turned-ex-fiance. Their individual stories, told in third person, are told separately, then merged to form one single thread after their marriage.

Presiding over their life is Mister Jack, a vagrant drifter who has a real/imaginary conversation with the ten-year-old Huck and who seemingly appears at the most crucial moments of her life to save her, acquiring in her eyes, the aura of a guardian angel.

I liked the character of Pearl for picking the name Huck at the age of seven and for insisting that “slavery, thank goodness, had ended during the last century.” That line sets the stage for our understanding of the kind of person that she was. I also liked Gabe for the large-hearted, benevolent, inherently good man he was.

Through the course of their romance, which does not end with Gabe’s death after 60 years of marriage, Lewis takes us on a roller coaster ride with Huck and Gabe as they navigate the tricky terrain that is marriage, experiencing the same obstacles that other couples do, but fighting them with a firm devotion to each other, faith in God and mutual respect. They are also driven by a fierce determination not to let the Long Division, Gabe’s theory of how the most loving couples end up drifting apart because shared interests give way to singly held ones, driving them away from each other.

I commend Lewis for writing such a sweet story about love, marriage and commitment. He has been able to capture the excitement of a newlywed couple. This is not a relationship in which partners endure each other for the sake of doing time. The only weak link in the story is that while Lewis puts his heart and soul into the characters and the story of the Alexanders, the characters of Colby and Yevette, and the hint of the beginning of their relationship, supposedly the second part of the story, comes across as flat and insipid in comparison.

The simmering feelings between Colby and Yevette never stand out very strongly, nor is it completely evident how Colby intends to apply the lessons he has learned from the older couple’s history to his next relationship, should he have a second chance.

Read this book for the story of Pearl and Gabe. This is romance, fresh, pure, unrestrained. That which remains alive because somebody keeps stoking the fire. Lewis give us the secret of a happily ever after in every sense of the word, and while he is at it, he also lets out the secret for baking moist cakes. Bonus points for the pretty book cover, with the sepia toned images of the postcards.

The descriptions of the lives and times of the Alexanders are reminiscent of the traditions of America’s best writers, and evoke the railroads, malls and hotels that dot the economy and industry of America.


This is a charming story and worth reading all the way. Now can someone tell me how I can get the Husband to read it?





I received a copy of Forever Friday for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.


(This post has been written for the Ultimate Blog Challenge, October 2013.)







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