Tuesday, October 24, 2006

It runs in the family.

Flashback: 1981. My parents lived in Germany for about a year. Vegetarianism was a rarity there back then, and the Germans found it difficult to understand why we do not eat meat. They probably could not understand the concept of vegetarianism as a custom.

Some of them even seemed to think that we were vegetarians just because we did not know how to cook meat. As a result, when my parents received dinner invitations from German friends, they had a lot of explaining to do before they accepted the invitation. Then the poor hosts were usually clueless about what to serve my parents - they usually played it safe by serving them half a dozen varieties of cakes and pastries - and sometimes, my parents saw themselves staring at just a pile of boiled rice, or a plate of mashed, salted potatoes.

Anyway, at one such dinner, along with the cakes, the hosts brought out a bowl of off-white chips, and excitedly offered it to my
parents.

Amma: What is it?
Hostess: Just eat it and see, I will tell you what it is later!
Amma and Papa pop the chips into their mouths.
Amma: *gags as a disgusting taste fills her mouth.*
Papa: *Hmmm.... something's fishy*
Both of them swallow with great difficulty, and follow it with glasses of water.
Hostess: So, how did you like it?
Amma: *Putting Indian sensibilities aside*: I didn't like it.
Hostess: *crestfallen* Ohhhhh.
Amma: What is it?
Hostess: Pig skin chips.
Amma: *Oh yuck!*
Papa: *Hmmm.... I knew something was fishy.... errr.. porky...*

Back to the present: 2006. My sister P, after having completed two months in the US as a student, living on just cereals and cheesecake, starts hankering after spicy food. Penniless, and unable to afford eating at Indian restaurants unless somebody treats her, and too busy to cook for herself, she sets out with her flatmate A to Walmart to find something spicy to eat.

Rejecting the regular salted Lays and Pringles, P and A come across a packet of chips with "Hot and spicy" printed on it. They immediately buy a packet and run back home. They make nice hot cups of tea, and sit down comfortably. They open the packs. Smiling and eager, they put a couple of chips in their mouths. It is certainly hot and spicy, and tastes not-too-bad. But some inexplicable instinct makes both P and A stop eating and look at each other. They pick up the packet and read everything written on it. Underneath the tempting words "Hot and Spicy", written in small print, is "Pork skin chips".

Like I said, it runs in the family.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Eight things you didn't know about me!

Bellur tagged me a while ago, to write 8 things about myself. 8 what things - he did not say, so that makes it very difficult!

So I decided to write 8 things about myself which you might not have already known by reading this blog - and which won't reveal too much about me either ;)

So here goes!

1) I was born in Mysore.

2) I have lived most of my life in Bangalore, except for three 1.5 year stints in other places.

3) I have travelled quite a bit around India - I have visited nearly 17 to 18 states, some of them multiple times. But I still feel that I haven't seen anything yet.

4) I have a post-grad degree in Energy Engineering. I have gone up tall structures on ladders, with a yellow helmet on my head, and writing pads and measuring instruments in my hands, to take measurements from huge hot industrial boilers to calculate their efficiency. I have withstood burning heat and gusty winds, to test theories on solar photovoltaic systems and wind pumps.

5) But my job now consists of commuting hours through polluted roads to sit at a desk and code.

6) I have learnt Hindustani classical vocal music for nearly 9 years, and Carnatic classical off and on from my mom who is a singer.

7) The game I love playing most of all is Table Tennis.

8) I probably hold a record for having burst the minimum number of Deepavali crackers in my life (ratio of the total number of crackers burst to the number of years lived).

And on that note - have a safe and happy Deepavali!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Goodbye, Desipundit, and Thank You.

When I discovered the blogosphere more than a year back, I groped around in the dark for quite a while. I could just find very mediocre blogs - ones with lines like "Im goin out wid my frenz 2de 4 kofi". It was frustrating, to say the least. Just as I was about to give up, I stumbled upon Desipundit, and it was like Alladin's treasure trove. I was introduced to a host of interesting blogs - and after that, there was no stopping me. Endless topics, endless discussions - it was a whole new world out there! I became a serious blog-hopper, and very soon, started my own blog.

It was thanks to Desipundit, too, that I got my initial readers. They were kind enough to link to a number of my posts regularly - and readership grew - pretty soon, I had my own blogger community, and I was, and am revelling in it.

Now, I hear that Desipundit is shutting down. Its a pity, really. Desipundit did excellent work with regular filter-blogging. I did wonder frequently how the contributors had that much time and enthusiasm to sustain it, but I was glad they did. Their shutting down is quite a disappointment. I wish they would reconsider - maybe think of handing it over to someone else, or letting the people who can continue, do so. But I understand that they have their reasons, and I guess we should respect that.

Actually, right now, the shutting down of DP might not affect me much, because lately, I find myself relying less and less on it, because
a) I have a very long list of blogs on my feedreader, which I read regularly, and that takes up a lot of my blogging time. So discovering new blogs is not a priority.
b) I am fortunate to already have a dedicated set of very smart, intelligent and informed readers - and what else does a blogger need for inspiration?
But the fact remains that both a and b is largely due to Desipundit - and for that, I am very grateful to them. Special thanks to Neha, Patrix and Ash. I wish Desipundit continues - in some form or the other - because it was a great concept - it will leave quite a void in the blogosphere.

Update: So they are not closing down after all! :)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts - Impressions.

Some time back, Bombay Addict announced a Bad English Competition. I dropped off an inspired entry, and discovered a little later that he had adjudged mine as one of the three best entries. He was also very generous with the prizes - he mailed me a Crossword voucher worth Rs.500. So I hopped over to Crossword and got myself a copy of Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram.

And I read it.

When I read an interesting book, I hate to get halfway through the book. I love the feeling that there is a lot more to read, as yet. The same thing happened to me with this book initially. But around mid-point (the book is nearly 1000 pages long), I suddenly wanted the book to get over. I couldn't take it anymore. All I could think was - if I cannot bear to read this, how could this man have actually experienced all this?

For it is supposedly a true story. I say "supposedly" because I cannot imagine how one person could have done so many things. It seems almost fantastic, and I am inclined to think that half of it is fiction. That might seem unkind to the writer, but remember, this is just my impression.

Just think. Here is a guy, an armed robber and a heroin addict, who is serving a prison sentence in Australia. He escapes from the prison across the front wall in broad daylight, comes to India with a false passport, and lands at Bombay. He falls headlong in love with the city, and makes it his home. He lives in a slum, establishes a free health clinic with his limited knowledge, and joins the Bombay underworld. He also lands in an Indian jail, and experiences a few gruesome months there. He also goes back to heroin for a while, and then gets out of it again. Then he also does a bit part in Bollywood, and even goes to Afghanistan to fight a potentially deadly war with the MUjahideen, starving himself and getting badly frostbitten in the process. In the midst of all this, he manages to learn Hindi and Marathi, fall in love, and make scores of friends and enemies along the way.

What is perhaps, most apparent, is his love for India and Indians. It is fascinating to see the Indian character through the eyes of an unbiased foreigner. What he basically believes is that India is a land of love. As one of his friends in the story puts it, "Love might not have been discovered here, but it was certainly perfected in India........ A billion people living in such close proximity - if it had been any other people - French, Spanish, German, Americans - they would all have killed each other by now. It is love that keeps India this way" (or something to that effect). Thought-provoking bits about the country that we all know so well - makes this novel that much more interesting.

The book has been written very well. Parts of it is almost poetry, which should have been incongruous with the gory descriptions which surround it, but which, strangely, are not. With dollops of philosophy(some of it a little too profound for my taste) and insights into life, and long ramblings about love, this book has it all. What I appreciated the most about his writing is the way he describes his feelings - you can almost feel what he is feeling.

And to think that he had to write this huge bulky story thrice - because prison officials trashed his first two drafts! I don't think I would write this blog post again if I lost it! ;)

So - if you think you can take it, do read this novel. I don't ever skip pages in novels, and the last time I remember doing that is when I read the unabridged version of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations as a young kid. But I did it in this novel. Skipped some pages because it was too stark for me to take. Also, it would do you good to select a time when you are not too depressed or lachrymose!

All in all, an engrossing read. Thank you, Bombay Addict! :)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

I sharpened a pencil.

I started sketching again, true to the promise I had made to myself a few days back. It feels good - the feel of the rough drawing paper, the scratchety-scratch of the pencils on the paper, and the resulting picture - not a work of art, but good enough.

Apart from the many pleasant hours spent in rediscovering this hobby, sketching brought me another unexpected bonus.

One of my pencils needed sharpening, and so I took out my brand new sharpener, and set about sharpening the pencil. A few turns, and the sight of the pencil shavings and lead powder on the sharpener - it was enough to transport me straight back in time to my school days.

I was again a little girl, dressed in the school uniform - a brown pinafore, that unique brown which has no name, and the light brown checked shirt. Black shoes and white socks. Two little hairclips trying unsuccessfully to hold back my thick unruly hair. Sharpening my pencil urgently before the teacher came in, as I had forgotten to sharpen them the previous night. Quickly dumping the pencil shavings in a corner of the drawer, for disposal after class. The drawer, underneath the brown desk - the drawer where I kept my pencilbox.

Pencilboxes. The red Hello Kitty pencilbox which my father had brought from one of his official tours abroad. A prized possession. Then later, a green Mickey Mouse pencil box, which a much admired teacher had presented to a select few of us, for doing well in class. Before that, the magnetic pencilbox - the magnet of which I ruined by dropping the box too many times.

I remembered my bench-mate. Glancing surreptitiously to see if her pencils were sharper than mine. If her book was neater than mine. Drawing a line on the bench to mark boundaries to separate out places, when I was made to sit next to a particularly disliked person.

I remembered my bag, a green, roomy one with pouches where I kept little treasures - a perfumed eraser which couldn't be used because it left black marks on the paper, a little paper with a drawing, a dry leaf - and then the main space in the bag - where the books were neatly arranged, in height order, or in the order of the classes of the day, depending on what order was in vogue in class that week.

I even remembered my lunch bag. An orange bag with a steel triple-decker tiffin box. One box containing chapatis, another containing a delicious kind of curry (each day a different one - my mom is a wizard at that), and the third box containing curds spiced with salt and jeera powder, or chopped bananas in milk and sugar. A prized Milton water bottle that I had won in a Milton "suggest a name" contest. A napkin neatly folded and placed at one side.

I remembered the lunch breaks, where only my best friends got to taste the scrumptious Shruthi's-mother's-curry-of-the-day. Eating up lunch and running out to play for a while before the bell rang. Popping in quickly into my sister's classroom to act the big sister and see if my little sister P was being good and was eating her food, and was not distributing it among everybody, as she so frequently seemed to do.

I remembered my teachers, my classmates, the classes, the notebooks, the text books, the maps on the walls of the classroom, the posters we had made displayed prominently on the boards, the list of homework in our homework diary.

I remembered all this - and much more. Just because I sharpened a pencil.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

From bright to boring.

Back in college, when we first had to use scientific calculators, most of my classmates bought the standard "prescribed model". Since I already had a scientific calculator at home, I did not buy a new one, though mine was a slightly different model. My friends' calculators had the Power On/Off button in the top right hand corner, and mine had the Power On button in the middle row, towards the right.

As it happens so many times, someone always needed a calculator urgently for some reason, and when their own was not within their reach, they would grab the nearest calculator lying around. Whenever anybody took mine, they would not find the Power On button. They would nearly panic and say, "Hey, your calcy doesn't have an On button! Where is it? Where is it?" All this, in spite of the fact that the Power ON button was the sole bright Red button among arrays and arrays of dull grey buttons, with "On" written prominently on it. Not one of them found it by themselves, because they were looking at the Top right hand corner.

Once, I had left this calculator lying somewhere at home. My cousin, barely 10 months old, crawled up to it, sat down, took it in his hands, drew out a small fat finger and pressed the On button, driving me into fits of delighted laughter. The next time anybody asked me where the Power On button was, all I would say was, "If my 10 month old cousin could find it at one go, so can you".

My uncle told me of an incident, where he took his one year old son to an art exhibition. My uncle paused before a painting of "modern art", and all that he could see was a hotchpotch of colours. As he was about to move on, his son suddenly shrugged his shoulders a couple of times, making the gesture he usually made when he wanted to denote a horse. My uncle, looked around, surprised, wondering where his son had spotted a horse, and then, with the image of the horse in mind, he looked at the very same painting he had been looking at all that while. He was startled. He could clearly discern a horse (misshapen, perhaps, but still, clearly a horse) amid that "mess of colours".

Learning: Kids are cleverer than us. (??) well, not exactly. Perhaps it is just that they have more open minds. Their brains are not conditioned. They still have the ability to see what is not always visible. Or they can see the obvious, while we miss it, because we don't expect to see it there.

Question: When, why, and how do we lose this ability that we had as children, and why do we grow up to be the boring one-dimensional people that we are now? I am sure there are many ways that we can again develop that kind of thinking and outlook. But, is there any way we can prevent our children from losing this natural gift?
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