Thursday, June 30, 2016

In praise of the hills

Living in a city that is lined by hills that you see anywhere you go, it is natural to come to think of them as home. It was brought home to me when, a few months into this country, we were driving back from San Francisco, and the moment these hills came into view, even though we were miles away from home, I felt, "We're home." And it was then that I realized how much these hills have become  a part of me -- one of those things I know I'll miss when we leave.

For most of the year, these hills are full of grass that is yellow or brown or golden depending on the season or the time of the day. They wave in the breeze, and the hills look stunning against the bright blue sky.

But come winter, and the hills start turning green. It is a hazy green at first, something like moss on the ground just after a rain.

And then they become rich green, a verdant, pure colour that makes the heart skip a beat. So beautiful that sometimes I cannot trust myself to drive on the freeway that meanders through these hills. So beautiful, that several times, I have asked S to just take the car and drive a couple of miles on the freeway just so that I can sit in the passenger seat and look at the hills and absorb as much of the beauty as I can without having to worry about changing lanes or bother about speed limits.

And just as you think it cannot get any more beautiful, winter comes to an end, the rains cease, and the hills start looking like clothes that have been out in the sun too long. They fade, ever so slightly at first, making you wonder if your eyes are just playing tricks on you. And as the jackets and woollen socks come off, and your clothes get lighter, the hills become lighter, but they make up by pushing up thousands of wild flowers of various hues.

And then, before you know it, the sun bleaches the grass and you are left with shades of yellow, green and brown.

But you know that it is just a matter of days before it is gone and the long months of dry brown and yellow grass is back.

And you look back with fondness at that dark green of winter and wonder how you will get through the dreary summer months of beige, and yet, when the hills are yellow and brown again, the waves of yellow grass rippling in the wind make your heart lighter again, and you think -- I'll be just fine.

Monday, June 27, 2016


This weekend, we'd been to Sonoma. We went to 2-3 wineries, and to downtown Sonoma, which is historically interesting and significant. General Vallejo's garrison was here, and the Sonoma barracks, which is an adobe structure, is still standing, and has several rooms full of museum displays that speak of the history of the place.  A couple of links here and here

A volunteer dressed as a Mexican soldier from the early 1850s showed us how to fire a musket. As he described the parts of the musket and explained how to load it with gunpowder, I saw that within 5 minutes, he had used about 4-5 terms that have come into regular English usage - "lock, stock and barrel." "Don't go to barrel with your gun half-cocked," etc. And did you know what a ramrod is?I certainly hadn't thought about it -- It is a rod used to ram the gunpowder down the barrel of the musket! And the volunteer also told us that a good soldier would be able to fire three shots a minute. Just three shots!

Some pics:
Grapes in a vineyard

Can you spot the frog?

The historic Toscano hotel, Sonoma. This place
was right out of a Western movie.

Servants' quarters, early 1800s

The kitchens, early 1800s

Sunday, June 26, 2016

How to explain to children about people being gay

In the wake of the Orlando shooting incident, I'm reading a lot about people being worried about how to "explain" to their children about people being gay. Just wanted to tell you how it came about in our house.

Puttachi had been asking to know who the voice of Dory was (this was about 2-3 years ago) and so I pulled up Ellen DeGeneres on Wikipedia. There was a picture of her with Portia De Rossi.

Puttachi: Who is this?
Me: She is Ellen's wife.
Puttachi: What do you mean, wife? Ellen is also a girl.
Me: Yes, usually, women get married to men, but there are some women who like women, and get married to them. 
She: And are there men who like other men and marry them?
Me: Yes.
She: Oh, okay.

That was IT. "Oh Okay."

I think children can understand and accept anything. Later on, of course, she raised other questions, about what they'll do if they want babies, etc., but I dealt with her questions one by one, as I do other "non-problematic" questions. And she is totally fine with the whole concept.

So I do think that you shouldn't worry about what children will think.

While on this subject, I must tell you about this fabulous, uplifting movie, called Pride, based on true events. It has outstanding performances. I recommend it highly.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

One year!

It has been a year since we arrived at these shores. It has been a good year. New friends, new experiences, and new thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Largely, the year has been good, barring some incidents beyond our control that I wish had rather not happened. Perhaps I'll talk about them someday when the time is right.

I have missed several little things about India, here and there, a little bit of this and a tiny bit of that, but on the whole, I haven't felt any searing pain of separation. Yet.

Here are a few things I'm grateful for, in this new land:

- My sister and her family, who live close by, but not close enough ;) Immensely pleased that I'm getting to know my niece first hand, and not through pictures and FaceTime. Such a warm feeling to see Puttachi and my niece play together.
- Great family friends.
- Puttachi's best friend here, who lives in our complex. I cannot speak enough of the two of them. Such good friends, and they complement each other so well.
- Puttachi's school and teachers and the education system - I was worried about how she'll do; it turned out that I worried needlessly.
- The predictability of traffic  - The pleasure of knowing that I can set out from home at 12, drive 8 miles into town, finish some chores, get a haircut, spend quality time at the library and drive back 8 miles to be home in time to receive Puttachi's school bus at 3.
- A corollary to the above - no place is too far. i.e. You don't avoid going to places just because the traffic scares you. That is a kind of freedom, for someone from Bangalore. [There are other kinds of freedom that this place might lack, but this is a post about what I'm grateful for, remember?]
- The fruits - New fruits, new favourites.
- Baked goods - I love baked things, and there is just so much choice here.
- The location of this place - just a couple of hours' drive can take you to such a variety of places - the beach, the mountains, the woods, lakes, parks, museums, San Francisco... add another hour or two, and the choice becomes even larger.
- The hills that surround this area - their constant presence -- sometimes I orient myself with reference to them. The way they look in the changing light of the day. The way they change colours with the season.

It is true that every place you live in becomes a part of you, and you're going to miss it when you leave.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Celebrity status - a case of mistaken identity

Back when I was a student of MTech, I'd been to an industry to conduct an energy audit, as part of a project that I was doing. I was alone that day. After I finished the audit, I took a bus back to the city centre (Trichy, in Tamilnadu) after which I needed to take another bus back to my hostel. But my hostel was an hour away by bus, and it was already 2 pm. I knew that the mess would be closed by the time I reached, and so I decided to have my lunch at a restaurant in the city.

I chose one that looked decent, and stepped in. Let me stop for a moment and tell you what I looked like (you'll know why later). I was just about 22-23 years old. I was tired, my short hair more unruly than usual, as I'd been crouching and crawling around industry equipment. I wore an extremely simple and ordinary cotton salwar kurta without a dupatta, but it was well-fitting and suited me. I had a file in my hand, and a purse, I guess (though for the life of me, I can't remember what kind of purse I used in those days. Anyway, it would have been a handloom cloth purse or something ordinary like that.)

So, I entered the restaurant, and found a table. There were very few diners, as this is a part of India where they have early lunches. And all the diners were male. But again, this is a comparatively safe city, so I wasn't uncomfortable.

A few seconds later, I heard hurried whispering among two of the waiters, and then the manager arrived. They all spoke, looking over at me, and then the manager came to me, and asked me to follow him to a "better" table. I said it was okay, but he insisted, and so I went, and it was indeed a nicer table, set in a recess, for two. And then there was a flurry, as the waiters fell over each other to hand me a menu, and give me water, etc. I had no idea what was going on, but was too hungry to think. And I wasn't worried or anything, they all looked decent and not the least shady.

I ordered a plate meal, and it arrived. The manager hovered over me as I ate, asking me if everything was alright. By the way, all the conversation was in Tamil, and I answered to the best of my ability, and it was obvious that I didn't know Tamil that well. If I remember right, they also served me a complimentary item - a sweet or a fruit juice, that wasn't part of the meal.

After I finished, and paid the bill, the manager came over again, smiling and shuffling. And then he asked me in Tamil, "You are the chairman of DM foods, correct?" [I don't remember whether it was actually DM. It was an acronym, one I hadn't heard of.]

I said, "What?"

He repeated his question.

"Chairman?" I said, and shook my head, frowning in confusion and laughing, all together.

And then he also frowned, and then he also laughed.

And then I left.

I have absolutely no idea what had just happened. He had obviously thought I was some food industry bigwig and was being attentive. But - from which angle did I look like a bigwig?

If it had been the age of Google and smartphones, I would have whipped out my phone immediately and searched for DM foods chairman. But then, if it had been the age of Google and smartphones, the manager would have made that search too to confirm that I was who he thought I was, before showering attention and complimentary food upon me!

This is one of my regrets - that I'd stopped to find out more and see who it was that he had confused me for!

Book Pact - 51 to 60

51/100 Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary.
I've heard a lot of Beverly Cleary, but hadn't read her work. I picked up a couple of her books for Puttachi from the library, after which I spotted this one on the shelf marked "Newbery Medal winners" and so picked this one up too.
Leigh Botts is trying to deal with his parents' divorce, and someone stealing his lunch at school, and he gets his life under control through the letters he writes to his favourite author Mr. Henshaw. This book brings out the greyness in human beings very well. Vert sensitive. I recommend it.

52/100 The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge
Faith Sunderley is a 14-year-old girl whose father is a naturalist, and she wants to be one too, back in a time when girls and women were just supposed to be "good", not smart, and definitely not clever. She craves for her father's attention and approval, but when her father dies mysteriously, with several questions left unanswered, Faith takes it upon herself to get behind the mystery. And she does it with the help of a tree that bears fruit when it is fed with lies. And this fruit contains answers to your questions. A beautiful, layered story. Reminded me of Calpurnia Tate, which I enjoyed a lot too, about a young girl in the nineteenth century who wants to be a naturalist against all odds. But this one is darker.

53/100 Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
One of those books that have to be experienced, not read. This is a book that pulsates with life. It is a suspense thriller set in the Victorian era, featuring two young girls from different backgrounds. It is full of dizzying twists and turns. The first twist in the tale left me literally breathless, and the words danced around until I took some deep breaths. So satisfying!

54/100 Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty.
Well, meh. Puttachi liked it and asked me to read it. I can see why she found it exciting, and the idea is, yeah, interesting. But the writing and the treatment left me feeling, "ok, whatever".

When I was helping Puttachi's teacher pack away books at the end of the school year, she pointed out some books and recommended them to me. Of course, I got them from the library immediately. The next three books are among those.

55/100 Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
A little gem of a book, based on a true story. Caleb and Anna's father puts in an ad in the paper for a wife for himself and a mother for them; and Sarah, who is plain and tall, answers the call. The book is an exquisite study in subtle emotions and longings, fear of abandonment. It is very rare that I read a book twice, that too immediately after the first read, but this one demanded it.
I believe it is the first of a series. I'll look up the others too.

56/100 Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
This is the amazing and beautifully written story of a young girl who is left alone on an island just off the coast of California, for many years. Basically, a female Robinson Crusoe. It is based on a true story - the actual woman was finally rescued after 20  years by missionaries from Santa Barbara, and was known as Juana Maria or the Lost Lady of San Nicholas (the name of the island). Unfortunately, there was nobody alive who knew the language she spoke (isn't that searingly sad?) so they could only guess at her story. But Scott O'Dell has done a magnificent job with the story. Strength and serenity shines through the pages.

57/100 My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett.
A delightful, whimsical book of a little boy who goes to strange lands to rescue a dragon he's never seen.

58/100 The Great Cake Mystery - Precious Ramotswe's First Case by Alexander McCall Smith
I had no idea this book existed - imagine my surprise when I found it at the library. Written for young readers, it is a case that Mma Ramotswe solved when she was a young girl. His trademark style, a very short book. But a good introduction to the series. And a good read for Mma Ramotswe fans. Puttachi liked it too, and is thinking up stories from the POVs of the characters in the book

59/100 Akimbo and the Elephants by Alexander McCall Smith
I had no idea this author has written so much for kids. This one was an exciting story of how a young boy catches elephant poachers. There are several Akimbo books. Puttachi loved this one, wants to read the others in the series.

60/100 Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
Picked it up for the first essay "Santaland Diaries" that was recommended to me - the experiences of an "elf" at Macy's, during Christmas. It is very interesting, and funny and sad at the same time. The other essays are darkly funny, almost crazy. LOL at places.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Here we go again!

I've been very lax with regard to my blog, and that's ironic because I have so much to say. I know it's been a long time since I did a-post-a-day on my blog, and that should ideally be the right way to go about it, to kick myself into action. But I've been dithering about even that for several weeks now.

But now that the anniversary of our move is just a couple of days away (so soon!) -- I realize that there is so much to say, and there are many observations that I've made about this new home of mine that I haven't written down for myself to read after a few years. So, perhaps not a post a day, but close enough - that's going to be my target.

On another note, I wonder how many such "I'm going to blog regularly" posts there are on my blog!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Secret Garden

I'm very pleased to announce the release of my latest book for children, The Secret Garden.

Published by Nature Science Initiative, Dehra Dun, it is a book about the Peepal tree (which is a Ficus tree), its inhabitants, and the fascinating story of the relationship between the Ficus tree and the Fig Wasp.  It is aimed at children between the ages of 8 to 14.

The book is a product of a collaboration between several people.  I "translated" the science produced by many researchers, including Soumya Prasad, Geetha Ramaswami, Mahua Ghara, Anusha Krishnan, Raman Kumar. Sartaj Ghuman contributed illustrations.

The superb cover and many of the cartoons in the book, are by the brilliant Rohan Chakravarty of Green Humour, and some photographs are by Pradip Krishen (of Trees of Delhi fame).

The beautiful layout and some pictures and illustrations are by Anita Varma of Graphic Alley, who's done a fantastic job with it.

It is truly a fabulous book and I'm proud to be associated with it.

You can order the book by emailing

The book was released in Dehra Dun, during a Peepal Walk organized by Been There, Doon That? with Dr. Soumya Prasad of Nature Science Initiative, who is an ecologist and my childhood friend.

A report of the walk and the book release in the Hindustan Times:

Rains - A story

This is a story that I wrote 4-5 years back. I dusted it off and sent it to Spark for the "Rains" theme.

Read it here.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Book Pact - 41 to 50

41/100 The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I saw a lot written about this book, and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Crime thriller. I identified with it because I'm also the kind who sits on a train and imagines stories about the people living in the houses that I pass. This book has some seriously gripping storytelling. I read it at breakneck speed. But it kind of let me down. Right from the beginning, it was fairly obvious to me who did it. So I read on, waiting and waiting for the twist to turn everything topsy-turvy and make me draw a sharp intake of breath. But guess what, it was whoever I thought it was all along. So at the end of it, I'm like, meh !
Gone Girl, which this book reminded me of, was more satisfying for me, with its evil and unexpected twists and turns.

42/100 The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
Yeah, I'm in the phase of "Let's see what all the fuss is about." For this book, my verdict - a Thumbs Up. But then I would advocate any book that lies quietly on the table, exerting an intense magnetic pull on me when I'm forced to leave it aside while I attend to my duties in the Realm of Reality.
Ok, back to the book, yeah it is about a chillingly satisfying (for the reader) secret that affects the lives and worlds of many other families. And the characters -- I want to pound the floor in frustration while I say this -- I want to learn to create characters like these that are so real that I feel that I can reach out and touch them. Even though I've never felt many of the emotions in the book, I get the feeling that yes, this is exactly how I would feel if I were in that situation.

43/100 East Wind: West Wind by Pearl S Buck
This is the story of a young Chinese woman who has been brought up in the ancient ways (bound feet, subservience to men, the works) and who is married to a man who has studied western medicine and wants her to unbind her feet and wants to treat her as his equal (the horror!!) By the time she gets adjusted to those ideas, the winds of change blow even harder when her brother, who also goes to the west to study, brings home an American wife. I'm quite sure Indian lives and sensibilities were similarly torn asunder when the first few people brought home white spouses.
On one hand, the novel gives you an intimate look into the old Chinese home and customs. On the other hand, it is an exquisite study of points of view. How we view "others" and the disbelief about how "they" view us.
The last 50-70 pages dragged a bit, but I'd recommend it anyway.

44/100 Holes by Louis Sachar
Puttachi had placed a Wayside series book on hold at the library, but I couldn't pick it up on time. So on my next visit to the library, I went to the Sachar section to see if I could find some other book in the series. I didn't, but I found Holes, which had been recommended to me, but I had kind of placed it on hold (in my head) but since I was there anyway, I picked it up.
This is another of those books that remind me that in spite of the number of books I've read so far, I actually ain't read nothin' yet. Holes is the story of boys in a juvenile detention facility who have to dig holes every day. Why? We come to know, little by little, each piece of the big puzzle unveiled nonchalantly but oh-so-effectively until you're left gasping for breath (figuratively). The movie is on Netflix too, and I guess I'll watch it sometime. I don't think it is quite suitable for Puttachi yet, neither the book, nor the movie.

45/100 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
What a book! Set in Germany-occupied Paris of WW2. Short, crisp sentences. In the present tense. Each sentence feels like it has been crafted with care, weighed, and then written down. Follows the stories of two main characters. Their storylines meet, oh-so-briefly, but it is like every step of each one's story is leading inexorably to their meeting.
How the author handles the POV of the girl who cannot see is a lesson in writing. How each sound and touch is highlighted, and we are made to "see" what she is "seeing." Wow.
On the lighter side, I was blow away by a huge coincidence. Both this book and the previous one I read, Holes by Louis Sachar, feature:
A can of peaches in syrup,
-- Which is the last bit of food available
-- Tinned by a woman who is now dead
-- Shared by two people
-- One of whom has come to rescue the other
-- Both of whom are starving and thirsty
-- The tin is with the one who is being rescued
What are the odds?

46/100 The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
I'd read Eat Pray Love by this author just because everybody was talking about it, and I remember not being too impressed. However, I enjoyed the author's TED talk on Genius. This book was being recommended by a lot of people, and so I read it, and am glad I did. I'm glad I didn't dismiss the author just because of one book. The Signature of All Things is one of those sweeping sagas that stretches across decades, a period novel, a book full of new facts and information, basically, the kind I am partial to. Besides, there is this strong (literally) female protagonist, Alma Whittaker, who is scientific and curious and clever and brave and human, once again, the kind that I'm partial to. I'm in awe of authors who write books like this.

47/100 Princess (The Puppy Place series) by Ellen Miles.
Puttachi always finds her way to puppy books, and this is her recent discovery, about a family that fosters puppies, and obviously she insisted that I read "at least one" in the series, and I did.

48/100 Five Get Into a Fix (Famous Five series) by Enid Blyton
I have no explanation for why I read this. Call it nostalgia. And it was just lying around. And I didn't have anything else to read.

49/100 Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
I've been reading this book for the past ten months, I think. As a filler between two books. Or if the book I was currently reading was too large to carry in my handbag, I took this book along when I went out, and read snatches of it here and there. Finally I finished it yesterday. It is just like any other of Bryson's books, and I think you already know how I feel about his brand of humour (I like it). Only he can be crazy enough to waddle to the nooks and corners of a small Island (the UK) and make strange observations and experience the weirdest things and express it all in a way that, if it doesn't make you snort your coffee out of your nostrils, makes you grin non-stop without your knowledge, making you wonder later why your cheeks are aching.

50/100 Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
I read this aloud to Puttachi. It was slow at first, as both of us tried to adjust to this entirely new kind of story and language. The author makes absolutely no effort to dumb it down for children, in terms of language/slang/technology/action. I had to stop after nearly every sentence and explain a slang term, or an idiom, or some reference. I nearly gave up, but Puttachi begged me to continue, and then later, it became smoother.
Artemis Fowl is a boy-genius, a criminal mastermind, who kidnaps Captain Holly Short, a fairy, for gold as ransom. And this fairy is not a pretty and delicate, flitting and flying creature -- she is one of the highly-trained, technically-advanced creatures of the underground. It was a very different experience and we enjoyed it.

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