Chai, Chai:Travels In Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off by Bishwanath Ghosh

Anyone who loves traveling by train will be lying if they say they haven't looked forward to the sometimes watery, sometimes milky, but always addictive chai! I have tasted some of the worst chai in trains or at stations, but that doesnt stop me from eagerly looking forward to the call of the chai-wallahs. And this insane, inexplicable love is what made me pick this book up in the first place.

Now over to the book:Have you heard of Itarsi or Guntakal? Most likely you would have, whether you are a train junkie or not.
What is the first word that comes to your mind when someone mentions these places? 9 out of 10 would say "Railway station" and atleast 5 out of 10 would have passed through these junctions (or other such junctions) at one time or the other.
These, and many other such junctions are embedded into our minds since this is where you would have filled water, had oily snacks, stepped out onto the platform to stretch your legs or changed trains, but almost never to get off and go into the town beyond the station. But have you ever wondered what sort of a town/city lay outside the railway stations of these rather famous junctions? If you have a 5 hour wait at Mumbai Central, you would have walked out and "explored" the city, but would you do the same at Itarsi or Guntakal (where you are more likely to spend 5 hours waiting for the next train)? I am sure it did not even cross your mind!

And that exactly is what Bishwanath is out to figure. The book is free flowing and takes you along, as he explores what lies outside these sacred railway station precincts and finds, more often than not, a small town that is quite different from the hustle bustle of its railway station, with little other than the railway station to claim fame. From shady hotels to dinghy bars, from helpful auto-wallahs to suspicious locals, the towns are as similar as they are different.
While Biswanaths writing makes for an easy read, it is not a conventional travel tale. He does try to make it one, adding well researched tid-bits and often looking for the uncoventional (in true traveller style), but the subject lacks the scope to make it compelling enough for the reader.
A good attempt, but the book ends up falling short of making it to your reading list!

Welcome 2016!

While half the world is busy desperately clinging onto their NYR’s and the other half is busy removing every evidence of having commited to them, I ambusy creating my own with desperate optimism.  I call that the late mover advantage!

Here are what I will work towards this year.

1. Declutter:
At any point of time, I am busy juggling the many things that I love to do. Read, write, travel, sleep, work off those extra calories, etc. Throw in social engagements (obligations?) and a 9-6 job and you have an explosive mix :)
One of my focus this year will be on what I call "declutter", essentially, try to limit multi-tasking and focus only on a couple of things at a time. Pick out 1-2 things that I want to do for a short period of time (1-2 months) and focus energies and enjoy doing them.
I did try it a couple of times last year when I felt I was doing things mechanically, rather than enjoying them. After a month long break from yoga, I went back rejuvenated and with a lot more enthusiasm than before the break.
The break from reading came as a surprise, but was a quick one when i realised I was just picking up random books (because I did not give a book enough thought before picking it up) and leaving them unfinished! And now, a month later, I am craving for books, waiting for my "subscription holiday" to end.

2. Health:
Maintaining a routine has been always a challenge, because I am innately lazy! I have been practicing yoga for the last year or more, but have never been able to stick to a routine. While I committed to 5 days a week, I am more than happy (not to mention proud) to make it 3-4 times a week! I did buy a cycle last year, with a commitment (that I made to myself) that the cycle would be used atleast twice a week. I fell short on that by 1. And I never stopped feeling guilty about it either.
But this year, I plan to reach a balance and add variety (walking, running, playing a sport regularly) and commit, rather than overcommit. I am rather proud that I haven't used the lift at office for a long long time :)

3. Be environmentally responsible: 
I started thinking about this seriously a couple of years back and started with saying no to bottled water. I started carrying a water bottle that I would fill with potable water wherever I could. Last year, I started avoiding bottled water at social engagements and reusing the same plate everytime I went for a refill at  buffets. Started using local transport, even on short family vacations. Started carrying back trash and giving a conscious thought on how we dispose of it. Must say, my family has never once complained of the water or transport and we are rather proud of it :)  
While this does sound like a lot of good things, I am sure there are many more ways in which we can reduce burdening the environment, which I plan to find out and incorporate in our daily life. 

4. Take more pics:
Being an introvert, it has never been easy for me to just take out my mobile or camera and click photographs of ordinary things that I found interesting (read: the helpful coconut vendor, a very inviting tea stall on a cold winter morning, etc). As a consequence, I usually don't take the pic and regret it later. Doing away with that and taking pics has to happen! I was rather proud of myself, when recently on a trip to Rajasthan, I took pictures of all that I ate :)

These, for once, seem more reasonable and are about things that really matter to me. Guess age has really made me wiser ;)

These are mine, what are yours?

Early morning flight woes!

When the pretty lady asked me if I had a preference for seats, I immediately mentioned 'emergency exit seats, please' , but hastily added, 'only if it doesn't cost extra money'. The joke was lost on her and she told me that while those would, in fact cost extra, she did not have any other non-premium window seats available. I told her I was ok with an aisle seat. She seemed to take it in her stride, smiled sweetly and handed me the boarding pass. The seat was a 31C, which I figured din't sound too bad. 

It was only when I boarded, did I realise that 31C was the last possible row, with only the lavatory and pantry behind me and the whole world (the passengers were my whole world for the next 2.5 hours) ahead of me. An aisle seat just before the lavatory also came with "perks" - I had a ring side view of the myriad emotions that only people waiting in a lavatory queue can emote. Taking an early morning (7:15 AM) flight also meant that I could witness this upto 185 times (for the uninitiated, it was 186 passengers - 1 (thats me, of course)). And as luck would have it, I think I did it about 10 times, even trying to offer adequately sympathetic (I kept the empathy out) expressions to those who were obviously squirming waiting in the queue, before I grossed myself out and decided to focus my attention on the rather thought provoking and infinitely more pleasant in-flight magazine :)

I was now getting used to the rhytmic opening and shutting of the 2 doors (they seemed to be perfectly synced, 1 door every minute or two). While I was thinking there could hardly be anyone in a more precariously pathetic position than I was, I was woken from my reverie (and self-sympathy mode) by the firm tone of the air-hostess (as the female members of the cabin crew were previously called), calling out, "Sir, sir...please press the flush!". The man, who had been caught offguard, sheepishly came back and did as instructed. Off I went, to my reverie, assuming it was a one-off occurence.
I was once again jolted back to reality, and I think I had subconsciously even registered that the door opened without the perfunctory flush noise. The air-hostess was quite business-like in her tone. The friendliness usually associated with her ilk was quite not there. She was calling out after another retreating behind, "Sir, please flush!". It was sharp, precise and clinical, like the needle that draws blood!

By now, every single word in the glossy in-flight magazine had been duly read and stored away in some remote corner of the subconscious, to be drawn upon under life-or-death situations. It was now replaced by an insanely priced menu, which did not fail to emphasize (with 2 prices for every single item on the meager menu) that if you were stupid enough not to realise that you will feel hungry on the flight before the flight took off (in decent terms called "pre-booking you meal"), then your inability to accurately predict your metabolism should be fined Rs 50
However, coming back to the point, the cabin crews regular "Sir/Ma'm, blah blah blah...FLUSH!" added a rather quirky entertainment to my otherwise dull 2.5 hour existence onboard flight "XX-1234 from Bengaluru to Jaipur". While about 5 in 10 would come back and do the deed, there would still be a good 5 out of 10 who would just ignore (I dont buy that they could be hard of hearing, people atleast 20 rows ahead would turn back) and walk on, like they had nothing to do with the sh**.
I counted 15 of these "FLUSH" shouts before zoning out and losing count!
A few occurrences later, the niceties were slowly, but surely wearing off. The tone was bordering on impatience, quite like a mother admonishing a difficult child at the mall, barely concealing her impatience behind a thin veil of forced civility. The assertive was now bordering on aggressive.

And when the plane had landed and was taxiing towards the gate, a few passengers, showing ultimate disregard for the pilots/cabin crews instructions on remaining seated, got up and even started readying for the race to the doors, the dam finally burst! A sharp "SIT DOWN. DO NOT GET UP FROM YOUR SEATS TILL INSTRUCTED TO!!!", stripped of all civility, echoed through the 31 rows. The force threw all the offenders back to their seats as yours truly secretly smirked! The aftermath? The crowd put on their best behaviour as they got off the plane, refusing to look the cabin crew in the eye, even as the cabin crew wished us "Thank you (for helping us vent out???)"

The part about "Look forward to serve you again" was conspicuously missing from their farewell.

On a more serious note: 
I was disappointed (rather than appalled) at the whole incident. Would we leave the toilet unflushed/soiled at home? If not, then what prompts us to forget to do the same when we are outside the house? Shouldn't we be doubly cautious?
And do I find fault with the cabin crew running out of patience? Absolutely not. In fact, I think they did a good job of keeping their temperament in check through most of the flight despite the obvious apathy. I am sure reminding people to "flush" was not on their FAQ's. 

Half of a yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in the 1960s Nigeria, rife with communal discord, Half of a yellow sun traces the lives of 5 people intricately intertwined through love, hate and indifference . Lives that were distanced through prosperity and brought together by the war.
Olanna, the beautiful daughter of a highly influential army contractor, who leaves behind a life of privilege for the man she loves, Odenigbo, a revolutionary professor at the Nsukka University. Kainene, Olanna's twin sister, who is as indifferent as bitter. Richard, A shy Englishman in love with Igbo-ukwu art and Kainene. Ugwu, Odenigbo's uneducated houseboy, for whom the war is a coming-of-age experience.
From the high society of Lagos to the quiet intellect of Nsukka, from the ghettos of Ummunachi to the refugee camps of Orlu, Half of a yellow sun takes you on a shocking journey through the birth of a nation, its fall into a civil war and ultimately peace, which comes at a price. The book explores the myriad human emotions, from love to loss, delight to denial and disbelief to detachment. It takes you through the streets of a war-torn country and its civilians, as they cast aside their personal dignity and belief in a struggle for the survival of their loved ones. It talks about how we draw upon our inner strengths when the eye fails to see what the mind does not fail to register.
The story has a couple of remarkably strong scenes, like the one where the sisters meet during the war and each marvels at how the other has grown, which speak volumes about Chimamanda's ability to take the reader on a journey, just like the rest of the characters.  
With a remarkable blend of strong metaphors, vividly expressive adjectives and Igbo influenced english that contributes to the rich narrative, Chimamanda weaves a stunning tale of love, life and war.

A must read! 

What is your "favouritest" childhood memory?

Childhood is that lovely time when everything is new and magical. Traditions are not boring and happiness lies in the simplest of things. It was on one such nostalgia-hit evening that I started reminiscing my "favouritest" childhood memories. So here goes...

1. Playing "Business" (a variant of the board game 'Monopoly') with cousins. We bent the rules (even then!) and played for hours. We even had an audience. And it always ended with the bank going bankrupt and we being insanely rich (we framed the rule ourselves, remember?)

2. Spending summer vacations at grandparents place. It was huge house in a sleepy little village. The yummy jamoons that grandma would invariably make! Eating mangoes in the evening, slinking away unobserved to the village pond! Bliss!!!

3. Summer evenings spent watering the terrace (Yes, watering the terrace!), so that it is to cool when we sleep under the open sky at night!

4. Watching movies in the 'tent' (a makeshift cinema hall) at our grandparents village. Sometimes even sleeping through it.

5. The last day of the exams! The tradition of watching a movie (in the cinema hall) after the last exam. I dont remember the movie, but I remember the joy of eating popcorn at the movies and an ice-cream after it!

6. The extra allowance of 2 rupees a day that was given on exam days. Spending it on a small packet of "Yummies", even while a holier-than-thou classmate ranted about the ill-effects of eating packed/processed chips daily!

7. Looking forward to Chitrahaar at 8PM in Wednesdays and Rangoli at 7AM on Sundays. They were truly our only window to bollywood music.

8. Rasna heralded the summer holidays by launching new flavours (cola and nimbu pani). It was a rage and making the concentrate was a tradition. It involved dissolving some 300grams of sugar in 750 ml water, before adding the powder and concentrate! The sugar was added to the water early in the morning left on the dining table. We all took turns stirring it and it was only by noon that the sugar had dissolved and Rasna was finally ready :)
and so many more... :)

What is your "favouritest" childhood memory?

Resonance - by Ajay!

Over the last few years, I have come to read and admire Indian writers like Ravi Subramanian and Krishan Pratap Singh, who have ventured into the genre of new-age thrillers (tackling new age themes like cyber-crime, banking scams and even Indian politics) set against the backdrop of contemporary India. 

With this in mind, I picked up 'Resonance', a thriller by debut novelist Ajay. It was a deliberate pick! It has been on my list for a while, but has never come by. This time however, I picked up Resonance with the dual intention of reading a new author and trimming my ever growing reading list.
And I must say I was hooked from page one. Indo-pak terrorism and terrorism originating on Pakistani soil is nothing new, almost as stereotypical as it can get. However, what stands out is the rich plot, replete with twists and counter twists and an entirely new conspiracy theory. 

My observations about the book:
1. For a first-timer, his novel is bold. It attacks the theme with elan, never shying away from weaving twists and turns into the narrative. He even gets away with it.
2. The transition from one scene to another, from one place to another is smooth and seamless. The chapters maintain a flow which is one of the biggest challenges a debut novelist faces and one of the biggest frustrations the reader faces with a debut novel.
3. The research is thorough and manages to hold your attention. Recent historical events, like the assasination of Zia-ul-haq and the Mumbai terror attacks are stitched seamlessly in the narrative, often forming the focal point of the plot. 
5. In some places, the description is long-winded and even repeated (like the mode of destruction being explained to different people at different times). Even the trail of destruction is difficult to follow if you are not familiar with the terrain (anything more I say will be a spoiler). One of the things that I felt would have helped, specially with the elaborate description of the destruction that would be caused would have been an illustration in the form of a map, much like the one that highlights the journey of Heinrich Harrer in "Seven years in Tibet". It would have made it easier to understand. 
4. The climax (predictable as it is) is a nail-biting finish. Ajay gives us another lesson in Physics with a well researched anti-dote. 

Ajay has definitely done his research and what comes out is a well-baked thriller, that keeps you turning pages right up to the end.
Do read, if you love thrillers with an Indian twist!

Fond memories from Kasaragod!

Kasaragod has nothing to offer the regular tourist.
It offers clean beaches by quaint fishing villages but without the crowds and commercialization. 
It offers a fort that affords stunning views of the Arabian Sea, but lacks a commercial guide who will tell you the stories.
It has people who will speak to you in Kannada and Hindi just as fluently as they converse with their neighbours in Malayalam. 
It is a distant cousin to the nearest backwaters, Nileshwar and Valiyamparaba 30 kms away.
You will most likely end up exploring it on foot or being driven around by friendly auto-drivers or those local buses that embrace you with their warmth (not literally though)  
It presents you with locals who are not too tourist-smart. They are not forever trying to sell you tacky souvenirs or make that extra buck.
The locals will often subject you to random acts of kindness. They will accompany you (by foot) if you are unsure of the route. They will help you buy tickets from the conductor who does not understand you. They will help you catch a seat if the bus is crowded. They will consult friends to let you know where you need to get down to go to some place that you have only heard of from Google. If they are getting down before you from the bus, they will hand you over to someone else to ensure you don't miss your stop.
And most of all, they will not only remember you but give you a friendly smile too, when they see you the next day :)
There is the waiter at the non-touristy restaurant who will ensure you understand what is red boiled rice before you order for it.
And then there is the curious bus conductor, who wants to know where you are from, how you are going back and why you are not taking the cheaper option of taking a train back home. He will also check on you every few minutes during your 40 minute ride to the town. 
They are simple and loving people who will not look at you with those wary and suspicious eyes. 

And to reiterate, Kasaragod has nothing to offer the regular tourist, but everything for the discerning wanderer!