Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unexpected Song

I walk out of the office at 10.30 pm, rather tired and dispirited, as one would be. In the lift lobby, I hear music pounding from the roof - JWT's having some species of jamboree on the roof, I saw them setting up earlier. I consider crashing it, but catch sight of myself in the fancy glass wall and reconsider in a hurry. When the lift arrives it contains a picturesque man, only slightly unsteady. When I get in he asks me confidentially: is this going up or down? Down, I say kindly, but with a private grin. I am suddenly and strangely cheered by this sign that it's a good party upstairs. Downstairs I find two girls in full carnavale mode handing out something or the other to people coming in. I assume they're part of the JWT theme. But when I pause to take a picture I learn that the person accompanying them works for Lowe, who are having a rival party down the road and are here poaching guests for good-natured, though mysterious, reasons.

The private grin is now very much out in the open. In fact, my evening has suddenly become so wonderfully nuts that I feel as effervescent as if I did go to one or both of the parties. It's one of those moments when I remember what I like about being in advertising. Nobody parties like an agency. And nobody else chooses a Monday night for a Street Party that proclaims "1 Night, 3 Bars, Free flow".

Right now, I'm sitting on the train with an invitation in one hand, my phone in the other, a manic grin on my face, writing this. It started as a Tweet, migrated to a Facebook status when Twitter proved inadequate and finally fetched up here when I realized even FB did not have enough scope!

You'd think the invite would be tempting but even my dead body wouldn't go to a party looking like I do now. As you can see from the picture!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Princesses – the tech specs

My niece's world is currently ruled by the various Disney princesses. My world has consequently been er...enriched?... by new versions of the fairytale princesses I knew when I was a kid (Disney was still in its Mickey-Donald phase then, so I had the Andersen-Grimm non-musical version). The rant about Disney leaching out the uncomfortable life lessons - and therefore the soul - of the stories is another post. This is just about the princesses, the ones in the written fairy tales. The male leads didn’t get much attention; most of them are pretty much one-dimensional (as my niece has subconsciously registered - she mixes them up freely in her games). Which would explain the other important feature of the fairytales: eternal love is usually accomplished in a single look. Here they are, seven of the princesses as I see them, with a handy watchability guide for the movie version:

1. Cinderella wallowed in soot and self-pity and needed a fairy godmother to help her go to the ball. The ugly sisters should have shared the prince, he would have had more fun in the long run.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 2

2. Sleeping Beauty slept through it all. She didn’t seem very upset about being kissed awake by a trespasser. The Disney movie resembles the story in only three points - malevolent witch curse, death by spindle and wakened by kissing. The other 70 minutes are different and not too bad.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 7

3. Snow White was the sort of idiot who took food from strangers and her prince was a necrophiliac who kissed girls in coffins.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 2

4. The nameless one in the Frog Prince was a spoilt and unscrupulous brat who would promise anything just to get her way. Then she came up against something even slimier than herself. Also, this is one story that the Disney version has vastly - and I mean, vastly - improved.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: Probably a lot but have only had to see it once so don't know.

5. The Little Mermaid… no, I can’t be rude about her. Good fairy tales can stand up to the kind of critical appreciation you apply to Shakespeare, and this is one of them. You can see it as a simple parable about not hankering after what you can’t have. But it’s also a complex illustration of poignant darknesses – an Anne-Boleyn style sacrifice of the self to ambition, the fatal attraction of unequal, unrequited love, the fate of the second woman in a certain kind of relationship. It could also be a whole thesis on the inadvisability of giving up that much of your fundamental self for a relationship. Needless to say, the Disney version has none of the above subtext whatsoever.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 2. Be warned that it has spawned sequels involving the mermaid's daughter and mother.

6. Rapunzel, I like! Apart from anything else, there’s something very cool about your fate being decided by a cabbage. This Pantene princess had spirit. She let a man into her room secretly and provided the means herself. And after the wicked witch blinded the guy, she said screw you wicked witch and went after him anyway. Disney's fairly recent interpretation of Rapunzel, Tangled, is a great version, too.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 7

7. My favourite is Beauty. This is the only one that is a true romance and necessarily has a more detailed male lead. Beauty had work to do – she was not strictly a princess. She had chores, a job and human affection for people other than her prince. She found herself put on a difficult path and stuck to it, being brave when she had to be. She gave the beast a chance, unlovely though he was in face and character and unashamedly so. And before you could say Stockholm Syndrome, the beast let her go with no conditions attached. She returned of her own free will. They lived happily ever after.
No. of times you can sit through the movie without losing your mind: 7

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The grapes of wrath

Recently I made myself unpopular by spurning a bottle of Grover’s La Reserve as “singularly undrinkable”. What I meant of course was that I didn’t like it, but in the manner of wine-drinkers dangerous with little knowledge, I made it a problem with the wine. That’s just the tip of the personality disorder.

I can’t remember when wine, for me, went from being the thing you drink at Christmas in the wrong glasses to being what you drink, period. For that matter, I couldn’t tell you when or why my “hard drink” of choice became rum and coke or gin and tonic. I’ve never been a vodka person. Then one day it was all about wine.

I didn’t even have the excuse of being in the thick of the “wine revolution”; it just happened. Suddenly I had wine racks and bottles that meant more than “red or white”. I spent ages in wine boutiques picking them out. I courted eviction by rearranging bits of my landlord’s kitchen so I could store them properly. I worried about them in Dubai’s summer humidity. I changed my food habits to accommodate them. I did a lot of research and became insufferable on the subject, especially after a few glasses of it. I got caught up in it all for a while, until the sheer number of moving parts tired me out.

When you thought you’d finally grasped the grapes, you discovered unpronounceable Hungarian varietals. Just as you got some insight into the intricacies of France’s wine-growing regions and untangled them from the broader strokes of Napa Valley, along came an Argentinean Malbec, a Spanish Rioja or a German Riesling. Australia is even larger than France and New Zealand may be small, but it’s prolific. Then India joined the fray. When South African and Lebanese friends threatened to stop inviting me, I decided to give it a rest. They gave really good parties.

There was also the constant guilt that no wine enthusiast will admit to, the feeling that if you really liked the taste it had to be sub-standard. Whenever I started feeling particularly affectionate towards one – a certain South African Pinotage comes to mind – I would abandon it in a hurry without looking too closely at my reasons. Come to think of it, that bears close resemblance to other parts of my life as well, so perhaps I shouldn’t try shoving it off on to all wine-drinkers.

I now work with the fundamental truth of “I like it, I like it not”. The fancy language work I can do all on my own, and with a glass of water if necessary. Sometimes I just drink the syrup that somebody’s uncle made from apricots. I’m a better person for it, too. Occasionally, the snottiness I imbibed with the more difficult Bordeaux and horrifyingly mature Burgundies gets the better of me and I annoy a few friends, as above, but mostly I’m very relaxed, scrupulously agreeing with whatever my hosts think of their wine.

My fascination with the deliciously metaphorical concept of terroir has endured, though. And wine glasses, I love them, particularly the large works of art in which ruby liquid can swirl like dervishes, releasing entire Impressionist landscapes. I love that bouquet, the first multisensory tasting. A fresh bottle of wine is the calm of my flat before a party, warm light on wood, the pure sound of Leonard Cohen on my Linn before it turns into something louder, tea lights burning in a Zen holder that makes them look like they’re floating in the air, just as I am suspended in the solitude. This then, is probably the attraction for me. The rum and coke is always a noisy night out, but wine is personal. All the more reason, I suppose, for keeping my judgmental reflections to myself.

Thursday, October 06, 2011


That's one of the trends going around on Twitter this morning, asking you to tweet if you're holding an Apple product.

Well I am, as I have ever since I started using a computer a million years ago. As with any important relationship, I object to many things about Apple. I am constantly irritated by the foibles that I may or may not have thought were cute at the start. But I have no desire to leave, nor any fundamental doubts about them. Beneath the appearance obsession and the posturing that they've lately taken to doing, it's still about the good product. I own both a PC and a Mac. I've messed about with Linux. I've owned a Windows phone, an Android one and an iPhone. A Sony mp3 player, as well as an iPod. When all is said and done, I think the Kindle is way better than the iPad for digital book reading – but that's about it. And so I say a heartfelt "Thank you Steve".

There could not be a better orbituary for the man than the old Apple ad.

"Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits, the rebels
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes,
The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them
Glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do
Is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
And while some may see them as the crazy ones,
We see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough
To think they can change the world
Are the ones who do."

Written by Craig Tanimoto or Rob Siltanen or Ken Segall, or all three together, depending on where you get your information from. Anyway, they were all in the creative department of Chiat/Day and it was 1997. One of them also named the iMac.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Discovering Japan

This is my new alarm clock. I’ve been looking for it for years – always wanted an old-fashioned one that looks and sounds like the one in the cartoons. I found it in one of the Japanese novelty stalls that sprout in the corridors of malls from time to time. It’s not that this kind of clock is not otherwise available, but the idea of paying 200 dollars for something that forces me to get up in the morning makes me ill. This one didn't cost too much more than a designer coffee, in spite of being designer green. While paying for it, I said (only half-jokingly) to the girl who was presiding over the ceremony that I hoped it would still be working next week. She drew herself up to her full height and said “it’s made in Japan ma’am.” She was so offended, she threw in a free battery! Okay, then.

I also got this. It looks and feels like a Canon lens, but is actually a thermos coffee mug. I bought it for my brother.

After the purchases, I tore myself away with some difficulty from an Angry Birds hand-held fan, a tiny portable speaker made of old newspaper, an iPhone cover in the shape of a red-faced macacque (in relief, complete with hanging tail and fur; it would look like you had a monkey hanging off your ear), an umbrella rolled inside a Japanese-girl totem pole and another, battery-operated one that changed colour as you walked. And a keychain that said “My other keychain is a fridge magnet”. The novelty merchandise from Japan is the most entertaining, creative and frankly mad stuff I’ve ever seen.

Those I’m spending Christmas with this year can consider themselves warned.

The picture of the alarm clock is something I got off Google Images (from here) because I forgot to take a photo of mine and didn't feel like waiting till later to post. This is exactly what it looks like.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pity party

I’ve been suffering from the aftermath of a strange evening out. The two new friends I went with are nice. In fact they’re a lot like my other friends. And I generally like the Saturday night vibe, bright lights and dancing and glittering places crowded with beautiful people. The place was even on the riverside – partying near water usually makes me even more effervescent. And yet the evening was the absolute pits. I finally gave up on the excellent band and the happily packed dance floor and pushed my way outside. I stood outside and watched people ebbing and flowing out of the bars and clubs along the quay with a dismayed sense of unbelonging. I saw many versions of myself from ten years ago and noted them with detachment. For the first time in my life, I ruined a night out for the others and caused the party to break up early.

The fear I felt then stayed with me through the following weeks, colouring all the other more immediate ones. I was scared my mind had wrinkled and dried out, that it would never more be capable of anything new, that lightness and sense of humour were gone for good, the effervescence flat. What frightened me most was that I’d looked forward to the evening, wanted to go out and was happy until it actually got underway. I didn’t understand it. It felt like I suddenly had a terminal disease.

But today I visited a blog I follow, read the latest post and realized it wasn’t me at all, at least not in that way. What I had wanted that evening was conversation, contact. A different kind of bar, to be with rude people who make callous jokes about your misfortunes so you can fall about laughing, to trade insults and be silly. That particular Saturday, I'd actually gone out looking for a Sunday night. That’s all it was. What a relief.

I suppose the real moral of the story is that it was a mistake to watch Bridesmaids before going out. It’s the dreariest movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Gold Gargoyle for the Most Entertaining Thing, Ever

No ifs or buts, no doubts at all. Samosapedia. Click and read. you won't be able to stop and it'll take all the hours in your day. And even your boss will count the time well spent.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Gold Gargoyle for Entertaining Reviews of Hindi Movies

goes to Item Number. And it's not just because she's listed my blog either.

Excerpt from review of Delhi Belly:
"My mother, may still consider taking me home and feeding me, but not before giving me the look, if during road rage I hung out of the car screaming chutiye!! at an auto-waala, but if my choice of words were to be "fuck you" in a calm non-hostile fashion and from within the confines of my car to a fellow honker, I’d probably have to park on the side and reason out with her as to where did she go wrong with her upbringing. Let’s get over it, I say."

Full review here.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Street of dreams

Yes I know – I’m going on a bit about Singapore on my blog. I’ll stop soon. Right now I feel like I’m on holiday every time I go out. I had yet another surprising-Singapore moment today (whoever thought up the slogan was a genius). Walking down Orchard Road – having been disappointed by yet another bookstore, this time in Centrepoint Mall – and passing for the hundredth time an outdoor bar in this heritage-y sort of building, called, er, Outdoor, I thought I’d check it out. I turned the corner and it turned out to be a whole heritage street, not the courtyard I’d expected!

In the foreground of the photograph (does not begin to do it justice) you can see cafe tables, but further down, they're all private homes. I didn’t want to take any direct photos of the houses; it seemed intrusive. It’s called Emerald Hill Road and it’s lined on both sides with these buildings in what I think of as the shophouse style. There must be a more formal term (I’m hoping perhaps fellow blogger Tiny Island or one of her readers will know). They’re all impeccably maintained. Many of them have three storeys and gardens with two cars parked in them. The Merc + BMW package. One house had picked a vintage Maserati over the BMW and another one had chosen a Mini – and I haven’t seen either in a better setting. It was a magical street, pretty beyond belief and absolutely quiet, though I was mere yards from Orchard Road’s raucous Sunday evening crowds.

And I redouble my participation in the Singapore Land Authority bidding process in the quest to find a shophouse, black-and-white row house, barrack-converted-to-terrace or suchlike to live in. I will not rest until it’s been exhaustively proven to me that my bids for picturesque and inconvenient state property are pathetic losers. I was so close just three weeks ago. So close.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wings of fire

Seletar Flying Club is at the end of a long drive, some of it on roads that are also runways. There, among the hangar-like offices of airplane companies, around the corner from a casual parking lot for private planes, on a grassy verge by the fence that runs along the airfield you’ll find the Sunset Grill, a bunch of scarred tables and chairs under a yellow plastic awning, where you go prepared to get your hands dirty. And your nerve-endings mauled.

When I say chicken wings, don’t think of those little stubs shiny with sauce. These are whacking great pieces of chicken. That come in 36 levels of spiciness. We ordered Level 3 (we chose Level 4, but the waitress’s eyes widened with alarm so we hastily dialled it down). The first bite was a shock, the second one a recurring nightmare. From the third on it was really an adventure sport. The spice was sharp, with a tangy aftertaste, quite unlike Indian spiciness, which has a sort of rounded edge to it, perhaps from the turmeric, tamarind or curry leaves. The chicken was crisp on the outside, wonderfully juicy on the inside. It was brilliant. It should be listed in the tourist brochures along with the chilli crab. I must mention, though, that the other things on the menu we tried were uniformly execrable, except for the brownie, which was excellent.

The wings rounded off a day at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Singapore distinguishes the natural reserves from the parks by a rigorous lack of gift shops, rides and food courts. It could be because fewer tourists go there but it also serves to centre all your attention on the reserve itself. On one viewing platform, my niece suddenly said “look there’s a fishy”. We started to explain there wasn’t enough water for one, when we spotted a slimy thing flapping about in the mud. While giving her inordinate credit for the discovery, we were riffling through the trivia in our brains, trying to place it. A fish that lived in mud. Jumping from puddle to puddle. Hopping. Skipping. Mudskipper, we said almost simultaneously. There turned out to be hundreds of them, looking like something out of Dune. There were also black crabs, grey lizards, brown birds, unbelievably noisy insects. And crocodiles. There were warning signs everywhere.

In the part where you could walk on the ground, we suddenly spotted a long, low, grey shadow coming steadily towards us with that peculiar menacing gait, short, thick legs swinging purposefully. Worse, it was approaching in a direction that would cut us off from the boardwalk. We were stuck on a narrow path, with water on either side. This time my brain’s trivia archive had no trouble offering myths and facts in rapid succession: Crocodiles can run faster than a horse. I can run faster than a tortoise. They can jump 20 feet. The trees around us were not that high, or even climbable. They react to movement, not smell or sight. I didn’t know what to do with that particular fact. Given a choice between a shark and a crocodile, I would take the shark. I didn’t know what to do with that fact either. And I wished my brain would shut the hell up and let me think.

Meanwhile my brother had noticed it was a large water monitor. We relieved our sheepish feelings by laughing at another group that didn’t notice it until they were almost on top of it. They must have cleared 20 feet easily. But since we’d scared ourselves silly, we couldn’t quite do the water path anymore. So we went hunting for chicken wings.

It was a good day. And I only just got the clever bit about serving wings at an airfield!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The cars that drove us

My Dad’s first car was a 1958 Standard Super 10. The previous owner was a senior police officer, so my Dad tended to get waved through checkpoints and suchlike on his frequent road trips. A few years later, KLT 9006 became MEO 5860 when he moved to Bangalore, got a wife and a brace of kids. It also changed from black to white. “The Standard”, as my Dad refers to it, remained our car until I was sixteen. In and around Whitefield, it was iconic, practically a surname.

It’s gone everywhere and ferried everyone – long-distance journeys, school runs, doctor and vet runs, birthday parties, picnics, railways stations, bus terminals and airports at all times of the day and night (it got its windshield broken in a riot on one of these trips), social occasions in all corners of Bangalore,. And of course the mechanic. As our best friend said (they had a Standard Herald of similar vintage): “Until the Maruti came we didn’t even know that cars were supposed to run continuously, without needing constant tending.”

We knew how and when to pour water in the radiator before we were tall enough to see into the engine. We knew about batteries and distilled water and fan belts. We knew how cars worked; we saw it with our own eyes. And where today’s cars have a neat package of basic tools, my dad had a whacking great toolbox and a pile of rags that was essentially bandages and plaster. “Palani’s workshop” in Ulsoor where we had gold-card, frequent-flyer status is now a Diagnostic Centre.

The next car was The Tank, a granduncle’s 1978 Ambassador that we bought after he died. My brother and dad drove it from Calicut to Bangalore in pouring rain, the trip immortalised by my brother’s article in Autocar India. In between, there were assorted hard-bitten Mahindra Jeeps and a Hindustan Trekker that came via my Dad’s job. One of these was my first driving experience. I had to practically stand on the clutch to get it to move.

In 1999, my Dad got his first new, straight-out-of-showroom car – a Maruti Omni. This one did a lot of long-distance trips, too. A second Omni came with air-conditioning and power windows. Now there’s a Hyundai Santro, his first automatic, which I think is the favourite car after the Standard. He certainly treats it like a pet dog.

He learnt to drive in government jeeps on the treacherous hill and forest roads of the Nilgiris. He has fascinating stories of rogue elephants and stray horses. Cashew farming in southern Kerala, fish farming in paddy fields, potato projects in Kodaikanal (“doesn’t taste like my potatoes”), oranges in Kotagiri (“not as sweet as my oranges”). At the time, the agriculture department was also responsible for the welfare of tribal villages – this consisted of giving them the benefit of agricultural research, cultivation methods, seeds and conservation, but also seemed to include wider, less defined support services including rescue from and/or condolences for marauding elephants. I wonder what happened to all this. It seems more desirable than turning forest tribes into handicraft factories or tourist attractions, but I suppose time marches on and all that.

The “Super 10”, as my brother and I call it, had been running for 31 years when we sold it. Apparently it still is, there has been the occasional sighting. My Dad is 73 and has been roadworthy (more or less) for about 47 years. At the end of this month, he needs to get his license renewed. We all have our fingers crossed - his driving license is not just necessary to him, it's also in some fundamental way important to us.

Photos: One is our car, as you might have guessed. The other is the original brochure for a 1958 Standard Super 10.

The House That Built Me, Miranda Lambert, 2010

Thursday, June 23, 2011

We wish them tailwinds

Samim Rizvi is the first Indian and the third Asian in the Race Across America (RAAM), "the world's toughest bicycle race". I'm told the 3000-mile distance is a third longer than the Tour de France, but the cyclists need to finish it in half the time. It runs from the west coast to the east, the route offering several hills to climb towards the end of the race, and mountains in the middle.

I'm following the official team blog for Samim, and I read each day's update with disbelief and awe. The level of endurance and sheer mind-over-matter-ness required is incredible. They - rider and crew - are snatching two or four hours of sleep on roadsides, in the back of cars and only the occasional motel bed. They're cold, uncomfortable and disturbed by trucks going by. Then they wake up and carry on, appreciating sunrises, updating blogs, being energetic and discussing larger issues of water scarcity. Samim's recent average speed was 10.58 mph over the Rockies. It's been six days and he's still going.

Where does it come from, this "ultra endurance"? How does that mind work? A passing volunteer told Samim's crew that it was spiritual, not physical. I suppose that's one way to put it. It's a feat, in the full sense of the term. I first met him on the inaugural Tour of Nilgiris (TFN), where I was deeply impressed by his grit. But now that daily 100km that he used to finish long before the rest seems like a little ride in the park. He considered TFN part of his training.

The RAAM cyclists are approaching the Mississippi river as we speak, which is the two-third mark and considered the deciding point for the cyclists. Some have already passed it. The lead rider - Christoph Strasser - is doing an average of 15.6 mph. So far, he's cycled 2675 miles in seven days. This is how he's feeling about it: “Ah yes. Good, good. I feel good. Everything is good.” And: “A little bit sore, yeah... the legs, the knees of course, the feet... Everything is within the normal range for such an event.”

Yes, RAAM is a race with winners and prizes, but it's mostly a race against yourself. Just completing it within the specified nine days or less is undisputed victory. I have no doubt that Samim will get there, saddle sores, taped-up ankle and all. Meanwhile, Christoph, who seems most likely to get the prize, has 300-odd miles to the chequered flag. I guess in horse-racing terms, he's in the final straight, though his is rather hilly. Am reading a Dick Francis racing-world mystery. At home, in bed, resting and drinking soup because I'm feeling a bit under the weather.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The secret meadows of Singapore

Singapore Zoo: 69 acres
Jurong Bird Park: 50 acres
Labrador Nature Reserve: 25 acres
Admiralty Park: 66 acres
Singapore Botanic Garden: 155 acres
Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: 214 acres
East Coast Park: 450 acres

400 acres of primary rainforest. Four nature reserves. 17 reservoirs. A ridiculous number of rivers. In short, field and fountain, moor and mountain are all present in abundance. Side by side with skyscrapers, housing estates, malls, restaurants, hotels, roller coasters, the metro, one of Asia’s largest airports, and of course the residences, offices and tool storage spaces of the 21000 people employed by the Parks Authority. When you’re freshly expatriated to Singapore, your most frequently asked question is “Where do they find the space for it”?

In the time it takes you to reach your local supermarket in Mumbai, you could get to Indonesia. You could be wandering casually in the bird park of a morning when you’ll discover that your phone is on international roaming because Malaysia's that close. And Singapore's that small. How does a tiny island have so much luxury of land? The official greenery alone covers almost half of Singapore, and then there’s the stuff that’s just lying by the roadside.

Turn off a thoroughfare in the city centre and you're likely to find yourself on quiet, Top-Gear-style roads winding through little green hills dotted with venerable black and white mansions lolling about in acres of their own. Walk casually through a cobbled passageway in busy, touristy Chinatown and you’re wrapped in silence, on a path lined with the gardens of quiet homes. You could be walking purposefully past the imposing edifices of banks at the centre of Asia’s financial hub or in the glass-walled places where the purveyors of finance are eating steak, and suddenly you’ll be opposite a cricket green, where people in white are playing a gentle game to languid applause from a white verandah. Take a different route to the supermarket and you’ll come upon a stand of prehistoric creepers with leaves so large, they hold puddles, not raindrops. It’s all very Harry Potter. And quite delightful.

Why can’t other places do it? Life is so much better when it’s tree-lined. It’s not that there’s no development here – you notice the occasional ominous board on a patch of wild green announcing an apartment building or “community” in the making – but there are clear tree-and-garden rules that make all the difference.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Half a day in the life of a copywriter

Today I was required to “come up with” a children’s story to explain investments, stocks and shares to three-to-eight-year-olds. My response was that the request was outstandingly loopy even for a generally crazy industry, but a brief is a brief and it had to be done. It was also urgent, of course - rule of thumb is that the more difficult a thing is, the less time you have to do it in.

I sat there muttering at my monitor for a while, thinking how stupid to have to explain investments to my niece, for example. Then I remembered that her level of comprehension startled me on a regular basis so the enterprise stopped looking crazy, but I still had no idea how to explain the stuff so it might interest someone that age.

I spent the next hour exploring one route after another and rejecting them on the basis of boring me to tears. It ended with me feeling monumentally crabby so I went out for lunch. While I was struggling to get myself to want salad instead of penne carbonara, there suddenly popped into my head the sweet voice of an animated piggy saying “I’m Peppa Pig”. It’s one of the shows my niece watches all the time (and my favourite among them). By the time the announcement in my head had completed its litany of “This is my little brother George, this is Mummy Pig and this is Daddy Pig”, I had cancelled lunch and was racing back to my computer. Over the next two hours I wrote a happy Peppa Pig episode of my own, with the names of the characters changed to the ones I was supposed to use and sent it off. It went on to break platinum records with the client and everyone lived happily ever after for the rest of the day, only slightly inconvenienced by a gnawing in the stomach region.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

In the essence of time

To write something for myself (includes personal emails because mine always end up being fat novels), I need what I think of as pure time.

First, a little while to slow down and quieten, wander aimlessly, watch YouTube videos, daydream or otherwise lie fallow. Then uninterrupted time to start writing. This needs to come in at least one-hour blocks to be of any practical use. And just one innocuous interruption sets me back extravagantly. Then there’s the editing. And sometimes you don’t like what you wrote so it has to start all over again. So much quality time is hard to find in the week, let alone a day.

I’ve been uncomfortably aware that if I didn't want to change the name of my blog permanently to "Things I haven't blogged about", I was going to have to find a way. So I decided to write on my commute, on my phone. (The notes function on the iPhone looks like a ruled, yellow notebook, has comfortable writing space and an effusively user- friendly keypad. It can be emailed to yourself when you're done. There is no end to the magical mystery rewards of this phone.) In fact, I’m doing that right now – I'm standing in a crowded train, typing comfortably with both hands, having amused myself in the pre-blogpost-writing days by learning how to ride without holding on to anything. Unfortunately it’s not that long a commute, nor does it always coincide with my wanting to write. But it’s something to put on my blog until I finish the many real posts that have been in the making for a while!

The title is one of the priceless things that appear in ad agency briefs from time to time. In my spare time – when the work I have is so boring I don’t want to do it – I compile them. New ones are added much oftener than you’d think, but none has so far topped this from a long-ago brief: “Tone of voice: Enchanting and mysterious”. It was for a sale ad announcing massive discounts on printers and scanners.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Europe eludes me

I’m in the middle of planning a holiday with childhood friends, brother and sister-in-law. After or before meeting up, we plan to have separate holidays doing different things, so there’s much excitement and argument in the air this weekend. In the course of this, I opened a folder called “Holiday Stuff” to get some Norway information (a holiday minutely planned, but sadly aborted a few years ago) for my sister-in-law and was startled at how much there was in it, and not just about Norway. Looking through the many crowded files, a pattern emerges.

Two-week holiday in Spain. Appointment made and kept at the Spanish Consulate in Abu Dhabi, but visa unused. Tickets, Dubai-Barcelona-Dubai, paid for, then cancelled. Three-week holiday in Denmark and Norway. Flight booking, Dubai-Copenhagen-Oslo-Dubai, confirmed and cancelled. Ticket for the Flam Railway, unused and unrefunded. Email from a fjord cruise saying “Dear Ms Menon, we are pleased to confirm your booking.” Followed by something to the tune of “we don’t normally provide full refunds but as you’ve cancelled well in advance we’re happy to make an exception”. Weekend in Vienna. Another attempt at that one. Eid break in Rome. Another Eid break in Tuscany. New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam, Santorini, Ibiza. The Edinburgh festival. All researched, booked, re-confirmed and cancelled, with military precision. As I said, Europe seems to elude me, for some reason.

Well, not "some reason" - it was always work*. I can list the projects and clients that ruined it last minute. And I’m back in that kind of industry, in that kind of position. So my superstitious misgivings about planning a holiday too much in advance is founded on solid fact. Unfortunately, if you plan to travel in the high season, you have no choice. One must just wait, watch and hope. And maybe comfort oneself with thoughts of to Bangkok or Bali or even Goa for a long weekend, since I don’t need visas in advance for any of them. As you see, I’m a veteran contingency planner. For example, I know with absolute certainty that the contingency I plan for won’t happen. Another one will.

*I'm baffled by the fact that I actually managed to make that four-week US trip! The only unusual factor there was a visit to my cousin on my father’s side. Hmmm. Maybe the contingency plan for the contingency plan should be to burst upon these unknown and unsuspecting cousins from that side. Apparently the three thousand cousins that I already have (as in, those I know and am in touch with) are not enough.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Origin of the species

Solving the mystery once and for all of where bicycle helmets come from.

Nutmeg Grove, 2009: Installation in front of Orchard Central, a mall in Singapore, by Michele Righetti. Very beautiful. If you're too lazy to click on the photo and read, here's the gist: It's a highly magnified nutmeg seed, made with stainless steel sheets and car paint.

Hello, goodbye

Each time I’m forced to fly Air India, I hope that it will end with me writing something effusive in my blog titled “The Return of the Maharaja”. Sadly, this is still not that day.

My flight involved a six-hour transit through Chennai and they wouldn’t check my luggage through, so I was burdened by a giant suitcase the whole time. Here’s what you do while you wait in Chennai International Airport: nothing. The check-in area, the only place you have access to, is a chaotic game of musical counters, made even more interesting by baffling signage, unhelpful staff and a single stall serving bad coffee. This last should be a federal offence in Chennai.

There were about six and a half seats in the whole place, so I pushed my trolley to a corner, sat on the edge of it and relieved my feelings in aggrieved Facebook status updates. I’d once spent three pre-dawn hours in transit at Chennai Central Station and it was a painless experience. How is the same government not able to fix the damned airport?

Later, I broke off my reading to note that several Gulf flights were leaving and wondered why there didn’t seem to be as many labourers going from here as from other Indian airports. (A few hours earlier, in Bangalore Airport, I’d stood at the glass watching the departure of EK 569 to Dubai, seeing the familiar Emirates tail into the sky in a ceremonial farewell. The last flight of the Concorde was nothing to it.)

When they started with the flights going east, there seemed to be about 7000 flights a minute to Singapore. Most airlines had the normal mix of passenger types, but Singapore Airlines was wall-to-wall elderly parents. It’s a telling customer testimonial – when your children or parents are travelling unaccompanied, you choose the best not the cheapest. Their counter was properly sign-posted, luggage was screened efficiently and their lines moved quickly. Somehow they’d managed to build a little outpost of Changi Airport with the same resources available to everyone else. I was entertained by the old folks for a while, here a dad demanding to know where a mom has kept the tickets, there a mom tightening a piece of ridiculous ribbon on a suitcase, everywhere a couple of parents arguing over who was wrong last year about something unimportant. In between, I felt sad that I was leaving my own behind.

The Air India queues were full of people fearing they’d traded comfort, convenience, efficiency and politeness for a much cheaper ticket. In the event, we did them a disservice. The food was good, seats were comfortable, the plane seemed new and the service was above average. It’s still an apology for the airline that JRD Tata ran and the maharaja flew, but it’s not bad.

The execrable flight from Bangalore to Chennai that set my low expectations was the old Indian Airlines. They were always the worst airline outside of domestic USA and haven’t changed. One of the stewardesses was actively rude. The snack trays were thrust in our faces. The snacks themselves seemed to have been made by the same person who makes the coffee in Chennai airport. They boarded well before the time printed on the boarding pass from a different gate to the one we were told, with little notice and no apology. I asked why and I was told snottily: “Oh the captain decided to leave early”. The plane seemed like the oldest flying ATR in the world, but the flight was mostly empty so I could sit where I could see the propellers, my preferred position in this kind of plane. I don’t know what I think I can do if the engines suddenly stop or catch fire, or why I believe they should do so at all, but that’s the way the nutty cookie crumbles.

Time from Bangalore to Singapore on Air India: 15 hours
Time from aerobridge to exit in Changi Airport, including immigration and baggage claim: 30 minutes
Walking out of the airport with an employment visa in my passport and a job waiting for me: Priceless

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Lost in a dangling conversation

1. 22-year-old colleague in Dubai, highly conscious of her above-average IQ, and Lebanese from AUB (I add this because it speaks volumes to those who know). Ostentatiously scruffy in head-to-toe Diesel.
2. Me, much less decrepit and sociopathic than now, but well on my way up the hill. In high heels, make-up and bling.

Me: Sitting at table in food court reading while eating lunch. Absorbed in book.
She: Interrupting. “You’re always reading crime fiction.”
Me: “Yeah, I like crime fiction”. Polite smile, one eye on book, hoping to convey through body language that I don’t want company.
She: “It’s great that you read, though. I can recommend some good books”.
Me: “Ian Rankin is a good book”. Ponder the implications of the “though”.
She: “Most people who read waste their time because they’re reading the wrong things. You should read some classics to really get an idea of what books are about.”
Me: Speechless.
Then, weakly, “I’ve read them”.
She: “Reading this shit, you might as well be watching TV”.
Me: Speechless.
Struggle with impulse to brain her with said shit. Think that watching some TV would improve her greatly.
She: “If you find the classics too heavy, start with the modern classics. Midnight’s Children. It’s about India, it’s by Salman Rushdie.” She pronounces it like the fish.
Me: “I’ve read it”.
Heft the Rankin a little to see if it’s heavy enough to kill. Count the number of classics I can think of that are far lighter than any of Mr. Rushdie’s extravaganzas. Lose count in a flurry of dismay when she sits down. She produces pen and paper from her bag, and starts writing names.
She: “Zadie Smith is good too”.
Me: “I’ve read it”.
She: “Vikram Seth, Martin Amis, Thomas Pynchon…”
Me: “I’ve read them”
Admit to myself that I’m done with them, though. Though. I never finished the third Martin Amis. Might read Vikram Seth again, though. Though. Try to remember how Suitable Boy ended but can’t, which is weird because I did finish that one. Renew my silent vow to never, ever go near the Pynchon again, even to save my life.
She: “…Terry Pratchet…”
Me: “Terry Pratchet?”
She: “Yeah it’s Sci-Fi. That’s Science Fiction.”
Me: Speechless.
Wonder why one would pick Terry Pratchet over Arthur C Clarke if introducing someone to sci-fi. Think deep thoughts about the teaching philosophy at AUB.
She:”… John Steinbeck, Rainer Maria Rilke…”
Me: “I’ve read them.”
Realize with a shock that a proud little quotation I just used in a presentation attributed to "Anon" is my own creation, combining Khalil Gibran and Rainer Maria Rilke. Try to work out which bit belongs to whom, and how widely the presentation is likely to be distributed.
She: “I suppose you’ve read Harry Potter?”
Me: “Yes”.
Feel like I’ve won a prize in Wheel of Fortune.
She: “Then you should read Lord of the Rings – the movie was based on a book you know”. Hands me the paper and stands up. “You’re welcome”.
Me: Too relieved at her absence to register the last part of her speech until she’s out of reach. Stare dumbly at the list for a while. Reach for the pen she’s left behind and correct the spelling of Tolkien.

Friday, April 01, 2011

What happens to the dogs in a tsunami?

In case anyone was wondering about orphaned pets, traumatised livestock, or stranded wildlife, watch this. Of course IFAW does much more than remember to feed Pinky and Caesar, but that's the main reason I've been contributing to and following their activities for some years now (ever since Hurricane Katrina). Lost dogs make me feel worst of all. It was nice to know that if all of us were swept away or buried or otherwise exterminated, and Oscar was the last one standing, some Indiana Jones with a bag of Pedigree might rappel down from a helicopter and rescue him.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Life with a three-year-old

My niece believes I've been imported solely for her edification so she's reluctant to let me out of the house. I ease her into it by letting her participate in the dressing process. She lays out my make-up and hands it to me like a chatty surgical assistant. She comments at length on my clothes and puts on my jewellery to see what it looks like. Then she picks out my shoes and dusts them with my powder brush. It adds at least half an hour to the process but it makes the day go so much better. And a one-person fan club who firmly believes you are “so pretty” is a relief when you’re seeing a new grey hair every day.

She has wondrous toys that we would have killed to get, but her favourite* consists of two jam jars full of ordinary glass stones of the decoration-in-flower-pot variety. They represent, variously or together, people, money, food, cars, houses, laptops, phones, groceries, luggage, furniture and, after she’s been spending some time with her father, aeroplane parts. She’s lately learned about the presence of mascara in the world, so it also becomes that sometimes. The stones form the jungle, the lions and the princess lost among them. There’s always a princess. It becomes Swiper, the thing he’s swiping and the chorus that says “Swiper, no swiping”.

She seems to learn a new polysyllabic word every day, though none of us knows how. One day she’s struggling to work out how to slant the lines of “A” and the next, she’s writing her name easily (according to my brother, the Indian government would now consider the household 100% literate). She came home from ballet class and taught me the “arabeck”. In return, I taught her the Surya Namaskar; she had fun doing it but couldn’t pronounce the name, so promptly rejected it.

It bothers her when I disappear into a book and she’s lately taken to hanging around the bookshelf and picking out “books without pictures” (which necessitated a hasty shifting of some books that do have pictures to higher shelves). She turns the pages, getting increasingly frustrated by the rows of black type that mean nothing to her, understanding even less why I prefer that to playing with her. Sometimes I suddenly remember that she will be sixteen one day with no time for tedious old aunts, so I shut the book and play anyway.

I’ve forgotten what it’s like to do anything without a running commentary, I haven’t invented so many exhausting games at such short notice since I was that age myself, I can’t go out, work late or sleep in without feeling guilty, my reading has slowed to one often-missing book a month and my powder brush is permanently out of commission, but every time she’s happy to see me, I feel like I’ve won an award. And I’ve never won so many awards in my life.

Aunts and uncles – much like grandparents – have unshakeable belief in the unique glory of their nieces and nephews (I have several and I think they’re all geniuses, including the one that’s only 10 days old). So I could go on forever but will stop here.

*Favourite at the time of starting this. At the time of publishing, it was a pack of cards. By now it’s probably something else.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Things I haven't blogged about

1. The tsunami that decimated parts of Japan with the completeness of Hollywood special effects passed uneventfully over my blog. And I only used a Facebook status to record my observation that newscasters use superlatives for everything so they have no words for something like this. When a fashion faux pas is devastating and holidaymakers forced to sleep in an airport are tragic, what do you call a 30-foot wall of water that comes in so fast that the most prepared nation is helpless? Of all the videos of the flooding, the most poignant one for me is the one of the little town where you can hear the warning sirens, the repeated, urgent recordings that are probably saying “run for higher ground”, but there’s no time, no time at all. The sea is already there. In a few seconds, the cars have started to float. In six minutes, the water is up to the roofs, the sirens quite literally drowned out. But I believe that it happened to probably the only country capable of coming back from it stronger and better.

2. I even left underided the efforts of the US to find some way to muscle in on the tragedy, and the equally futile candlelight campaign on Facebook. The only thing more unhelpful than holding up a lit candle is passing around a photograph of one.

3. On another part of the emotional scale, the joy of watching the BBC series on the South Pacific also went unrecorded here. It was great to know there is somewhere a coral atoll not open to tourists, white beaches left to birds and turtles (and the occasional TV crew). The volcanoes still moving in Hawaii, the islands rising and falling, the strange fish that eats coral and craps sand, the earth’s continuous shift and shuffle form a reassuring big picture. Also on the subject of big pictures, my brother’s obsession with giant TVs paid off in this case because it did full justice to the glory of all that high definition cinematography.

4. I haven’t written my usual cafe piece on the Coffee Club in Orchard Fountain Corner, “my cafe” in Singapore. It sits cheerfully at a busy crossroads, open on all sides, with a clear roof high above. Behind it is a row of restaurants leading to the metro station, across from it is the Singapore Visitors’ Centre. On either side stretch the shady pavements of Orchard Road, lined with temples to the Gods of retail. The clientele changes through the day, like coloured lights. Yet everyone seems to hang out for hours. It’s always busy, friendly, unexpected. They’re playing Bach today, and when it’s played in the open air, threading between the noises of the street, it becomes somehow hip. I walked in after a gap of two weeks, one waiter smiled a bright hello, another said “Cappuccino and water?” and a third, seeing the glass full of ice, reminded him: “No ice”. They have the best cappuccino ever.

Some other things I haven’t written:
- An ode to the iPhone
- A whinge about the sudden breakdown of hair and skin, in an anticipatory deterioration into 40
- A witty piece about life as a freelancer-on-contract, with restful benefits of only being on the fringes of office life
- A warmly informative article about salt water aquariums, the strange preferences of captive anemones and the surprising discovery that fish seem to have personalities
- A travelogue about the Singapore metro
- A frankly self-indulgent ramble about the fact that the cashier in the Seven Eleven at Queenstown Station recognizes me now
- A word portrait of the Jurong Bird Park

Oh well.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Out-walking the blues

One disenchanted evening, I was feeling the bewilderment you feel when strangers have been rude to you for no reason. It was the last day of my longish freelancing stint at this place and apparently they didn’t think I merited the courtesy of a goodbye*. I was leaving an empty office, alone. Ad agencies never say thank you or sorry – it’s part of the ancient covenant – but I’ve grown to expect at least a “nice knowing you”. It is nice knowing me, especially on a short-term basis.

More than a little pissed off and fighting some epic self-pity, but not very hard, I took the stairs and found myself singing Yesterday When I Was Young, starting a train of thought that added one more, darker layer of blue. Outside, there was much thunder and lightning and an exuberant breeze, weather that always makes me feel good, so I stood undecided on the covered pavement that led to the station. The breeze was already tugging at the blue fog and I didn’t want to disappear underground. I checked my iPhone map and found that it was only a five-kilometre walk to the house. The route stuck to the main thoroughfares, so I could hop into a cab if the threatened rain came down.

I set off down Scotts Road, under the big trees. The neighbourhood was calming down, offices shutting for the night, and apartments correspondingly lighting up. Soon my iPhone told me to turn right, where the bright lights and brighter-eyed buzz of Orchard Road dimmed even the spectacular tropical lightning. (Or maybe it only seemed spectacular to someone used to the dry skies of Dubai and the more-temperate-than-anything-else Bangalore). As I cantered past the glossy window displays, I was pleased as always in my circle-of-life sort of way that there were clearly people wanting to buy Steinway pianos and the Loewe TV that cost five times more than a Samsung. Music played and glasses clinked at Black Angus, and I turned again to merge with the mighty Taglin Road.

It grew quieter and darker, the light receding to pools under streetlamps, until the silence of the sleeping embassies left the night to the cicadas and to me (and of course the security guards outside each gate). It was an uneasy walk for a while, the bits of rainforest that litter Singapore dripping moisture around me and thoughts of marauding raptors surfacing rather more often than was comfortable. The experience was anointed by the sudden appearance of a painfully thin girl with an afro whose high heels echoed behind me for a brief distance and then vanished. I suppose one of the intermittent cars was a taxi.

Eventually I saw the busy junction of Alexandra Road up ahead, and on the basis of being in the home stretch, I turned off the map, thus enlivening my walk by getting unaccountably lost. The landmarks seemed to be in the wrong places and no matter which way I turned, I seemed to fetch up at a previously unknown Ganges Avenue. My map seemed to have become equally confused in this Bermuda-trianglesque spot. Perhaps it was only confused about why I couldn’t follow a simple set of directions in words of one syllable.

Since I was lost, it started to rain and the taxis were all full, so I had to shelter in a bus stop with all the other weirdos of the night. But when a bus arrived, I noted with joy the route number that stops right in front of the house, jumped in and congratulated myself at length on my resourcefulness. When I was at liberty to look around me, I saw wondrous sights, including a Hotel Miramar that I’d never seen before in my life. You guessed it, I boarded the right bus going in the wrong direction. I hopping off in a hurry, crossed the road in the rain on what may be Singapore's only uncovered pedestrian bridge, and caught one going the other way.

This time, I spent the ride standing at the door in a near-empty bus, peering suspiciously at passing signboards. I can’t think of any place else in the world where the bus driver would have let that pass without comment. I only relaxed after a train came shooting out of the ground alongside to join the elevated rail, because I finally knew we were going in the right direction.

I started out at 8:30pm, did an hour's very brisk walking and finally got home well after 10 because of the attendant adventures, but I was in a rollicking good mood by then. Mission accomplished.

*The omission was amply corrected the next day when I went in to tie up loose ends, so all was well in the end.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Two days in Dubai

A friend of mine is going to be spending two days in Dubai next month and is collecting opinions on what she should concentrate on. By the time I’d finished my reply to her (getting more homesick all the time), it had turned into an itinerary on a Word file. So I decided to post it here and see if anyone wanted to add to it. Also, I haven’t posted in a while, so on the basis that something is better than nothing, here's my mail to her, as is.



A lot of history is along the Dubai Creek, but the weather might hamper your enjoyment of this. It’s probably too hot now for strolling from place to place. In winter, it used to be one of my chief activities. Anyway, at this time of year, I would suggest choosing air conditioned haunts in the mornings and setting out after three for the creek area towards late evening and sunset. That’s how I’ve listed stuff here, but of course you can mix it up as you choose!

Mid-morning: Jumeirah Beach Road

1. Jumeirah Mosque
It’s very beautiful and I recommend the guided tour.

2. Magrudy’s bookstore
A little way down the same road as the mosque (take a cab), you’ll find Magrudy’s Mall, with the bookstore. It’s an indigenous brand and apart from imported books, also encourages local publications in English. You’ll be able to find interesting Arab-character books and other fun stuff for Rohan, some local history for yourself if you’re so inclined. Chat a bit with the staff and they’ll help you. There are other big bookshops too in several malls – Borders in Mall of the Emirates and Books Plus in Lamcy Plaza have good collections.

3. House of Prose

If you’re still feeling chatty, walk to the next building, Jumeirah Plaza. Hunt around on the ground floor undeterred by the strangeness of this particular mall until you find a little bookshop in an unlikely corner. It looks like a library from the outside. It’s a second-hand bookstore run by a deeply interesting American called Mike McGinley. I first discovered his shop in Muscat - where he started out - and by the time I’d moved to Dubai, he’d also set up a store here. He’s one of the original musician-hippies of Haight Ashbury, has been in the Middle East for ages, been everywhere, done everything, read every book and heard every piece of music. He’s a wonderful person to talk to for perspective on a place that is defined mostly by people who have never been there or never bothered to get to know it.

- Near the mosque, there’s a big building called THE One. Funky interior stuff, from furniture to candles – good browsing and somewhere to escape the sun for a while. It’s a brand that was born in Dubai, used to be a client.
- If you want to pick up cold meats, cheeses, preserves etc from different parts of the world, take a cab down the road after the bookshops to Spinneys supermarket (Umm Suqueim branch).

Lunch suggestion:
Reem Al Bawadi: Lebanese restaurant much further down the same road. Very good food by Arabs, for Arabs, and a very comfortable place to sit on your own (have done it lots of times). Landmark for taxi: HSBC

After three in the afternoon

1. Bastakia, in Burdubai, near the creek (one of my favourite places).
- A restored settlement, wander around the interconnected houses, cobbled paths, the classic barajeel (wind towers)
- Includes the Majlis Gallery (used to be good for gifts and stuff worth seeing generally), XVA Art Gallery, XVA auditorium and the XVA Café (good food)
2. From there take a cab to the Dubai Museum (very close, very walkable in good weather), must see.
3. From the Dubai Museum, walk through the side roads to the wooden souk, which is a beautiful old market, with wooden carvings and lanterns. It was closed for renovation briefly but I think it’s open now. The merchandise being sold there is dead boring but the structure is achingly pretty.
4. When you walk through the souk, you’ll come out at the abra station on the creek. Jump into an abra and go to the other side of the creek – the Deira side.
5. Wander through the spice souks there to see much exotic Arabian-Nights-style incense, spices and things we’ve never heard of.
6. Across from the spice souk is the gold souk. Take a quick walk through, simply because it’s fascinating how much gold there is on display and how casually it’s treated.
7. Outside the souks, stand for a few minutes by the creek where the big dhows are – these are old-style wooden boats that still travel between East Africa, the Middle East and India carrying goods.
8. There's stuff on either side and behind these souks that you can explore if you have the energy.


1. Hope you’ll have company to be able to and go out to see some swanky parts of Dubai in the night.
2. A suggestion if you’re on your own: The evening musical fountain show on the Dubai Mall promenade (another of my favourites).
- It’s free and runs every half hour from 6 pm, but if you can catch the 7:30 one set to opera, that’s the best.
- You can see it from the railings along the promenade. But a better option is to have dinner in any of the lovely restaurants, bars, cafes around the lake, either in Dubai Mall or across the bridge in the Downtown Souk and watch the shows from your table. It’s a great experience. And you can stay there for a while, reading, writing or watching the beautiful people, all rewarding experiences.
- Dubai is very safe if you’re not being silly (infinitely safer than Bangalore in all conditions), so it’s okay to be out late in restaurants on your own.


The Dubai story is incomplete without seeing some of new Dubai.

1. DO NOT miss Burj Khalifa. The At The Top tour is expensive but very worth it.
2. Take the monorail on to the Palm Jumeirah simply for large landscape experience, check out the Atlantis Hotel (don’t do anything in it, stupidly expensive) and return.
3. From there, take a cab to the Dubai Marina, stroll along that promenade, check out the boats and have lunch at any of the nice restaurants there. If you’re lucky to be there on a street market day, you’ll lots of fun stalls where people like you and me are selling things they made.
4. Take the metro whenever you can, it’s great.
5. Any one of the big malls - it's educational.
5. You’ll probably be driving down Sheikh Zayed Road anyway, so you’ll see the financial district in passing.


You can’t not go out into the desert, so book a Desert Safari and go on it. They usually set out before sunset - dune bashing, followed by dinner on the sands, which includes belly dancer, shisha, cups of kahwa, the works. It’s extremely touristy but it’s necessary, trust me. Pick a good safari company – is a trustworthy source of information.

Other things if you have time:

- Sharjah Blue Souk
- Madinat Jumeirah and/or Downtown Dubai
- A dhow race: As far as I remember, the boat racing season is Nov to May so there’s a good chance there’s a race on. For goosebumpy sense of history there’s nothing like a line of traditional wooden ships with giant white sails, racing at high speed.
- If you do end up in Meena Bazaar (round the corner from Dubai Museum), check out the Pakistani fabric. My favourite store is called Bareeze.
- The Saeed Maktoum House/Museum, same general area as the museum: Historic building that used to be the house of the rulers and is now a museum. It doesn’t have much to see, but what there is provides an overview of the history of the place, old currency, trade etc.
- Near the Saeed House is the Heritage Village – provides craft-style gift shop delights.
- The Ras Al Khor mangroves with migratory flamingoes. It’s a walk into a really tiny patch of wilderness right in the middle of the city and leaves you with a strange sense of bewilderment.

- Please, please eat Lebanese food while you’re there. There’s nothing like it when it’s made well, and it’s almost never made properly outside of the Arab world. Make sure you have it at a good place, though. Some suggestions:
o Al Hallab – Branches in Mall of the Emirates, Dubai Mall
o Reem Al Bawadi – branches on Jumeirah Beach Road and on Sheikh Zayed Road
o Automatic – branch in Jumeirah Plaza
o You'll get other recommendations: everyone defends their own favourite Arabic place hotly.
- Food is something that Dubai does well, so you also get very good Japanese, Pakistani, Iranian, Mexican, Spanish and Italian food at different price ranges. So do not be lured into wasting your time here on Indian food.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black Swan

Natalie Portman does a brilliant job. Unfortunately, the director doesn’t, which is a pity because the concept of Black Swan is a good one. Professional ballet dancers work very, very hard. They deal with immense physical pain and have to develop the complementary mental endurance from early childhood. When the mind is trained to put in this level of commitment, it could easily start responding to everything with the same intensity, with all the attendant danger of going into overload. Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, is a rabidly committed ballerina who gets the prima ballerina slot she wants so badly, but at a very high cost - her mind crumbles under the pressure. The movie follows her into her breakdown.

At least, that’s what it wants to do, except that said breakdown is illustrated with a parade of horror-film gimmicks, making for many cheap thrills (I very quickly took to hiding behind my hair when she stopped in front of a reflective surface), but paradoxically lessening the real horror of her decline. A lighter sprinkling of those moments, a subtler build-up to the finale, and it would have been a classic. As it is, it’s just Scream in tutus. Add an obsessive mother treated to appear borderline psychotic, a boss who preys on his prima ballerinas and a mostly one-dimensional supporting cast, and Nina is reduced to an out-of-the-ordinary psycho in the manner of those strange kids in Blair Witch 2. Instead of taking you down with her, it makes you a mere spectator.

Maybe the movie is meant to be a spectacle rather than a tragedy, but there’s nothing in the posters or the write-ups to suggest a simple horror flick. My sister-in-law and I jumped quite a bit at the first manifestation, rather dismayed that we'd picked this kind of movie for a night show. The preview of Scream 4 that preceded it should have been our first clue, but we were too busy eating popcorn and agreeing that we should have smuggled in chicken wings.

The bits with actual ballet in it were very good.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yoga School Dropout by Lucy Edge

In a nutshell: Go ahead and read it, but without expectations. I had lots and was disappointed, but was also intermittently entertained.

It could have been called Bridget Jones Goes to India – that’s obvious from the blurb and is mostly why I bought it – except it’s not nearly as well-written. And the author has the most irritating habit of asking questions and not listening to the answers. Much of Yoga School Dropout is like being stuck on a long holiday with a tiresome companion.

Her reading covers a narrow field, leading to the yoga bits being two parts hokum. She didn’t seem to look around her much, either. One example is the fact that she spent two weeks in Kerala and never seemed to make the connection between yoga and Ayurveda. Her overriding need for calm and “flow” might have been met very early in the book if she’d stopped off at any of the Ayurvedic spas there. But if she had, I wouldn’t have got all the details about the visit to Kerala’s favourite Hugging Mother, so I should be grateful to her short attention span.

This last and others like it are the most interesting parts of the book. It goes to several unsuspected places in India, and some famous ones shrouded in suspicion (Osho’s ashram in Pune, for instance), all of which is deeply absorbing for an Indian. It also provides a fascinating inside view of the motivations and journey of the spiritual seekers who are such a regular and mysterious feature of the country. We used to notice them as teenagers, huddled on railway platforms around piles of backpacks, or flapping along pavements in dusty Indian flip-flops. They were invariably white, mostly pilgrims from the West. In the manner of teenagers, we referred to them dispassionately by a very politically incorrect term. Based on the cast and characters of this book, the kid who coined it showed a penetrating insight into the phenomenon.

Two important questions remain unanswered though:

1. Why do they brave the considerable inconvenience of India just to shut themselves into ashrams with fellow “Westerners”? (That’s the term she uses. It includes Australians. You would fetch up in Australia if you went far enough West, but then you’d also eventually reach India. Perhaps it denotes the yogic circularity of all things.) Someone she meets actually asks her this and her answer is that perhaps the Indian yoga schools don’t offer familiarity, which continues to beg the question, really.

2. Why do they seem to leave common sense behind when they enter upon this transformational quest? The “real Indian” is not a simple, yogic soul, full of enriching goodness. He or she is generally looking for a chance to jump the queue and pick your pocket on the way.

She’s wasted good material on formulae – she does herself and her friends in a Bridget-Jones-by-numbers style, and India in imitation-Paul-Scott, though I don’t think the latter is consciously done. The research is sloppy and the dialect rather painfully stereotypical (Indians have wondrous subject-verb-object combinations, the French in Auroville speak as if they’re on the sets of Allo Allo, and so on). The fact that sambar is referred to as “samba” throughout, I’m inclined to attribute to an accident with an automated spell-checker, but you never know.

The book started out very promisingly and deteriorated only mid-way, so the problem might well lie in the advice she got from her writing mentors. Judging by the acknowledgements, there seem to have been a lot of these; we all know what committee decisions lead to. There are frustrating glimpses of the real book – here-and-gone characters, and almost-there insights cropped out of the cutesy frame – which make my inner editor rage a bit.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” – Part 1

You’ve been hauling yourself to the gym every day for two weeks and are feeling good. Then someone says on Facebook that you’re looking “prosperous”. Deflation, discouragement, drop out. The main moral of this story is that if you weren’t friends with them in school, ignore the friend request, but also consider this: how engaging is the gym that it can be influenced so easily by a random opinion?

I’ve met very few people my age who don’t want to start exercising. They join gyms, sign up for classes, and drop out almost immediately. I’ve had four gym memberships. I’ve started aerobics, Pilates, kick-boxing, body sculpt, circuit training, holistic weight loss and boot camps of many varieties, including one called Bollywood Booty Kamp. I’ve bought a stability ball, two sets of free weights, several kinds of resistance bands, skipping ropes beyond counting, and books on everything. They were none of them used very much, not even the books. We defaulters put it down to lack of will power and self-discipline, and try, try, try again, never thinking that the problem might also lie with the activity we’ve been conditioned to choose. The gym is a chore, not fun.

Some other problems I have with gyms:
• They have no point: You walk on a treadmill for hours with no change of scenery, lift weights for no reason other than to get better at lifting weights, sweat away at the complicated steps of some group class only so you can lose weight.
• They’re indoors: I went through a stress-related breakdown some years ago and the counsellor wanted me to get out of the gym and walk outside, since that is healthier for the mind.
• They are joyless and inward-focused: Sign in, locker, warm up, machines, warm down, shower, locker, sign out. It’s like the caricature of a communist factory.
• They’re hotbeds of bad advice: Unrealistic goals. Foolish applause when you overreach yourself (it’s bad enough that half your Facebook friend-list will show up to tell you they’re “proud of you”, without it being reinforced by awe-inspiring strangers). Encouragement to start a crash diet, so you can be tired and enervated all the time. Fitness myths of all kinds.
• They’re mindlessly competitive: You compare your lonely statistics against someone else’s equally solitary achievement and win no prizes.

Against this, there is the fact that most of the friends who took up a sport, or an outdoor activity such as running, walking or cycling have had no trouble keeping it up.

I should mention here that I’m not talking about people who are in serious training. I’m addressing those like me who just want to feel fit and look good. We are the ones who line the roads to clap for marathon runners, triathletes and people who cycle 100km a day, but have no desire to do it ourselves. For people like us, gyms are not the best choice for what they purport to do, but – like Microsoft Office, big-brand breakfast cereals and Starbucks – have somehow managed to become not just the default option, but the popular one. They seem to have changed the very world they exist in to make themselves the most acceptable choice.

If a store made you uncomfortable, a restaurant gave you a hard time, a nightclub was boring, a dry cleaner ruined your clothes or a mechanic cheated you, you wouldn’t go back to them. And yet, you return to the gym over and over again, in spite of its repeated failure to work for you.

CONTINUED BELOW (Yes the title of the post is explained eventually)

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” – Part 2

Now that I’ve established that gyms are evil, I will give my sisters and brothers in fattitude the benefit of my own experience.

Eat healthy
Balance your meals, eat a proper breakfast, drink enough water, watch the sugar and be mature about your portions most of the time. That’s all it is, really. Enjoy your food, your way. If you don’t like raw vegetables, don’t make resolutions to eat salad. Just learn the right ways to cook them. Forget the fanatics and remember that your grandparents ate cooked vegetables and lived healthily ever after. When reading fitness magazines and articles, take away only as much as you can usefully carry. Their five carefully calibrated meals are impractical when 11 am and 4 pm are prime meeting slots. But while you can’t be slicing pears at the conference table, you can drink green tea instead of coffee.

Find an activity you like doing – walking the dog, walking around the mall, cleaning the house, DIY, tossing a ball, playing with your child, badminton, dancing, whatever – and then do it often. As you go along, you’ll find yourself ramping it up, since energy begets energy, and you will get the recommended amount of exercise. Stop obsessing over weight-loss (unless you’re dangerously obese, the world doesn’t magically change when you’re thinner) and just enjoy feeling fitter. Be active, be patient and never mind what that super-driven, skinny colleague thinks of you; you never liked her anyway.

You can’t make sustainable changes when you’re feeling bad about yourself; it’s feeling good that motivates you. In the long-term, happiness is a much better goal than weight-loss, and one really does lead to the other. Go to the movies, read, Watch TV, browse, converse, keep your mind active too. A flabby mind is as bad for you as an obese body. Go out to dinner with friends. Have large Sunday meals with family. Eat dessert. Keep in touch. Do things that open your mind and laugh yourself thin without knowing it. Really.

“Eat healthy, exercise and socialize” is the motto of a friend’s dad. His daughters treat it with the mirthful irreverence with which all right-thinking children greet the tenets of their fond fathers. (“Even if you’re bleeding all over the floor, he’ll ask you “Have you been eating healthy? Did you exercise? Have you networked today?””). But it is an excellent formula for a good life.

I’ve only recently distilled all this in my own mind, so the systematic application of it hasn't been going on very long. I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Fairy godmothers for our times

Most trashy romances have at least one episode involving dress-up, where the heroine has found a magical dress, her hair is right, she doesn’t feel fat and is the belle of the ball. In fact, this part is often more passionately expressed than the hero’s entrance. (Helena Rubenstein demonstrated consumer insight decades before the term was coined when she said: “In the factory we make cosmetics, but in the drug store we sell dreams”.)

It’s the fairy godmother that makes Cinderella’s story, not the faceless prince. The subsequent fitting of the slipper and happily-ever-after was just the knock-on effect of the real turning point when Cinderella discovered her “look”. These were some of mine:

A hairdresser named Beatrice: I spent years fighting my curls, hating them, aided and abetted by hairdressers who tried to teach me impossible acrobatics with hair dryers and brushes. Then I accidentally found the best salon I’ve ever been in (for the record, Cut and Shape in Dubai). The hairdresser assigned to me went into raptures over my hair, others came by to wonder and exclaim. One of them told me that people “spend fortunes to get that look”. It was news to me that I had one at all. I was dissuaded from having the elaborate procedure I’d come in for and shown instead the basics of looking after curly hair, celebrating it, even. I walked out a different person. Both Bea and I have long since left Dubai, but my good hair days go on and on.

A shop called Be: Having spent the formative years worrying about my hair, I had no time left to develop any clothes-sense. So I just wore what my friends were wearing. Except that they were all either statuesque or waiflike, and their choices sat awkwardly on my decidedly Dravidian body type. I resigned myself to the fact that my clothes were always wrong, until I checked out a new boutique in the neighbourhood and there it was, that look thing again. The sudden access of freedom that came from finding my style was like the first time I had the courage to take my feet off the ground in a swimming pool – it was more like learning to fly than swim. They shut down long ago (perhaps I was their only customer – I’ve certainly never seen anyone else wear my clothes), but their work was done.

A girl called Jerusha: I was preserved in cotton wool till I was about sixteen, which didn’t prepare me much for teenage social life. I didn’t know about dancing and dating, the rhythms of a party or cross-gender repartee, to name a few. Pat Boone, Abba or the Beatles were fine, but Madonna, Wham and Top of the Pops were closed books. And talking of books, academic excellence and having read almost everything by Jane Austen and Wodehouse were hardly conducive to party conversation. Then, in walked my neighbour who not only knew all the important things but didn’t seem scared of them. Non-judgmental and intrepid, she passed on her knowledge and approach to life, changing mine. She’s still around, family now in fact, so her good work continues. And years later, another girl called Smita took up the job of updating and supplementing her work.

A man named Nicolas: Entering my life some twelve years later and definitely not non-judgmental, my differently oriented cabin mate combined high standards on the look front with a designer’s respect for individualism. His frank opinions and equally unreserved praise gave me the final ingredient – confidence in my own judgment.

Once the fairy godparents had finished with me, I was reluctant to waste it mucking about with glass slippers and now prefer going on happy single holidays instead. But here’s the thing – I look good doing it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cherai Beach Resort

It’s five in the evening, the tide is coming in. We leap in the waves and are baptised by salt water, again and again. We laugh, fight, cry and enthuse, cocooned by a shared illusion that time makes no difference, age is immaterial.
Every year or so we endeavour to find our ancestral home in other places, the extended family gathering in a two-day simulation of long-ago leisurely summer holidays. The strange thing is that we do find it; somehow the patterns that were established then reproduce themselves. It’s a combination of collective memories and the fact that each of us has felt the same influences, even if in different ways.

But each “family meet” also brings poignancy, because we’re the last ones to know. My nieces and nephews will establish their own patterns - nice ones probably - but the images of the houses we came from, the timbre of the voices that touch a chord deep in the gut and even some of the food will go out with my generation. As always I’m haunted by the urgent thought that it’s up to us – me, actually – to record the stories, gather the recipes and hold it all in trust for the kids. I don’t know why it seems so important, but there it is.

Earlier that day, we sat at long tables beneath stirring coconut trees, deep in the satisfaction that only fresh fish, perfectly made, can bring us. The voices that surrounded us came from our childhood, and a boat rocked beneath us, like a cradle in transit. Meanwhile, water lilies bloomed outside our doors, picturesque backwaters lapped at the fences and a pink dolphin lay unaccountably dead on the beach up ahead.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Encounter with a rude runner

I ran into him recently. Or perhaps I should say he ran into me; I merely walked into it, unawares. Sunlight was slanting at the right angle through the leaves, the sky was the correct shade of blue, the trees had breathed out a fresh consignment of oxygen and I had hit that point in my exercise where one feels like a well-oiled machine. Then he came jogging up and told me that “only old people walk” and that at my age, I should be running. I patiently explained that walkers are not lazy runners, that I hate running and love walking, that the health benefits can be accrued either way and everyone must do the exercise that gives them pleasure. In response, he started to give me tips on “transitioning” to running. When he urged me to use an upcoming marathon as my goal, he confirmed what I’d suspected all along – he’s a run-for-a-causer, close cousin of the candle-light-vigilante, so he wasn’t going to relinquish his righteous ignorance easily.

I explained much less patiently that re the marathon, I couldn’t imagine anything I was less interested in, except maybe skiing. He gave me a pep talk on saving the planet. I asked him sweetly how him running a marathon was saving the planet. He side-stepped the question like a good evangelist should, switching to a discourse on carbon footprints. I reminded him that a marathon involved ambulances, TV and refreshment vans, sponsors’ vehicles, track-keepers’ cars, police motorcycles, thousands of little plastic water cups and the garbage trucks that presumably needed to come after. He called me a cynic and said that India needed more believers. I told him India’s problem was too many believers. And added that I could argue for the Olympics, so he should just move on. And set a good example by moving on myself.

I wish I’d thought to ask him what he meant by “old people”, considering the oldest cyclist on the 900-km Tour of Nilgiris was 60. But I did manage to out-holy him a few days later – I met him buying bread and found that he drove one kilometre to do it, whereas I had walked two. Idiot.

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