Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Joy of Potholes

Unlike other cities where they have potholes only on inner roads, we in Hyderabad seem to prefer having them on our main roads. That maybe because we don’t want visitors to Hyderabad to miss out on our fantastic potholes. We want them to know that we Hyderabadis too are pretty deep into potholes as well. Also, having potholes on main roads is one way of revealing the Hyderabadi character- we don’t mind a few bumps in our lives and on our roads as long we get to have our daily dose of Irani chai.

The municipal engineers in Hyderabad seem to have forgotten that November is already over since there is no sign of any sort of road repairs which, if I remember correctly, they promised to take up sometime for the middle of November. I wonder what their excuse is this time for not taking up the repairs. Maybe they feel the potholes aren’t deep enough to warrant filling them up. Or maybe it is the rains. It looks like the potholes are going to be around for a long time.

Whatever, I feel the potholes in Hyderabad are just like Hyderabadis- big, like their hearts and empty, like their heads.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Magical Morning

It was time for the monthly dose of morning tranquility that I have become addicted to. I could have gone on the last Sunday of the month but there was the Hyderabad 10 K Run scheduled. Also, there was a lot in my mind that had accumulated and that I wanted to get rid of. Saturday night I went to bed eager to get up early and drive to Necklace Road before it was sun up.

It’s winter already in Hyderabad and I had expected it to be cold early in the morning. But it wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be as I took the bike out. Though it was only six in the morning the streets were busy with traffic. I reached my usual spot only to find it occupied. I walked further ahead and sat down waiting for the sun to come out. The sky was cloudy adding to the silence of the morning and the chill. Just sitting watching the calm lake seemed so soothing.

After a while the sun broke out of the clouds, a golden orb that was reflected in the placid waters. I sat for about an hour immersed in my thoughts- another month and the year would come to an end. I had nothing to show in this year except completing the draft of the book. I had a month more to do something in the direction of completing the revisions or write an article for the papers. I had begun a travel piece about my visit to the Andamans. I am halfway to finishing it. If it comes out well then maybe some newspaper will carry it next month or later.

The next phase of the morning was in Adarsh Cafe. It was quiet in the hotel as I sat poring through the Sunday supplement of the Deccan Chronicle. Inside were two articles on two women who had lost something in their lives. Chitra Singh, the wife of Jagjit Singh, the ghazal singer talked about the loss of her teenage son in a road accident years ago. Mona Singh, divorced from Boney Kapoor talked how she picked up the pieces of her life after her divorce. It made for inspiring reading, these two stories.

There were only a few people in the hotel and they all seemed to talk in quiet voices. The mild winter sunlight streamed into the hotel through the tops of the trees gently swaying on the other side of the road. Lost in reading the paper I did not notice it was already half past eight and time to return home.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The SundayHaul- A Magazine and a Book

Among the thousands of people who read the latest issue (November ’08) of ‘The Atlantic’ I must have been the only one in the whole world to have bought it off the pavement, and at a fraction of its cover price. (No matter how many times I checked I couldn’t find the price on the cover.) Some well-read soul in Hyderabad must have already gone through it and decided to sell it off though there is still a week for the month to end.

It was a lucky find given the fact that the brand new magazine lay there on the pavement since morning without anyone buying it until I arrived at Abids sometime late in the afternoon and picked it up the instant my eyes caught the title. I got it for only twenty rupees. The issue was also special in that it is a redesigned one and also has two good articles- one was by Andrew Sullivan (Will Blogs Kill Writing?) and the other, a review by Christopher Hitchens of- The World Is What It Is - Patrick French’s biography of VS Naipaul.

But I found only one book on Sunday and it was one I had already read. The copy of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ was too good to miss at just ten rupees so I picked it up. I got this 384 page paperback for just ten rupees. I also saw a book of poems by Raymond Carver as well as a book by John O’Hara, both of whose titles I am now unable to recollect.

I was intrigued when I came across a new prefix, twice in two different articles I skimmed through in ‘The Atlantic.’ The prefix was ‘ur-‘ and was used in these sentences: ‘Forget the male ur-reader’ and ‘…to think Johnny Mercer wrote ur-American songs he didn’t….’ I wonder what the prefix means.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hyderabad's Smallest Bookstore

Sometime back, about a month ago, Odyssey opened the biggest bookstore in Hyderabad in the upscale area of Jubilee Hills. With more than a couple of floors the store is really the biggest bookstore in our city. Almost at the same time it also seemed to have opened what can be called as the smallest bookstore in Hyderabad- the Odyssey Express bookstore. In addition to being the smallest bookstore it also is located in a rather unusual location- a filling station in, of all places, East Marredpally

Not until a friend told me about it I did not know about the Odyssey Express bookstore inside a HPCL outlet in East Marredpally. Last Saturday I checked it out and was surprised with the neat and compact store. It had just a couple of racks filled with a choice of books for all tastes- fiction, non-fiction, management, classics etc apart from the latest bestsellers. There were racks filled magazines, racks filled with music and movie CD/DVDs, racks filled with stationery including greeting cards, plenty of toys, gift items and also premium pens- something for every one. That sounds like a lot for a small store no more than a few square feet.

I picked up a bottle of ink and the latest issue of ‘Tinkle’ which I don’t usually find at their main store. The sales person at the counter told me they have two more similar stores- one at the new airport at Shamshabad and another at Prasads Imax. It seems a good idea to have such mini stores in places where space is at a premium but where there is demand for books and such stuff. I expect others to follow this welcome trend.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Straight from the Saucer: Crazy Tourist in Irani

One cannot really tell what a Hyderabadi will do at any given time or at any given place because Hyderabadis, by nature, are so utterly unpredictable. How we drive on the roads is one perfect example. This unpredictability also seems to affect those who visit the city. When one is in an Irani one expects every one to have chai whatever the weather outside. When it is chilly one cannot imagine drinking anything else (in an Irani anyway). But the other day I had a glimpse of a different type of unpredictability.

Last Monday morning I was in Adarsh. The weather had been quite different with dark clouds of the cyclone on the coast still hanging over the city. It had rained the previous night which added to the morning’s chill. Every thing appeared wet and cold. The sun wasn’t out – just the sort of weather to drink something warm, like Irani chai. Though it was half past nine in the morning it appeared like it was still early morning what with the cloudy weather and the chill.

I ordered my tea and waited for it. A young fellow, well dressed, with a small bag in one hand and a bottle of mineral water in the other hand sat opposite me. When I am in Irani hotels I like to play a game. I try to guess what people at the table would order. He looked like one of those visitors who come to the Birla Temple and stop at Adarsh for breakfast. I thought he would order something to eat. But when he ordered Limca I was slightly taken aback though the waiter did not seem very surprised. This was weather to drink something to warm your insides, not chill them I thought of telling him.

When the waiter brought the bottle of Limca the young man told him to bring a straw. So there he was, drinking Limca through a straw while I sat drinking my tea from the saucer. I wondered where he was from- perhaps from one of those places where they don’t sell any soft drinks.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Midweek's Haul

I like to read travel writing a lot I rarely get to travel and much less write about my travels. The Andaman trip was the only long trip I made anywhere. However, I like to read travel literature to compensate for the lack of adventure in my own life. I've read Bruce Chatwin, Ryscard Kapuscinski, Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer- those kind of writers and also travel magazines like Conde Nast Travel. But Paul Theroux continues to be a favorite. Sometime back I had picked up Theroux’s ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ which is about his journeys in China by train. It is more than a year since I found it and I am sort of treasuring it for a time when I will be free to do some solid reading.

But when I found another book on China I felt glad I had not yet read ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ since I want to compare it with another book on the same place. The other day I had been to a second hand bookstore and came across Colin Thubron’s ‘Behind the Wall’, an account of his travels in China. It would be interesting to see what one writer noticed and what the other has missed. This book too is a tome with hundreds of pages. I want to read the two books one after the other. But I am wondering which to read first.

The other books I saw but did not buy at the store were Pico Iyer’s ‘Tropical Classical’ which was a better copy than the one I had, Kazuo Ishiguro, a book of poems by Joyce Carol Oates, a book by Sanjay Nigam and several others I would have unhesitatingly bought had my shelves been empty and the wallet full.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Stranger in the Irani

A long time ago, in the eighties, I happened to live in the Malakpet area. But not for so long for people to recognize me and wish me almost twenty years later. That’s what happened when I was in Hotel Niagara at Chaderghat one fine morning sometime last week. I thought it was someone I knew who wished me but it turned out to be a strange but not unusual experience for me.

Saturday morning I was in Malakpet to attend a conference which turned out to be terribly boring. I left midway and stopped at Niagara for a cup of Irani chai. Maybe it was the Elmore Leonard book (Stick) that I was reading or maybe something I picked up from my cop friend but I knew what the white haired, shabbily dressed stranger who wished me as he passed my table, was up to. He had spotted me long before I noticed him.

Sure enough, he appeared before me again. I was engrossed in the book. There’s something about Elmore Leonard’s books that makes me feel very sorry- sorry for a lot of things- for not being able to write snappy dialogue like him, sorry for not being able to think up the kind of stories he does, sorry, sorry… Then when the stranger sat on the chair before me I knew what was coming. Perhaps his shabby dress gave him away but I wasn’t very startled when he extended his left on the table bringing his fist for my inspection. He uncurled his fingers to reveal a few coins. When I looked at him he asked me for five rupees because he wanted to have lunch. Only five rupees. He made a gesture of putting food in his mouth with his other hand.

I wasn’t exactly in a generous mood that morning though I was reading a book by one of my favorite writers, Elmore Leonard, had a plateful of chota samosas in front of me and a cup of hot Irani chai was on its way. I had walked out half way through an official conference, the sun wasn’t out and it was a long ride back to office. Then pay day was a long way off. But he had got me at a wrong time. No Hyderabadi sitting in an Irani restaurant and shoveling chota samosas into his mouth can afford to be not generous. On top of it, I work for the Government (our motto: we serve all). He looked at me longingly.

I did not know if he’d have lunch with it or a drink but I hoped it was something for his stomach as I gave him a tenner and gestured him to buzz off. I needn’t because he was gone even before I had shut my wallet. It wasn't exactly a smart thing to do, but then we Hyderabadis are like that.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

300 Posts

I had not realized it when putting it on the blog but the previous post was the 300th post. However, it wasn’t something to be very excited about. Blogging has become a routine now after nearly a year and half at it. It has also become a source of worry. I begin to think of what to write next as soon as I post something here. It is another worry in addition to those already teeming in my mind all the time- Is there enough petrol? Is it going to rain? Is my head going to come off if I take that pothole at sixty? Are we Hyderabadis really that dumb? And so on.

When I had done about 280 posts in October I thought I’d try to do three hundred by the end of the month and try to do fifty more to touch three hundred and fifty by the end of the year which would have been a rather neat way of ending the year. But a post a day seemed daunting and besides, there’s the fact that there aren’t many people exactly dying to read the posts here. So it didn’t seem worth the effort.

Also, a post a day would take too much time away from my work and the revision on the book. So I gave up the idea and spared a few people the daily bother of checking what I had come up with since the last time they had been on the blog. I guess I might be able to reach three hundred and twenty three posts or so by the end of the year which is just as good as 350 considering no one out there is handing out awards for prolific bloggers, especially to those from Hyderabad.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Sunday Haul

Bargaining is something I am not very good at. In fact, it is one among a long list of things I cannot do without breaking into a sweat. But bargaining is perhaps somewhere at the top of the list. It is something I am trying to master by making sporadic attempts that usually end in failure. However, on some days I surprise myself. Last Sunday turned out to be one such day when my uncertain bargaining skills yielded two good books.

Normally I don’t like to bargain with the booksellers at Abids. I like to think they are doing a great service bringing good books to our notice. I don’t grudge them the small profit they make on the books. After all, they have to make a living. I don’t expect them to buy personal jets on the profits they make on the books. So I pay them whatever they ask and if they reduce a bit I am more than happy.

But when I bargain I try not to lose. That way I landed the first book which was ‘The Art of T.S. Eliot by Helen Gardner which the guy quoted for seventy rupees. I told him I was not prepared to pay a rupee more than twenty five rupees. He asked me to quote a second price. I didn’t. So when he put the book in my hands saying it was mine I was more than surprised.

The second find was in a ten rupee heap. It was ‘Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast’ by Bill Richardson. It seemed to be connected with books as the blurb on the cover showed a quote from Publisher’s Weekly- ‘This quiet charmer is a bibliophile’s delight’ which seemed a good enough reason to pick it up.

The third and last find was a book I had seen a couple of weeks back. It was a book that was reviewed in ‘The Literary Review’ of the ‘The Hindu’ last year. I hadn’t forgotten the review and I don’t know why but the title stuck in my mind. It was Helene Hanff’s ’84, Charing Cross Road which, as the blurb at the back said- ‘ a must for all who worship books’. But I had to bargain for it. The starting price was seventy rupees but I got it for less than half that amount- thirty rupees.
Here's the review in 'Literary Review' - http://

That way I ended up with three more books on Sunday.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A Midweek Find of Two Books

A few years ago I was working in another department and the office was situated very close to the British Library. My boss, who happened to be a cop, had a membership there. Another colleague was also a member. The enjoyable part was that though I was not a member I could go into the library and browse to my heart’s content, and also borrow books. It was in the British Library that I found my first Paul Theroux book- ‘Dark Star Safari.’ I also happened to come across Dirk Bogarde’s ‘For the Time Being: Collected Journalism’ which had a selection of his book reviews.

I borrowed the book on my boss’ card and read it. I liked the way he wrote and enjoyed his reviews of some good books. I found his other books over the years such as ‘An Orderly Man,’ A Postillion Struck by Lightning’, ‘Backcloth’ and ‘Snakes and Ladders’ that I found at a second hand store in, of all places, Goa. I was looking for ‘For the Time Being’ for a long time and at last on Thursday I chanced upon it in a second hand book store in Secunderabad. I also found another book by one of my favorite writer, Elmore Leonard’s ‘Switch’.

Leafing through ‘For the Time Being’ I was surprised to find there were reviews of some books I too had read. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ was Bogarde’s choice as Book of the Year in the year 1988. About Marquez’s book he says ‘He has written the most gloriously heart-wrenching story of love that I have, perhaps, ever read…It haunts, lingers in the mind and in the mind’s eye, long after the covers have been reluctantly closed.’ I must say Bogarde got it exactly right.

The book that was Bogarde’s choice the following year was another book I have, Bruce Chatwin’s ‘What Am I Doing Here.’ This is what he says about the book : ‘It gave me intense pleasure in the very spareness and beauty of its prose, its astonishing, and deceptive, simplicity and the detailed pictures which it set before my eyes.’

There were two more books, in the several books he has reviewed, that I have also read. One is Peter Mayle’s ‘Toujours Provence’ and the other, by a writer who was here in India not so long , and hailed for his writing. Here’s what Bogarde says about Jeffrey Archer’s ‘A Twist in the Tale’- ‘This is no Maugham, no Dahl, no Saki…not even a Capote. A bundle of little stories with all the bite and crispness of tinned asparagus. I fear that I guessed the so-called twists in the tale pretty quickly.’

Dirk Bogarde was a famous British movie actor who also happened to be a good writer as well. He was struck down by a stroke and was confined to a wheel chair but that did not stop him from writing. Out of his seven volumes of autobiography I have yet to find ‘A Short Walk from Harrods’, ‘Great Meadow’ and ‘Cleared for Take Off’.

The other book I found on Thursday was by an author whose books get made into movies. ‘Switch’ happens to be my latest Elmore Leonard find not so long after getting ‘Hombre’ as a welcome gift, and finding ‘Stick’ just a couple of weeks ago. There’s a long list of his books that I have to read. I got ‘Switch’ and ‘For the Time Being’ for a hundred rupees which isn’t much for a midweek’s find.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Literary Review... Just Books

At last, on Sunday, The Hindu brought with it the much awaited ‘Literary Review.’ As I expected, there was Arvind Adiga on the front page. Amitava Kumar wrote a scathing (?) article about the Booker winning title calling it ‘inauthentic’ and lot more. His argument and reasoning seemed valid but unless I read the book I cannot tell. One can expect a lot more of such fireworks in the future. Below, was an article on the Nobel prize winner, Le Clezio by Shelley Walia.

Inside, there was an interview of C.K. Meena whose latest books ‘Dreams for the Dying’ is out. I haven’t heard of her and haven’t come across her books anywhere. Also, there was an item on the Kollam Literary Festival held sometime back at Kollam/Kovalam. If ever I decide to attend any Literary Festival it will be the one at Kollam, which, the article says is going to be a regular feature. Kerala is one Southern state I haven’t traveled to. Maybe next year I might be in a position to say 'Kerala, here I come.'

The first Sunday of every month is one that makes me happy because it is filled with books all day. The Literary Review with several interesting articles, interviews and reviews makes for enjoyable reading but I still feel something is missing. I wish they could carry something about writing. There could be a column wherein famous writers could discuss their technique, talk about they came about to write their books, and stuff like that which could be of interest to aspiring writers. Among the millions of readers who read The Hindu could be several people who aspire to write. Such a feature could be of great help to them.

Later in the evening I watched ‘Just Books’ hosted by Sunil Sethi on NDTV Profit. A regular feature on this program is the one where celebrities talk about the books on their bookshelves. This week it was the playwright Mahesh Dattani and incidentally, he was recommending CK Meena’s book I had read in ‘Literary Review’ in the morning. It was an odd coincidence.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The Sunday Haul- Three More Books

About two years ago William Dalrymple was in Hyderabad to read from his new book- The White Mughals, at the Taj Krishna, where incidentally, I had an encounter with Sania Mirza in a lift. It was an interesting event, and after the reading was over I resolved to buy and read ‘The White Mughals.' However, I never got to buy the book though I read his other writings here and there. But this Sunday I got lucky. I found an almost brand new copy of another of his books- 'The Age of Kali.' I got the book for fifty five rupees which was a bit steep for my budget.

Lying next to ‘The Age of Kali’ on the pavement was a book by another writer I had not yet read. It was Pavan K. Verma’s ‘Being Indian’ which again, I got for fifty rupees. The bookseller seemed to have figured out from something about me that I was eager to buy the two books so he quoted the high figures. I did not want to bargain and paid what he asked for. Both the books were in extremely good condition. I was pleased I landed a nice haul so early in the day.

The next find was in a heap of books selling for only ten rupees. The book was by a writer I had read about only very recently. I tried hard to remember but I was unable to recollect which writer was mentioning Jay McInerney in an article on writing. I had found ‘The Last of the Savages’ and from the reviews on the back of the book it appeared to be a book not to be missed. Plus it was also for only ten rupees. So I bought it taking the Sunday's haul to three.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Going Chinese in an Udupi

The only thing I look forward to eagerly (apart from exiting as quickly as possible) whenever I eat at an Udupi hotel is the scented saunf that comes with the bill. That pretty much sums up the way I feel about the food in Udupi hotels. With so many Irani joints in Hyderabad to fill me up when I am hungry I try to avoid eating at Udupi hotels except at gun point.

Nine times out of ten I cannot eat the stuff they serve. It is uniformly bland for my taste. It isn’t just the food but the waiters I have a problem with. The waiters in the Udupis make you feel unwelcome with the kind of snooty expressions they have on their faces, eyebrows raised and not a hint of a smile. The upmarket the hotel the more snooty they are. I guess they are specially trained not to smile at customers at any cost. Maybe they are afraid we would begin to ask for extra chutney or sambar if they smile, especially in Hyderabad. They all (from the waiter to the guy who sits at the cash counter) have that look that says it is a favor they are doing us by running an Udupi hotel. Any other hotel would be grateful for the customers for patronizing the hotel. Not Udupi guys.

However I must agree that they are some of the cleanest eating joints one can find in Hyderabad. Someone or the other is always wiping the floor when I am in an Udupi hotel. They could easily conduct surgeries on the floor in Udupi hotels. They have a fetish for cleanliness though I wish they show the same fetish when it comes to the food. They all seem to assume that just because they are all from the Udupi area anything they cook will turn out to be worth eating. Even Chinese fare.

I had lunch at the Shanbagh hotel in Basheerbagh with Raj on Saturday. For some reason we decided to try out some of the Chinese fare listed on the menu. Knowing well the way their regular stuff tastes I thought I had made a mistake ordering Chinese food in an Udupi hotel. An Udupi hotel isn’t exactly the place to get adventurous about food. Luckily there was nothing more adventurous than noodles on the menu so we went for soft noodles and fried noodles. I half expected them to bring Maggi noodles on a plate but we got what we asked for. But even after literally dousing the stuff with generous spoonfuls of the various sauces, the food did not appear to have any kind of taste.

Afraid that the guys, especially the cook, would get upset if we said anything about the food we quietly spooned it into our mouths. The Udupi hotels aren’t the sort of places where they ask you how the food was after you finish it. That’s probably because they too know how it is.