Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Tea at Anand's

Until recently I haven’t had a cup of tea that cost me more than six rupees anywhere. I do not think a good cup of tea (Irani or otherwise) costs anything more than that much anywhere unless of course if it were at any of the fancy star hotels where a cup of tea would set you back by as much as a month’s expenses on petrol, or in my case, books. Not even in Hyderabad did I have to pay as much for a cup of tea as I did in the small town where I work. But honestly, the tea I had there one day was worth every paisa.

Since I was posted in this small town I had been nosing around, as is my habit, for a place where I could find a decent cup of tea to have regularly. Sometime last week a colleague took me to a place that’s now become a regular pilgrimage centre for me. I had seen it once, tucked away in a by lane, during my rambling evening walks but did not pay much attention to it. However, I was glad my colleague took me to the small hotel in the lane. The joint is so small there is space for only four tables but offers more than a dozen different kinds of tea including green tea. Green tea! No place in Hyderabad that I frequent is green tea available on the menu.

Anyway, that day I had my first cup of tea in Anand Café. We ordered masala tea and sat waiting for about ten minutes. It was that time of the day when I am not able to think clearly until there’s some tea in the bloodstream. So I waited rather impatiently watching someone grind something with a pestle and mortar and put it in the saucepan. It was worth the wait for the masala tea whipped up by the person was simply out of the world. There was ginger in it, cardamom, a hint of almonds and god knows what else but it instantly perked me up. The only downer was the cost- ten rupees a cup.

Anand Café is run by a father-son duo. They both have the sort of expression that people who know what they are doing have while making the tea. The next day I discovered that they also make two types of samosas which they make in small numbers for which people wait eagerly. The place is crowded at all times. Though I have to trek for almost thirty minutes to get there from home it doesn’t seem very far away once the ginger/masala tea begins to flow down the gullet. I’m glad that I get such good tea though I cannot get Irani chai in this small town.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Sunday/Book Fair Haul

Around this time of the year I experience, in equal measures, feelings of anxiety and also, excitement. Anxiety, at the thought of what the final number of books and magazines I must have picked up during the year comes to. Excitement, because it is the time of the year when the annual Book Fair begins which presents an opportunity to buy more books and add to the year's tally. There’s still three more days for the Book Fair to end and a week for the year to come to a close but I still haven’t begun listing the books I had hauled in during the year.

This year can be termed as the ‘Year of Conde Nast Traveler’ for me because I found the largest number of the magazine issues during the year. Almost every Sunday I am finding at least one issue, new or old, at Abids. This Sunday was no exception. I picked up just one issue, the November 2009 issue. Out of a handful of issues I bought only this issue for a good reason. Inside was a lengthy essay by Orhan Pamuk on Venice which alone is worth more than the forty rupees I paid for it. I wanted to buy all the issues the seller had but there was another interesting magazine to buy- ‘creative screenwriting’ magazine of September 2009 for which I had to pay a steep price. I’m hoping it will pay back when I finally manage to finish a screenplay I have in mind to write after I finish writing the novel. Next Sunday I plan to pick up the other issue that I had decided not to buy because of budgetary constraints.

Since one doesn’t find many books or magazines on writing or screenwriting at Abids I thought I was lucky finding the screenwriting magazine. But I was in for some more luck. One of the sellers at Abids sprang a nice surprise on me. After I picked up ‘American Families- 28 Short Stories’ from him he handed me a season pass to the Book Fair that was on. It was really a nice gesture and I paid him what he asked without bargaining for the book of short stories I picked. Later in the afternoon I decided to put the season pass to good use and dropped in at the Book Fair that was at Necklace Road. Maybe I read it wrong then but I remember reading in The New Indian Express that this year’s Book Fair would be for only four days. It turns out to be incorrect since the event was for the usual ten days, mercifully. As always, there were a couple of surprises in store at the Book Fair.

The first surprise was finding that ‘The Hindu’ had not put up a stall this year. I wonder why but I was disappointed because I always make it a point to buy the ‘Sportstar’ cap they seem to sell only at the Book Fair. Another surprise was that I couldn’t find anything interesting to buy in the five secondhand book stalls in the fair. I saw Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Leafstorm and Other Stories’ but it was for one hundred and fifty rupees. Also, since most of the stories in it are ones that I had read in other collections I have with me, I gave the book a miss.

I went to the Book Fair again on the next day and bought a collection of short stories- ‘Pack of Cards’ by Penelope Lively that I got for thirty rupees. It has thirty four short stories and I read the first story in it, ‘Nothing Missing but the Samovar’ which was a long but delightful story. It appears a gem that I have discovered. In my next visit I plan to pick up Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright City, Bright Lights’ about which I had read a great deal because it is one of the few novels written in the second person. That is, if no one has picked it up till then.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two Encounters

Few things in life change one’s moods than the smile of a complete stranger just when you are in the dumps. And few things make you feel sad than the sight of a grown up adult with the mind of a child. Last week I had the pleasant experience of being smiled at by someone I had never seen in my life before. It was a smile that still lingers in my mind, for it was a genuine smile from a simple soul.

Returning home after a long week at work involving traveling in dusty villages, I wanted the bus I was in to hurry up. I hadn’t seen my kid for a week and I was eager to reach home. I wanted to get back home as soon as I could but the bus had stopped. It had slowed down to a crawl in a road side village on the highway. Vendors with apples, bananas, custard apples, tomatoes and other vegetables in baskets and push carts jammed the sides of the road. I was irritated. I looked out through the window from my seat. I thought I saw someone in the crowd on the road look in my direction.

It was a tall, thin man in a white lungi, shirt and a turban tied around his head. He had a beard on his face. He raised his hand in greeting and smiled at me. At first I was confused. I thought he must have been one of the villagers who had attended one of my trainings, so I just nodded my head at him, impatient for the bus to move and looked away. From the corner of my eye I saw him raise his hand again. When I turned my head, he was still looking at me, hand still raised and a shy smile on his face. It was an innocent smile, pure and unconditional. I raised my hand to him. When the bus began to move, he waved his hand, bidding me good bye like a child. He seemed a bit different, maybe soft in the head. Normally I don’t do such things but on that day I waved back, beguiled by the man’s innocence.

My mood returned to normal and I turned my attention towards my neighbor who was beginning to irritate me again. Ever since I had got into the bus I had noticed that the old man was behaving like he owned the bus. When I had entered the bus he guided me to the seat beside him. He was lording it over the crew, calling them by their names. He was constantly giving the driver instructions: keep to the left, let the car pass, dip your lights, don’t blow the horn too long, why don’t you people wipe the windshield, and so on. The burly driver obeyed him meekly. To the conductor he told that there were vacant seats in the bus and to stop the bus when people waved at it, asked him the collections till then and so on. I was puzzled by his behavior.

It dawned upon me after sometime that he must be somehow connected with the Road Transport Corporation. My guess was right. He told me with obvious pride that he was a retired Traffic Inspector with the AP State Road Transport Corporation. I was surprised when he told me that he had retired seventeen years ago! He told me he believed in the work ethic and that the crew of the bus and others like them had joined when he was in service. He had trained and guided them hence the regard he got from them. Then he told me he was visiting his daughters in Hyderabad while two more daughters lived in the town from where he was coming. We had tea together at another stop and he offered me betel nut powder from a packet. He told me it helped pass the time. Three hours passed just like that.

Until he got down at his destination on the outskirts of Hyderabad he kept talking. He was an interesting person, a helpful, fatherly figure. I realized I had forgotten to ask him his name.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Sunday Haul- Lucky Finds

Of late I am being reassured, quite often, about the luck I have with books. It is a comforting thought to know that I’ll be never be unlucky in finding good titles. Last week I had occasion to experience it when I found two good books that I wasn’t even looking for. I found a new title by Marquez and a travel anthology I least expected to find, of all places, at Abids. It made me realize that there is something called extreme good luck. I guess it strikes only once a year or so.

When I found Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor’ at a second hand bookstore on Friday I thought I was lucky once again. Though I had to pay a hundred bucks for it I felt the book was more than worth it. TSSS had a foreword by Marquez about how he came to write the account of a sailor who roughed it out at sea for a couple of weeks before being finally rescued. It is a slim book written from the point of view of the sailor in the first person. I haven’t yet started it but I hope to read it sometime in the last week of the year. I plan to end the year reading a book by a master. Or if that isn’t possible, maybe I will begin the New Year in that manner.

Without the original cover, to me, no book appears complete. One doesn’t feel like buying it much less read it. However, my first copy of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ that I found at Abids a couple of years ago had no cover except a white paper with the title scrawled on it. Last Sunday I found another book with the same sort of cover but the title scrawled on it was ‘Wanderlust’ by Don George. Unlike King’s book this book did not have even the back cover. I had no idea who the publishers were. But I got a clue when I leafed through the front pages. It was by Salon.com. The book has a foreword by that master of travel writing- Pico Iyer, and forty one travel essays by some famous names like Isabel Allende, Po Bronson, Peter Mayle, Tim Cahill, Don George (who edited the collection) and Jan Morris, whose books I never seem to find anywhere. ‘Wanderlust’ is a whopper of a book with three hundred fifty pages. It also came at a whopping price - all of sixty rupees.

Normally I do not find any publications related to books and the publishing industry at Abids. A couple of months ago I had found some similar magazine whose name I cannot recall now. But this Sunday I found the ‘Bookseller’ of the first week of November 2009, which is very, very recent. I know whose magazine it is because the sticker with the address of the subscriber was intact but I am not going to reveal it here. It has the name of a top honcho of a famous publishing house. Anyway, the magazine had a lot of stuff including the interesting information regarding the next books by Rushdie and Adiga.

I read in ‘Bookseller’ that Salman Rushdie has written a sequel to ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories,’ titled ‘Luka and the Fire of Life’ that will be published by Jonathan Cape in October 2010. Then there was the news about Arvind Adiga’s new novel called ‘Last Man in the Tower’ which is set in Bombay. There was no information about the likely publication date. Stieg Larsson turned up again and apparently, he is an author not to be missed because his books- ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ and ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’ are on the top of the best-sellers list. I was surprised to note that ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ is an all time best seller occupying the No. 1 slot for a long time.

The magazine was packed with short reviews of new forthcoming titles and the only book that interested me was Ruth Padel’s ‘Where the Serpent Lives’ published by Little Brown. It caught my interest because the book is a love story in London and rural India. I want to read how rural India is depicted in the book if I can manage to lay my hands on the book. Interestingly, half the magazine was devoted to Graphic Novels and Manga. I’ve never read a graphic novel but I was intrigued enough to read that some Stephen King titles were being adopted into graphic novel format.

Will my luck hold next week too? I couldn’t get the issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine that I had seen two weeks ago. I might get it next week if the seller keeps his word to get it next Sunday. I know I won’t get it for anything less than a hundred bucks so I am saving up for it.

No pictures of the covers of books I’ve picked up because my good ole camera decided to call it a day and clicked its last sometime last month. RIP.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Speech is Silver

I am not exactly known for my public speaking skills but it came as a surprise to many (including myself) that I was not too bad at it as recent experiences reveal. Of late I’ve been addressing gatherings of more than hundred people and succeeding in having their attention for more than a couple of hours. This could classify as a major event in my decade and half’s experience in the government. As someone who works with farmers I am expected to have some skills in persuading them to adopt practices to improve their yields. However, all along I was doing it in a rather informal manner. There were only a handful of occasions in the past when I had to speak to an audience larger than that can fit in a car. I somehow managed to squeak through without embarrassing anyone. But now things have changed. I have realized that giving talks to farmers’ gatherings is not a joke. One needs different types of skills, skills that I am picking up slowly.

Before I got my promotion I was in the head office where I assumed there was no danger of being asked to give talks to anyone. But I was wrong. My bosses delegated to me their responsibility of giving talks on the subject I handle to trainees at a training institution. At first I was rather nervous but after I discovered that the trainees too were officers like me I was able to cope with it. I was giving talks at the rate of two a month and the trainees varied in number and type. Whenever there was a batch of them who were junior to me I tried to pepper the talks with humor, the kind that involved poking fun at the bosses. I had to make those sorts of jokes because agriculture, the subject I deal with, doesn’t yield much humor. Sometimes they got the jokes and sometimes they did not but I was not very concerned. It was a sort of learning experience for me.

After the promotion and the posting to a training institution in a different town I discovered I had to give more talks than even politicians. On an average I give talks to gatherings that exceed fifty people at the rate of two every week. Farmers are totally different from your average man on the street. It needs a special kind of skill to speak to them. It needs more specialized skills (not to mention experience) to convince them to try something new. One gets unnerved facing a crowd of men with passive faces who listen to you silently. It made me extra nervous because Telugu is something I am not good at. So apart from the language, the subject too was a hurdle because all the agriculture I know is from books whereas the farmers do it in the field. It sometimes gets tricky but call it graciousness or whatever, the farmers do not point out your mistakes. They simply bring it to your attention in a different way. After about half a dozen such meetings, I’ve started feeling comfortable but not so comfortable enough to face larger gatherings.

Since the past month, once a week I am giving talks to more than hundred progressive farmers at a time. My colleague who is more experienced than me accompanies me to a different town where the trainings are held. He begins the meeting with a brief talk and later I take over. I speak for about an hour and half on a topic that is relatively simple. I had four such meetings and all of them went off smoothly. Last week my colleague was absent so it fell on me to engage the gathering for the whole day which was a bit difficult. But it was a learning experience. I learnt to involve the farmers too by having short quizzes, asking them to read something and generally pitting one group against the other in quizzes and other such tasks. Somehow the day passed and the training session came to an end. I was glad for the experience taught me something new about facing large gatherings of farmers.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Unless until there’s a possibility of the heavens falling down or something similar, the booksellers of Abids aren’t the sort to be deterred from setting up shop on Sundays. That’s what I know from my twenty-year experience of visiting Abids on Sundays in search of books. So despite a bandh call I set out for Abids last Sunday only to find that though the heavens hadn’t fallen many of the booksellers had decided not to show up. Missing were the big name regulars and only a handful of them were to be found with their pathetic collection of magazines and books. Under normal circumstances it would have been enough to make me turn around and go home. But somehow I decided to check what these small timers had on offer.

Good thing I did not leave right away because I found the latest issue of a magazine that I don’t usually buy, though I ought to, given my writerly ambitions. I found this month’s (December 09) issue of 'Vanity Fair' and got it for only thirty bucks. It had something like two hundred and seventy five glossy pages featuring a lot of interesting articles I was eager to read. I felt happy at this unexpected find. In the magazine I read that Stephen King had criticized the writing ability of Stephanie Meyer in its October 2009 issue which now I have to look for. I also learnt about two new books in the offing- one was about a sequel to ‘Freakonomics’ called ‘Super Freakonomics’ and the other book was novelist Zadie Smith’s first collection of essays titled ‘Mind of Her Own’ that I have to read though I (unfortunately) haven’t read any of her books.

Another writer apart from Stephanie Meyer whose books are intriguing me are Stieg Larsson’s books. There was a lengthy piece on Larsson and his ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ by Chrisopher Hitchens. In one of the Sunday papers I had read that Rahul Bose was currently reading the book. Maybe I too should start looking for Larssson’s books. Sadly, there are a lot of authors whose books I am yet to read and if I list those writers here some of the readers of this blog might stop visiting altogether! One of the things I enjoy is the scent that these magazines give out. Apart from that the mag had a lot of pictures of interesting stuff that I can never buy and also pictures of interesting people most of us can never expect to meet which is why maybe someone tore a few pages from this magazine. This I found after I got home in the afternoon.

However, one reason why I landed eagerly at Abids was to pick up the jumbo issue of Condé Nast Traveler that I had missed buying last Sunday. Needless to say, neither the seller nor the magazine was available which was a crushing disappointment. However, I found a new magazine- ‘real travel’ of September 2009 that had three articles on travel writing which was what made me buy the magazine in the first place. Maybe someday I will turn into a travel writer.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Dining Trouble or the Growing Food Problem in Jubilee Hills

If one were rich enough and also crazy enough to get into one’s head to have dinner at a new restaurant every day, one would require more than a year just to go through the restaurants in Jubilee Hills alone. While they are opening new restaurants at Jubilee Hills almost every week with a regularity that has now ceased to surprise me, at the same time restaurants in my part of Hyderabad are closing down at almost the same speed. The latest restaurant to shut shop is the venerable Gayatri Bhavan at Himayatnagar. A couple of days ago I happened to notice this tragic development and I felt extremely sad because I had spent many a morning there having delicious breakfasts rounded off with equally delicious coffee. If it has managed to sadden an occasional visitor like me I am sure the news of the closure of the decades old Gayatri Bhavan must have caused a lot of heartbreaks in the oldies who frequented it, if it hasn’t already caused their hearts to stop altogether.

Steeped in such sadness I wasn’t really overjoyed to read about two new restaurants that had opened in the Jubilee Hills-Banjara Hills area in the previous week. If such a thing had happened at any other time I would have felt happy for the lucky folks who live in Jubilee Hills. I’m sure they must have been really glad to know about the opening of ‘Bikaneri’ restaurant sometime last week. Then there was the news of ‘Blue Fox’ opening yet another branch somewhere in Jubilee Hills. Blue Fox already has about three branches in Hyderabad, running quite well, thank you, so they must have decided it was high time they made their presence felt at Jubilee Hills. After all, it is the place where all the action is taking place.

Of course, Marriott opened ‘The Courtyard’ last week, but mercifully, not in Jubilee Hills. It is located in my part of the city but I am unlikely to be seen there for the simple reason my pockets do not go deep enough even to afford coffee there. Anyway, I guess it is time the people opening new restaurants in Jubilee Hills stopped for a while to let the Jubilee Hills folks to catch their breath. I can already hear their collective groans, trudging from one newly restaurant to another. I can only feel pity for those poor, poor souls who everyday face the agonizing dilemma of deciding where to have their next meal. Underneath my stern bureaucratic exterior lies a soul that cannot bear to see anyone undergo such stomach churning dilemmas. Apart from that and quite coincidentally we are adequately equipped to tackle just these sorts of situations also. Since we bureaucrats are trained to serve the public I offer to swap places (and also, wallets) with anyone from Jubilee Hills and do my best to face their dining troubles on their behalf.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Sunday Haul- 1 Magazine

It would have been a hat-trick of sorts had I bought the September 2008 issue of Conde Nast Traveler that I saw at Abids on Sunday. I would have bought it but used as I was to getting the magazine dirt cheap I was taken back at the price the seller quoted. He took a look at the bulky special issue and thought the one year old magazine was worth one hundred and fifty rupees. That was the first reason I did not buy the magazine from the stubborn seller who refused to come down from that ridiculous price. Anyway, I do not usually buy from him. The other reason was that it was the end of the month, a time when my wallet isn’t exactly bursting with hard cash. But the decision not to pick up the magazine still has me ranting at myself. I have to buy it next week, whatever the price.

The only consolation was that I picked up something I liked. It is hard to find good, imported movie magazines at Abids just as it is hard to find books of Dave Barry in the regular bookstores. Though I am not such a movie freak as I like to think I do not let go of anything movie related that’s good (and also cheap!) when I spot it at Abids. So I when my eye fell on ‘Empire’ magazine of September 2008 I bought it. A few weeks earlier I had found another latest issue of the same magazine with ‘Inglourious Basterds’ on the cover. By the way, I hadn’t kept my solemn promise to watch the movie. By the time I was ready to watch it, it was taken off the screens in Hyderabad. So much for my love of movies.

I wasn’t surprised at all to read in the magazine that 23 of Stephen King’s novels and 26 of his short stories or novellas were made into feature films or for the television. I wasn’t also surprised to read that there are 75 King-based films/shows in total. Naturally, when you write stuff a lot of people like, they will be made into movies. But I was surprised to read that a lot of big movie names were associated with his movies- directors Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) Frank Daramont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption), Brian De Palma (Carrie), and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan (Dreamcatcher), William Goldman (Misery, Hearts in Atlantis). Then there’s a list of all his movies in which Stephen King played cameo roles. Now I realize what I have to add to my post-retirement plans (I have still a long way to go before I retire) - watch all the movies and read all the books I can.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Road 'Engineers'

Becoming an engineer is no joke! It needs brains. I know that for a fact from personal experience. All the guys in my family, save me, are engineers.Actually our family is a family of engineers. My father was an engineer. My three brothers are engineers too. Being deficient in the sort of brains one needs to solve even the simplest mathematical problems I naturally couldn’t become an engineer, not that I wanted to. I chose what I thought would be a course that would not involve any calculations but that wasn’t the case. Anyway, the point I wanted to make is that not only it needs brains to become an engineer; it also needs brains to remain an engineer.

But looking at the roads in Hyderabad it is difficult to believe that the engineers responsible for laying and maintaining them have any brains. The condition of Hyderabad roads makes me doubt if my colleagues in the Government- the GHMC engineers - have any brains. Either they don’t have brains or they are blind as bats. Even after the condition of the roads is being highlighted almost everyday on television and newspapers, in color no less, the GHMC engineers are unable to notice it. It is not an exaggeration but the potholes on our roads are so big, one can spot them even from space. Everyone else but the GHMC engineers is able to see the potholes which are getting bigger and bigger.

Though more than four hundred years have passed since Hyderabad came into being, and a few years since Hyderabad became Greater Hyderabad, the GHMC engineers still do not seem to have learnt anything about how potholes are fixed. God save this city, if not from the politicians, then at least from the half brained engineers of the GHMC.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Sunday Haul- 3 Books and 1 Magazine

The rate at which I’m finding the latest issues of Conde Nast Traveler I feel it is only fair on my part to pack my bags and take off to any one of the places lovingly described in it. Whenever I find the magazine and get it for not more than ten rupees I feel happy initially followed by a strange guilt. Somehow I feel that the people at Conde Nast Traveler, if ever they come to know about it, might feel bad that someone’s reading the latest issues of their magazine at such a ridiculous price. The least I could do is experience the places they write about so passionately. The problem is, with my government pay I am unlikely to go anywhere more exotic than Sri Lanka or even, Bangladesh. Last Sunday, I found the February 2009 issue of the magazine. I had not even completely read the one I found the previous week.

There are some authors whose books one can never find- neither in the regular book stores nor in the second hand ones. Ryszard Kapuscinski is one of them. Though he’s written more than a couple of books, ‘Travels with Herodotus’ is the only title I’ve seen displayed at a regular store sometime back. A couple of months ago I was lucky to find a two-in-one book ‘The Emperor and Shah of Shahs.’ Last Sunday again I found another Ryszard Kapuscinski book- ‘Another Day of Life’ which is about his visit to Angola in 1975 at the peak of the civil war there. I haven’t yet read the book I had found earlier so that makes it two Kapuscinski books that I have to read. Incidentally, this book contains new material translated by Klara Glowezewska who happens to be the Editor-in-Chief of Conde Nast Traveler, the magazine of my destinations/destiny!

Similarly, for some odd reason not one of the regular bookstores in Hyderabad stocks books of Dave Barry. I found all my copies of his books either at Abids or at the second hand bookstores. It was the same with Elmore Leonard’s books until recently. Now some of the stores especially Odyssey stock his books. Talking of Elmore Leonard, the other day I was ticking off in a list his titles that I don’t have. ‘Cat Chaser,’ ‘Mr. Majestyk,’ and ‘When the Women Come Out to Dance’ are three of Elmore Leonard’s books that I have to add to my collection. On Sunday I got lucky again. I bought ‘When the Women Come Out to Dance’ that Uma spotted first. It was a Penguin imprint and is a collection of nine stories- Sparks, Hanging Out at the Beuna Vista, Chickasaw Charlie Hoke, When the Women Come Out to Dance, Fire in the Hole, Karen Makes Out, Hurrah for Capt. Early, Teen Killer, and The Tonto Woman which is the only story I have read in another of his collection of stories. I got this book for fifty rupees after a futile bargain.

A couple of years ago, at Abids, I found Henry Miller’s ‘The Books in My Life’ that I grabbed without a second thought, the moment I spotted it. When I got home I was dismayed to discover that more than three fourth’s of the book’s pages were missing. That was the reason why I felt it was too slim a book considering the title. Anyway, on Sunday I found ‘The Intimate Henry Miller’ which is a collection of his stories, essays, and autobiographical sketches, in all, seven pieces. One of the essays, a rather lengthy one, was on Rider Haggard’s ‘SHE’ which is taken from ‘The Books in My Life.’

For a hundred rupees, this was what I hauled in on Sunday- three books and a magazine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Small Town Snapshots- 2

One good thing about Vijayawada (apart from the fact that it is 275 kms away from Hyderabad) is that there is no dearth of buses to take you to that place. At any given time there will be no less than half a dozen buses with ‘Vijayawada’ boards waiting to leave at the MGBS bus terminal. The place where I work happens to be on the highway to Vijayawada so any bus that goes to Vijayawada will take me there. Till recently the bus service was the only one positive thing about my work place. Last week another unusual discovery took the list to two items. It is a small thing but nevertheless cheered me no end.

If one considers the great chunks of time I get to read and write, and the solitude to do it in, one might think I am fortunate to work in a place far away from home. But nothing can compensate for the absence of your loved ones around you. It is a little more than three months that I have been posted to this small town and my resentment levels have reached intolerable levels. There are several reasons for this state. I live in a two roomed house that has a shutter for a door, I sleep on the floor, I eat my breakfast, lunch and dinner in a hotel for six days a week, plus there is no running water most of the time but all the dust one can have, and the power goes off too often without warning… The list is too long and it is futile to recount it here since I have no choice but to stay on for another two years at least. But last week I stumbled upon something that might bring some cheer to my otherwise drab existence in this small town.

I was on my way to a village along with my assistant on his bike. We were on the highway and a familiar sign suddenly caught my eye. It was a CCD outlet in a petrol filling station five kilometers from my town! Though I am a diehard Irani chai fan, the sight of the red and white CCD sign made me irrationally glad. I decided to check it out on the way back. So I hurried through the farmers meeting at the village. A couple of hours later we stopped at the CCD. It was bigger than any CCD I had been to in Hyderabad. It had nice, soft seats spread out all over. There were even chairs and tables under umbrellas outside. We ordered coffee and waited. Capuccino never tasted so good. I made plans to spend at least a couple of hours in the CCD once a week. I would borrow a bike and bring along a book and my notebook. It seemed the perfect setting to spend a few quiet hours reading and writing. I plan to begin this routine as soon as possible.

Though unrelated to my place of work, another bit of news brought me cheer. I don’t know why other newspapers did not report it but yesterday (Sunday) I read in The New Indian Express that the Hyderabad Book Fair would begin from December 24. Unlike in the past when the Fair would last ten days, this year it is going to be for only four (yes, four) days until December 27. Though I am not glad about the short duration I am glad about the dates because three of them are holidays for me. But I have to wait a whole month for the feast.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Sunday Haul

On the first Sunday of this month, which also happened to be the first day of the month, I found the latest (Oct 09) issue of National Geographic Travel at Abids. This Sunday it was the turn of Conde Nast Traveler of the same month. I am beginning to wonder how such latest issues of these magazines are ending up on the pavements of Abids. It is a mystery that I hope will be resolved someday because I am getting them for only ten rupees.

The main article in the magazine was ‘Secrets of Smart Travel Now’ which is just as well because I am setting out on a two-month long training schedule that involves traveling to remote villages. The article gives tips to international travelers rather than to those traveling to villages in countries like ours. There are no secrets to traveling in rural areas of the country except stepping into the villages with an open heart. Another thing to know, and it is not a secret, is trying to remember the way back home.

I almost forgot but the magazine had one of the best articles on a city that I had not been to since twenty five years- Mumbai. I get to know about the city by reading about it here and there and also, watching it on the television. But Shoba Narayan’s article in Conde Nast Traveler was in a style that I rather liked. I was not really surprised to read about the 27-floor two billion dollar home that Mukesh Ambani was building for his family of six. But my mind really boggled when I read that there would be six hundred servants for his six member family. That was just one of the interesting things the article on Bombay is cluttered with. It also made me wonder about my own city- Hyderabad of the Half-Brained Drivers.

At last, I picked up the hardcover copy of Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather Papers’ that I had been eyeing since the time I saw it two weeks back. I got the book for eighty rupees. It was fortunate that nobody picked it up. I don’t think anybody will be interested in such books though no one who has read ‘The Godfather’ wouldn't be interested in knowing the story behind the creation of the bestselling book and movie. Apart from the piece about ‘The Godfather,’ there are many other essays in it that reveal Puzo's knowledgew of a lot of other things than the Mafia.

It is perhaps futile on my part to expect to find Vladimir Nobokov’s ‘Lectures on Literature’ that I had missed buying sometime last month. I did not find it this Sunday too and do not hope to. It is another regret I have added to my growing list. However, I keep seeing two books that I am tempted to buy. Nobody seems to be interested in picking up Elmore Leonard’s ‘Pagan Babies’ and ‘Glitz.’ If I find them next week maybe I will pick them up.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Progress of My Novel

There are writers, I’ve discovered recently, who’ve managed to write an entire novel in far lesser time than it took me to complete just one round of revision of my first novel. For the past eight weeks I’ve been slogging on, revising my draft one more time. Despite the effort and time spent, the draft continues to leave me with despair. With each round of revision I find so many holes in the story that the feeling of abandoning the book altogether becomes stronger. The story doesn’t seem right, the characters appear flat, the dialogue sounds phony, the descriptions are pedestrian- these are some of the things that bug me when I am reading the draft of my novel.

But one of the things I am happy about is that the revisions are resulting in a number of pages being cut out, bringing the number of pages down. After the current revision the page count is down to 325, which is still too high. I realize I have a lot more of cutting to do. Sometimes the cutting is easy but sometimes it is difficult. I don’t know what to cut and what to keep. I think I am at a stage where either God or a professional editor only can help me. I will keep on revising and editing until I cannot do it anymore. When I am editing I am lost in the world that I fail to notice that I am grumpy and irritated at home. I don’t think I will come back to normalcy until the book is finished. For the time being I am taking a week’s break from the draft.

I guess it is high time I revealed something about the novel that is taking so much of my time. Needless to say, like most first novels, it is autobiographical. It doesn’t take a genius to tell who the story of an advertising professional turned bureaucrat is based on. I’ve made up a story of a young copywriter who dreams of becoming a film scriptwriter but ends up in the government. I’ve blended some of my experiences as a copywriter with those as a raw recruit in the government posted in a very backward area. Not many bureaucrats have come to the government via an advertising agency. This I feel makes my novel different from the sort of books bureaucrats, especially the just retired or about to retire, churn out. Such books (by other bureaucrats) usually are self-laudatory without containing any embarrassing revelations. I haven’t read many of them but Upamanyu Chatterjee’s ‘English August’ is a brilliant exception. But then again, he is an IAS officer and English Literature grad to boot.

But I’m digressing. Coming back to my book, I’ve tried to add some humor in it. It was rather easy for me to write 500 word pieces that contained a few funny lines here and there, that I’ve managed to get published. Those who have read them have told them they are a bit humorous. But writing a funny book is very difficult, I’ve learnt soon enough. Anyway, the intention was to write a book that has a sprinkling of humor in it but I think I have fallen short.

Exactly two people, friends actually, have taken the trouble of not only reading the entire draft but also of telling me how the experience was. Being friends, they were very generous in their praise (?) of my work, despite being the sort of people whose taste in books can only said to be ‘eclectic’. Anyway, I cannot ever thank them enough for suffering the experience of reading my meandering first novel which I am yet to completely understand myself. Their feedback has been encouraging and I have temporarily abandoned the idea of throwing away the draft and forgetting about being a writer.

I’ve actually drawn up a list of people I want to give my book to for their feedback. Reading the book is the price they have to pay for making my (unfortunate) acquaintance. They are left with no other option but to read it unless they plan to flee the country. Sometime in December I will begin handing out the drafts to them. The plan is to listen to the feedback and decide whether to take the next step of contacting a publisher or give up on the book altogether.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A No Haul Sunday

A No Haul Sunday

Once in a while I return from the Sunday morning trip to Abids hands empty and heart filled with disappointment. On such days I also feel secretly relieved that I did not buy any book to bring home, books that will fill up space in the already burgeoning shelves at home. But that feeling is a rare one and also a fleeting one whereas the disappointment at not finding anything lasts the whole day and sometimes, the whole week. All through the week I regret not picking up the books I had flipped through. I had seen a copy of Elmore Leonard’s ‘Glitch’ which I did not buy since I already have the book. I had also seen books by William Faulkner that I did not, regretfully, buy.

There was more cause for regret. I had seen a nice, hardcover copy of Mario Puzo’s ‘The Godfather Papers’ that was for hundred rupees. I did not buy it for some reason, maybe I thought the rate was too high or the guy who had the book was one who wasn’t the bargaining sort. Only a couple of months ago I had found a paperback copy of the same book. I had been elated since I had been on the look out for the book since several years and had bought it without a second thought. Still, I thought of buying the hardcover copy last Sunday but ultimately I ended up not buying it. Next week I plan to buy it. That is, if it is still there. The other week too I had made a similar promise to myself with another book.

I had seen Vladimir Nobokov’s ‘Lectures in Literature’ that I missed buying because of its condition but later I promised myself that I would pick it up the following week. But the following Sunday I couldn’t find the book which left me heartbroken. It would have been a good book to read and I felt stupid not buying it the moment I saw it. But I realized there are other people who do more stupid things at Abids.

I’m referring to those people who buy pirated books. I can understand (though not agree with) people who cannot afford the expensive and hard to get original editions. But when people who appear well dressed and look like they can afford anything buy pirated books by the dozen I feel irritated. It is something I cannot ever fathom. Every Sunday I see people buy pirated copies of popular bestsellers. I’ve even seen people buying pirated copies of books of Chetan Bhagat! Imagine not being able shell out ninety five books which is what his original books are priced at. It is difficult to understand such people. For some reason I do not find second hand copies of his books.

Even difficult to understand is finding there are people who do not think anything about tearing a book in half. On Sunday I felt glad when I saw a heap of PG Wodehouse titles that I rarely get to see. But when I flipped the cover of one title I saw that all the pages were torn into half sideways. All the nearly dozen books were mutilated in that manner. The entire book, cover and number of pages were intact except for the horizontal tear. Nothing is more heartbreaking for a book lover than to come across books torn in that barbaric manner. I wonder who it could have been who disposed his entire collection of PG Wodehouse books after tearing the pages. I hope never to come across that person.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Three Things

The Fountain Pen
I always lose my heart to the beautiful ones, fountain pens, that is. A few weeks ago when Uma showed me his new Hero fountain pen I wanted one for myself at any cost. It was a beautiful one, quite unlike the usual Hero fountain pens, with an open nib and eye dropper ink filling mechanism which I prefer. It was sleek, light weight and wrote so well that I fell in love with it right away. It wasn’t until recently that Uma traced out one for me.

When I hold a beautiful fountain pen like my new Hero I feel like Elmore Leonard, Dave Barry and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all rolled into one. It is enough to have it in the pocket to feel like a writer. I don’t feel it is necessary to write anything to feel like a good writer. To me the feeling of being a writer is enough there are people who have written three books and don’t feel like writers, forget about being considered as writers. With a pen like that in hand I feel it isn’t really difficult to write a novel.

The Notebook
For the same reason that I pick up fountain pens I also pick up notebooks though not as often as I want to. Sometime last month I was on a training session in the company of officials from outside the state. We were taken on a sightseeing trip to Shilparamam where I chanced upon some lovely notebooks in a stall. They were of handmade paper with a soft brown leather cover. I picked up one for fifty rupees and decided to buy a few more sometime later. I want to buy at least three for myself and a couple more to give away to friends. I hope the stall is still there at Shilparamam.

The Bookmark
One of the many things that my kid handcrafts, some happen to be bookmarks. Tired of watching me use platform tickets, visiting cards, folded bus tickets and the like as bookmarks he makes them for me. But I don’t have the heart to use them because I tend to misplace my bookmarks too often. I don’t want to lose the bookmarks he makes spending a lot of time and effort on them. The one in the picture is the latest bookmark he made for me. By the way, he was short listed for the finals of the ‘Young World Painting Competion’ the finals which will be held next Sunday. Watch this space for more about the result.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Normally I hesitate to pick up any book by an author whose name I haven’t heard before anywhere. But if the book’s title has a word that comes close to magical like ‘writing’,’ or ‘Tuscany’ I buy it with eyes closed. The other thing was that the cover was quite good and it was a Penguin imprint. So it was it with eyes closed that I bought Allan Parker’s ‘Seasons in Tuscany’ for only twenty rupees last Sunday at Abids. It was the only book I bought and the other find was a magazine- the absolutely latest (Oct 09) issue of ‘National Geographic Traveler’ that I got for just ten rupees.

What they say about not judging a book by its cover seems to have a lot of truth in it. Allan Parker’s ‘Seasons in Tuscany’ did not appear as good as I thought when I bought it looking at its cover. Maybe I had expected the sort of writing Frances Mayes managed in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ which evoked Tuscany like nothing before. SIT was too run of the mill with a lot of things happening too quickly. In the first two pages the author falls in love with a woman quite too easily. Then there are paragraphs and paragraphs of dry description about the place. With insipid prose and an insconsistent style the first thirty pages were a disappointment but I hope the rest of the book will somehow make it up.

It was surprising not to find any mention of Tuscany in the 25th Anniversary Edition issue of ‘National Geographic Traveler’ that featured the World’s Greatest Destinations in ‘50 Places of a Lifetime.’ Of course, there was Florence and another place, Salina in Italy but I was surprised Tuscany did not find a place along with Provence, which too was missing. Two places in India find a place in the list. All destinations in this issue are written by famous writers of the country. Shashi Tharoor wrote about Delhi and Amitabh Kant did the honours for Fatehpur Sikri. I don’t know why no one writes about the beautiful Andamans. There are some places in the Andamans which make you think of spending the rest of the life there doing nothing but watching the sunrise. Maybe someday I will write about it.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Driver's Suicide

Such things always seem to happen when I am not around. The week before, on Monday afternoon, when I was down with fever at home I got a call from my boss. He told me cryptically that our jeep driver had committed suicide early in the morning. He took pesticide and died in a van in the office premises my boss told me. He did not say anymore but told me the news was breaking on television. When I switched it on I was more shocked than surprised because one of the channels said harassment by officials was one of the reasons for the driver’s suicide. I happened to be one of the officers working there!

Then the phone rang non-stop. One of my assistants filled me with the details. It seems the driver had left two suicide notes. The discovery of the body itself was an event he told me. The driver was supposed to report early in the morning to take a group of farmers to Hyderabad. So my assistant too had reached the office in the morning and was desperately trying to reach the driver on his cell phone. It was getting late and the farmers were beginning to get restive. When my assistant had left the office to find out, one of the farmers called him on phone to say that there was a body in the van parked inside the office premises. The driver lay on the last seat, frothing at the mouth. He had kept two suicide notes in his pocket.

Finally, it emerged that the driver had blamed an officer who had worked in the office more than a year ago, for driving him to suicide. When I reached my office five days later I got a different picture. The driver was not well, he had problems at home and was depressed. It was quite apparent that he was depressed because all day he would sit in the van and stare out into space. Once or twice I had tried to talk with him but he would give only monosyllabic replies. But now after his suicide I could realize what he would have been thinking of.

What saddened me was the role of the officer in the suicide. He had left almost a year ago but what he did the driver could not forget. I cannot write here how he affected the driver’s life but it made me angry. I could not believe that people could stoop to such levels. It was a sordid story not worth recounting here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Village Trips

Once in a blue moon the job throws up something that leads to interesting experiences. Something similar happened the previous week. Almost three months into the new posting I was pretty settled with the routine in the office. I would wake up, get on with my routine of reading and writing until ten in the morning after which I would take the few steps to cross the road to the office. At the office I would sit most of the time doing almost nothing. After nearly nine years of sitting cooped up in an office I thought the new posting would take me to the fields. I happen to be posted to a training institution where I was supposed to train others, farmers mostly. However I was doing nothing of the sort and instead I got trained twice. In short, I was comfortably ensconced in my little routine until last week. I was told, no ordered, to stand in for an officer in a distant place. Not surprisingly I was reluctant to go. But I had no choice.

Not only was the place very far away, the other thing was that I had to travel to three villages daily for five days. I wasn’t given any vehicle or support and not even told what I was supposed to do. I only knew that I have to have meetings with farmers in fifteen villages. A couple of days ago I had addressed nearly hundred farmers in three villages but there I had others to support me. Here in the new assignment I was to do a solo job of it. It seemed a daunting task in every way. I decided to travel to the place from Hyderabad which was nearer. I took my bike to a roadside town on the state highway, from where I traveled to this place I will call MG. From MG I planned to visit three villages every day for five days. I had only one lady assistant, a newly recruited person to assist me.

On the first day I traveled on my bike for seventy five kilometers to MG and from there deep into the rural hinterland. It turned out to be very unlike the other village. To begin with the entire area was hilly, with winding roads, fields on either side. The hillocks were green with trees, the paddy, cotton, jowar fields were green. It was greenery everywhere. In the mild sunlight of wintry late afternoons the grassy landscape looked quite beautiful. It was another time when I wished I had a camera better than the one I carried. Nevertheless I clicked the accompanying pictures. In a couple of villages I was told one could find deer in the wilderness. There were also herds of wild boar that destroyed the crops. I once saw a peacock on a hillock.

So it went. Every morning I would travel in a bus upto the roadside town where I parked my bike. I would go on the bike to MG from where I would go to the villages. The meetings were a challenge. The farmers are not so naïve as everyone thinks they are. One slip and you’re exposed so one has to be very careful about what one talks. I was able to conduct meetings without any trouble. It wasn’t even boring because one village was not like the other. I learnt new things and an interesting episode I plan to write for ‘Open Page’ in The Hindu soon. I would have lunch in a farmer’s house in the bigger villages or else I would return to MG for lunch. So for five days I was touring villages, meeting farmers, talking to them and learning new things myself. It was tiring no doubt but it also was a rewarding experience in the end.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Though the saying ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ doesn’t apply when it comes to books, I always regret not buying books that I come across at Abids on Sundays. The feeling of regret lasts a week until I pick it up the next Sunday and if I don’t find it then the feeling lasts forever. This Sunday at Abids however, I picked up a nice movie magazine that I had not earlier come across but it isn’t doing anything to stem the feeling of remorse of not having bought the book I had seen. The book I missed picking up was Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lectures on Literature.’ I did not buy the book because it was in too bad a condition with water stains on all pages and a bent shape. I did not feel it was worth it but now I wish I had because it was really a treasure. The only thing I can do is hope it will be still on the pavements until next Sunday. But I will be away at work on Sunday so I have to make some arrangements for someone to buy it on my behalf that is if they can manage to find it.

Even as I was planning to watch Quentin Tarantino’s ‘The Inglourious Basterds’ some day soon I stumbled across a film magazine that had a lot of stuff on the movie. ‘Empire’ magazine was yet another new find for me at Abids. It was the August 2009 issue, a fairly recent one that I got for only twenty bucks. The issue is some kind of a special issue listing out 1001 Greatest Movie Moments. It would take me decades to go through all those moments because I am not such a big movie fan. One can imagine how keen a movie buff I am if I let it be known that I watched ‘Pulp Fiction’ just a few months ago. Not that I don’t like movies but I find the whole process of getting to the movie theatre, standing in line for the tickets and watching the movie, a boring thing. Hence, it is only once or twice a year that I go to the movies. Anyway, now that I have a list of the good movies I might watch more of them in the future.

It seems there’s actually a movie titled ‘The Inglorious Bastards’ made in 1978 and is the inspiration for Tarantino. He even had the director of the original Italian movie, Enzo Castellari, in a cameo in the movie. This and a million other bits about other movies made and in the making fill Empire magazine. I might never find another issue again at Abids. This was a ‘one in a billion’ find! But there’s enough in it about TIB to make me go and watch it right away and again and again.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Sunday Haul

Maybe it is a measure of my luck that I found the brochure of Mont Blanc's special edition 'Mahatma Gandhi' pen before the pen itself. Controversies apart, the pen is quite a smasher going by the looks and the exquisite craftsmanship that went into it as can be judged from the picture above. (pics courtesy: Uma Shankar Sastry) A picture is worth a thousand words so I won't waste any trying to describe how the fountain pen looks.

The other haul on Sunday was Amy Tan's 'The Hundred Secret Senses' that I got for fifty rupees. It was the first copy I saw though I had seen umpteen copies of her other book 'The Kitchen God's Wife' at Abids. I might read it sometime next year only.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Morning Calm

There’s something about watching the sun rise over a vast lake in utter silence in one’s own company that puts one in a meditative mood. Sunday I was at the Necklace Road at half past five in the morning when the day was just beginning. Looking at the cloud filled sky over the lake I thought I had made a mistake in coming. It looked like I wouldn’t be able to watch the sun rise. But I was lucky as a minor miracle happened. The sun peeped out of a gap between the dark clouds long enough for me to take a picture. After half a minute it was gone but it put me in a good mood. I spent the next hour soaking in the silence and recharging myself. I had missed doing this monthly ritual in the previous month because of the weather so I really enjoyed the routine.

Coming out to begin the next stage of the routine I saw a group of men jogging on the road with two men on a bike egging them on. From the looks of them they looked like cops. They talked in that easy manner that comes from a familiarity that can only develop when people do something together. After they passed a group of cyclists wearing helmets appeared. This must be the group I had read about somewhere.

Watching the sunrise after a gap of nearly two months put me in such a good mood that I did not mind what happened next when I reached Adarsh with the Sunday papers. There was place at only one table in a corner. Sitting at the table was my friend, the smoker who had irritated me on earlier Sundays. He appeared to come every day to the hotel to enjoy a smoke while sipping the Irani tea. I always found him at the hotel on the Sundays I came. But this Sunday I did not mind it much and let him smoke while I lost myself in the Sunday papers. I saw an ad for the iPod Nano and wondered when I would be able to own one. I've been going too long without music. However it was a good beginning to the Sunday. The finds at the Abids book bazaar were proof of that. Next post would be the Sunday Haul.

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Sunday Haul- Irving Wallace and Bill Bryson

Sooner or later I know I am going to find all the books on my list. But the search isn’t going to end since the list continues to grow even as I tick off titles in it. The more titles I find from the list, the more it gets added to. Last Sunday I found another book that’s been on the list for quite a long time. I don’t exactly remember when I added Irving Wallace’s ‘The Sunday Gentleman’ to the list but now the title’s been added to my shelf of books on writing.

Books by Arthur Hailey, Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace and others formed the popular reading in the eighties. I guess most of those who read English fiction in those days would have read their books sometime or the other. I was no exception. However the books written by them could be read only once and then discarded. Of all the books by Irving Wallace I was fascinated by one book and that was ‘The Prize’ which was a novel woven around the Nobel Prize. It wasn’t until recently that I found his ‘The Writing of One Novel’ which was all about how he came to write ‘The Prize.’ ‘The Writing of One Novel’ is one book of Irving Wallace that I read again and again at least once a year. It is a fascinating book every aspiring novelist perhaps should read at least once.

Before he started to write books full time, Irving Wallace was a magazine writer researching and writing articles for prestigious magazines like Reader’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Review, Esquire etc. Somewhere I had read about his non-fiction book called ‘The Sunday Gentleman’ in which he had written about his magazine writing life. I wanted to get hold of it and was on the look out for it since ages. At last I found it though it wasn’t a very good copy I got because the cover wasn’t good and part of the pages were wet. I picked it up nevertheless and I am glad I did it. I have read the first article in it which is all about his magazine writing career. Needless to say it is very engrossing as are the other pieces in it. I have read the one about the ‘Orient Express’ and another piece about a writer (Gilbert Patten) who created an unforgettable character called ‘Frank Merriwell.’ The amount of research he does is truly astonishing. There’s a piece in the book on the Rolls- Royce titled ‘Millionaire’s Chariot’ which I am looking forward to read soon.

For a long time I couldn’t decide who was funnier- Dave Barry or Bill Bryson? But now it is decided Dave Barry is my favorite, and Bill Bryson comes a close second. I will write about the reasons in a later post but for the time being let me put it on record that Bill Bryson is equally funny. In fact I read Bill Bryson before I stumbled on books of Dave Barry. Anyway, I have almost all of Bryson’s books except the recent ones-‘Mother Tongue,’ ‘Thunder Bolt Kid’ and ‘Shakespeare.’ It was the last title I found at Abids on Sunday. It was a brand new book which I got for only eighty rupees. It was a lucky find at a time when not many sellers are to be seen at Abids because of the Diwali shopping season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Old City Chai

It’s Different in the Old City

When someone who’s taught you thirty years ago tells you to do something you cannot but obey him. A kind and indulgent teacher who shares my name told me during one of our regular chats that the Irani chai in Old City is very different from the stuff I drink in places like Bahar and Paradise. When he told me he’d take me to an Irani joint for a cup I fell for the hook. I had always wanted to try out the chai in the Old City and I got the chance on Sunday last. I happened to be in Charminar visiting relatives and I called up my teacher who is now a Professor. When someone who is a Professor doesn’t mind sitting pillion on your bike and sharing a cup chai with you one can imagine how the teacher-student bond was.

He took me to Hotel Nimrah right near the historic Charminar teeming with gawking tourists, pushcart vendors, autorickshaws and just about everything you can find near tourist spots. The hotel was crowded with all tables full so we had to stand and sip the delicious chai. My post lunch sluggishness vanished the moment I took the first sip and by the time I finished the last sip of the golden liquid my mind was clear and alert. Short of increasing my intelligence the Irani chai did everything else. It was truly very different from the Irani chai that I have at my usual joints. But it isn’t everyday that I come to the Old City. However I plan to make it a regular ritual from now on. I might come on some Sundays to check out the flea market and finish off with a cup of chai at either Nimrah or Faraasha that is right beside it.

A Victim of Floods

The matter of two thousand cusecs of water in the Hussain Sagar is making headlines in some city newspapers while elsewhere people are talking of lakhs of cusecs. One can imagine the sort of breathless hype these papers want to build as if two thousand cusecs of water is going wash away the city. The rains have brought to the fore the depthless potholes of Hyderabad again. Every newspaper worth its name is writing in detail about how bad the roads in the city have become. One has to wait and see when the promised repairs to the roads are made. Of course, one more rain and even the new roads will be washed away.

It is truly unimaginable how people in the flood affected parts of the state are suffering. It is hard to imagine people spending more than four days on hilltops, rooftops and other places without food with flood waters swirling around them on all sides. Everyone has been caught unawares with the sudden rains and the heavy flooding. It seems such type of floods have never been witnessed in the state. Everywhere you see there’s water and more water. Only a few weeks ago the talk was of drought and now you have more water everywhere than you can imagine in your life.

I had not really expected the floods to affect my life, but it happened. I was supposed to leave for Bangalore on Saturday evening but with all road links snapped I couldn’t make it. I had been making elaborate plans to spend a week in Bangalore on office work. I listed out all the people I would call on and talk with. I wanted to check out the second hand book places in Bangalore and also pick up a few titles. Bangalore is one of my favorite cities and I was eager to go over there. But the floods, as it were, poured water on my plans. I had to remain at home. It was a terrible disappointment. But life’s like that and one saying comes to mind- It is something to the effect that ‘life is what happens when you are busy making plans.’

Friday, October 02, 2009

Shadow Driving

It is far more interesting driving a bus then being a passenger inside one. I realized this the other day when I had an opportunity to be behind the steering wheel of a passenger bus. It was a memorable experience, a childhood dream almost come true, and also a revelation about how the road transport corporation plays with the lives of its passengers, and a lot more. The experience would not have been possible had I not taken a snap decision.

When the bus driver told me there were not seats in the bus except in his cabin, I agreed to it. There was no choice as all the buses were full and it had been a long and tiring wait for me. I had been traveling almost all week on work and wanted to get back home for the holiday. I wanted to be home in time for dinner so I got threw in my bags and climbed into the cabin. I sat on a long seat which was actually a bed for the second driver because it was a long distance bus. However the other driver was somewhere inside. I was not exactly driving the bus but sat behind the driver’s seat within reach of the steering wheel, the gear stick and if I stretched my legs, the brakes and the accelerator too would have been accessible. So it felt as good as driving the bus and appeared to be a lot of fun but it was otherwise.

I had thought there was nothing like traveling in a SUV but I discovered that it was nothing compared to traveling in a big bus sitting right behind the driver. The driver was one of those lean, wiry guys who are cool and unflappable in any situations. He was cool alright but he was also the sort who gives others on the roads moments they will remember all their lives. I watched him overtake enormous trucks at impossible moments with other vehicles approaching on the opposite side. He would keep overtaking while looking in the rearview mirror on the left to see if we had passed until the drivers of the oncoming vehicles pressed the horns in panic or slowed down completely. At the last moment just when it appeared like a collision was inevitable, he would give the steering a turn and veer the bus away. It was quite hair-raising for me to watch and I wondered how the people in the vehicles we just passed must have felt. After some time it began to feel like fun and I was actually looking forward when we would have trucks to overtake.

After a while it fell dark and the only time the driver opened his mouth was when out of the darkness loomed the rear of a ‘Volvo’ bus. It did not have any lights at the back and were it not for some last minute braking we would have certainly rammed into it. I wondered how the driver of the ‘Volvo’ was driving without brake lights and endangering the lives of the people inside. A little later when it started to rain heavily I discovered something similar in our own bus. I had wondered why the driver was not switching on the windshield though it appeared like we were peering through a waterfall. The lights of the oncoming vehicles blinded us, the lights getting magnified because of the cascading water and the falling raindrops on the windshield. I asked the driver, in fact whispered into his ears because his head was just inches away. Very coolly, he told me the windshield wiper was not working since ages!

For the next two hours I sat tensely on the edge of the seat. I watched the driver take the bus without a windshield at high speed in heavy rain on a national highway with hundreds of large vehicles moving in either direction. I marveled at the driver’s skill, or should I call it guts, in driving the bus in that condition. Now every time he overtook a vehicle I closed my eyes unable to take the tension. Cars and two wheelers simply careened off the road to get out of our way as we approached, horn blaring loudly. Only when the bus reached the four-lane stretch with a divider did I start breathing easily because there was no danger of colliding head-on with anything.

Just when I began to relax, he took out his cell phone to answer the calls he was getting. He got four calls in a span of one hour. It hadn’t stopped raining and in fact it grew heavier when the bus finally entered the city. However it did not deter the driver from talking on the cell phone. I also noticed that the instrument panel too had no lights. Now and then he rose from his seat, with the bus in high speed, to wipe the condensation on the inside of the windshield. This too made me very nervous. I wondered if I had taken the right decision to get into this bus.

But I forgave the driver all his faults for just one reason. When we heard the sirens of an ambulance, he blew the horn loudly scattering the vehicles ahead of us and careened to the left giving a wide berth to the speeding ambulance. Though he did not have any concern for those not yet dead in his bus at least he thought of those in an ambulance. By that one act the bus driver earned my appreciation though I did not tell him.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yet Another Reading- Arzee the Dwarf

I’m beginning to envy all these new writers who were once journalists. They come to writing prepared: with the craft and most of the time, with the story as well. I sometimes think it is easier for them to write fiction. Not only is it easier for them they also manage to make a good job of it coming out with books that become bestsellers or at least get talked about. No wonder some of the best writers (at least those I admire) have been journalists, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ernest Hemingway, to name two. To think, I was almost on the verge of becoming a journalist once long back but fate decided otherwise.

I am not really aware how many fiction writers in India are journalists, but the latest to join the list is Chandrahas Choudhury who was in Hyderabad recently to read from his book- Arzee the Dwarf. From what he talked about his book, writing and reading in conversation with Sridala Swami I got the impression that he is a writer who will create waves in the future. However, I did not buy the book since my friend Uma had bought a copy and got it signed by Chandrahas Choudhury. It seems he revealed to Uma that he always writes with a fountain pen. That makes it two of us writing with fountain pens though I cannot even dream of writing as well and if I may add, as intelligently as he does. Anyone who reads his blog will be impressed by his writing.

Strangely enough, book readings in Hyderabad's bookstores aren’t attracting the sort of crowds that similar events held at star hotels do. Not surprisingly Chandrahas Choudhury’s event did not attract much by way of a gathering at Odyssey, Vikrampuri. The four of us (I, Kiran, Hari and Uma) made up as much as a quarter, or maybe more, of the audience. But those who gave the event a miss don’t know what they’ve missed. It was an interesting talk between the author and Sridala Swami where he talked about how he got the idea to write a story about a dwarf, about the writers he liked to read (Willa Cather, Orhan Pamuk, Anjum Hasan, Vikram Chandra), about his habit of keeping a notebook and so on.

What struck me was his statement that dialogue in fiction need not advance the story all the time. This is contrary to what I’ve read so far about writing fiction: that dialogue should move the story forward, convey information etc. Chandrahas Choudhury said something to the effect that dialogue could be there without serving these purposes, just for the sake of entertainment. When he revealed that he had turned down offers of movie rights for his book, and added that his books are meant to be read and enjoyed, and not seen as a movie he gave the impression of a writer who takes his job seriously. If he sticks to his beliefs and his craft he will go a long way ahead.

This book reading was the first after Meenakshi Mukherjee’s death a few days earlier. In fact, Chandrahas Choudhury was supposed to give a talk (The Writing and Readking Life) at the Hyderabad Central University the day before which seems to have been cancelled. It would have been nice if Meenakshi Mukherjee was remembered in some way at the reading.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Meenakshi Mukherjee

For those in Hyderabad who love to read, book launches and readings will never be the same again. That’s how it feels to me. I used to look out for one person at readings I’ve attended. And I’ve attended quite a lot of them in the past one decade. If Meenakshi Mukherjee was present in the crowd I used to feel happy she had come. But now after her unexpected death less than ten days ago the literary scene in Hyderabad and the country feels quite empty. For a long time I was unaware that Meenakshi Mukerjee was one of the country’f finest commentator on Indian writing. I feel a sense of personal loss at her untimely death.

If I’ve learnt anything from attending book readings it is that if Meenakshi Mukherjee attended the launch or reading then the book was worth reading. In the past ten years she had attended several book readings not matter where they took place, at a star hotel or a small book store. It was worth waiting for her to ask questions or comment on something about the book. Because one observation from her about that particular book, my whole perception of the book would change. Ever since I came to know who she was I’ve followed her articles and essays in papers especially ‘Literary Review’ of ‘The Hindu. I’ve learnt a lot about Indian fiction in English reading her articles. I regret not reading any of her books and the reason is that they aren’t so easily available. I plan to search for them and read them soon.

When Hari launched his book, ‘The Men Within’ a couple of years ago at Askhara, Meenakshi Mukherjee was present in the gathering. Hari told me that he had given the book to her to read. I was surprised when he told me she had not only read the book in just a few days she had also offered him encouraging words about his writing. He was understandably ecstatic about it. I was surprised that such an eminent and busy critic would take out take out time to read the book of a newbie writer and also encourage him. It gave me the idea of doing the same after finishing my own book but sadly it will only remain as an idea.

The last time I saw Meenakshi Mukherjee was at the reading of Jaishree Misra’s latest book that happened a few weeks ago. She had observed that the book’s cover made it appear like it was a serious book and not what it was being perceived as. She sat through the event right up to the end patiently listening to the conversation between the author and Dr Vijay Kumar.

But my best memory of Meenakshi Mukherjee was the time when I saw her at the Begumpet airport a couple of years ago. I had gone to the airport to receive someone and was waiting outside the arrivals gate. She had come to receive someone and was scanning the faces of those coming out. I hesitantly wished her. She turned around and gave me a broad smile in return.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Sunday Haul- 4 Magazines

A terrific haul I had this Sunday finding the Big Three of travel magazines- Lonely Planet, Condé Nast Traveler, and National Geographic Traveler, all in one place. The LP and Condé Nast were issues of July 2009 and the NGT was the absolutely latest issue- of September 2009! Only last Sunday I had found the previous issue. When the guy said I could have each for only twenty rupees I felt glad I decided to come to Abids though I knew there’d be very few sellers. It was one of the best haul of travel related stuff I’ve had in recent times.

The National Geographic Traveler issue was one about some great road trips. The write up about a motorcycle trip on the Sardinian coast in Italy had some wonderful pictures. I’ve begun to like a regular columnist in the magazine- Daisann McLane, who wrote about travel sleep in this issue. The previous issue had a piece about the joys of doing one’s laundry while traveling. Pretty mundane things but she writes well. There was a piece on using Twitter to enhance the travel experience and one about iPhone applications one can use while travelling. I wish I could do one of the travel photography workshops that NGT holds quite regularly. The latest one is in Colorado from Oct 30 to November 2.

In a previous post I had written about how thick Condé Nast is with hundreds of pages. The July issue had only 106 pages compared to ninety of NGT. This issue was about some great island deals. There were lengthy articles on Barbados, Hokkaido, Cape Verde and also Hawaii. The pictures were as usual great.

I do not know how long Lonely Planet Magazine’s been around but the July 2009 issue I found was the second issue I read. One striking thing about LPM is the number of photographs that dot the pages. This issue was about 50 Best Kept Travel Secrets and not one of them was about any place in India except Shaheen Bagh in Mussorie which got just a couple of lines. In contrast Cevennes in France, Beirut, Costa del Sol, Albania and Socotra got pages and pages of mention.

For all my reading of travel magazines I am not getting to travel anywhere much. But next month there’s a trip in the offing. I might be in Bengaluru for a week on office work, more specifically, on a training program. Watch this space.

Like most boys I was fascinated by guns until I discovered that a pen could be as lethal as a gun. The fascination, however lingers, though I am a very non-violent person. I picked up a magazine on guns- Shooting Times to know what’s happening in the world of guns though I would have loved if it had been a pen magazine that I found.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Sunday Haul

The Sunday Haul

It seems to be National Geographic Traveler season after Conde Nast Traveller season for me at Abids. Last Sunday I found the latest issue (July/August 2009) issue of NGT. Though I got the brand new magazine for thirty rupees only, I wasn’t very happy because I missed picking up two latest issues of Conde Nast Traveler magazine the other Sunday. Someone smarter had already picked them up. This is one lesson I sometimes forget: to grab a good book/magazine the first time you see it.

I had also seen Anita Desai’s and Carson McCullers’books too but did not buy them. Now I feel I should have bought them. I hope they’re there next Sunday but it looks unlikely because there may not be many book sellers on Sunday because as the festival season approaches the usual shops remain open. The book sellers who display their wares in front of the shops that are closed either move away or do not set shop at all. I’m keeping my fingers crossed until Sunday.

Coming back to NGT, the magazine is as good as the channel. Compared to Conde Nast NGT is smaller and with fewer pages- about eighty to more than two hundred pages of Conde Nast. But the articles are more informative and also crisper. However there doesn’t seem to be much about India in the magazine. I read about the charms of Boulder, a place where one of my family members lived not very long ago. There were short write ups about attractions at other US cities including Iowa where I plan to end up one of these days to do a writing workshop.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nectar in Paradise

Sometime back the Times Good Food Guide handed out awards to hotels in Hyderabad for Best Biryani, Best This and Best That to several joints that would make up quite a long list. All these awards were for stuff that very few of us take on a daily basis. Okay, biryani is one thing that we eat more than regularly so it made sense to me. If I remember correctly, Bawarchi won the Best Biryani prize so it okay. But what was disappointing was that one common thing that every Hyderabadi partakes daily was ignored. I am talking about Irani chai. If you ask me there should be a separate award for Best Irani chai but I don’t think any of the judges would deem to drink literally hundreds of cups of tea before deciding on the prize. If you ask me again, I would unhesitatingly give the Best Irani chai award to Paradise in Secunderabad without a second thought. I consider the Irani chai there nothing less than nectar and hence do not fail to have it at least once a week.

But ever since becoming a non-resident Hyderabadi the Paradise nectar has become out of reach for me. Last week, however, I was in Hyderabad on a week-long training session and I thought I would taste the Paradise Irani chai regularly but it wasn’t so. The place I was supposed to be trained turned out to be quite far away, almost near the Shamshabad International Airport. It would be late evening by the time I returned to the city after the training. But on Thursday the training ended early so I rushed straight to Paradise. For once I thought I’d try to use the wine aficionado’s lingo to describe the Irani chai at Paradise. So here goes:

As I said earlier, nectar is the right word to describe the chai at Paradise. The first sip transports you to a different world. The rest of it flows down the throat like silk, lighting up the insides. One feels a certain warmth after imbibing it. If you happen to see a glow on the face of anyone stepping out of Paradise then you can be certain he’s just downed a cup of the heavenly liquid. The outstanding thing about the Irani chai at Paradise is that it doesn’t leave an aftertaste on the tongue or in the mouth. Elsewhere, the taste lingers on for a while but not with the Irani chai at Paradise. All of it goes in straight inside and does its job without much ado.

Unlike the other Irani joints the amazing thing about Paradise it that the chai is served in cups sterilized in hot water. You can see this if you opt for self-service buying a token at the counter and picking up your own tea. The guy picks out the cups with a tong from the steaming water before pouring the chai into the cup. The only gripe I have about it is that the cups seem too small and the quantity of chai seems too little for me. I always feel that a couple of more gulps would have been better. But maybe the Paradise folks feel it is just enough.

Continuing with the topic of Irani chai and biryani, the other day I caught an episode of the program, India ka Zayka, on television. Vinod Dua was going around Irani joints in Hyderabad. When I switched on the television he was in Bahar restaurant tasting Osmania biscuits and dilkush in Bahar, then he went on to taste lassi at Shadab, kabab, nehari elsewhere, haleem or chicken at Niagara and so on. He had a deadpan expression as he tasted a bit of all the dishes before him before proceeding to describe the ingredients used in the dishes as if we did not know. There was no other expression that other people on such programs have, one of pleasure and discovery. I did not think Vinod Dua was impressed by the typical Hyderabadi food in our hotels. While tasting the kebabs he said he was a Delhiite and said that kebabs in Delhi are something else. To me it appeared like he would not be able to find food like Delhi food anywhere. I wonder why he is taking the trouble of visiting so many places. If you ask me, a chota samosa at Paradise is enough to take you to foodie heaven. I have no idea if he tasted chota samosas anywhere in Hyderabad because I missed the beginning of the episode.

Two more things about Irani hotels before giving a rest to the salivary glands. During the Ramzan month all Irani joints in Hyderabad are closed for one day. This year that day fell on Saturday last. I couldn’t find a single Irani hotel open in Hyderabad. I was desperate for another cup of Irani but I had no such luck despite traveling the length and breadth of the city. All Irani chai addicts in Hyderabad must have had a terrible time on Saturday dealing with headaches and other withdrawal symptoms.

At Liberty, once upon a time there stood a magnificent Irani hotel called Mughal Durbar that served fantastic biryani. The place closed down several years ago leaving many in the Basheerbagh area heartbroken. In its place they were selling export linen and stuff until last week. Last week, I saw that Mughal Durbar had reopened at the same place but not in its earlier glory. One has to wait and see what happens in the coming days since now there is only a board and a couple of tables.

Grand Hotel near GPO Abids has undergone a complete makeover with steel furniture, new tiles and a totally new décor. Gone are the large wall mirrors that decorated the walls, the ancient tables and chairs, the smoke covered walls and the glass display cases at the main counter where a guy was always making bun maska. I felt sad because it was better the old way. The place had character but now it is all gone. The only heartening thing is that the place hasn’t closed down altogether.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Sunday Haul

I cannot say the same about other areas of my life but when it comes to finding books I like to think that I am one lucky bloke. This Sunday luck struck me again but before writing about what I found I want to recollect a similar instance. One book I was fortunate to find at Abids a couple of years ago was a book on a topic that I am passionate about (and also not very good at) which is- writing. The book I found was ‘Borges on Writing.’ It was edited by three people one of whom Jorge Luis Borges’ translator. The book was a transcript of a prose seminar Borges gave at Columbia University in 1971.

I did not mind paying hundred rupees to possess ‘Borges on Writing’ because it was worth more than that. In the book Borges talks about his writing and discusses how he wrote certain stories and poems. I had only heard about Borges but hadn’t read anything that he had written. But after I read a story that he discusses in detail, actually line by line, I understood what a marvelous writer he was. All through the reading of the story titled ‘The End of the Duel’ I had my hand to my throat because the story is all about cutting throats. Two rivals have their throats slit by executioners at the end of the story. It is a famous story that fuelled a desire to read more of his works but alas, I could not find any books by him at Abids. Last Sunday however, I got lucky.

I hadn’t noticed the book the first time but on a second pass my eyes fell on the small, slim Penguin 70s edition of ‘The Mirror of Ink’ by Jorge Luis Borges. If finding the book was a lucky thing, then getting it for only ten rupees was the icing on the cake. The book has seven of Borges’ most famous short stories: The Mirror of Ink, The Lottery in Babylon, The Library of Babel, The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero, The Witness, Ragnarök, and Blue Tigers. Each story is just a few pages long and the longest story is ten pages in length in a book of only fifty six pages. I felt transported to another world when I read the title story- The Mirror of Ink. I plan to read one story at a time and s-l-o-w-l-y.

It was the only book I found last Sunday but it was a great find. Lucky me.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Two Book Readings

It was probably too much on the literary scene in Hyderabad the previous week with two book readings by two different authors on two consecutive days at two different places in Hyderabad. It had me in two minds about what to do but I anyway ended up attending both the readings that took place Friday and Saturday last. On Friday noted author Jaishree Misra read from her latest book ‘Secrets & Lies’ at the Jubilee Hills Odyssey, and on Saturday it was Amit Verma author of ‘My Friend Sancho’ at the Vikrampuri Odyssey store.

On Friday I expected quite a sizeable crowd at Jaishree Misra’s reading but I was surprised that not a single member of the la-di-da crowd that usually turns up at readings of famous authors was present at Odyssey. Then I realized that this swish set does not attend any book reading or launch unless the event is held at star hotels preferably the Grand Kakatiya at Begumpet in Hyderabad. Most of this crowd lives in Jubilee Hills so you cannot expect them to show up at any event happening in their backyard. It would have been oh so plebeian.

Anyway, the reading of Jaisree Mishra’s book created quite a record by lasting nearly an hour and half. Dr T Vijay Kumar was in conversation with a very down-to- earth and candid Jaishree Mishra for more than an hour. The talk began aptly with the cover and the title and meandered on with discussions whether the book was comes under the category of ‘chick lit’, historical fiction, censorship and so on. Meenakshi Mukherjee observed that the cover gives the impression it is a serious book than what it is being considered as i.e., chicklit. Though the noise of the café in the book store, the crowds moving in and out was a bit distracting, the event went on pretty well. Though I had not read any of Jaisree Misra’s books I picked up a copy and also got it signed.

The next day i.e., on Saturday I landed at the Vikrampuri branch of Odyssey for the reading of ‘My Friend Sancho’ by Amit Verma. The bookstore wasn’t exactly crowded which must have made the author to conclude that no one reads in Hyderabad. But if Hachette had taken care to hold the event at one of the star hotels then they would have been surprised how many would have turned up in their finest clothes. Given that the book had sold 14000 copies so far, having the event at a hotel would have been justified.

The reading began with one of the store’s employees doubling up as a compere, and I guess he gave it a Hyderabadi flavor that everybody present including the author will remember for a long time. After the introductions, it was the turn of the Hachette representative to tell the gathering all they needed to know about the Hachette group including how to pronounce ‘Hachette.’ For some reason she chose to address the crowd from behind a shelf with only her face showing. Then Sridala Swami took over and led the conversation with the author.

Amit Verma turned out to be funnier than his book. I had bought ‘My Friend Sancho’ in July and read it a few weeks later. When Amit Verma revealed that he had written the book in just five weeks it confirmed a feeling I had after I read the book- that it was written in haste, maybe to bank on the popularity of the author’s blog ‘India Uncut.’. I also felt that the book was written to fulfill some sort of a commitment but I might be wrong. After hearing Amit Verma talk about the book and other issues I felt he could have written a better book. Anyway, I hope his next book which I read somewhere is about an ICS officer, will be much better and also, funnier.

Amit Verma did not disappoint the crowd at Odyssey Hyderabad but the crowd must have disappointed him very much. Too bad no one had told him to have the reading at a posh hotel. Because the ambience is what draws Hyderabad’s elite book lovers more than the book itself.