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.