Friday, January 29, 2010

The Sunday Haul

The Sunday Haul- Two Books and a Magazine

It sounds ironical but contrary to my dreams of traveling to new, bigger and exotic cities I’m traveling backwards- going to smaller towns and still smaller villages where there’s nothing but dung, bare fields and all the dust in the world. I’m becoming bored of my official trips to villages, so numerous that I am finding it difficult to remember afterwards where I’ve been because all villages, in essence, are the same everywhere. But there are other villages I am getting to know, if not in person, in books and magazines. Last Sunday’s find was one such book about life in a French village.

Helen Stevenson’s ‘Instructions for Visitors’ was the first book I found at Abids on Sunday. I found it in a heap of books selling for twenty rupees only after some careful sorting. It is a pity that these guys don’t arrange books in an orderly manner but throw them in heaps like they are selling vegetables. However, it has its own thrills. Coming across a good title that one is looking for is one of the many joys of going through heaps of books. ‘Instructions for Visitors’ is a travel book, memoir, a meditation and lots more if the blurbs on the back of the book are anything to go by. But going by its looks and the first chapter it promises to be a good read. It is about life in a French village as seen by the author who has escaped to rural France after an ill-fated love affair. I hope it is a good read, something on the lines of Frances Mayes ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence.’.

Another book I found at Abids was a book that appeared to be a classic at first glance. Though I had seen just the cover on earlier occasions, last Sunday I picked up the book for a more detailed examination. The title appeared very familiar, one that I had read about sometime ago. It was Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ which I got for only fifteen rupees. The blurbs on the back say that the book is ‘hailed by the critics the world over as the twentieth century’s definitive novel on war.’ Other famous writers rave about it on the back cover so I picked it up without a second thought.

The third find of Sunday was my first Conde Nast Traveler in 2010. It was the September 2009 issue that I had earlier missed buying. I paid thirty rupees for it but it was in a good condition, almost new. One of the articles in the magazine was about how taking vacations is good for one’s health. There was an article by Amy Wilentz about traveling in Haiti. It is worth reading especially now that things might be a lot different after the earthquake.

Though I cannot afford them I like to read about luxury articles that one day I might get to buy (like the …) if my writing stars shine brightly in the coming days. I bought a special supplement (titled ‘COLLECTION’) of the latest issue (January 2010) of the ‘Robb Report’ which is a magazine which millionaires with class and taste subscribe to. I don’t know which millionaire decided to dispose of his magazine but I felt lucky finding it. Lucky because now I know how much a second hand Rolls Royce Phantom of 2004 vintage costs- $ 150,000. One has to keep track of such things just in case…

Monday, January 25, 2010

Straight from the Saucer- Finish and Get Out

It is not uncommon to find, in Hyderabad's busy Irani hotels, notices pasted on the walls asking patrons to make space for others. Most people who come to Irani hotels spend a long time sipping the tea and chatting away. These people don’t bother about the boards that exhort them to leave the tables so that others can sit and enjoy the Irani chai. For these sort of stubborn people some of the Irani hotels seem to have found a nice solution.

One evening sometime last week I found myself in the vicinity of Secunderabad and decided to have a nice, piping hot cup of Irani chai at ‘Blue Sea.’ ‘Blue Sea’ is one of the smallest Irani hotels in Hyderabad and perhaps one of the busiest. There are hardly eight tables that can seat no more than twenty people at a time. Not that everyone wants to sit and sip tea in Blue Sea because more people stand out on the road before the hotel and drink their tea. These people do not have to bother about leaving. But those sitting inside the hotel do not get more time than is needed to finish their tea. All the waiters (about half a dozen of them) cry out one after the other, asking those who have finished drinking tea to leave and make space for others. It must perhaps be the only hotel in the world not to allow the patrons to sit back and admire its chipped crockery. The waiters are all businesslike, you tell them what you want and they will get it to you. No smiles, no small talk, nothing. That’s ‘Blue Sea’ for you.

But the “Light of Asia’ hotel in Abids is different. Or at least appears to be different nowadays. On Sundays when I am alone at Abids I drop here for a cup of tea while going through the mags and books I might have picked up until then. Yesterday, I had picked up a funny book and decided to leaf through it sitting in LOA. One welcome sight was a chirpy, talkative waiter who, with his easy manners and simple courtesy, made me order things I don’t usually eat. When I ordered tea he suggested I have the Osmania biscuits which he told me were hot off the oven. I gave in and ordered them. Indeed they were fresh. He was doing the same with the others in the hotel and surprisingly everyone was falling for his pitch. The guys who come to Irani hotels are different from the people who go to fancy restaurants. They just have what they want and no one can change their mind. But this waiter was doing it, taking in orders for things he was suggesting. It was an experience to watch him do his job with a lot of enthusiasm, persuasion and courtesy. It is a rare quality to find in waiters in Irani hotels.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Sunday Haul- A Book on Japan

The only name that comes to mind whenever I think of Japan is ‘Aki Morita.’ It wasn’t until recently that I came to know Morita is one remarkable person who was behind another remarkable company- Sony Corporation that itself brings out some pretty remarkable products. Come to think of it, the Japanese are one set of remarkable people. Who else could think of inventing products like the Walkman, the electric rice cooker and everything else that is highly functional yet fits in one’s palm- like my Sony camera, which unfortunately, has stopped working. Anyway, what I wanted to convey was that any country where such imaginative and inventive people live is bound to be one remarkable country. And if one cannot visit such a remarkable country the least one can do is read more about it and weep that one cannot visit it in one’s life time.

Of course I do also know about Honda, Nissan, Nikon, sake, Hokkaido, the Kurile Islands, manga, Tokyo, the bullet train and several names that bring Japan to mind. It may give one the impression that either Japan is going to figure a lot in this post or that I may be going to Japan shortly. I wish the latter could be true but it is highly unlikely, as long as I am working for the government, that I will be in a plane bound for Tokyo. Anyway, the thing is that though I have read a lot about Japanese people and the products they make, I haven’t come across any book in which Japan features prominently. I have read one piece in a collection of essays in which Pico Iyer writes about living somewhere in rural Japan. Apart from that I haven’t read much about Japan. Even the Conde Nast Traveler magazines I have with me do not carry any exhaustive write ups about Japan.

Quite interestingly, my first Dave Barry book was ‘Dave Barry Does Japan’ which I found at a sale in ‘Gangarams’ when they had a branch in Hyderabad. DBDJ is incredibly funny and I fell in love with his style of writing. This was the first book I found after reading several of his articles which appeared in the Sunday issue of The Asian Age. It was a paper back and years later I found a hardcover which I cherish like anything. Last Sunday I picked up a book that I thought was another travel book on Japan but turned out to be something else. The book was ‘Pictures from the Water Trade’ by John David Morley. I picked it up for twenty rupees from a heap of books. It isn’t exactly an account of the writer’s life in Japan narrated in the first person but the book is written from the view point of another character which we have to assume as the author’s alter ego. Anyway, I bought this book after reading the back page on which Colin Thubron writes that the book ‘joins the tiny handful of books on Japan which display both deep acquaintance and imaginative insight.’ I hope the book turns out to be what Colin Thubron says it is or else I'll never visit Japan even if I get free air tickets.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Till the Cows Come Home

Out here in the countryside where I work, apart from the clean air, an unhurried life there are a lot of things worth knowing just for fun. Not only are there less people per square kilometer here, there probably would be one buffalo or cow for every five people. In statistician’s lingo the buffalo/cow to people ratio would be 1:5 which is quite a favorable ratio when you look at it from certain angles which I will come to shortly. This favorable ratio means that if one is living in the countryside one gets to hear the bellowing of cattle, people milking buffaloes or cows, stacks of hay etc. One also gets an abundant supply of milk, curds, ghee and the like. It also means there is an abundance (overabundance, if you ask me) of dung. One needn’t go very far if one happens to be in need of cow dung whatever the purpose be. Sometimes one can find it right in one’s courtyard.

Last week people hereabouts (that is in Andhra Pradesh) celebrated the festival of Sankranti. It is a festival when men do not have anything particular to do except eat all the goodies prepared by the women. The children fly kites and the women spend half the morning drawing intricate rangolis in front of their homes. Sankranti is perhaps the only time when women who otherwise don’t have anything, even remotely, to do with cow dung suddenly need it very badly. They beg, cajole or even threaten their maidservants to bring a dollop of dung on Sankranti. In the countryside all a woman has to do to get some cow dung is to step outside the house to find all the cow dung one wants. But in a city, especially a city like Hyderabad, obtaining even a tiny amount of cow dung is an impossible task. One can perhaps get gold more readily and easily than cow dung.

Normally cow dung isn’t an important part of daily life in the city. But during Sankranti it tops of the list of ‘Most Wanted’ items which presents many problems. In Hyderabad the cow/buffalo to people ration must be something like 1:25,00,000, that is, one buffalo or cow for every 2.5 million persons. One cannot find cowdung for love or money unless one is living in areas like Amberpet or Afzal Gunj where the Musi flows past. One can find a couple of emaciated cows near vegetable markets and that’s it. There was a time when herds of buffaloes crossing the road to wade into the Hussainsagar Lake would cause traffic to stop for a few minutes. But now the scene’s changed. One gets to see buffaloes and cows only on National Geographic. So, one can imagine the plight of the housewife who wants to put a couple of blobs of cow dung as part of her rangoli. With just a couple of hundred cows and buffaloes for a population that’s in tens of millions, there’s bound to be a demand-supply problem of cow dung. But there are always people to help out- maidservants.

I have no idea how our maidservant did it but she managed to get her hands on some prime quality fresh cow dung that she proudly brought home. Sometimes I think the housewives underestimate their maidservants. It made my mom happy. I was more happy. Ever since I’ve been posted in the country side my mother always tells me to bring stuff like groundnuts, guavas, custard apple when I come home for the weekend. Luckily, she did not tell me to bring me you know what.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Sunday Haul- More Books on Writing

No one can be blamed if they’re getting the impression that maybe I’ve been buying far too many books on writing than is good for me. As a matter of fact/ actually I too am getting the same impression. But I’m helpless about it because my writing is like that. I need to write much better than what I am doing now. If the hits on the blog and my nervousness about showing my manuscript are any indication then I still have a long way to go before I can even think of making it to the long lists.

Anyway, last Sunday at Abids I picked up yet another book on writing. In fact, I had picked up one earlier during the week. On Saturday I had been to a sale of second hand books organized by Best Books at YMCA, Secunderabad. At the sale I had seen a book on writing that I wanted to buy but did not because of its price- Rs. 145 only. On Sunday I was delighted to find the same title at Abids but at a much lesser price. The book was Donald Hall’s ‘Writing Well’, a 325-page tome that I got for only fifty rupees. I like to think that not buying the book at the sale was the first intelligent decision I took in the New Year.

However, since I can never leave a bookstore, much less a second hand book sale, empty handed, I had picked up another book on writing. I found Gene Perret’s ‘Become a Richer Writer’ and bought it for Rs. 95. I know it is on the higher side but considering what the title promises I guess it is money well spent. The book is in first person which is what I look for in books on writing. One learns more about writing from such books than the academic tomes.

With the addition of these two books on writing, my collection of books on writing has further expanded though not my skill. Regretfully and much to my disappointment, reading even a hundred plus books on writing doesn’t seem to have done much for my writing. If it had been anyone else in my place I am sure that after reading just a couple of books on writing they would have learnt all there was to learn about writing and also gone ahead and found a place on the Booker short list. But then government blokes are not exactly known to be smart in the first place or they wouldn’t have been in the government.

One needn’t go very far to know that Hyderabad has arrived, as far as reading tastes are concerned. I found this month’s (Jan 2010) issue of the Vanity Fair at Abids. Not only did I find the absolutely latest issue of VF I got it for only ten rupees. I’m yet to figure out how the magazine found its way here but it makes me one of the few persons in Hyderabad to have read the latest issue of Vanity Fair. Not that it amounts to anything great but it gives me reason to claim that I am rather well read!!

Fans of Barkha Dutt, if there are any, would be interested to know that apart from being on TV reading the news, hosting talk shows and reporting from odd places she not only finds the time to read magazines like Vanity Fair but also finds the time to write letters to their editors pointing out inaccuracies. A letter from Barkha Dutt to the editor has been published in the issue. More interesting were pieces on the lovely Meryl Streep, Elvis and the Hadron Collider. So that constituted my reading material for the week.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Life Saving Sips

Once every couple of years or so, the last week of December is that time of the year when I indulge in a bit of drinking. It might come as a surprise to many that I drink but it is something I do for friendships’s sake (not a very valid reason, I know) but being a loyal friend there are a few things I am willing to do for them. I share a couple of pegs with a bunch of overseas friends once every two years. A friend who lives in Australia had dropped in so I decided to lift my self-imposed ban on alcohol and drink a wee bit to make my friends happy. Of course, it also makes me happy because it brings back a lot of memories of the time when I used to drink.

I started to drink around the time I was in the final year of college when I stayed in the hostel on and off. It was New Year’s eve and a time when students living in hostels go completely crazy and out of control. I, along with two or three friends decided to have a few drinks in a friend’s room in keeping with the trend. The friend, a crafty fellow, mixed a potent cocktail to us first time drinkers. He spiked our beers with generous measures of whisky which had us singing into the wee hours. It is a recorded fact that I am not known to sing, least of all in public. I never sing in public, not even at gun point. But that night, my friends told me a couple of days later, I went through a lot of hit songs including the National Anthem.

Of course, that was the only time anyone saw me sing in public. Another time I drank I nearly burnt myself to death. During the final year of college we were supposed to live in a village for six months to experience the rural life. I liked no one in our group of six except a senior who was repeating the year. He was a good cook but was too fond of alcohol. It was too boring in the small village so once or twice a week we caught a bus to the nearest town which was an hour’s journey. Since we were students and did not want to be seen drinking, we had our drinks in the town and caught the last bus to the village.

On one such trip I somehow had more than my normal quota of whisky. I don’t remember how we got to the village and to our rooms but I remember to this day the bright glow of the carpet that had caught fire while I was asleep on it. Sometime during the night a mosquito coil (they hadn’t yet come out with mosquito mats or liquid dispensers) fell on the carpet on which I lay drunk out of my mind. It was a thick cotton carpet and burnt slowly without going up in flames. Another couple of centimeters and my blanket would have caught fire and that would have been the end of Mr. Vinod Ekbote at the young age of 21.

Luckily, the thick smoke from the slowly burning carpet brought us out of the whisky stupor. My friend and I stared at the burning carpet that glowed brightly in the dark as if it was a fireworks display. For a long time it did not occur to us to put out the fire. Finally, after a lot of marveling about how I had escaped being incinerated by a few millimeters, my friend came to life and put out the fire. When I got home months later I couldn’t really explain to my mom how the carpet came to be burnt in such an interesting pattern.

If it had happened to anyone else they would have certainly said that it was an eye-opener and promptly stopped drinking. Not me. I continued to drink rather mindlessly, for a long time after that incident. Later on, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it (I never enjoyed it anyway) and put a complete stop to my drinking. Not that I was a regular tippler but I drank now and then especially after we got our stipend. Now I drink about two pegs every two years or so like I did a fortnight ago with two of my dear friends.

2013 will be the year when I will be having my next drink unless Penguin or Harper Collins decide they better publish my novel before that, which would be one good reason to celebrate with a drink.

Friday, January 08, 2010

First Haul of the New Year

It was with a great deal of eagerness that I set out for Abids on the first Sunday of the New Year hoping to land a good haul, at least two books on the sunny morning that looked promising. After seeing the piles of scores of books lying around in the house, unread, I resolved to buy just one or two books a week at Abids during the year, and also not to buy a second or multiple copies of titles I already possess. But, the year’s first find was a second copy of a book by an author I simply cannot resist reading- Elmore Leonard.

When I saw the hardcover copy of Elmore Leonard’s ‘Touch’, lying among almost-new hardcover copies of novels of Stephen King, John le Carre and others, in a heap selling for thirty rupees I did not have the heart to leave the book behind. I bought it after I told myself that I’d keep the hardcover copy for myself and give away the paperback copy. So until I find someone who is in need of a good dose of some first class writing the two copies of ‘Touch’ stay with me.

I can imagine myself doing a lot of unlikely things like riding a horse (though I can’t), climbing a mountain, or even winning the Booker (ha, ha) I cannot ever imagine myself running. So I really do not understand what’s making me pick up magazines on running. After buying ‘Touch’ I once again bought a fairly recent issue of a running magazine, ‘Runner’s World’ I guess it was, for only ten rupees. Maybe in the near future I might begin running. In the magazine was an interesting article for beginner runners and another article on the various types of running shoes with their photographs, available in the market. They look so attractive I am tempted to take up running just for the pleasure of wearing the shoes.

Here’s the first downer of the year. Yesterday while passing through East Marredpally I noticed that Hyderabad’s smallest book store (that I’d written about in an earlier post) located in a petrol outlet has shut shop. It is really a surprise given the fact that new ones are opening in other areas. It’s the East Marredpally folks who are the real losers.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The First Scene of My Novel

This is the first scene from the latest draft of my four-years-in-the-making novel. I know it isn't exactly stuff that'll make anyone in the publishing industry jump up and reach for the telephone right away. Nevertheless I'd be interested to know if it appears to you like it might have a chance of getting through or if it makes you feel that the world would be a better place if I did not go ahead with my novel. Please tell me honestly what you think of it even if you want to tell me that I would never be able to get published even if I take a hundred years to finish revising it.

The moment I spotted the dull brown envelope in Ma’s hand I knew I had made a mistake. I shouldn’t have come home for lunch. Ma had the envelope in her hand while she opened the rickety gate to let my bike in. I took my time to park the old Rajdoot motorcycle. Ma held the envelope straight up in her hand so I couldn’t miss seeing it. I looked the other way and stepped into the house.

I wanted to have nothing to do with the damned envelope because it didn’t come just like that; it brought storms along with it, storms that created turmoil in my life regularly. Only six months ago I had weathered one such storm, and now I had another on hand, or rather, in Ma’s hand. Each time the storms seemed to get bigger and bigger. From the expression on her face it looked like this time it was going to be one big, big storm. Tough luck, Sunny I said to my reflection in the mirror above the sink while I washed my hands. This time maybe there was no way I could escape.

I had left home early in the morning without having breakfast. When Ma called me at the agency to say she had cooked fish for lunch I rushed home, salivating. It was clever of her but I did not feel like eating anything. Instead, I wanted to go as far away from home as possible, away from that blasted envelope. I silently cursed Venu, my friend. He was the one who had suggested that we register our names at the Employment office barely a couple of weeks after we passed out from college. That was more than two years ago. A month after we registered the dull brown envelopes had started coming once every six months. Now it was too late for regrets. I was on the verge of being trapped.

Inside the envelope that Ma now put on the dining table was a letter. The letter offered me a job as dull as or even duller than the color of the envelope it came in. I did not want to exchange my exciting job for any other. Nothing would make me leave my present job. Nothing, I told myself as I sat down at the dining table. I noticed Ma had placed the envelope near my plate. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ma had kept it in the plate. She was like that, my mother.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Haul on the Last Sunday of the Year

Unlike the end of the year posts on this blog where I listed all the books I hauled up during the year, this year, unfortunately I could not remember to do it. One reason could be that I was unable to put together the list of books because I’ve written down each week’s finds in several notebooks that I am now unable to locate. But next week I promise to have the list ready and posted here even if no one wants to know how many books I might have bought during the year. The list might have more than a hundred books. For now, the Sunday’s haul would be enough I expect.

2009 must be the year when I picked up more magazines than books on some Sundays. It is also the year when I got subtle hints from life about my writing, hints I’ve just now begun to understand, hints that I still have a lot to learn about writing. Last Sunday I stumbled upon one such hint in the form of the July-August 2009 issue of ‘creative screenwriting’ magazine. That was the second issue of the same magazine I picked up in as many weeks. It had an article by Supriya Kelkar on how she came to be writing for Vidhu Vinod Chopra. There were two articles on movies by Quentin Tarantino. One was about Tarantino describing how he wrote ‘Inglourious Basterds’ in own style which was quirky to say the least. The other article was about the scenes in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ that never made it to the screen.

Another hint I got, this time about my non-existent photographic skills, was when I found ‘Digital Camera World’ magazine of July 2007. The mag had a lot of stuff about basic photography skills, taking control of one’s SLR and more information than one can take on the variety of digital cameras in the market. It also came with a free CD of 11 Photoshop Lessons. If I had found this magazine a month ago I would have considered it fortuitous but finding it now appears ironic if you recollect that my loyal three-year old digital camera conked out. I hope by the time I’ve finished learning the things in the magazine I’ll save enough to buy a decent camera.

I also wish someone in, say, Sony, Nikon, Olympus reads this post and realize how badly I need a camera right now, and offer me a nice digital camera of the latest model on discount. They needn’t give it to me on 100% discount but 99% would be just enough.

Another magazine I bought was the September 2007 issue of ‘BestLife’ magazine that I sometimes find at Abids. I bought this old issue after I saw on the cover that inside the magazine were ‘265 Simple Shortcuts to Ultimate Happiness’ which was exactly what I needed next to a digital camera on 99% discount. However, after I paid for it, I discovered that there were no such shortcuts inside the magazine. It wasn’t a total disappointment though because the magazine had some rather interesting pictures of someone called Carla Gugino wearing the kind of dresses she must have bought on 100% discount.

However, the find of the week was a book I was unaware of though I was very aware of the author. I have with me Anthony Bourdain’s ‘A Cook’s Tour’ (which I’ve read) and also ‘Kitchen Confidential’ which I haven’t yet read. I liked ‘A Cook’s Tour,’ so finding his ‘The Nasty Bits’ this Sunday was a pleasant surprise since I’ve come to like his style of writing. TNB is a mix of ‘Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones.’If not his dishes, at least I am enjoying Bourdain’s writing.

‘The Nasty Bits’ was the last book I bought in 2009. Of course, as planned I had also been to the 24th Annual Book Fair one last time and picked up Jay McInerney’s ‘Bright Lights, Bright City.’

A Happy New Year to all of you who’ve bothered to read this far. You’d be interested to know that this is the 200th post under the ‘BookJunkie’ label.