Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Sunday Haul- Two Books and a Magazine

Though the number of memoirs by famous chefs that I’ve found at Abids till date comes nowhere near those by writers and books on writing that fill my shelves their numbers are steadily increasing. But I cannot understand my fascination for such books. Firstly, I cannot cook and secondly, I do not have any more love for food than is needed to fill the stomach. So I am unable to explain my growing interest in books by chefs and ex-chefs recounting their lives in the kitchen. Maybe I am destined to become a chef sometime in the near or distant future rather than a writer I was hoping to be. Whatever, on Sunday I found another such book- ‘Comfort Me with Apples’ by Ruth Riechl that I got for only twenty rupees. It was a sequel to her first book titled ‘Tender to the Bone’ that I now want to buy even before I have begun to read CMWA. In fact some of the reviews on the net suggest that it is better to read her first book before beginning her second. God knows when I will find 'Tender to the Bone.'

Joyce Carol Oates is another writer whose name and titles of books I come across very frequently mentioned in books on writing. She herself has written a book about writing titled “The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art” that I am still hoping to find someday. Meanwhile, I found a copy of her “You Must Remember This” in a heap of books selling for twenty rupees. It was an old copy with a tattered and torn cover and had an interesting book mark stuck between the pages. I love it when I find bookmarks in books that I pick up. It gives an idea where the previous owner of the book might have been. The one I found belonged to a lady in the USA.

It is not usual to find the latest issues of famous international magazines at the Abids book bazaar. On Sunday I found the very latest issue of ‘Vanity Fair’ and got it for thirty rupees only. There was a terrific piece by Christopher Hitchens on his cancer diagnosis. Here's the first line- 'I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.' Here's another 'In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life maybe, I have very abruptly become a finalist.'

If in one of the issues of CNT that I found last week I came across mention of Anjali Joseph’s ‘Saraswati Park’ then this week I read about Tishani Doshi’s ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ mentioned in Vanity Fair. Though described in just one line (Tishani Doshi's 'Pleasure Seekers' delights.) I guess that's enough to have serious readers take note of it. However, I am not as much eager to buy any of these two books as I am to buy Pradeep Sebastian’s ‘The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love’ that I read about in Sunday’s Crest Edition of TOI. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the book published by Hachette and priced at Rs 395, is out in the bookstores. If it had been any other week of the month I would not have hesitated to rush out to the nearest bookstore to pick it up but being the last week of the month when the wallet is not exactly overflowing with cash I wisely decided to wait another week. That is, if I can hold myself back.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Not So Long Ago

It is proving to be rather difficult to get used to the fact that only a couple of weeks before I was traveling to small villages in passenger buses on work. It seems a long ago, though that I was roughing it out in the rural landscape trying to make sense of my job. Now that I am in Hyderabad, at a desk job, it feels odd. Though I had returned to the field post after a long gap and had been at it for just over a year I felt at home there. But it was rather tiring work with all that travelling, meeting farmers and feeling some kind of an invisible pressure all the time. Not that I did not enjoyed it but a field job had its own problems and perks. But a desk job is something else altogether.

There are several reasons why I do not enjoy desk jobs. I prefer being in the field posts where the action is, where one comes face to face with the public whose ‘servants’ we are. In the field you know what is happening which is not possible if you are sitting in your chair in some far off office. In the field, you are in the ‘situation’ which incidentally changes every day. There’s nothing to beat the feeling of being in the thick of things. To sum up, there is nothing like a field posting to make you feel that you are doing a real job.

A field post involves traveling all the time, meeting different kinds of people, facing different situations and generally, is one which doesn’t let you sit still. The field posting also puts you in different moods. Sometimes you are elated that you were able to help someone and being thanked for it and sometimes you feel rotten given the kind of people around you. Sometimes you become an unwitting target of some poor guy’s ire for no fault of yours. This is a very common thing in field postings, being a government wala, to suffer the consequences of someone’s mistake. I did not mind shouted at, but what got my goat was facing the anger of some innocent villager cheated out of his rightful due by some dishonest employee. You’d be surprised to see the levels to which some government employees stoop to make money off poor villagers. All this takes a huge toll if you are someone like me, too sensitive.

Not that I am glad that I have got out of the field post but I feel relieved a bit. In this current posting, miles away from villages I am in the centre of the government establishment. But I am only one among the hundreds in this office which hums with a strange power because it is the place where the top people have their offices and decide upon important things. This, needless to say, doesn’t make for much excitement for someone who is only a face in the crowd. About the only excitement I had in these couple of weeks was being asked one morning to rush to the office to send a message to the Navy to take up a rescue mission in a faraway place. Someone had drowned in a river and his body was untraceable. But before the naval swimmers could begin there was another message that the body was found. So much for my rushing.

As of now, two things I am glad about is that I am with my kid all thet time and that I get to eat my lunch on time. Out there in the villages it was something I was not sure of getting much less having it on time. Even though I hardly eat two morsels out of my tiny lunch box I am glad I have it right on time. Yes, I am also happy I get to have Irani chai whenever I feel like it. There is nothing like downing a cup of Irani chai straight from the saucer to make you feel like a Hyderabadi.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Sunday Haul

Flipping through the glossy pages of yet another issue of the Conde Nast Traveller (July 2010 issue) that I found at Abids this Sunday I suddenly realized that I could perhaps be the only reader of the magazine who hasn’t been to any of the places written about in it. The problem with Conde Nast Traveller is that it features the sort of places not many government blokes like me can afford to visit without breaking the bank. Anyway, on the other hand, I feel I should consider myself lucky that I am finding the magazine and its latest issues even, quite regularly and getting to read all about those places I cannot ever dream of visiting. Of course, being in government service I can’t unless some publisher decides to accept my first novel and agrees to pay me a jaw-dropping sum as advance.

I do not know why but once I find Conde Nast Traveller I find it again and again. I found the July 2010 issue this Sunday even before I could finish reading the August 2010 issue that I had found last Sunday at Abids. I had also seen a stack of the same magazine (but these were of 2009) the other day at the Landmark sale and they were selling at fifty rupees each. In the July 2010 issue I found Mumbai is featured once again as if there is no other place in India worth a visit. If not for the Charminar or Golconda I feel that people should visit Hyderabad to see for themselves how wonderful drivers we Hyderabadis are.

After Dave Barry and Bill Bryson one humor writer I discovered is David Sedaris. I had found his ‘Me Talk Funny One Day’ long back at Abids and liked his humor enough not to lend the book to anyone. This Sunday I came across another of his books- ‘Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim’ and bought it for sixty rupees. It is a book of humorous essays which is one form I love to read. The book got some pretty impressive reviews and here are some:

The hilarious new collection from the funniest man on the face of the earth.’ – New York Post

The essays are sardonic, funny, and wry, but at the same time… that attest to the author’s evolution from comic writer to full-fledged memoirist’- that from the famed critic Michiko Kakutani of New York Times.

‘You’ll be on the floor laughing once the twisted mind of David Sedaris has its way with you.’- Marie Claire

I guess that’s enough to get all those who missed this book at Abids start burning. The last item in the Sunday Haul I made at Abids is a book completely at odds with the previous find. A hardcover edition of ‘The Best Short Stories of Dostoesvsky’ is what I found and got for only forty rupees which is a steal considering it has seven stories filling up 297 pages. These are the stories in it- White Nights, The Honest Thief, The Christmas Tree and a Wedding, The Peasant Marey, Notes from the Underground, A Gentle Creature, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man along with an Introduction by the translator David Magarshack.

So far in my short reading life I haven’t read anything about Dostoevsky though I am well aware that he is one of the greats. I remember picking up ‘Idiots’ for Hari a long time back and I haven’t heard about it from him afterwards. Maybe he is still reading it because I also remember that it was the sort of thick and heavy book that takes months to finish. Anyway, I hope to get started on the short stories in TBSSD someday if only in the hope of being brought down to earth because these days I am having too many dreams about fat advances.

Tzatziki Again

It was in an issue of Conde Nast Traveller (which has done more to my knowledge of exotic food than anything else) that I first read about ‘Tzatziki’ which is a Greek dish. Not very long ago I came across ‘Tzatziki’ in a book of short stories (Good Bye Harold, Good Luck) by Audrey Thomas. Last Sunday I read about the dish again in Vasundhara Chauhan’s delightful column in the magazine section of ‘The Hindu.’ Next time I come across it I hope it will be on a plate.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Crime Doesn't Pay

However desperate the wish one cannot change or escape from one’s circumstances, especially at work. Just as one can choose one’s neighborhood but not the neighbors, in government service sometimes there is a choice of posting but not the colleagues. Right from the day I joined in the government service almost seventeen years ago and till recently, I had the experience of working with people who did not think twice before taking bribes and who thought that the salary they earned was not enough to lead a comfortable life. I worked with people who indulged in petty corruption and I also worked with people who were sophisticated when it came to making money by illegal ways. In the first few years watching these greedy people I had thoughts of quitting the job rather than work in such circumstances where corruption was not only accepted but sometimes encouraged.

But as the years rolled by I began to realize that I had an advantage very few people had. I was witness to a phenomenon that many talked about but did not know the details of. I had an insider’s view of corruption. I was in a position to witness the goings on in several government organizations. I was especially lucky in the posting where I was able to make detailed investigations in different departments and learnt enough to write a book about it. (Come to think of it, I might write one.) However I feel that I do not know everything about corruption. I’ve seen enough to know how the corrupt do it but only have little knowledge of the why. Of course, the basic motivation behind corruption is greed. But even after so many years of watching the corrupt people at work, my anger and loathing have not weakened. Every time I learnt of someone taking bribes quite openly and nonchalantly I wished they would be caught in the act. Last week that wish came true. Someone who worked as an assistant to me for about two years was arrested last Thursday.

Before being promoted and posted to Suryapet I was in the Head Office at Hyderabad, in a post that many coveted. My posting in that seat caused a lot of surprise and, heartburn. I heard that many people who aspired for my post did not understand how I was posted in that seat. In fact, I myself was quite mystified by my boss’s decision to post me there. Anyway, I soon found out why there was such a clamor for the seat I was occupying. It was a post that was lucrative. I handled files dealing with issue and renewal of licences. I knew that some of my bosses, my assistants made a lot of money through bribes. But I was not able to do anything about it in the absence of complaints or clear evidence. I could only watch helplessly. I had five assistants and one of them was very aggressive about it. He was known to be corrupt and did not mind the least about his image. He got promoted and managed to get into another lucrative posting by virtue of being an office bearer of some association. He had a lot of contacts with politicians and officers who he kept in good humor. But all that did not come handy when he was arrested along with another lady clerk for accepting bribes.

However, it did not come as a shock to me. As soon as I read in the papers about the arrest of two persons in my former office I knew right away who it was. My hunch proved to be right when another assistant confirmed that it was indeed the same person. I felt a bit upset but then, he deserved it. But the regular arrests of corrupt employees do not seem to deter others from taking bribes. A day after my former assistant was arrested I read that a lady employee was arrested in the Secretariat, where I am posted now, after being caught red handed accepting bribes.

Today I came to know that my former assistant was still behind bars. I hope at least in jail he would realize that crime doesn’t pay.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Sunday Haul

One magazine that I look forward to find at Abids and one that I cannot resist buying is the Conde Nast Traveller. Once again, after a long gap, last Sunday I found the latest i.e., August 2010 issue of Conde Nast Traveller at Abids. I got it for twenty five rupees only and it also happened to be only haul of Sunday. I wasn’t very disappointed that I did not find any other book because the magazine was enough to get me through the week.

There are a couple of places I’d like to visit before I become too old to travel. One of them is Tuscany. The issue of Conde Nast that I found at Abids has a lengthy article on good hotels in Tuscany. There was another interesting article on Masai Marai in Kenya with some stunning photographs. Of course, India was featured and guess what was the article about? Monkeys in Delhi! Apart from very well written pieces on exotic places the magazine also carries small box items about books in a regular feature called ‘Shelf Improvement. One of the books mentioned in this issue’s ‘Shelf Improvement’ was Anjali Joseph’s ‘Saraswati Park’ of which I had read somewhere very recently. The book got a good review and if I come across it anywhere I am definitely going to buy it even if it costs me a bomb.

Landmark and also Crossword stores are advertising sale of books on discount. Last week I happened to go to the Landmark store at Punjagutta. There were hundreds of books on sale at various discounts. Most title of the recent crop of Indian writers were selling at huge discounts and some titles were for sale at fifty bucks only. I did not have the time to go through all the heaps of books kept on tables all over the store. Landmark was overcrowded with people picking up everything on sale. I felt glad seeing the crowd that never seems it worth to visit Abids. Anyway, I had thought only the books were on discount so it came as a pleasant surprise that almost everything in the store was included in the sale. I had picked up a rather nice looking handmade notebook with a strip of gold on the hard cardboard cover. I got it for less than hundred bucks and now I regret not having bought a couple more of them. Next week I hope to drop in at the sale at Crossword and see what they’ve got.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sleepless in the Secretariat

There’s nothing like staying up the whole night on work to throw your normal routine off kilter. Barely a week into the new posting and I was asked to be on night duty because of the flood situation. Only days earlier I was on similar duty on Sunday from morning till night. Since it was raining and what with the shopping frenzy I had decided to skip the Abids visit anyway so it did not matter if I spent the day in the office instead. But sitting up all night, though not new to me, wasn’t what I was prepared for. I had no choice but to agree. I was told to go home early and return by half past nine after dinner and a couple of hours of ‘rest.’

In one of my earlier postings with the cops, once a month we’d do what was called as ‘Route Checking’ all night. We’d position ourselves, a large posse of cops in mufti and officials, on one of the highways leading into the city and stop all kinds of vehicles, especially trucks. We’d check them if they carried any goods without paying tax. It was grueling work, being up on your feet all night and dealing with cranky truck drivers. The only saving grace was being in the company of one cop friend who demonstrated how cops dealt with drivers and others who did not fall in line. I saw him pick out particularly rude and surly drivers and slap them. I did not like it a bit and felt sorry for the harried drivers but I couldn’t do anything about it because I too felt like slapping them the way they sometimes behaved. The long night’s duty was something I did not particularly look forward to because not only was it back breaking it was also dangerous. But the night duty in the Secretariat was exactly the opposite.

All I had to do was sit before the television and make calls to a lot of officials in the districts to ask them how the rain or flood was. Then I could do all the net surfing I wanted. I did not know what to do all night so I took along my notebook. I also took along Alice Sebold’s ‘Lucky’ but I did not get much time to read it. It was the day before Ramzan and from the window of the room high up on the seventh floor I watched the traffic zoom past even at midnight. I was supposed to be awake all night and remain so until eight in the morning. But a little past one thirty in the night I lay down on the sofa to stretch and slipped into an uneasy sleep. When I opened my eyes it was a quarter to four in the morning and the news on the television said the river Godavari had risen upto 56 feet at Bhadrachalam.

That day I was probably the only one in the world to watch the sunrise from his office window. It was quite a beautiful sight as the sun rose into a clear sky in the early hours of the day. I wished I had my camera with me. I had also not remembered to bring along a tooth brush and had to drink my tea without brushing my teeth. For those who haven’t been through this experience, the tea tastes the same.

I’m told I have to be prepared to do the night shift whenever there is heavy rain or flood in the state. I’m wondering when next I would be doing it again.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Lucky Me

Sometimes, those who think they are not lucky enough in anything (small,big or medium) discover that Lady Luck after all hasn’t entirely written off their names from her list. There are times when luck seems to come down on their heads like a ton of bricks. Something like that happened to me just a little more than a week ago.

For over a year until last week I was in a post where I was training farmers how to raise their crops (as if they didn’t know) and not fall into debts. I was almost resigned to that line of work for another couple of years before being eligible for a transfer. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enjoying travelling to remote villages and meeting farmers. But then I wasn’t also exactly thrilled to be doing such a thing while living alone, away from friends and family in a small town. I harbored the sort of fantasies people who are forced to live under such circumstances almost every moment conjure up. I hoped that by some miracle I would get transferred to Hyderabad.

Normally in the government one has to move heaven and earth, or if one can, shed a few tears or do some kind of skullduggery to get a transfer to a post or place of one’s choice. Not willing (and also not capable) to do any such thing I was resigned to my current bureaucratic fate of passing at least two more years of a rural stint. But, like I said before, I dreamt of a transfer to Hyderabad almost every day. But I did not even contemplate doing anything about it until out of the blue someone presented me with a wonderful chance to get a transfer to Hyderabad.

Sometime in May, I got a call from someone I did not even know asking me if I was interested to work in a post based in Hyderabad. He wanted me to replace him in his post at Hyderabad. Someone else seems to have suggested my name to him as the right, bright (?) person to take over from him in a post that I wasn’t actually eligible for. I’d been in my current post for only a year and I knew it was impossible for me to be transferred. But the kind gentleman assured me that he would make sure of my transfer if only I put in an application. Since it did not involve much to write a whiny application I did it and gave it to him. Afterwards I forgot all about it until less than two weeks ago he called me up again and gave me the wonderful news that my transfer was through.

To cut a long story short, last week I joined at the Secretariat at Hyderabad. I had not ever thought that I’d be working in the nerve center and heart of the state administration at the Secretariat at Hyderabad. This job of mine in the government is turning out to be quite interesting what with a few unusual postings. Earlier I was working in an entirely different post in the company of cops doing some bureaucratic sleuthing and enjoying it too. Once again, I am in a different post far removed from what I normally am supposed to do.

In my new post in Disaster Management, among other things, I am supposed to keep track of storms, cyclones, floods and such disasters. My job, my boss told me on the first day, begins at five in the morning with watching the weather reports on the net and the television. It was something I had never even thought I’d do in my life- watch television immediately on waking up. But then, there’s always a first time for everything.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Adios, Suryapet

A little over a year ago I landed in Suryapet unaware that I’d be leaving it sooner than the mandatory three years gap between transfers. I had been promoted and since I didn’t mind a field posting I was packed off to Suryapet to work in a training centre. After nearly eight years working in offices I was actually looking forward to a stint in the field. There’s nothing like a field posting to make you see the realities and since my job involves traveling in villages I got to see all the reality I could handle. In the field one learns more in a month than one can learn sitting in an office for years. So I was glad I was once again back in the villages amongst farmers. However, like before I had to stay away from the family. But it was worth it.

Normally, though I am a bit of a sentimental bloke, I am not as sentimental about places as I am about people. There wasn’t (and isn’t) anything in Suryapet to feel mushy about but somehow it made me sad about leaving the place. A couple of months ago I had an inkling that I’d be moving out of Suryapet. In fact, our training centre had shifted to Nalgonda sometime in the beginning of July. Though the office was in Nalgonda I had my house in Suryapet where I dropped in at least twice a week for a day or two. But it was getting a bit too tiresome going to Nalgonda from Hyderabad and then again to Suryapet to make trips to villages where I had work. At Nalgonda I felt restless, at Hyderabad I felt a bit anxious but whenever I was in Suryapet I experienced a different feeling- one of relaxed calmness,

Maybe it was the absence of the noise and clamor of Hyderabad but I felt at peace in Suryapet. I had a simple routine there. Being an early bird I would get ready and walk the few steps to my regular hotel where the owner had tea ready for me along with the day’s newspaper. Then I’d leave for the villages and return in the evening only to go on another long walk for a cup of ginger tea at Anand’s. The walk would take me through half the town past garages where mechanics repaired tractors, past shops selling filtered water in large plastic cans, past pushcarts selling fried snacks and finally arrive on a main road. This was a peculiar road because on both sides of the road were clinics of various kinds of doctors, diagnostic centers and medical shops. There were ENT surgeons, dentists, orthopaedicans, children’s doctors, and such medical people on that street which was always busy. After a two kilometer walk the ginger tea at Anand’s felt wonderful.

I miss the ginger tea at Anand’s but more than that I miss the unconditional generosity of the people of this small town. I still cannot forget what happened one day when I happened to reach Suryapet late in the night. I got down from the bus at a stop from where it was about fifteen minutes of walk to my house. It was around ten when I started to walk lugging a heavy bag. The town had shut down and there were no autorickshaws. The bag felt heavy and I was tired after the three and hour half journey from Hyderabad. Then suddenly I heard the sound of engines from behind. I turned around and saw three motorcycles approaching. I walked on disappointed that it wasn’t an autorickshaw. Then the bikes stopped when they neared me. I was a bit wary because I was at an isolated spot. Then one of the riders called out to me to get on the bike. When I heard him call out ‘Saar’ in a drunken voice I was a bit worried. Then told me he worked in a local government office and said he recognized me. He asked me to get on the bike. But he drove normally and dropped me right near my house riding away before I could say thanks. I did not know who he was but he simply did what he felt was his responsibility to get me home. It left me feeling grateful for these small town folks.

Sometime last week I packed my things and moved out of Suryapet. Now I am in a different posting about which I hope to write in the next post. I wonder when I will get to visit Suryapet again.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Sunday Haul

There are many writers like Somerset Maugham, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck whose books I haven’t yet read. Though I have the time I am hesitating to read their novels. There are many reasons for this hesitation- I feel that they may not be as good as made out, or I wonder if I have the patience to wade through those tomes or I feel I am not yet experienced enough to understand them. I have collected many books by these writers but I am keeping them aside on the shelf to be read at some time in the future. At Chikkadpally again last Sunday I found a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer whose works are totally not unknown to me since I keep coming across two of his books-‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night,’ often in books on writing.

‘Tender is the Night’ is the book I had found and this is one book I read about quite a lot in writing books. It appears that Scott Fitzgerald brought out one edition of the book and finding it not quite up to his taste changed the opening and brought out another edition. It must have been an unusual thing for a writer to do something like that. Though it has been well received Fitzgerald is said to have been not very happy with it. I wish I could find the original edition with the unchanged opening.

I had not expected to come across the dish ‘Tzatziki’ that I had read about in an issue of Conde Nast Traveler that I found sometime back. But while reading a short story The Dance in Audrey Thomas’ collection of short stories titled ‘Goodbye Harold, Good Luck’ I came across the dish again. Having come across the dish twice already in print I hope the next time it comes to me in an actual dish.

One book I am eagerly looking forward to is Pradeep Sebastian’s ‘The Groaning Shelf and Other Instances of Book Love’ that was mentioned in Chandrahas Choudhury’s blog- The Middle Stage. I have been quite regularly reading Pradeep Sebastian’s columns in ‘The Hindu’ since a long time. He is one bibliophile who really writes in an engrossing way about books. I wonder if it is a collection of all his columns or something new altogether but either way it will be something worth buying if you love books.

I have no idea when ‘The Groaning Shelf…’ is going to come out but if I wait until next Sunday I can read ‘The Literary Review’ in ‘The Hindu’ because it happens to be first Sunday of the month. This is one Sunday of the month I await eagerly.

For sometime now I have been mulling over the utility of attending Literary Festivals. I have read somewhere that there are two Lit Fests being held in Kerala sometime in October and November. The Kollam Litfest is scheduled from October 1-3 followed by the Hay on Wye Festival from 13-15 November at Tiruvananthapuram. I am making plans to attend the HoW in November and if all goes well I might land up in Tiruvananthapuram armed with the latest draft of my first novel.