Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where's the food, dude?

All my previous years in Dubai were spent in and around Burdubai, which, in the words of a colleague, is “basically India’s cleanest city”. Now I live in The Greens, which is not only at the other end of the city, but on the other side of the world. It’s too far away for even the most enterprising of Karama’s delivery boys, which means I can’t just decide I want chicken curry and expect to have it brought to me in half an hour. It’s still Dubai, so there’s always some Indian food on offer, but one token Indian restaurant catering to all tastes is not the same as being able to choose between specialists from Chettinad, Madras, Hyderabad, Calcutta, North Kerala, South Kerala, Malabar, Mangalore, Goa, Delhi, Lucknow, Ludhiana, Kashmir, and infinite varieties of something called pepper chicken (which crosses the borders to exist in several Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi and Chinese avatars as well). And it’s not just a paucity of good Indian takeout – this applies to all kinds, including Arabic. The single version available close by is purely nominal. Maybe that’s why everybody around the pool is skinny. Maybe it’s called the Greens because you’re expected to only need two leaves of lettuce and a grape. Dressed with a teaspoon of Diet Coke. Maybe by living here I’ll finally attain size zero nirvana myself, but it’s far more likely that I’ll end up becoming a very good (fat) cook. It’s amazing how willing you become to season a cast iron skillet if you can’t just stroll across the road for a dosa. And when getting readymade batter involves a 45-minute metro ride, grinding your own becomes positively convenient. It’s the first time I’ve bought a food processor before a wine glass. There may of course be a more sinister reason for this - that there is a significant difference between being 28 and 37. Sob.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Plugging someone else's blog

I really like this post. And this blogger, for that matter. I've already given it some publicity on Facebook so why not do it here too?

Indianizing the Facebook "Like" button

In India, we do things differently. And in keeping with the rich tradition of orally imparted knowledge and MMS scandals, we rarely like to write things down, and that is why when we go to “foreign”, we spare no chances in pontificating, elucidating and prognosticating on the Great Indian Difference. In India, we have history. In India, we have ancient culture. In India, we have the world’s most unhealthy kind of vegetarian food. Etc. Of course, elderly Indian gentlemen with NRI children play it both ways, hitting forehands down the line glorifying Western infrastructure and orderliness while slicing backhand drop shots edifying the sanctity of Indian chaos when the audience is melanin-challenged.

Read the rest

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The first swallow of summer

India never had a recession. Sure, we all called it that and all of corporate India used it as an opportunity to cut costs, but we were actually very, very lucky. It’s only now, in Dubai, that I’ve understood what recession really means.

Over that first weekend I heard stories of companies going bankrupt by the hundreds, promising entrepreneurs left stranded. Of jobs lost overnight and lives abandoned wholesale as people scrambled to get out ahead of the foreclosures. Stories we’ve heard from a distance, but now made real by the fact that these were people I knew. But there were also other stories of those who made it through, which of course never make it to the media. My friends didn’t say much about their own struggles, merely summing it up as “survival mode”.

Several chance meetings in the following weeks produced startlingly effusive greetings from people who used to be mere acquaintances. I got the uncomfortable feeling that they were seeing my return as a vindication of their decision – or compulsion – to stay.

I left two years ago at the crescendo of Dubai’s boom. The city I’ve returned to is only just starting a tentative new tune after the old one faded to silence. My very first thought was that it felt more like Muscat than Dubai, the brash confidence that was the stock-in-trade quite conspicuous by its absence. The cafes are quieter, people are kinder, the traffic is more manageable. In the place of the old giddiness, there’s a certain grimness of purpose, a cautious optimism that one wouldn’t have thought was in Dubai’s DNA. The most interesting impression I’ve got in the first three weeks of my second innings here is that Dubai is not diminished by adversity but the better for it – I think the recession will turn out to be the best thing that happened to this city.

But I have to say that walking down the Beach Road one day, noting the empty tables on a Saturday evening, I smiled with relief at a car parked outside a nondescript gate. It was a Lamborghini with vanity plates, key in the ignition, engine running extravagantly, left unchaperoned in the arrogant certainty that nobody would dare touch it. Now that’s more like it!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Morning has broken

The best time in our house is breakfast time. We're all foraging for different kinds of food, and reading different newspapers, sharing whatever bits we think are amusing. Woman falls out of train into sea and survives. Columbian police arrest drug dealer's parrot for giving warning of their approach. Woman gets roughed up by neighbours because her dog poops in front of their house. Obama's not coming to Bangalore because he's afraid of the techies. If there's no interesting news, we amuse ourselves by checking how many exaggerations the Times of India crams into the same story the Hindu has reported with great restraint. Occasionally, arguments break out as we all have widely differing views on whatever the main headline is, but they usually end abruptly in a quest for a five-letter word for boredom or an Italian composer. This last is my mother who is deeply addicted to the Guardian Quick Crossword. My Dad will promptly make up a word that fools nobody (he often thinks I'm still eight). In between, we blame each other for the failure of the vegetables we painstakingly planted or take credit for whatever fruit the garden has recently produced. We hotly debate the merits of some new block of flats that none of us is going to buy, earnestly study the dog adoption listings for a pet we're not going to get, and, if it's a Sunday, my Dad will search the matrimonial ads for a bridegroom I'm not going to marry. We interfere with each other's plans for the day, get in the way of the maid and are generally friendly to each other. Of course, conditions deteriorate as the day progresses and dinner is usually the worst time, but that does not stop us from inflicting our company on each other. Looking back, this seems to have always been the pattern in the household, more or less. You'd think that by now we'd have taken the hint and gone in for TV dinners.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Writing for pleasure?

Some days words don't come easy. Other days they don't come at all. Now and then I feel – as everyone does – that I'd like to go back and try the road not taken. Then again, I feel like that's the road I'm on, and wish I'd taken the other, well-travelled one. Noise is alternatively comforting and oppressive. Silence does that too. Rules are hard to follow, and difficult to renounce. Fear follows hard on hope. Faith is the hardest thing to do. Some days it's half-full. On others, half-empty. Sometimes the glass isn't even there.

"Writing, particularly fiction writing, is an act of quiet terror. You are alone all at once with your genius and your ineptitude, and your errors are as public as possible," as Gene Weingarten says in "The Hardy Boys: The Final Chapter", an old article in the Washington Post (it's a great read for those of us who grew up with the Hardy Boys. Or Nancy Drew, for that matter).

Writing a book is ridiculously hard work. The reckless number of debut novels unleashed every month baffles me - who are all these people and how are they doing it?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

An Indiranagar sub-culture

It's Cafe Coffee Day on 12th Main. I'm sitting with my laptop open, typing desultorily and waiting for a friend to join me. At the table next to me three people are doing business. I know this not from their conversation, which I'm not paying attention to, but the tones of their voices. After a while, I look up and see that they're discussing the new logo of their company. I can see the screen clearly and I automatically critique the logo in my mind. It's not much longer before I feel impelled to lean across and present my credentials and opinions. The upshot of this is an offer from the guy to introduce me to publishers for my book, and a freelance project.

Over the next few weeks, at various other cafés, more freelance projects and job referrals come my way from others engaged in trying to turn early mid-life crises into pots of gold. It seems this town is full of people who work better in cafes than in cubicles. There are far more of us than I'd thought. We followed the prescribed path from birth. We got the reasonable education, no hitch, became reasonable adults at eighteen, no question, found the reasonable job, no sweat. We moved smoothly from good company to better one with scarcely a break, climbed steadily with reasonable reward. We stayed firmly on the rails for 15 or 16 years until the Great Pointsman in the Sky (or the evil one below) fell asleep or something and we found ourselves suddenly thrown off, bruised and unreasonable. The early troubles we should have had suddenly come due, we take our belated gap year and give ourselves the career angst we skipped.

Most of us are still walking beside the rails, half ready to leap on should another slow train arrive, but we're getting more unreasonable by the hour. Most of us will return anyway to some cubicle or the other, refreshed by the break. But the 0.1 per cent who don't, will, in between dodging the bouncing cheques, invent the next Mac or Google, found the new Tata or become another AR Rahman or Chetan Bhagat. I don't know yet which category I will belong to, but it's an exciting time here in the recycle bin.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Happiness is an Iftar tent

Another Ramadan. As always, even far from the Middle East, it sparks the hope of change, similar to the irrational expectations of the New Year. But unlike New Year’s Eve, this is a non-stressful marker that brings acceptance rather than regret. (It probably helps that it doesn’t involve alcohol and other enablers of things that are good ideas at the time.)

Perhaps it's just that Ramadan is a reminder that the moon will wax and wane, in spite of us, as surely as the tides turn. Eid will come, and then Diwali. Soon it will be a fun Christmas and then, with the assurance of a recurring nightmare, will come New Year’s Eve.

But for now, there is still the small benediction whenever someone says Ramadan Kareem. There are hummous, fatoush and fatayer, tall fruit juices, small goblets of Turkish coffee to take you into the night, and friends to share it with. I can't think of anything more convival than Iftar. And I know you'll remember me when the fruity shisha smoke curls up into the warm night air, and there is chatter and someone laughing too much over nothing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

So far, so good. Played, not sung.

When you're asked to review the debut album of someone you knew when you were young, it's in danger of being even more subjective than usual. It took several bouts of listening to be sure that the feelings came from the music and not nostalgia. Since there's no way of separating myself from it, this "review" goes on my own blog rather than the independent space it was supposed to be for.

A/J's So Far So Good is, in the artist's words, a celebration of “clarity gained from chaos.” That's the sort of line that works very well in sleeve notes, but music is a personal experience so I'm not even going to attempt to match his reasons to what I hear. A distant memory of a guitar that accompanied campfire Hotel Californias died swiftly, unregretted. In its place is a clear, young sound, very now, very here, resisting classification, stirring a pleased surprise. For example, what A/J's guitar does with Vande Mataram (one of two tributes on the album) is to patriotism, what sufism is to religion – the pure soul of the thing, when it's not tethered to tenets. I don't know the technical musical terms for it, so I will use my own equivalents. The grammar and syntax of this album are flawless, the punctuation meticulous, the language learnt in good schools. The style is original, and the voice, true, though slightly hesitant as it would be in a first album. This is a musician with considerable creative energy, just discovering his music, and the excitement of his journey is infectious.

An instrumental album creates another pitfall for the amateur reviewer: the music becomes about yourself. Listening to it online, where each song is accompanied by a brief note on mood and visualization, I was surprised to learn that Jaisalmer was about snake charmers and fires burning because for me it was a Harley Davidson on a desert highway. I was equally startled to find that The Journey Begins was about trying to see waterfalls in darkness because I saw water in darkness too. The intricacies of Derailed that seem to leave a message just out of reach of the consciousness and the unplayed notes of private, domestic joys in Mady's Tune both seem to my unguarded mind to be underscored by the irrevocable rhythm of a departing train. Did the artist intend it – who knows?

For the first time in two years of surrendering incipient audiophilehood to an iPod, I wish my Linn was set up properly for this album.

A/J: So Far So Good, Ashaanti Records, Bangalore, January 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Note to Bangalore’s drivers

- Think one move ahead. Just one, that’s all I’m asking. If you’re going straight, don’t get in the lane turning left and then honk at the cars in front when your light turns green. And for God’s sake stop changing lanes in the middle of an intersection.

- This will also prevent you from looking more than usually stupid by honking at buses that have stopped at bus stops. That is what buses do. If you can’t work out earlier that you need to get out from behind them, you just have to wait until they’re done instead of telling the driver things about his sister.

- What is it about your upbringing that makes you speed up and squeeze moronically around a car that’s already more than half-turned into the road?

- If there’s a long line at a green light, it means that it will take a while for the cars at the back to move. And when they do, it can only be at the speed of those in front. Yes it’s frustrating when you can see the green light up ahead from your high perch in your SUV, and I don’t want to sit through another red light either, but honking at me continuously for half a kilometer of crawling is not only rude, it shows you up as having the IQ of a gnat.

- When there’s heavy traffic, vehicles going in one direction are sometimes marooned at the intersection when other lights turn green. This is not a personal insult. And trying to go around and through them only makes the snarl worse. Why is this so hard to comprehend?

- To the blue Honda on the ring road this morning: If you want to drive at 30kmph, please do it on the service road, not the fast lane. Yes there is one. It’s the one you were on this morning. I am the person who rolled her window down and abused you in Kannada.

- To the dangerous red Santro at the other end of the spectrum who cut me and several others off at the speed of light: Don’t think I haven’t noted your number and called it in.

- To the white Scorpio who sat in my boot for about five kilometers and then overtook through a crowded bus stop: Ditto.

- Also, bus stops are not lay-bys. When you park there to drink tender-coconut water, the buses have to stop in the middle of the road. And there’ll always be a motorcycle unwilling to wait 20 seconds who will ride ahead and get tangled up with alighting passengers.

- On the subject of which, here’s a question for the motorcyclist on Sarjapur Road: Do you believe you’re immortal? Is that why your helmet sits on your mirror, preventing you from seeing that there’s a car in the lane you’re weaving onto? The next time one of you tries to overtake from the left when my left indicator is on, I will swerve and sacrifice a door or two just to see you crash and burn.

- Question for the cyclist I've seen more than once at the Kundanhalli traffic light: Do you think road rules do not apply to you? You may be greener than Othello and the favourite child of the conserved Earth, but the next time you jump a red light, I will not brake. I wish the fire truck you held up today hadn’t.

- To the giant BMW with no license plate that was casually parked right across my turning: It was me that left the rude note on your windscreen. I understand that if you have the wherewithal to own a 7 Series in India, you probably own the Government, the RTO and the internal revenue as well, but if you do it again, I will say it with a tire iron.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


...there's a creeping, crawling caterpillar on the gatepost! But so pretty.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Deep water

We knew it as the “pond near the Eucy grove” and it was very handy for picnics, general teenage high jinks, setting for first love etc. The eucalyptus trees have long since become houses but the “pond” is flourishing like a green bay tree. It seems it is actually a lake spread over 18 acres, has a name and a place and is being restored.

I've tried to retrace old paths there in the past few months and was surprised the first time to find the lake neatly fenced in. At the time I took it as a sign that it was shortly to be filled in and built over. But I found out yesterday that the fence has been put there by an exemplary group of residents from the gated community nearby who’ve taken it upon themselves to raise a staggering sum of money and save the local water body.

On those same walks, I have noted that the gated community in question is more attractive than most, but have always regretted the flower farms and vineyards that Palm Meadows’ villas now stand on. This regret is automatic now, coupled with the weary feeling of futility that becomes a tedious addition to the emotions of those who return to this city. (An old friend who returned recently from a long stint in the US messaged me about a reunion: “Meeting up at some place called Rendezvous or maybe it was called Vous or Chez-vous… not sure exactly, I'm used to restaurants being named MTR, Koshy's, Bheema).

Now I must gladly acknowledge the sterling work that Palm Meadows residents have been doing with Sheelavanantha Kere for about three years. Click on the link to read all about it – a heartening story of real change by real people. I will do my bit to support the cause and chivvy as many others as I can to join in. It is a great thing that they’re trying to do.

But tI can't help a stray thought or two. That these bite-sized portions of picturesque land used to belong to large farms, one of which I grew up on, others that my friends did. That the lake may have never needed saving if it hadn’t been endangered by rapacious development. That if you’ve walked past fields of asters in full bloom and smelt the grapes ripening on the vines in April, the restoration of the lake seems a bit of a pyrrhic victory.

Deep Water, Jewel, Album: Spirit, 1998

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sorry, Commander Glusica

My contempt for most of the Indian news channels reached epic proportions today, watching the coverage of the plane crash. I watched the story unfold over an hour or so in the morning, and what they said at the top of the hour, they contradicted at the bottom, simply because they just wanted to talk - ignorantly, incessantly - whether they had any knowledge or not. It was all irresponsible mob mentality, confusion of facts and ghoulish rubbernecking rather providing useful information - hotline numbers were not broadcast until several hours after, nor were the names of passengers. It's night now, and there's been no mention of the crew at all.

The cameras actually followed a woman being wheeled into the operating theatre. She was in shock, could not speak and added nothing to the news report, if you can call an orgy of speculation news. There was sharp contrast between the visuals of rescuers grimly carrying away charred bodies and the squeaky sounds of excitable newscasters poking at "experts" trying to get somebody to place blame somewhere. The "facts" that were being presented changed from one channel to another, even the immutable ones such as the number of people on board, the nationality of pilot and the names of the few survivors who were talking on screen.

The worst of all was the swooping down on the nationality of the pilot. I happened to be online when one newscaster finally had the courtesy to pronounce his name properly, so I typed it out into Google. Commander Zlatko Glusica - apart from being an experienced pilot who's flown this route many times, contrary to what they'd spent all morning trying to get us to believe - happens to have had three children. I'm sure it's fun for them to have their bereavement crowned by the barely disguised witch hunt being conducted on TV. The most racist race on earth is eager to find the "foreign pilot" guilty by virtue of his foreign-ness. Because, of course, all Indian pilots are vested with Vedic superpowers that can not only control the bursting of a tyre from the cockpit, but also extend runways and fill up gorges in nanoseconds through sheer yogic will.

Even if investigations show that it was, after all, an avoidable pilot error, today's TV channels are still in the wrong. 160 people died, the names in the passenger manifesto convey sad stories of whole families wiped out, of a lone parent clearly left behind on one or the other side of the flight - the solitude of Dubai's annual summer migration made permanent, of young men suddenly gone. But very little hush or respect was evident in the broadcast press, not even of the fake variety. There ought to be a law.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Holy shit

One of the first things I heard when I returned to Bangalore was that the glorious Indiana beef burger of my youth was no more. They now served only the lesser patties. Then I started to notice the absence of a beef section in Chinese restaurants. One day I succumbed to a craving for Mac Donald's and was upset enough to walk out when I found wall-to-wall chicken. Recently I found that another Bangalore institution no longer had their signature beef fry. The present state government is a party that has Hinduism as its platform, so I assumed that a policy of religious tyranny was at work. This was confirmed earlier this year in the rigorous efforts to push through a blanket ban on buying, selling or eating beef. It's being vigorously appealed but logic works in mysterious ways here so who knows whether one will shortly need to sneak into a backroom with blackout curtains to eat steak.

Hindu friends who are very religious are arguing that the cow is a sacred animal, so there's nothing wrong in protecting it. They and it are very, very wrong. The issue is not about protecting cows. When you start turning your personal religious practices into law you become Saudi Arabia. God does not come into our national anthem, we have no pledge that puts religion on the same plane as patriotism. Also, India has as many kinds of Hindus as there are Gods, and many of them eat beef. Even more important, India is not just a Hindu country.

The increasing number of idiots who've set themselves up as guardians of "Indian culture" are ignorant of or ignoring the fact that there is no such thing – each community has its own culture, and these are beyond counting. The only thing that could be called Indian is a certain unique richness of diversity, which seems to be on life support and in its final moments right now.

I smile every year when Americans are careful to say Happy Holidays rather than Happy Christmas, but we could take a few lessons from that. On Christmas Eve in Dehradun, I heard not a single carol in the shops. All I saw was a BJP rally in town, the saffron lotus hovering ominously above Rajpur Road's Adidas showrooms and cappuccino machines. I don't think the timing was a coincidence. And it made me uneasy that there was no sign of mosques or anything Muslim – if they were around, they were hidden, which is uncomfortably like the churches and temples in the hard-core Islamic lands. My country is a secular democracy, and if it's going to turn into a Hindu supremacy state, it makes me fundamentally homeless.

The temples in those parts were faintly menacing. I think it was the metal trident and flag over them, the rather militant symbols that seem to feature prominently in most Hindu agitations. The buildings were white or unfinished grey, and almost empty of ornamentation inside. The Gods themselves seemed roughly hewn. Being conditioned to the voluptuary leanings of the other half of the country, that sparseness felt like deprivation. The further south you go, the more luxurious temples become. The idols wear silk and gold and are washed with milk and honey. Every inch of their houses is carved or painted. The air is heavy with camphor and incense, the floors are slick with flowers and lamp oil. Even the smallest, poorest village deity has a velvet throne and a blinged-out carriage when it chooses to go walkabout. The cold, white atriums of the Gods here feel inhospitable and the echoes of devotees in the emptiness, dreary. But I was put in my place very neatly when a Punjabi colleague said he didn't like the South Indian temples for the same reasons that I like them.

For now, beef fascism or no, I'm glad I live in Bangalore – there is a temple on every street corner, but also equally visible churches, mosques, gurudwara and fire temple. If you wake before dawn in our house, you first hear the matins from a church of unknown denomination, then a muezzin's call from farther away, and that's followed by the chanting from the temple down the road. They have equal, independent airtime and are all equally annoying in their loudness. It's a brief glimpse of an India that could be, the country that's forgotten in the pages of the constitution because nobody read the manual.

Friday, May 07, 2010


I was clearing out my handbag today, having decided to minimize and move to smaller bags and save my shoulder some wear and tear. This is what I found:

A Chinese lipstick case given to me by my mother
A wallet given to me by my father
An unbreakable steel mirror brought by an ex-boss from Korea
A Montblanc pen I got as a birthday gift from an aunt
A Shaeffer pen that was a farewell gift from a long-ago employer
A phone that was a birthday gift from my brother and sister-in-law
Another phone, ditto
A pocket compass that was a present from the sister-in-law’s brother
A lip salve sent by another friend – more a sister-in-law, really – from California
A bling keychain that was a wedding favour sent from Canada by a former colleague
Attached to that is one that another ex-boss brought me from Brazil
Attached to that, yet another one an ex-boyfriend brought me from Arizona
Attached to that, a really grubby one that was part of a highly successful project I worked on, which I consider a talisman
A monogrammed card case from a friend in Philadelphia
A pack of heart-shaped post-it notes that an anonymous admirer (or class clown) left on my desk this Valentine’s Day
Sundry notebooks, membership cards, packs of tissues, assorted jewellery, a dishwasher and a pick-up truck

And it seems there isn't one that I can give up, except for the post-it notes. Conundrum.

The first strand of grey

The birthday milestones passed unheeded. As a friend wrote, I never seem to know what age I actually am. (I still don’t know without some elaborate counting). The number of years don’t seem to mean anything at all. Wrinkles – pshaw! Gravity – whatever. But grey hair… OMG. And so, it seems I’ve discovered what my greatest vanity is; how weird that it should be something I generally pay very little attention to.

I was entirely unprepared for the horror, when I saw it in the well-lit, magnified mirror of a hairdresser. It triggered an unreasoning panic and emergency stock-taking of the “youth squandered! achievements nil!” kind.

My memory is already mostly gone – I never remember to do things (one of my colleagues recently told me I needed a wife. This is an uncomfortable corollary of the time a friend walked into my apartment when it wasn’t inspection-ready, looked around for a few minutes in growing delight and said “but you’re a guy”). On the plus side, of course, there are some stupid things I’ll never do again. Then again, they were fun at the time. Screw wisdom, I’d like the pigments back.

One of my best friends from college just joined my office. How strange to be sitting down to lunch 20 years later, peering into each other’s lunch boxes and offering to share food. Now we talk about travelling with children, staff meetings and how we only register our own aging by the fact that our little brothers are over 30, but I notice we laugh just as much as we did. And what a relief to talk unreservedly to someone in an office that, after nearly two years, is still the big dark. How nice to speak in the same voices, to recognize mannerisms and verbal shortcuts, just as if I didn’t have one foot in the grave.

But it’s all downhill from here. I feel it in my pre-osteoporotic bones.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Most of all, I dream of bread

I’ve been on a fairly rigorous diet for what seems like years (exercise alone isn't cutting it - health and energy are all very well, but I want results I can see). Anyway, my favorite pastime these days is comforting myself with thoughts of food. On today's menu is hot food that tastes really good cold, the next day:

Keema, especially on hot buttered toast
Cheesy pasta
All bakes and casseroles
Potato fry
Sprouts cooked with chillies and onions
Any leftovers that can be sandwich filling: fish in all forms, onion chutney, sautéed vegetables, chicken/mutton/beef/egg curries, liver fry
Stewed apples
Fried bananas

You can see why the diet was necessary.

Scapegoats, IPL and a little light terrorism

I was planning to take break from sweeping criticism for a while, but as with all good intentions, that didn’t last very long.

First, one bomb went off in the vicinity of Chinnaswamy Stadium. Then another, near one of the gates. A third was found and defused a little later at another gate. Somehow the police commissioner deduced from all this that it was okay to continue with the scheduled match. Granted they were small ones (though I doubt the people who were injured feel that way), but are we so stupid about cricket now that we will literally bet our lives on it? Or is it just another instance of the rampant corruption in this city? The police had apparently “taken over” the stadium 24 hours before the game for security reasons, but they didn’t have the grace (or savvy) to apologise to the public or even look shamefaced; they just moronically reiterated how small the bombs were. One can only assume that Bangalore’s such a soft target that the terrorists don’t send their A Team here. The organizers of IPL are wisely taking the other matches elsewhere.

Talking of IPL, I caught bits and pieces of some of the games and felt affection for the inevitable urchins perched up in trees to get a glimpse, rickshaw pullers and marketing executives in deep discussion, thousands braving the unprecedented heat to watch. I felt that anything that brought so much excitement into the lives of so many should not be reviled, and cancelled my post on the horrors of being caught in the cricket season in India. But I’ve revised my opinion yet again in the light of the lawless antics of the IPL owners. Front page after front page has been dedicated to the unfolding drama, as if nothing else existed in the world, as if the highly influential players in this game would actually face consequences. We’re all going along, though we know as a nation that it won’t happen. Shashi Tharoor was the first scapegoat, after a satisfyingly irrelevant witch hunt full of multiple divorces and damsels in Dubai. Soon there will be others, and there the matter will end.

Just as my harangue about the pathetic system gathers momentum, though, I notice that the footpaths in Whitefield are being properly, even decoratively, paved, and drains have been dug, which means that this year the monsoon won’t create the usual mudslide. Beautiful, flowering trees have been planted along the road and shrubs, on the median. The garbage collectors are arriving on schedule every day, and when a transformer burst in the middle of the night recently, the technicians showed up at once. I’ve lately heard several stories about police and ambulance arriving within minutes at the site of an accident and no money changing hands at all.

So, as Wodehouse would say, the moral of this story is being withdrawn and presented to a panel of experts. The race between good and evil in government is a perpetual photo finish.

Friday, April 16, 2010


This is a memorial post on a stranger's blog, written soon after the funeral. I'm not entirely sure why I'm re-posting it, except that it's a well-written tribute from a grieving grandson, and though I don't know the actual person he's talking about, I seem to recognize the grandmother. I lost six of them.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Latest pet peeves

Call waiting: What is the point of this? It’s rude and disrespectful to interrupt someone to take another call. But if you don’t, the second caller thinks you’re ignoring them. Isn’t it a lot more informative, not to mention civilized, if your phone is engaged when you’re on it and it goes straight to voice mail?

Lift hustlers: Do they really fear the lift will leave without them? It’s not a Mumbai local train, you know. It can be held open until everyone gets in, so there’s really no need to trample everyone in your path to do so.

Red-light creepers: Is it now a loser thing to actually halt at a traffic light? My driver used to do the creeping forward thing too. He’s stopped doing it now, but I think it’s more about humouring the mad woman in the back rather than understanding (or caring) that the white bit in front is for people to cross on, not the starting line for a green-light race.

Footpath riders: I don’t care if you’re a bicycle or an ice-cream vendor – if you’re not walking, get on the bloody road.

Starers*: I’m not an escaped circus animal. I am not the Taj Mahal. I am not even the best-looking woman in the vicinity. Move on before I punch your eyes out.

*I have to clarify that it's both men and women. The whole damned world. Men, women, children, stray dogs, the odd cat, some cows, a coffee machine... hmmm, would I need to see someone about this one?

Friday, April 09, 2010

You know you’ve been in the outsourcing industry too long when...

… you can tell the time in so many time zones that you get confused when you have to call your colleague in Chennai
… you know when daylight saving has begun on the other side of the world
… you know the current weather in at least one small town in the US
… you know the dollar value of your salary up to five decimal places
… you nod knowledgably when someone mentions football, until you realize they’re talking about soccer
… you can pronounce Guadalajara, Arkansas and Navajo correctly, but you struggle with Kundanhalli, so you call it Whitefield
… you know they speak Tagalog in the Philippines, but you don’t know they speak Kannada in Karnataka
… you know all about Thanksgiving, but Ugadi is a closed book
… you’ve heard your name pronounced so many ways that you can barely remember the right way to say it
… you think of them as periods rather than full-stops, painlessly erasing at least 20 years of British conditioning
… you find it easier to say “zee”, and the red-liner in your head has been reprogrammed to register words without them as errors
… you do not see it as rude to leave your own dinner party to “take a call”, and nor do your guests
… you’re not unduly enthusiastic about the “work from home” option, because there’s nowhere that you don’t work
… you expect to find something new in your inbox no matter what time of the day or night you check your mail
… you check your mail at all times of the day and night

Thursday, April 08, 2010

The scourge of the candlelight vigil

Recently, the world was full of exhortations to observe Earth Hour, and switch off all “non-essential lights” for an hour. In Bangalore, where there’s a power cut practically on the hour every hour, a sizable part of the population has no electricity at all and many, many roads have no street lights, this is not just a joke, but a cruel one.

It’s the equivalent of the Bus Day that someone tried to do a month or two ago. The posters are still stuck on the buses, mocking the crowds that struggle to fit into inadequate bus shelters perched on ill-maintained footpaths. The buses themselves are large and plentiful, but there’s nowhere to catch them from.

For these things to work, they need to be relevant to local conditions. Why not a no-paper-cup hour or no-printing day or no-paper-bag week or a no-chucking-garbage-out-of-your-car lifetime? How about the government takes a break from dictatorial, not to mention seditious, beef bans and introduces a conservation mandate?

They could insist that large companies have a certain wattage of solar power for every 300 employees. These offices usually have the space for the solar cells and the money for the batteries. It could be made mandatory for apartment blocks and gated communities to have solar-powered outdoor and common-area lighting. Home buyers could be given tax benefits to sweeten the extra costs that will no doubt be passed on to them.

Large office blocks should have windows that open so that air-conditioning can be switched off for a few hours in the day during the very pleasant Bangalore winters. Under-utilized PSU labs could work at finding a marketable DIY kit for rainwater harvesting, so individual homes don’t have to rely on contrivances that end up as maternity homes for mosquitoes.

And since the powers that be are taking care of Earth Hour for you, why not use your energy to go out and cast your vote? The recent local elections were held on a Sunday, but turnout still didn’t cross 45% in the so-called elite, educated areas of the city.

Gandhi’s descendents won’t leave their air-conditioned cocoons to be the change they say they want to see, but the first whiff of melting wax, and they’re there in swarms looking righteous and giving sound bites to TV cameras. What exactly is the point of a candlelight vigil? Apart from making you feel and look good without the inconvenience of having to actually do something.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Candid camera

I entered my usual café and walked straight into a Tamil film crew in the middle of shooting a series of scenes, including the quintessential Indian film close-up of the hero lowering his sunglasses in awe to get a good look at the girl.

Apart from the main players – the director, cameraman, still photographer, crew, actors, hair-and-make-up, actors’ keepers, two production people and the unfortunate soul who was “continuity” – there were about fifty others who didn’t seem to have prescribed roles. Some of them seemed to be just roadies. Others hovered with the watchful tension of vultures above a kill. One of these suddenly won himself a place in the inner circle – a light went out and he was on the terrace correcting it at the source even before the director had finished hurling abuse. He won what seemed to be the signal honour of wielding the clapboard. And lost it after two takes by not paying attention.

From the little bit I saw being shot over and over again, the hero, having coffee with a friend on the verandah, spots a girl through the window and asks a waiter to pass on a message. I initially thought there was no heroine present, and that the follow-up would happen elsewhere. But then she suddenly turned up, so maybe was being kept in a covered basket till then. Tamil heroines seem to have shrunk alarmingly; this one was more size zero than Dravidian goddess. Also noticed that the hero was rather vain about his hair and the director was a pleasant person, infinitely patient with the extras. He needed to be, since it was an unrehearsed performance. Surely they’d cut down on a lot of shooting time (and wear and tear on the director) if they invested a few days in rehearsals? Those of us watching take after take, unconsciously assuming the roles of so many assistant directors, saw it when they had the take and sat back with a sense of achievement when the director called it a wrap.

I watched with some nostalgia (made sweeter by the knowledge that I’d never have to do it again) for the days of shooting humble 30-second commercials with people who were anything but. It was nice to note that certain things had not changed. Film crew trailers are recognizable from a distance. The clapboard is still the same old one. There is no vernacular equivalent for “Roll camera”. And the correct response to this is still “rolling”, no matter that all other conversation is in Tamil.

The director had the uncomplicated confidence of established genius and he was being borderline respectful to the actor so I’m guessing they were both famous. Unfortunately, my waiter did not know their names, him being Bengali (his reason, not mine).

It’s amazing how the regular patrons refused to be discouraged by the considerable inconvenience – they perched on ledges and borders of flower beds, moved good-naturedly whenever requested to get out of the frame, shared tables with strangers, or – as in my case – willingly sat at an orphan table surrounded by cables and lighting paraphernalia. And the waiters never forgot me perched up on the precarious platform. That’s why I love this place.

Since I was well situated to talk to the light boys, I did eventually find out the names of director, actors and movie, but won’t mention them in case there are implications of some sort.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Saj for the soul

After a few bad experiences with hummous at various places around Bangalore, I have steered clear of Arabic food here. But a Lebanese restaurant in easily accessible Indiranagar that also serves shisha is too hard to resist. It proves to be worth the risk. Mezzeh is a lovely wooden-roofed bit of Beirut on top of a building in Bangalore. The impression is heightened by the fact that the roof next door contains a giant bird cage, bird room really, full of parakeets and hung with little clay pots, and the one behind contains a table tennis table. The hummous and labneh are good. The music is Arabic Lounge. The boy preparing shishas over there is clearly Egyptian. The excellent shisha bears witness to this. Most tellingly, other Arabs are eating here. Sitting here with the treetops and esoteric roofs of Indiranagar before you, it feels as if the sea is right there beyond that line of coconut palms.

It seems I turned native at some point in the 10 years I spent in the Middle East. I blame Oman. And my Lebanese colleagues in Dubai. Mezzeh made me at first tearful and then retrospective.

After an hour of sitting here, I know it’s not so much the Middle East I miss, but the person I was then. I miss the absolute trust in the eyes of those who handed me briefs, the confidence with which I took them. I feel the lack of daylight on my desk, in every sense. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with the troughs of a high pressure job but I could do with some of the highs. Surely I’m too young to not have highs at work? And life is probably too short to allow yourself to be eroded by the long-distance politics of the outsourcing industry to a point where a plate of hummous makes you emotional. I think that as an exercise in root-cause analysis, the hour was well spent!

One thing about Mezzeh, though: it’s expensive.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The green, green AstroTurf of home

I know lots has been said on this blog about the transformation of Whitefield but I need to do one more. It’s for the readers who grew up there or visited it often enough to know what it used to be like, so they’d know what I’m rabbiting on about (and why).

Recently, I wandered around the stores, and assuming the local wares are an indication of what the neighbourhood wants to buy, the things I found were wondrous. Within an easy walk of where all of us lived, you can buy a three-season tent, rock climbing equipment, a high-tech crossbow, a Bianchi or Cannondale bicycle. Then you can get Calvin Klein t-shirts to match.

You’ll also find French wine and, to go with it, a range of goat cheeses, Roquefort, Camembert, Brie and so on. If you want to cook whatever you caught with your cross-bow, you’ll find fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. For music while you cook, pick up Bang and Oluffsen speakers or accessories for your iPod. Shower later? Here’s a designer shower head that costs more than your bathroom.

If you don’t feel like cooking, you can choose between Italian and Chinese in every conceivable price range. There was a time when you had to drive 20km for the latter, and go to Italy for the former.

If you’re a local bride, you can find all your outfits locally, with shoes, bags and jewellery to match – and never feel like you compromised.

If you’re a kid, you can buy seventy-five thousand types of toys, including a giant (and really cool) roboraptor without even crossing the magic line that divides home turf from I-told-you-not-to-go-so-far-you’re-grounded territory.

Most bizarre of all, you can buy a catcher’s mitt in Whitefield – a full size one, not even Little League. I haven’t been to the Inner Circle ground on Sunday mornings for a long time, should I assume they play baseball there now?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mac not so much?

A friend's latest article brought to the front a suspicion I've had for a while - the Apple glow is getting a bit low-voltage.

Not when I have to go through three extra steps to do one little thing on my PC. Not when Vista refuses to recognize that a file in a "recently opened" list has simply moved to another location not off the face of the earth. Nor when I have to restart, safe mode, safe mode with networking, remove battery, marinate, saute lightly with onions and press F(***)8. Certainly not when my Windows phone is putting me through a regimen of counter-intuitive antics when I just want to tell a bunch of people I have a new number.

But at other times, especially when reading comments on Wired or yet another cocky blog, I feel something which is not unlike the irritation of the first wife who knew the guy when he actually was rather cool, rather the mid-life-crisis git the new girl's on about.

I still would never get into a Mac vs PC argument - as far as I'm concerned Windows is a temple to mediocrity, pseudo creativity and committee decision-making, all the things I consider most hazardous to my health. But what the article threw up is a much more damning comparison - Mac vs Mac.

The original Apple lived up to itself. Take the designs. Technology dates really quickly, and Apple designs matched that. In fact, some of these designs were deranged, but they didn't care. This I think is was what was so cool about Apple, the Mac ethos that deserved cult status. They used to be "gloriously daft", to paraphrase Richard Hammond in a recent episode of Top Gear. He was talking about a Lamborghini Gallardo. You can buy a debugged, technically perfect, non-dating Lexus (for example) but that's not what it's about.

Apple seems to have gone Lexus, Steve Jobs has gone CEO. The 1984 spirit is lost in pseudo-creative contrivances and pricing just for the sake of it (at least that's what it looks like). There are no incomprehensible amorphous shapes. Nobody in Apple is creating a ridiculous mouse that evokes a belligerent designer saying "well, I like it and I'm not changing a thing, so you can just fuck off". The lowercase i replaced the uppercase one, and Apple is poorer for it.

I found the iPhone bulky, and awkwardly sized, as if it was launched too soon and driven by marketing rather than engineering. The iPad seems to be neither here nor there. It's an expensive Kindle with no design advantage. A netbook that won't play Flash. A very mobile laptop substitute that cannot do more than one thing at a time. Who is supposed to buy this to do what? It's daft in the worst way.

For a while now I've been half considering a netbook for the size advantage. I checked out several but thought I'd wait for the iPad. Though that didn't end well, I'm still staunch enough to wait some more, in case they bring out an alternative.

Finally, as with everything, it comes down to comfort level. I just really like working on a Mac. It makes me happy.

Who made valentine a saint?

Boredom is the mill of God, the one they claim grinds slowly but exceedingly small. Waiting is the wing-man of boredom. It’s the most soul-destroying activity there is, and it’s not an activity at all. It’s a powerful non-thing, like nerve gas.

I have waited. In airports, bus stations, at home by the window with my life packed in a suitcase in my head. For a day, a week, a year, two years, three. For a farewell or a return. For promises to be made or kept. And it corroded me, lowered my resistance, laid me open to every passing virus of the mind. These were new illnesses, a different kind of isolation that comes of being in a long-distance relationship. Dangerous drop in self esteem caused by prolonged disuse, novel injuries from a new type of infringement that nobody could be called to account for because it had no name and indeed, no being.

So it could only go inwards, warping and brittling whatever it found. The repairs have taken years. A lot of it had to be cut out and thrown away. Replacement parts had to be sourced at great trouble and expense. Now, it’s all sparkling new, even better than before. So the value’s gone up and it won’t lend itself to tawdry Hallmark festivals, which brings us back to… boredom. It grinds slowly but exceedingly small.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mile sur mera tumhara 2.0, the buggy version

In between bouncing from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, and clearing away the bodies of people who told me not to take it "so personally", I knew I really needed to write a dissertation about it on my blog. An insightful one. Funny. Incisive. With biting wit and slaying sarcasm. Except I watched the video twice and sputter sputter, sputter, spit.

But that's a good thing because there's no way on earth I could have bettered this commentary: Mile Sur Mera Tomorrow? Fail

Click on the link. It's really worth it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Has it been that long?

Or maybe the question is: "Has it only been that long?" Got this in my Hotmail inbox today and it was interesting to read the last three bits. This was my first email account (actually the only reason I still have it) and also gave me the my "web name" of shilo70, which has totally stuck!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thoughts in a bookstore

Looking through the “Indian Writers” part of a bookstore (a section that seems to grow larger every month), I stopped muttering to myself long enough to register something I hadn't quite noticed before - there is a lot of Indian pulp fiction out there and that is a very good thing. It’s a sign of the market coming of age that there are different kinds of Indian writing in English and they are all of them prolific. It's several worlds removed from having the one Vikram Seth or Arundati Roy who had to be all things to all people.

The problem that lingers, I think, is that the rest of the world has yet to catch up. All Indian writers that are marketed right are treated with the same tone by the same kind of reviewers. Sacred Games is a case in point. Chetan Bhagat got the write-up in the New York Times that Vikram Chandra deserved. I believe that the increasingly hysterical Mann Booker Prize has a lot to answer for, too.

Often, good Indian writing - the books that are Indian only incidentally, or those that are so fundamentally Indian that they need no decoration with henna or scenting with sandalwood – these, like the independent Indian movies, cross borders quietly and make their mark among those who know. In the big picture, the whole publicity thing probably doesn’t matter.

So I’m left with one burning question and giant peeve – do Indian publishers not believe in editors or proof readers? Especially in a time when anyone with a keyboard can and does write, why isn’t this considered essential? I’m finding basic grammatical and structural errors in more and more books. A delightful read like The Zoya Factor was spoilt by weird grammar glitches that an average sub-editor with a hangover could have corrected. It drives me crazy. People have argued with me about preserving the integrity of “Indian English”. Bollocks. RK Narayan is the quintessential Indian English, and I have yet to see bad grammar or wrongly used words in his books.

I just finished reading a singularly execrable book. “What Would You Do To Save The World?” is essentially the story of a real beauty contestant, told through the thin fictional veil of a “Miss Indian Beauty” contest. With so much good material to work with, it could have been a Devil Wears Prada (the designer of the cover may have believed that, too, from the blurb). All that emotion, manipulation, the discomfort of a doctoral student making herself jump through frilly hoops for a tiara, frustrated at not understanding her need for it, the fact that the accolade is inevitably tawdry even with the real diamonds, a faded institution struggling to mean something to somebody against the backdrop of a country already torn by too many ideological paradoxes and a world that prefers to get that sort of fix from reality TV. Hell, in the hands of Rushdie, it could have won a Nobel! Instead, the book can’t be bothered to go higher than the level of a mediocre newspaper feature.

I’d decided not to trash any more books on my blog because of not wanting to give the universe ammunition for when it comes to payback time, but this one is wantonly bad. It makes me feel homicidal, not just the waste of good material (which after all, is just opinion), but also the fact that it's almost semi-literate in places.

Talking of payback, at the other end of the bookshop (and spectrum) is a terrifyingly eloquent Zadie Smith, to name just one, who makes me want to simultaneously stop writing and write more, the hit of pure joy and fear at the edge of a cliff with a glorious view. There’s a difference between talent and gift, and I may have the wrong one, but I’ll never know until I know, and at that point it will be too late. Someone may read my book and say “In the hands of PD James or Ian Rankin or Donna Leon or Ruth Rendell....” but just as I write that, I realize that none of them would produce this book. So it seems not to be derivative, then. At least that’s something.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Joy to the world

The Songtsen Library, 11km outside Dehradun, turned out to be exactly what I had had in mind when I started planning this holiday, which is something that almost never happens. I could do a lot of tedious description, but I think the pictures will be do a better job.

Surrounded by academics and travellers, and others who belong in a Leonard Cohen song, it felt like living on a small campus, my first-floor suite like my own flat. At times, when Joan Baez was singing Diamonds and Rust and I glanced casually up from my writing, it felt as if I was back in my flat in Muscat. In fact, since it was oriented similarly with the windows facing the sun rising over the hills, it always took a few minutes after waking to reorient myself to the present.

The gardens fell away to the thickly wooded Sahastradhara River Valley. The flowers were profuse, the people quietly welcoming and the unnumbered Lhasa Apsos frolicking about were friendly (these could have been three or four or just an optical illusion. It was hard to tell in the mist, compounded by the fact that most of them didn't have names).

My first evening here, I went down to the fence to enjoy the sunset, feeling a deep relief at the quiet beauty. I watched the darkness and mist fill the valley, until the outline of the hills faded out, and only the sky was left, clear and cold. The stars switched themselves on, one by one (coinciding with the half-hour load shedding on the ground), and the waxing moon showed up shortly after, way too bright for a mere crescent. It deepened the dark, intensified the cold, and sharpened the outline of the hills once again. And along with them, the dark shapes of bushes, trees and sundry undergrowth. Then, having been reading Jim Corbett and being possessed of an unreasonable imagination, I retreated hastily to where there were lights and tea, and humans. It was only six-thirty in the evening, but it felt like ten, so I prowled around the kitchens until dinnertime at seven. In yet another of those reminders that the Earth is round, the chef here turned out to have worked at Rice Bowl, the old Bangalorean institution on Brigade Road. Apparently, the restaurant belongs to the Dalai Lama's sister; I'd always assumed it was Chinese-owned, and rather tactlessly said so.

Once I'd gotten into a rhythm, I would only stop working in time to watch the mist and star show from my balcony. In any case I wouldn't have returned alone to the rather lonely viewpoint unless I could have got one of the dogs to accompany me. But small dogs have a lot of cat-like qualities and won't go anywhere inconvenient or uncomfortable unless there's something in it for them. I did manage to buy some man's-best-friend-ness with a chocolate biscuit, but it clearly didn't run to wandering outside in the cold.

Looking at my photographs now, there's still a sense of unreality to the whole thing, not least the fact that this perfect place was came my way because of a perfect stranger. There, cushioned within the blessed diversity of many nationalities and the anonymity of being just one among many, I got a lot of work done. Mealtimes were enlivened by cameo conversations, nearly always with someone new. These ranged from being silly with the merriest Germans I've ever met over the ways of fictional murderers and the possibility of any such making it to the Nobel list, to satisfying the bloodless curiosity of a librarian about a book in the making. It occasioned no awe or wonder or any singularity whatsoever, that I counted my holiday well-spent sitting at a laptop in a library all day; or that two hours of walking did not need to lead anywhere.
The Dalai Lama's vintage-ish Mercedes displayed on the Library lawns.

A hill station that's flat

After the hill-surrounded, green-valley-overlooking Songtsen Library, Dehradun town was horrible. A lucky conversation with my friend in town gave me the local name for the iconic clock tower, which was where I was headed. When I got off the bus, I was told it was round the corner. I unerringly went around the wrong corner, but decided to keep walking anyway to see where I would fetch up, and Dirk-Gently-style, ended up where I most needed to be – in front of a Barista. I hailed the sight of it with immense relief, exhausted by the blaring traffic (noticeably chaotic even to someone from Bangalore), open drains, ugly buildings and non-existent footpaths. In more than an hour of walking, I hadn't taken my camera out once.

The day before I left, my sister-in-law had warned me that Dehradun was entirely flat, saving me the added trauma of having to find out the hard way that the nip in the air was all there was to remind you that you were at the feet of some the greatest mountain ranges in the world. I had kept telling people that Dehradun would be like Ooty, doing the charming Nilgiri town a major disservice in the process.

Once, this place must have been like all the other colonial hill stations. The guidebooks and columnists are trying to pretend it still is, just like people keep calling Whitefield a picturesque suburb of Bangalore when all that's left of it is a cottage or three that hasn't yet been sold to a developer. (Important lesson learnt: If you want to know about a place, never ask someone who went to school there: the good old alma mater nostalgia cancels out all sense of perspective)

There's a cantonment area somewhere, which must have been nice, as all of them are. There must also have been Anglo-Indian and affluent pockets (I fervently hope), with roses climbing over cottage walls and the kitchen gardens that the girl on the train was talking about. But as with everywhere else in India, perhaps the world, gated communities called LA City and Greenview are working hard at removing the green from the view. There was a mall-like object far out of the city and I puzzled over its existence so close to a centre for Tibetan monks, until I explored a road beside it and came upon an "IT Park", of all things. I threw some garlic at it and ran away.

This, I suppose, is Progress and, indeed, why should the people who live here be left out of the consumerist orgy just because visitors want an "unspoilt getaway"? It's what's wrong with the times, not just Dehradun. Soon the only real holidays will be in the resorts enthusiastically creating debugged versions of the originals.

Once I'd seen the Barista, I was properly oriented to the instructions in the guidebook I'd deliberately left behind in Bangalore (since this was not supposed to be a tourist visit). So I kept walking until I reached the historic Ellora Bakery, where I bought several jam rolls, an old favourite that the even older bakery in Whitefield has stopped making in favour of ill-conceived croissant-like confections. Refreshed by the fact that I had high-sugar, fatty foods for future reference, I walked some more, noted the strange profusion of jewellery stores and dismaying lack of a restaurant that sold something other than butter chicken, and returned to the Barista for the rest of the afternoon. The friend for whose sake I'd come into town was mysteriously missing, but I'd found the me-shaped hole in a café and was very pleased with the day's work.

In the days that followed I made several short trips into town – I was situated outside a little village that lit dung fires at night, so, while their shop sold cream biscuits and bread, I had to commute a bit for anything else I wanted – and noticed calmer, more civilized parts of Dehradun from the bus window. Still, it's not really anywhere anybody would want to go on holiday. If you don't live there, it's just a transit or refuelling stop.

The bus was a smallish blue thing that you flagged down at the end of the village road. A few days of commuting later, I was negotiating with an orangemonger at Dehradun bus stand when the bus arrived, and I expected philosophically to have to catch the next one. But when I turned around with my bargain fruit, I found the bus waiting patiently for me. I remembered dimly that that's what rural bus services were about, and, in return, dug up the skills required to make space for a third person on a seat that was hardly big enough for two.

Barista, Rajpur Road, Dehradun

I visited this coffee shop quite a bit, mostly because it had a bookshop attached. Also, since I was surrounded by chai, I was automatically craving coffee, in spite of the fact that I'd long stopped drinking either.

Most of my fellow patrons seemed to be yuppie couples visiting from the capital or well-heeled parents of boarding-school-going children with said sufferers in tow. Now and then, there were people more difficult to place and some who were technically foreigners, but, I realized sadly, less foreign to me than the Indian peers around me there. There was a group of young men in the corner one day who had that certain something about them that said "motorcycle expedition". It was nearly an hour before I registered that the certain something was a pile of helmets. A lone cyclist consulted a map over a cappuccino. A few extremely well-dressed women settled their embroidered shawls delicately at a table near me – this must have been the 'Dun elite out for coffee; no tourist is ever that elegant. By about four in the evening the teenagers would arrive with their soothing, non-life-threatening problems. At least, it seemed like four. People kept looking at my new phone, so I stopped taking it out and therefore hardly ever knew the time. I woke when the sun rose, lunched when it was high in the sky and, if out, started for home when the shadows started to lengthen. It was very restful.

Blog Archive