London Fog

Banal, touristy observations from an amateur traveler continue…

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Why would I call this post London Fog? It’s a brand that has stuck for the better part of 30 years. 1993 or so – long rows of jackets or winter-coats – and my father told me to look for tags which said ‘London Fog’. I’ve never seen the brand again in my life. No one wears winter coats anyways in this part of the world. But some memories just…stick.

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Didn’t see too much fog though. Although I wouldn’t have minded it at all initially. I think I probably like winters more than summers in new places in the western world because indoors is always well-heated and the cold outside is a welcome change from the muggy climate of the tropics. But packing for winters is painful, your luggage just doubles. It’s worse in a place like London in the spring (I know it’s unpredictable all year along but spring is worse they say) where it could be cold or raining or bright and sunny depending on your luck. So you end up hauling a lot of sweaters which you may not need. But now that you’ve got them, wear them you will.

Anyways, white folks like the temperature inside the room to be around 20-21 degrees centigrade. That’s a light-sweater-weather for me anyways, thank you.

I now know I prefer sunshine in the early 20 degrees just fine though. Only need to wear a thin sweater or jacket. No mittens and headgear. That is even better than fog.

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My above mentioned preference for sunny weather with a nip in the air is just that. A preference. Never have I ever realised the importance of sunshine for a people as I did in this city. The joy on seeing a clear sunny morning in London is probably equal to the sentiment shared by millions in another city 7000 kms away when the first heavy monsoon clouds are sighted at the end of a parched summer.

The mood is lifted. Suddenly everyone is out & about during the lunch hour. Too many men are wandering around shirtless. “Need to wrap up early, we don’t get this weather too often.” Now I know why the Empire really took off. It wasn’t for those bloody spices (see above). It was for our good-old colonial sunshine.

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While all stereotypes exist for a reason, some are more exaggerated than others. Here’s one that isn’t exaggerated at all : British food is bland.

Even the great Sunday roast is difficult to swallow once you’ve finished the sauce. And I’m no big seafood-expert, but I never knew that un-marinated fish can be as bland as cabbage soup. Even the chips (read : fries) are unsalted!

It’s a bit of a paradox perhaps (is it?) but while their own food is so bland, the English are remarkably experimentative eaters in general, comfortable with all sorts of cuisines from around the world (the colonisation must have helped I’m sure). When we eat Japanese or Mexican or Thai food it’s pretty much an event. The English eat pho  as nonchalantly as I would eat a pizza.

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But bland food apart, if there’s one thing the British are the absolute Kings of – it is the humble sandwich. Or not-so-humble-anymore actually. The unending variety & options could keep you going for a month. Yes it’s not necessarily the ideal lunch everyday the cold-sandwich, but my mouth is watering again. They really put a lot of work into it.

A woman working with me used to eat a bag of crisps (chips for the rest of us), a chocolate bar and a coke for lunch. For lunch! Indian mothers would collectively faint. So a sandwich is a delightfully wholesome meal in comparison.

Remember the Holy Trinity at every corner : Eat, Pret, Itsu.

Recommended re-reading : https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/24/how-the-sandwich-consumed-britain

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Did you mix up Thursday & Friday? Nope, Thursday-night parties are a thing. Thursday you party with your friends from work. Then you go back to office hungover the next day and still pretend to work (some masochism here).

Friday you party with your friends from outside work. Then you don’t go back to office hungover, you go visit your family in that state instead. Because weekend’s are for family. How unbelievably organized.

But if it’s summer you drink in the street outside the pub because the pub is full. And everyone is drinking in the streets. Apparently you can drink anywhere in any public place except while you’re walking. So if a cop catches you drinking while walking just sit down on the sidewalk?

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It’s so nice when they serve you water in a restaurant free of cost. I’ve decided I like all countries which do so better than the ones that don’t straight away without looking at any other parameters. Also no charges for using the loo.

It’s also nice (initially unnerving, but then nice) that when there’s a public holiday, it’s a public holiday for everyone. (Why is a bank holiday a public holiday in 2018 is another question for Quora maybe.) The most popular restaurants in the most touristy areas are closed. All non-essential public services are closed (and that means trash collection as well).  Some of it is counter-intuitive (why wouldn’t I keep my restaurant open when everyone’s going to be outdoors?) but some of it makes you think about how un-inclusive a society you’ve grown up in where the maid taking a Sunday off is a matter for middle-classs memsaabs to crib about.

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Visiting Vietnam

A hastily planned trip is always a good time to note down some pretentious observations even if they’re being posted a couple of years too late. Here goes…

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I really wonder what goes through the minds of American or French tourists when they visit a country like Vietnam. The emotions are much more stronger than say what the British would feel in India, because wars like the Vietnam War are so much fresher, more real. There are people alive who’ve been through them everywhere. What are the emotions someone feels when he reads about, sees documented evidence, and can view everywhere the atrocities committed by maybe his or her fathers, uncles or friends? What motivates these journeys? Is it a form of penance, is it an objective way to understand the past or is it just another developing country which is awesome to have a cheap vacation?

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I understand the Western World has this obsession with coffee in the mornings, much like tea is in a lot of India. Although I do think to base your life and so much pop-culture around love of caffeine is a bit much but anyways… I know people who drink a mug of hot tea/coffee as well as the small cuttings. But when you expect iced drinks, you expect a decent amount. Not this shot-glass sized serving of coffee poured over some ice cubes. And I thought CCD is bad.

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Signboards. Everywhere. At every junction. With this simple act, your city becomes so much more friendly for both tourists and locals. Even language ceases to be a stumbling block. Surely this is not so difficult to execute and is hardly attractive to vandals either. Why wouldn’t you do it mere desh ki sarkaar?

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The more I have traveled, the more I’ve understand what kind of food I like. We think we’re being very worldly-wise by eating in very foreign joints in our metropolitan cities, but I think the menus are cleverly tweaked with a local touch to ensure that the authenticity is never at the cost of  you swearing not to eat at that place again. I was a little underwhelmed by Vietnamese cuisine, probably because it was so hyped up (looking at you Lonely Planet). For one, I think Indian palettes are just abused by the amount of spice we need and the need for the spiciness to overwhelm everything else. Delicate, nuanced flavours therefore just don’t seem to appeal despite my best efforts. It’s a meat lovers paradise all right, but after a point of time I just wanted a plain sandwich.

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Eating street food has always been a bit of a taboo or a guilty pleasure growing up in a city. It’s supposed to be unhygenic, questionable ingredients, hoarder of disease (as per all those Adarsh Balak posters). Therefore as a teenager, there was a simple rule – if you did eat outside with your friends, best not to speak about it at home. Vietnam was a  bit of a revelation here. In cities, the whole country seems to eat outside – especially for breakfast and dinner. And these are no Mumbai style vada-pavs or NYC style hot-dogs, but properly cooked meals in at best ramshackle joints if not hawkers. And meat too! No one seems to be scared of their chicken biryani actually having crow meat (as the rumours around Byculla go) or any scares of avian flu.

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Also selling alcohol or beer so freely and openly on the streets is a bit of a surprise. I can only wonder about the potential for vandalism that would cause in a country like India where even liquor stores are guarded closely with grills. I guess it has something to do with the acceptability of beer as a drink and the willingness to distinguish it from other more potent forms of alcohol?

#20 to #24 (2016)

An omnibus of a post for the book’s that didn’t get an individual one back in 2016…

#20 – A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces – David Davidhar
Extra-ordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present

A fascinating anthology of stories from a wonderful collection of writers. One of my laments was the realisation that I’ve been brought up on tons of British ‘literature’ as a kid, American stuff growing up but the Indian exposure is limited – almost incidental. This book could be the ‘rediscovery of India’ for a lot of urban nouveau-riche middle class foks of this era. I didn’t understand every story, not each of them are easy to read and some are more relate-able than others but there is something to be picked up about our country from each, something which can’t really learnt through a history book. What is a must is to spend some time online after each story, to understand the background and for some of the more abstract ones, the meaning and the context as well. Only then would one appreciate something like Ismail Chugtai’s ‘The Quilt’.

Fully intend to read this again sometime, one story every night.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

 

#21 – The Last Mughal – William Dalrymple
The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857

I’ve been a William Dalrymple fan-boy for a long time, ever since I heard him speak in Jaipur back in 2013. Read a lot of articles by him, heard him speak quite a few times as well but it was a matter of personal disappointment that I hadn’t gotten around to reading a full-length work. And after being behind the eight-ball in October, had almost given up on it for 2016 considering the size of his tomes. Bought The Last Mughal almost on an impulse and took it with me on a holiday. Lugging around a book as heavy as this on a back-pack across Vietnam is not something I regretted for one moment, and this is a testament to the writer. More history than historical fiction, heavy on facts with footnotes abound, this is nonetheless a stunning work which told me more about the 1857 War of Independence than anything I studied in school or any movie – whether involving Aamir Khan or not. Crucially, in an era where the narrative from both sides can be starkly different, retains objectivity most of the time. More importantly at a personal level, managed to spark off a renaissance of interest in this era and genre which will hopefully percolate into the coming years. This is not light reading by any means, but this is exactly how heavy reading can be made fulfilling & captivating. #Fan.

 

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★★
Readability : ★★★★

 

#22 – The Creation of Wealth – RM Lala
The Tata’s from the 19th to the 21st Century

A book I’d been gifted in 2011, something I started reading more because I hoped some derivatives could be drawn from it into some work related projects. Perhaps the most disappointing of the books I read this year. Firstly, it’s more of a fact-finder than a book you could read, the narrative is missing. The structure the author chose didn’t work for me – going sector by sector – would a chronological approach been more appealing?  Secondly, the style of writing is very juvenile. If it was intended as a textbook or a children’s work – it may be perfect, but then the content also needs to be structured similarly. Thirdly, the tonality – almost, if not completely a hagiography. A more objective, critical assessment would certainly have been more convincing. Especially since I was reading it just as the house of cards was collapsing in real life with Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata trading barbs.

My biggest grouse is that the book just got boring after a point of time – something I’d attribute to all three reasons above. For the history of a group which has had such a pivotal and interesting story over the last 100 odd years, that’s truly unfortunate. A useful ready reckoner on the history of the Tata’s, something I’d gift to a high school kid who was doing a project on this, but hardly recommended for anything beyond.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★

 

#23 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie

I’m going to borrow from a review on GoodReads on this. I went into this book with a bit of an attitude considering it’s been rating among the top 100 books you must read or on some such list. In other words, it means that this is the Dame’s best work – the one Christie you must read over all others. As a yuuuge Agatha Christie fan, who must have read at least 80% of her works, I wasn’t so sure. By some serendipity – I hadn’t actually read this one. (I wasn’t so sure that I hadn’t, you tend to forget the titles but recall the story once you start reading it). So I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up, the characters, the red herrings and wonderful ability Christie has to take us along the journey but still surprise us in the end. And since I’ve read Endless Night, I’d already decided that it surely wasn’t going to end in ‘thaat’ manner. A most delightful surprise.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

 

#24 – And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Nothing like reading an Agatha Christie classic on a winter afternoon to unwind and relax. This is the only book on this list I’d actually read before. It was a bit of a cheat-code up my arsenal, I’d bought it in the middle of the year but decided to read it only if the targets weren’t being met. It helped that I kind of knew the end but didn’t necessarily remember it very clearly. And so on the 31st of December, the perfect coup-de-grace to the year, a knockout punch of nostalgia and Christie-mystery.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

NYRs 2016 : A recap

So 2016 has come and gone, and 2017 is here. I started of the year with two major resolutions, and I chose them to be specifically centered around two things I enjoy doing : reading and watching movies. I set myself what I thought then were reasonable targets – a movie every week and a book every two weeks. So that should make it 52 movies a year and 26 books. Looks manageable when you view it from the vantage point of early January.

Somewhere around the line, the one book every two weeks became two books every month – so shifting the goalposts from 26 to 24. In my defense, this was done in the middle of the year around June and not at the fag end to meet the end-of-years targets like conniving sales managers have shown the way in doing. Eventually, I huffed and puffed  and made it past the finishing line on the last day thanks to some careful planning. I’d bought an Agatha Christie I’d been aching to re-read much earlier in the year, but I’d cleverly kept it aside for a ‘low-hanging-fruit’ to be used for a late win. I think I was at 19 books (completed) around 17th December, after which I had this glorious idea to pick up the largest behemoth of a book I’ve read all year – William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal. Fortunately, I was on vacation where I had enough time to eke out to read it over the course of maybe  a week. The last 4 days were finishing three other large tomes which were lying half-red after which I dashed through the morning of the 31st of  December with ‘And Then There Were None’. After this I spent the rest of the day polishing off whatever I needed to from ‘A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces’ from David Davidhar (making adjustments for the fact that I had read almost half of Business Adventures, a tremendously textbookish work which balanced against the four or five short stories from David Davidhar’s anthology). So yes, such wow. Much relief.

I’d actually anticipated watching this many movies may not be all that difficult if I adjust for any TV Series I watch, considering proportional time. I lost count somewhere down the road, hopefully I can set that straight – but I probably ended up with somewhere around 25. And, I only watched the Game of Thrones season for the year over 2016, in addition to a few episodes of The Crown on the 31st of December. So no, even counting those – I wouldn’t have gotten even close. I was determined to not add any TV movies unless I watched them end to end, I can only recall  Date Movie sometime early in the year and Ted2 somewhere in the monsoons. So this was a massive misjudgement, in many ways.

I think my calculation would have been that I watch a movie at least every alternate week in the multiplex nearby, so that’s 26 – I’d have expected to do a few movie marathons and then maybe add the time for TV series. Should be close to that magic number. I realise now I severely overestimated the number of movies I watch in a cinema hall – the figure over the course of the year is probably closer to 15 to 18 if I had to hazard a guess. I could probably have watched some more, but some weekends there wasn’t anything half-decent to watch, on others there were other commitments. And you spend a surprising number of weekends travelling every year I’ve realised (this number has probably increased). I’m glad I realised somewhere two-thirds of the way down the line that this target wasn’t going to be met and I didn’t push myself to watch crap and achieve it. A gracious defeat is how I look at it in my mind.

Of course, one of the other reasons to do this was to write more often. Under pressure with other pursuits, the writing’s been sidelined and postponed. But I do hope to write about as many I can – at least the books over the next few weeks while the memories are still fresh.

What did I take away from this (especially the reading one)? That even for something you think you love, you have to bend your back and dedicate time to it. That there are a million distractions, and you must be able to shut them out to achieve them. That writing reviews/expressing thoughts isn’t as easy as it seems. And finally, there’s a sense of achievement at the attaining of a target – I think I’ve proved my point to myself, that this is something I could achieve. Having said that, I’m not pulling this stunt again for the next year (or doing it with a lower target such as 12 books) for a few reasons : firstly, it takes away the ‘take-away’ or joy of reading once you have to speed-read. Secondly, it takes a lot of compromise – and maybe there are other things I should pursue for a year now and visit this experiment in 2021.

Allie Brosh – Hyperbole and a Half (#19 of 24)

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Credit: https://effusionsofwitandhumour.files.wordpress.com/

This is a very difficult book to write something about. I actually found myself avoiding writing because I honestly was not sure what to write! It’s really nothing like anything you’ve ever seen or read before.

Just to clarify, I loved it and had a thoroughly enjoyable time reading Hyperbole and a Half. What is it about though? Well, it is about a 20 something (I guess) girl who shares life-experiences and stories, and her perspectives on various personal events. Two things which distinguish it from the millions of other younglings who may also attempt such a stunt.

First, she has a razor sharp ability and eye for self-introspection. It is quite magical actually the way she gets into how you (we all) think and then put it in words. It leads to thoughts and experiences which are universally relateable and almost the kind of things which you may be embarrassed to express yourself, but which actually feel nice to read once you see that someone else also feels that way. I actually think this is a big part of why this works so well. The topics include her dogs, her childhood incidents, how dogs behave, battling depression, self-identity issues and really mostly topics which seem to be quite ridiculous if you’d asked someone to write about them. But all this expressed in a dead-pan, poker-face tone (if you can imagine that) works, and how!

Secondly the pictures. Oh my God, the pictures. She actually calls her tales ‘picture-stories’ herself, however these are pictures unlike anything you’d expect. We’ve been a little more conditioned to poorly drawn comics and cartoons in recent times, what with Southpark or even minimalistic work like XKCD. But Brosh’s work is bad. It looks like pictures drawn by a 4 year old. A 4 year old without too much talent i.e.But in fact it’s so bad that it’s actually good, it’s cute and the more you read it the more it grows on you. By no means do I want to say that it’s not intelligent work or that imagination isn’t being used in the bad-pictures. It’s just remarkable how something which would normally be assumed to be a terrible weakness for a comic writer (?) has been turned into one of her USPs and biggest strengths in fact.

I’m guessing most of the stories in the book are also available on the blog. And this is a slightly pricey book – what with colour pictures in it. I’d still recommend it in a heart-beat. It’s probably good for self-introspection. And if that doesn’t work, it’s definitely good for a lot of laughs – irrespective of your age.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★
Readability : ★★★★★

Vince Flynn – American Assassin (#18 of 24)

My adventures with audio-books hit a bit of a road-block after the wonderful reading of The Martian I heard last time. (I’m not counting some Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful as they were as a complete book.) So when a couple of long bus journey beckoned, I thought it was the perfect time to dive right into a right ol’ potboiler. I had an app with a limited library but The #1 New York Times bestseller for Vince Flynn and the solid ratings on GoodReads were good enough indicators that this should be a fun ride.

American Assassin was the title to be picked up because it was the first in the Mitch Rapp series, although not the first one published. I felt I might as well start properly at the beginning. Mitch Rapp is essentially James Bond + Jason Bourne + Ethan Hunt all rolled into one, and with a nicer more humble personality to boot. This we’re told without too much precursor. This is also annoying because there is zero grey to his character, making him a template, unrealistic superhero. He can do anything physically, is as courageous as could be, has a temperament which his bosses can’t sustain. He’s thoroughly unrelatable in other words.

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Dark events in his past – his girlfriend died in a hijacking – have left him thirsting for vengeance and he is enrolled (how? that we never know) in a secret program that the CIA runs. The first part of the book is about this training program and the war against a bad-ass Jack Nicholson like boss and how respect is grudgingly earned. Then they’re thrown on the field into a couple of missions, first in Berlin and then in Beirut. There’s a motley bunch of Russians, Syrians, Palestinians, Arabs – all different flavours from the cookie-cutter villain factory who need to be defeated (and they will be, whatever the odds). And I’m not even getting into the one-sided missions and the overdose of God Bless America.

American Assassin is not a terrible book – it just seems more cut out for a Hollywood movie or a young-adult literature genre. There’s some interesting parts about Beirut and if you’re particularly aware of the geo-political situation there in the 80’s and 90’s, you might be able to connect the dots, some nice details of intensive training routines and torture mechanisms – but it all grew stale for me pretty soon. I could never really get stuck in to the book, it’s solid if unspectacular. Perhaps a good first attempt for a young first-time writer. But for someone as experienced as Vince Flynn, it tells me that this is not an author after my own tastes.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★
Education Quotient : ★★
Readability : ★★★

RK Narayan – Under The Banyan Tree & Other Stories (#17 of 52)

My first memories of RK Narayan are unlike most Indians of my generation – not the TV series Malgudi Days set in the eponymous town of Malgudi, but a small set of stories called Swami and Friends which I must have read in primary school. And although I don’t remember the finer details, it was a book that has stayed stuck in memory, a young boy crazy about cricket as he grows up in a town middle-class India.

RK Narayan’s wonderful set of short stories – Under the Banyan Tree, is what I’d like to classify as comfort reading. Because it seems achingly relate-able, warmly inviting and enticing the reader into its world, minus the shame of a voyeur. It is set in a milieu of the 1950’s to 1980’s I assume, in small towns across South India – which is I’m sure a world away from the India which we inhabit today. And yet, it draws you in with the constants of everyday life, the way we think and interact with each other – those which may never change – which is why in the opening note Narayan speaks about the timelessness of short stories.41704z0bp8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

The prose is simple yet elegant, the characters are often weird or flawed but definitely believable. Most of these stories are what they call ‘slice-of-life’ tales – there is often no head or tail, no moral at the end, no lesson to be learnt. It’s just a colourful and detailed picture into the life of people around you.

I read it over the period of a month – in cabs when stuck in traffic, in the nights before I dozed off, in crowded metro trains and never once did it seem to be a task to read it. I could pick up a story from anywhere and it would happily crackle to life, reinvigorating the dormant data-point from the recesses of my mind. I wished it could go on and on and I could return to it whenever I wanted something comfortable, which reminded me of home – like dal-chawal and ghar-ki-chai – this is ‘comfort literature’ at its very best.

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★★