Tamarind City

I know what you are thinking… It has taken me far too long to read this book. A book which is about my favorite place on earth – Chennai. A book written by someone associated with my favorite publication – The Hindu.

I want to say Ghosh nailed it. But I can’t… He gets close though. The book starts off slow and Ghosh ambles on about his love for Chennai and we wait for the book to focus…. On chennai. It does and he ensures that he travels the breadth and length of the city. From St Thomas mount to Sriperambathur, from Mylapore to Marina, from Triplicane to T M Krishna, from Appa Gardens to Amma, from George Town to Gymkhana club. Sometimes we feel that he has rearranged the archives from S Muthiah’s archives. But most of the time he sticks true to his quest.

Ghosh misses two very important facets of Chennai – koyambedu and kollywood. The koyambedu market is definitely a landmark that should feature in a travel book and kollywood is the arm candy of chennai. How did he miss that? Editorial arm wriggling?

But Tamarind city brings alive the streets of Chennai – the cacophony, chaos and the civility. We are painfully modest, traditional yet tech savvy, loyal yet accommodating… Chennai is truly where modern India began.

I read this book on a train ride from munich to vienna and instead of dreaming about the sights in the Austrian capital, Ghosh made me wistful of my filter Kappi. That my friend is a good book.

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Is Queen the feminist we have forgotten?

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Losing hand
In a drunken reverie Rani(Ranaut) professes how her life mirrors Gupta uncle. That uncle who never let the stench of tobacco near nor laced his lips with alcohol yet somehow succumbed to the misery of cancer. This is her. She has obeyed every rule in the book; never defied her parents; was subservient to her fiance and played a pushover to the world yet life dealt her a losing hand; Love lynched her and destiny ditched her.  Why her? And more importantly what now?

Runaway but not revolting
Rani after being dumped at the altar decides to honeymoon alone. Why does she do it? Earlier on we see how she saves every penny towards her honeymoon fund (which is visiting her most favorite cities Paris and Amsterdam). So when she is robbed of the romance why give up this treasured dream? She quietly confides to her dad that she wants to go but will not if he chooses otherwise. She does not defy yet calmly expresses her decision. For a girl who has hardly stepped out of Rajori she decides to globe-trot, alone. Only she isn’t fully prepared.

Pushing boundaries
In Paris, she hardly leaves her room. Her grandmother chides her “if you just wanted to watch the Telly, why go all the way to a different country” – a nudge here. Her epic encounter with vijaya lakshmi(vijay) shoves her further in exploring the city. She is still terrified of the Eiffel which as lovers they had declared to visit together. But she decides to hang around. She gets drunk, dances in public and almost gets arrested, all of which her fiance and his mummy would have resented. But she is having a ball by flying solo.

In Amsterdam she has yet another territory to invade. Her roommates are all men and she cannot coexist with the (unrelated)opposite sex in the same room. It’s not whether she trusts them but it’s rather that she is not(yet) strong enough to take this step. Eventually she conquers this too. She learns to befriend them, converses freely about her life and yet sticks to her boundaries.

Finally when the fiance comes begging to take him back, she doesn’t give him a speech about how she has changed etc. She reminds him pleasantly that she has other plans and they should meet in Rajori. She is buying time but remembers to pay for herself. I can take care of myself and no I don’t need a knight in a shining armor to stand beside me.  Also she wears a new outfit that she brought for herself in Paris not to swoon him but to state that she knows she is beautiful inside out.

Feminist yet fragile
Rani is elegant, gullible and sheer poetry. Her search to find her strength within the confines of her identity is the cynosure of this well crafted film. We see Rani lip locking with a foreigner but it is brief and does not lead to this-will-never-work-out sob story. Rani is a feminist in the sense that she learns to stand out, speak her mind and yet learns to be respectful. (Even when she meets her ex fiancé’s mother she pays her respects.)

Queen reinforces my belief that feminism is not only about wardrobe choices, physical and sexual freedom but about more significant aspects like attitude and identity. In the end, Rani hugs Vijay and thanks him for giving her a chance to go on this journey but I thank Rani for coming back with her core spirit intact because that is something nobody can deny or steal from you.

Prague Winter

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The past was to be deaf and dumb to them. It was neither heard nor spoken” – for many survivors this is the wretched life after war. This is the strongest emotion that drives us to be vigilant of our leaders and never to repeat the blunders of the past.

Madeline Albright, a Czech born American citizen who served as Secretary of State under the Clinton government revisits her roots in this remarkable story of adventure and passion, courage and tragedy set in the backdrop of World War II and communist post war Czechoslovakia. Although the book recollects all important incidents that shaped the nation one cannot dismiss this book as a war journal. (Just as we cannot dismiss Schinder’s list or Life is beautiful as war movies.)

It is no doubt an incisive work on history but one that delves deep into the human psyche. What prompts one person to act boldly in a moment of crisis like Maria did in sheltering the Czech parachutists or to succumb like Curda who turned against his peers? Why do some people become stronger in the face of adversity like the countless survivors of Camp Terezin or Auschwitz while others quickly lose heart? What separates the bully from the protector? Why do we make the choices we do? Is it our education, spiritual belief, parents, friends circumstances or an amalgamation of all of these?

Albright begins her book from the earliest place in her birth in her home country Czechoslovakia. The founder TG Masaryk, the shameful Munich pact, Hitler and sudetland, World War II, President Benes, Jan Masaryk, Allied forces and finally the Communist thrust.

Czechoslovakia stands at the cusp of east and west, nestled and nudged it has strived to act as a western democratic state but often courting eastern communist security. Even though history dealt a losing hand, the country and it’s leaders have risen to become a beacon of character and spirit. (The Velvet Revolution that scissored Czech and Slovakia and President Havel are mentioned throughout).But history transpired from the eyes and life of Albright, her family with her father in government service paints the picture vividly.

Prague winter is a book that details World War II with a breathtaking combination of historical and political perspectives. But the moral choices that hinges between the words and the confrontation of brutalities that ceases to end even today makes this book a must read.

Other recommended books on Prague – Prague by Richard Burton & Time’s magpie by Myla Goldberg.

In a Sunburned Country

The world’s largest island; only island that is a continent; only continent that is a country; only nation that began as a prison!

Australia is the home of the largest living thing on earth – The Great Barrier Reef and has more things that will kill you than anywhere else(boxed jellyfish, salt water crocodiles and all ten of the worlds poisonous snakes). Yet Bill Bryson in his travelogue of this incredible country terms it as an interesting place.

Australians are friendly and always mindful of the fact that the rest of the world rarely cares about them. They are too far, in the middle of nowhere for the world to take notice. Tell me, do you know who the Prime Minister is, Bryson constantly reminds us.

This is the first book that I have read on Australia and we have been considering this as one of the places that we most certainly must visit. And this one book is good enough. Because Bryson not only captures his encounters in the most humorous and candid narrative possible but also details the history and evolution of every venue.

If you are an aspiring travel writer you will be reminded constantly to be an avid reader since Bryson seems to have read all the available literature on this island continent country nation. Because of that we are left with a book that can take us through James Cook docking his Endeavor to a Prime Minister who gets lost in the ocean at large, to the state of the Aboriginal people and always to the explorers let loose in the Outback.

Sydney and Melbourne are two great cities, Canberra is a park capital with a severe shortage of drinking holes, Perth is basking in eternal sunshine and Brisbane, Darwin and Cairns can be a once in a lifetime city that you shouldn’t fail to visit.

We might know precious little of this natural wonder but Australia as Bryson notes is a place worth getting to know.

(Highly recommended reads on Australia are Sydney by Jan Morris, The Australian paradox by Jeanne Mackenzie and Crocodile attack in Australia by Hugh Edwards.)

All that I am – Anne Funder

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“Germans it seems are incapable of revolution. Because we cannot storm a train without first queuing for tickets”
There are places that captivate your interest endlessly. Germany for many has been that place. Having been there numerous times, I have seen first hand how people struggle to disassociate themselves from the past. They never speak about it. It is a stain that refuses to go away. They have managed to emerge successfull despite their tumultuous past but they never want to forget it. You can see why they are cautious – from Russia to EU they are the leaders and the mastheads but are rarely basking in the limelight. They prefer to stay out of focus.

Anne Funder’s book offers several insights into German life and it’s people.
The book itself picks up pace only towards the middle but there is no slowing down after that. We have often heard of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the Gestapo. What about Germans within Germany who worked against the Führer? Were they complacent refugees after fleeing his dictatorship?What happens when your life is striped away by people in power? Politics is not just armchair revolution but also the defining purpose in life. In this case, a woman refuge embarks on a perilous mission to bring to light the mission of the Nazi rule but no one will listen to her.

The book alternates between two narratives and this brings out different perspectives very effectively. Ruth and Tolled are two individuals who are in constant company of the enigmatic Dora. How their lives take shape around her and how resourceful Dora herself is against Hitler forms the crux.

Incidentally I wanted to read Stasiland by Funder but ended up with this book. All that I am is also part of Oprah’s book club in 2012. To understand a country, it’s people and their culture – books often offer this noninvasive window that is a delight and a revelation. (For Germany ,apart from this book, I recommend The book thief & The zookeepers wife.)

Business Travel on a budget

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If you know me, then you know that I have a fetish for budgets. I love planning and writing up to do lists. I’m also fairly good at executing but the biggest rush comes from planning. So Women’s Web asked me to write a post about planning a smart travel on a budget I jumped at the opportunity.

I drew up points that I surmised where crucial for travel no matter the size and prioritized them with a focus on small enterprises.

Here is the article. Would love to hear your feedback on this piece.