Monday, April 17, 2017

Goa, beyond the beaches

The received wisdom of what to do in Goa is find a shack on the beach, and enjoy the sunset with a beer and some seafood, and either chill or party, depending on what floats your boat. Over the years, the restaurant scene has picked up and these days, deciding where you will eat is part of the planning you do before you land in this state.
Goa though, can be different things to different people. And if like me, the beach scene and the food scene are too sybaritic for your taste, it has other pleasures to offer. Here are three of them.

Forts: When I dream of Goa, I dream of forts by the sea. My favourite spot in Goa is atop Chapora fort in Vagator. It’s a short climb up a very small hill. A little effort for some absolutely fabulous views of the shoreline from the top. Fort Aguada is of course the most popular fort in Goa - and if you get there at sunset time, the stone, the sun and the sea can prove magical. There are other forts worth your time as well - Terakhol up north and Reis Magos near Panjim, Corjuem fort in Corjuem and Rachol fort overlooking the Zuari river. One of these days, I will do a fort holiday in Goa, and catch up with all these beauties.  

The view from Chapora fort

The historic district of Fontainhas: A heritage walk through this district was one of the highlights of my last Goa trip. The colourful houses, the dolls on the doorways, the roosters on the roof, the pretty tiled nameplates and the mother-of-pearl on the windows - it might have been a walk through a European small town. A not-to-be-missed experience.

Divar Island: A sleepy little island on the river you can get to, only by taking a ferry. There is hardly anything to see here, except a lovely old church and some paddy fields. It’s quaint and quiet, and if you can get a meal in a local home, you can go back to the mainland replete and completely charmed.

Slow living - a view from Divar island
There are other things to do as well - see the Churches of Old Goa, the prettiest of which in my opinion is the Se Cathedral; experience the backwaters and the waterfalls; go whale watching; and go on a temple tour ( I had just a glimpse of them - and they seemed to made in such a unique style!). So the next time you want to catch up on some susegad in Goa, remember, Goa is more than that shack on the beach or the newest restaurant.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016: My year in reading

54 is the number of books I read this year, says my Goodreads app. That is about a book a week - pretty much what I have averaged most of my adult life. What was a bit different this year, though? My list had more non-fiction than usual. I am a fiction junkie through and through, and when I find myself drifting towards non-fiction, I worry I am growing old.

In any case, I enjoyed some great books here - Krakauer’s Into the Wild was a revelation. Who knew you could turn the story of a foolish young man into a page turner!. Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy was a five rater for me - and led me to read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which I have resolved to read in a more modern translation soon. Travel was a big theme. Colin Thubron’s In Siberia was a moody, dark study of post Soviet Siberian hinterland; and his Shadow of the Silk Road described his Marco Polo-esque journey through possibly some of the most interesting places in the world today. Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus was another unforgettable book, taking you through some dangerous places with fascinating histories. Chatwin’s In Patagonia was a long overdue read - and now Patagonia has become a bucket-list kind of place in my head. Other notable non-fiction reads were Sidharth Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History and Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, both managing to illuminate without boring you to death. Mary Oliver’s Upstream was of course another five rater for me - how I love her plush wordsmithing and her simple wisdom!

I had resolved to read more Indian fiction in translation - and I did manage a few, though nowhere enough. Basheer’s Poovan Banana and other stories introduced me to an author I had been meaning to read for a long time. Ashapurna Devi’s story collection The Matchbox was a peek into a middle class Bengali milieu, Austen-esque style.

I did re-read some old favourites - To Kill a Mockingbird felt as fresh as when I read it more than three decades ago. And the set pieces in Goldman’s Marathon Man were as horrific as the ones in my memory.

There were a number of disappointments. Sittenfeld’s re-telling of Pride and Prejudice  in Eligible was pretty terrible. Anne Tyler’s re-imagining of The Taming of the Shrew in Vinegar Girl was slightly better - but was definitely not Tyler at her best. Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox was not a patch on her Boy, Snow, Bird, one of my favourite books of 2015. Vivek Shanbagh’s Gachar Gochar was a translation I went into with a lot of hope - but was quite let down (a number of my reader friends liked this though - so maybe there was something here I did not see).

And now to my favourite fiction of the year. I finished the Ferrante books, and loved them to bits - Lila has to be one of my most loved fictional characters ever. Julian Barnes did not disappoint with his The Noise of Time, a fictional account of the life of Russian composer Shostakovich. The sense of dread he manages to conjure up in Soviet Russia is riveting. Neither did Ian McEwan with his Nutshell, a cleverly crafted re-telling of Hamlet. My discovery of the year was Elizabeth Strout. I loved Olive Kitteridge, a character that will go into my list of all-time favourites. And her My Name is Lucy Barton is such a study in compressed emotion and spare writing. Ruskin Bond’s Rain in the Mountains made me want to rush to the Himalayas right away. And what can I say about Tove Janson’s Fair Play? That was the book of the year for me - so simple and so profound, I took a day after I finished it to just soak it in!

So all in all, 2016 might have been a forgettable year for the world, but  it was a good year for my reading. Now onto 2017 - and I should start to get some reading resolutions in place, I suppose.

Monday, October 03, 2016

My grandmother: A life

Have you heard the term ‘matriarch’? I am very familiar with it. Because I knew its embodiment - my grandmother who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. The word conjures up images of a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, presiding over an extended family. She was all of that. What she wasn’t, was a grandmother who was soft, and who cuddled you and told you stories from the epics. She did stuff you with the most delicious food, though.

Gomathy Kunjamma was just 17 years old when she was married to a man she had never met before. She came from a large family, with wealth in the form of large tracts of land, a ‘kalari’ and a ‘kaaranavar’, a family presided over by yet another matriarch. She had never seen the ‘city’ before - which in this case was Thiruvananthapuram (hardly a city by any standard but that of the village she had grown up in), she had only been home-schooled, and most of the men in her family stayed home to tend the land and property. And till the end of her days, I believe she wore the conflict - of the pride of a truly old and esteemed family she came from (her father started a newspaper; her grandfather was a distinguished man of letters, they were part of the Travancore Maharaja’s court), and the trepidation of going into one which was more ‘sophisticated’ - where education and jobs seemed to matter more than family heritage, where women had been to college, where the men were doctors and college professors, civil servants and engineers.

I believe it inspired in her a life-long respect for learning. She herself had never been to a formal school, let alone college. But her children and grandchildren had to do well in the education department - there were no two ways about it. She must have died proud of her grandchildren - all of whom, girls and boys, are well-educated and independent, able to stand on their own two feet, never having to face the apprehension she had, being under-prepared in the learning area.

There were some parts of her personality that could be very vexing - again, stemming from her past. She had rigid ideas about what was the correct thing to do, in any situation. Sometimes, irritatingly to me, the correctness was defined by, ‘what will people think.’ And her strong will ensured everyone followed those ideas, irrespective of the inconvenience it caused, even till her last days. And her sometimes-misplaced and blind pride in her ‘family heritage’ could be annoying.

But it was this same strong will and the same sense of pride that helped her work herself and her family through some very tough times - when the family went through awful financial troubles, when she had to care for her bedridden mother and brother, when my grandfather died.

Most of all, what I will remember her for, is her ability to transcend her upbringing, in so many ways. She had a lifelong regret that she never had a son - and her favourite grandchild remained her first grandson. But she never, ever treated her granddaughters as any less than her grandsons. There was no one prouder when her first granddaughter, became an engineer - the first woman engineer in our family. She was very encouraging of my younger cousin going abroad to study - again, a first for a girl in our family. She loved to see my girl cousins driving around Trivandrum on scooters, independent and free. And one of the last times I saw her, she proudly told me how her youngest granddaughter actually had to go out to ‘sites’, as a civil engineer, just like men. And she herself, was so very independent. She remained in charge of her house, alone sometimes, sometimes with grandchildren in it, till her eighties. For someone who had never been to a school, she was really very ‘modern’.

Rest in peace Amooma. You leave behind a rich legacy - a family that will remember you as strong and encouraging of independence, a woman who rose above tradition, a true ‘matriarch’, who prized family above anything else. There is so much of you in each of us.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

10 things I loved about the Amalfi Coast

Hiking the Path of the Gods
Walking towards Punta Campanella with Capri following you
View from atop Mt. Solaro
The Terrace of Infinity, Ravello
Pretty Positano
View from the top of Vesuvius
The limoncello chill

Seafood gluttony

Selfie paradise
Cooling off

Ceramics abound in Positano
Blue, blue waters, high cliffs hugging the shore, the narrowest roads, lovely little towns – what is not to love, you say? Quite a bit, to be honest. When you go in high summer, the unrelenting heat can get to even someone like me, who lives the Mumbai summers. And the crowds – everyone and their mother seems to descend on this strip of land in high season. Driving prices sky-high and jamming up the traffic on those narrow lanes.
Yet, this strip of coastal land from Sorrento to Salerno is pretty in a way that can’t stop your camera clicking away; so you end up with thousands of gorgeous pictures and you really struggle to choose the ones you want to share.
Here are some things I really couldn’t get enough of – in my 8-day vacation this July.

1.  Beating the heat with granita and gelato
When the heat gets to you, nothing beats walking into a gelataria (they are all around) and ordering a granita. It’s a coarser form of a sorbet – and our favourite was the lemon-flavoured one. And a super after-meal sweetener was the gelato. Raki was a great one in Sorrento.

2.     Hiking along the coast
There are tons of possibilities. You base yourself in one of the small towns and you can hike to other towns close by. We did a couple. The Path of the Gods was an obvious one. And another from Termini to Marina Del Cantone via Punta Campanella. The walk from Termini to Punta was absolutely stunning – we could see Capri through the walk and Punta Campanella had some great views. And all those calories burnt were a good excuse to gorge on even more great food.

3.     Visiting an island

We went to Capri. It’s a day trip from Sorrento and the ferry itself is a great experience. You take the funicular to Anacapri and then the chair car up to the top of Mount Solaro. The views are to die-for. Anacapri is sweet, with white-washed buildings set against the deep blue of the water. You take a ferry boat ride around Capri, check out all the grottos, pass under the arch of the Faraglioni rocks (legend has it that you kiss someone under that arch and you are bound for life!) and see all the famous-people houses up on the cliffs.

4.     Wandering around Villa Cimbrone in Ravello
Ravello is a delicious little town a bus ride away from Amalfi. You walk up to the Villa Cimbrone and wander around its gardens and terraces. The Terrace of Infinity begs for travel-magazine-worthy photographs; the views are so very photogenic. 

5.     Browsing the shops in Positano
Supposed to be the prettiest place on the Amalfi coast, Positano is overwhelmed with tourists. But it is striking. Set on a cliff, its pastel-shaded buildings rise above the coast and seem built on top of each other, rising vertically. Its streets are narrow and winding with shops selling linen clothing, leather footwear, painted crockery and other fine-looking things. A pretty town with pretty streets selling pretty things.

6.     Drinking limoncello
The coast is known for its lemon groves. And the lemons here are huge. Of course we had to try the limoncello. It’s very sweet (I love all things sweet) and the alcohol in it can hit you hard. But it’s a great chill-me-down after a hot and tiring day.

  7.    Enjoying the laid back vibe in Sorrento
It is one of the bigger towns. With some nice cafes, gelatarias and a cool night life, you can easily spend a couple of days relaxing and winding down for the start of a nice holiday. The Euro cup that was underway, ensured there were some boisterous scenes on the main streets. 

8.     Climbing Mt. Vesuvius
Its signature shape is constantly in your sights as you travel from Naples to Sorrento. History lessons in school remind you of how it destroyed a city – and when you realize you can actually climb a living volcano, you cannot wait to try it. It’s a pretty tame walk up to the crater – but just the feeling of having climbed something so historic gives you a thrill.

9. Eating rum baba in Naples
A Neapolitan specialty, we had it at the Gran Café Gambrinus, an elegant, turn-of-the-century coffee house, which boasts of heads-of-states, Popes and movie stars as patrons. The rum baba is exquisitely melt-in-the-mouth soft and when you have it with strong Italian coffee, you have a bit of Naples in your mouth.

10. Taking selfies against gorgeousness

Wherever you go, everything is so very pretty and photogenic, it makes sense to carry a selfie-stick. This was the first time we ever did –we have been traveling for years – and we were initially terribly self-conscious. But it is rather cool to have pictures of you against the most heavenly backgrounds. A selfie-stick sure comes handy.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wisdom of Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge

By Elizabeth Strout

In my teens, when there was a chance to watch world cinema on television, I watched a Russian movie. I remember very little about it - except that it was in black and white and there was a boy and a girl, very much in love. The boy goes off to fight in World War II and does not return. But the last scene is something I can see clearly so many decades later. The girl is grieving, in a way that chokes you up as a viewer - and then she looks up at the sky. A flock of white geese is flying through and for that fleeting moment, the beauty of it makes her smile through her tears. It is almost like the world is telling her and us, that it’s all ok. That however hard are the punches life throws at you, it also throws you lifelines and hope and beauty. You can survive.I read Olive Kitteridge and it brought that scene back to me so very vividly.

Olive Kitteridge is a series of 13 interconnected stories, set in Crosby, Maine - a small seaside town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Olive Kitteridge, a crabby school teacher is the character that holds it all together. It really is her story - but we see her not just through her own eyes but also through others’ stories. Olive is not particularly nice - acerbic, unused to showing affection, a bit of a bully with her young son and accommodative husband. But she has a strong vein of love for her son and her husband running through her, even if that vein is wrapped up in something hard and harsh. It’s that same vein that allows her to deeply empathize with people around her -hurt people, damaged people. People like Kevin who cannot recover from his mother’s suicide; or Denise, the young girl who her husband is almost in love with, who loses her beloved husband in an accident; or Nina, an anorexic; or a criminal in a hostage situation.

Olive herself has her set of life’s challenges - her son, the love of her life, grows apart from her, and she cannot understand why. Her father’s suicide is a lifelong haunting. Her old age is marred by her husband’s invalidity.

And then there are the stories where Olive is not a central character. A piano player whose set life is upset by the return of an old love; a wife who finds out her husband’s infidelity the day of his funeral; a young girl who finds the courage to run away from an overbearing mother.

These are small lives, making just tiny dents in the universe. Very few people are truly likeable. Yet the magnificence of Strout’s characterization ensures we find the universality in every single one of them - each is trying to cope with what life is throwing at him or her, trying to make connections, big or small, trying to find that burst of hope or joy or comfort that makes everything seem bearable. That is the essence of what Strout is trying to say - life is hard, but all of us will find that flock of geese that lightens the soul.

It is a very wise book - the kind that shows how great fiction is really the best kind of teacher there is in the world.

Friday, August 21, 2015

City of the blue god

Benaras, Varanasi, Kashi… names of an ancient city, one of the oldest living ones, evoking images of the Ganga, sadhus, Shiva, temples, tourists, widows, cremations. That’s a lot to take in. And the city throws all of it at you and more. There is no holding back here.

The crowds
The crowds hit you like a sledgehammer. Especially if you are in a hand-drawn rickshaw - very commonplace here. People, cows, bikes, autos, rickshaws...all throng the busy streets into the old city. You are from Mumbai and you think you have crowds covered. Mumbai has nothing on Varanasi. You wonder how your rickshaw man is going to maneuver his way through it all. But maneuver he does, weaving himself and his load through, leaving you with that feeling of distaste - you have indeed treated a human being like a pack mule.
You leave that feeling behind, soon. Now you maneuver through the throng on foot. Cows are maneuvering too...and it’s best you get out of their way if you don’t want to be headbutted by the holiest of the holies. The smell of dung is pervasive. There are a lot of holy men - with matted hair and trishuls and ochre robes. You stop to look at some knick-knacks and soon you are engulfed by hawkers. You try to lose them and make your way, along with a thousand others, to the river. Everyone is heading to the river.

Because it’s time for the Ganga arati. The water level in the river is too high - so the arati is performed on a platform high above. It’s all prayers and lights and some strange dance-like posturing by priests in satin dhotis - a bit tacky and touristy. But it draws you in, even if you are disappointed it’s not on the river bank as in the famous pictures..
The Ganga Arati

We walk down to the river and even in the darkness we can see the filth. I slip and my shoe-clad, jean-clad leg goes into the water. I can’t wait to get to my hotel to wash it.

The next day is an early one. We leave the hotel at 5.30 am to see the sunrise on the Ganga. The sun though, is already up. We make our way once more to the water. We climb into a motorized boat and we see the city from the river. Ghat after ghat make for pretty pictures. There is even one where a body is being cremated. Men and women immerse themselves in the muddy water, washing their sins away I presume. That water is punishment enough for any manner of sin, I think. We step off the boat into the bylanes of the old city. Narrow lanes, bright coloured doors, painted walls. Some lanes bring European ones to mind - until you look down and see the cow dung and the plastic in the drains. But there is some peace and  quiet and you are grateful for it amongst the chaos. We see a lot of stacked wood in one of the lanes, along with a weighing scale. People die and wood is weighed for the pyre. This is serious business for a Saturday morning walk, I think.
A Varanasi dawn

The Lord of the city

The ghats

A quiet narrow lane

Weigh the wood for the pyre

The colour!
We make our way through the lanes to the Kashi Vishwanath temple. We stand in queue, are frisked again and again, and finally get pushed into the sanctum sanctorum. The gold on the gopuram shines bright. But the lingam itself is immersed in liquid that people throw on it. It is small, we get a glimpse of it and we are packed off by the milling crowds behind us. And that was the darshan. Before getting off the temple trail, we buy sealed containers of Ganga jal - we couldn’t bear taking the real deal from the river.

We drink tea from mud cups, but run away from other street food. All those food joints recommended by guide books are on the ghats… and getting back into those narrow crowded lanes is an experience we aren’t willing to go through again. We prefer the relative neatness and symmetry of Sarnath, half an hour away.
The ghats

Sarnath has a museum where we are dazzled by the lion capital of Asoka and the delicate 5th century Buddha and all those ancient sculpture. The museum is lovely. As is the excavation site with the ruins of the Asoka pillar and the monuments commemorating the Buddha’s first sermon. We take in the dose of Indian history, buy some knickknacks and escape back to the unremarkable comfort of the hotel.

And so the weekend trip to Varanasi is over. We come back to the pictures of Varanasi and discover the ghats all over again. So much of it is broken down and yet everything is held together too. There is an element of Wabi Sabi, I suppose - a quiet sense of beauty in all those ancient run down buildings. The camera does see things the eye does not.
Indeed some beauty

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Re-telling a classic - Bhima Lone Warrior

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

To keep my resolution to read more Indian regional language fiction, (obviously in translation, since tragically my knowledge of the Indian languages I know – Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi – is so superficial, it would take enormous patience to read in the original), I picked up this one by MT. I had heard of it from my mother and I knew this was a book I would enjoy. I mean, how could you not enjoy a re-telling of the Mahabharata? And if it was a re-telling by one of the all-time greats, it had to be good, right?
I loved it. It is the Mahabharata from Bhima’s perspective. The Bhima we know is huge, with a large appetite, very strong, very short-tempered and utterly devoted to his family. We don’t give him much thought except as the muscle man of the Pandavas. MT’s Bhima is all of this; but he is also introspective and intelligent, a brooding, sensitive giant, somewhat of an outsider, with an ability to see his mother and brothers and wife with all of their flaws, yet unable to ever walk away.
The stories are all so very familiar. But MT strips them of any of the ‘divinity’ we have come to expect from them. Kunti’s 6 lovers who beget her sons are not really gods, but mortals whose special qualities are transferred to her sons. Krishna is not particularly divine – he is just a canny, politically astute friend. There is no divine help for Draupadi when she is disrobed – Dhritarashtra is prevailed upon to stop the dishonour. We are told in the epilogue that there are hints of these in the original, and that MT has just added his bit of imagination to re-tell them. The re-telling transforms the Mahabharata into an absorbing but simple tale of tribal warfare, a tale that has been embellished by bards with every re-telling, until we get to the epic it is today.
In some ways, this is a very subversive tale. Bhima sees the injustice women are subjected to – be it his own treatment of Hidimbi and Balandhara or Arjuna’s dalliances with his innumerable women. He also sees the inequality the ‘forest-dwellers’ have to deal with – as with his own son Ghatotkacha who Krishna sacrifices for Arjuna or the forest dwellers whose dead bodies take their place in the fire that consumes the palace of lac. He is also cynical about the philosophy Krishna spouts (that becomes the Gita), saying that when your own sons and brothers die, it is difficult to see the bodies their souls have cast away as ‘discarded clothes’.  
MT’s Bhima sees the cowardice and double standards in his older brother’s ‘Dharma’. He knows how manipulative his mother is – be it sacrificing forest dwellers in the lac house fire, or asking Draupadi to be shared between the five brothers or using Karna’s back story to save her sons’ lives. He knows his own weak spot – Draupadi, who is turned on by stories of violence, who manipulates him to get what she wants, yet who never gives him the love he craves. He keeps his distance from Krishna, who he knows is his younger brother’s greatest friend, but understanding his political machinations, as well.
This is an all-seeing Bhima, but one who never shirks from doing what he needs to do for his family. He knows war is inevitable, craves for it to avenge the injustice done to Draupadi and his family and when it comes, gives it his all. And at the end, on the Pandavas’ quest to reach heaven, he is unable to not turn back to pick up his beloved Draupadi as she falls, and so sacrifices his entry to heaven.
It is a fascinating character study – it surprises and delights, as you see these stories you have heard from childhood in a new light. There is poetry in the descriptions of the landscapes. And ultimately, the tale in the hands of a master storyteller is un-put-down able. Maybe I should find the patience to read this in the original.