August 2009


I just read The Book Thief. (The author is Markus Zusak) And even though I knew how it was all going to turn out (anything set in Nazi Germany can only end in one way right?) I couldn’t help it! There was a lump the size of Gibraltar in my throat as I was came to the end. It wasn’t the story itself  – as I said it was mostly predictable – though the take on it was different. First it was about the experience of the ordinary German citizens in Germany. But mostly it was about the power of books and words (a theme that is also running through another recent favorite called Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, though that one was not a tearjerker) . What got me most about The Book Thief was the writing style. There was an odd, almost deliberate dissonance to the narrative and while normally such gimmicks annoy me, it really worked for some reason in this book. Also the fact that the narrator was “Death” was an interesting device both from the narrative and plot perspective.

Strangely enough though this book had been published 2005 I only just came across it now. But maybe that’s because Zusak is an Australian. Then again, it isn’t as if I found it in a bookstore there, no it was while browsing for Kindle books on Amazon. Which I could have been doing anywhere. But coincidences happen. And worlds collide. And my world was shaken as result in a way that I’m profoundly grateful for. Words really are tremendously powerful.

On the subject of the title of the post, I should also mention The Kite Runner, which is another book I could not help sobbing over. That one had a very different kind of power – the kind I feel every time I pick up To Kill a Mocking Bird. Like the person captured a time and place and experience so perfectly that all one can do really is move on. Khalas! There’s nothing more that can be said on the subject. And to suit action to word, I shall make my exit here.

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Not to have two food items in a row, but… I promised Renu to forward her the recipe for this salad we had the other evening at her home in Beijing thrown together with ingredients in their fridge and pantry, so here it is, all my other visitors to the blog can read it too. And though it was in Beijing there is nothing even remotely Chinese about the salad. Rather the inspiring ingredient was Norwegian if I’m not mistaken, a half-empty bottle of pickled herring…

Cucumber & Herring Salad

Peel (only if necessary) and cut 1-2 cucumbers into relatively chunky bits depending on your choice (I chose wedges but half moons or even complete rounds will work depending on diameter) nd place into a glass bowl that has been rubbed with a cut clove of raw garlic. Mince the garlic and add to cucumbers also. Roughly chop pickled herring (the Mehndiratta fridge had a version pickled in a brine along with slices of onion) and other contents of the pickle if present. If the herring does not have onions, you may want to chop a small red onion and add to the mix. Season with salt and pepper and the juice of fresh lime or lemon. To finish, add a few tablespoons of raw mustard oil, and toss well. Allow to rest for a while in the ‘fridge  for flavors to marry and voila! Simplicity itself.

P.S.  Cucumbers tend to give off water in the presence of salt and so you may end up with rather more dressing that you started with. Depending on the intensity of the flavor you favor, you may add some more mustard oil to the remaining juices, and use the dressing for preparing a ceviche (if you are in an area where you can get good quality raw fish) or simply tossing it with some pre-steamed, peeled shrimp for an interesting alternative to shrimp cocktail.


Just returned to Cairo yesterday after nearly two months to find my expectedly nearly-empty fridge with some very sour and hard and inedible-as-fruit plums (left behind by one of the summer residents of my flat perhaps?). Sorely lacking in the vegetable and the aromatics (read onions and ginger) department, and also lacking in energy to go shopping for fresh produce, but famished and exhausted, this is what I tried:

Boiled a cup of split masoor daal (pink lentils) with the requisite water, turmeric, salt, pinch of asafetida and butter. Also added a couple of cloves of garlic since they were handy. At first boil, turned heat down and stirred in the sour plums (there were 2 of them) and allowed to simmer till daal was well cooked and the fruit completely softened. Mashed it and the garlic down with the back of the spoon ans stirred well to mix in thoroughly. Seasoned with a pinch of hot chilly powder. Just before serving prepared a tadka of panch phoron and a couple of whole red dried chillies.

The verdict: not unlike a daal prepared with tomatoes. Tastes good with either rice or roties. For a more guju touch, might I suggest adding some a pinch of brown sugar as well?

Just got word via email… my second academic paper was just published! This time in the Journal of the History of Biology. This paper was based on the talk I gave at the “Making Mutations” conference, which incidentally was my main reason for visiting Berlin in January. This one I’m apparently allowed to post on my website if I “self-create” a copy, whatever that means. Meanwhile here is the complete citation of the online version:

Sankaran, Neeraja,”Mutant Bacteriophages, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, and the Changing Nature of ‘Genespeak’ in the 1930s.”  Journal of the History of Biology, 2009, DOI: 10.1007/s10739-00909201-4.

Supposedly it’s available if you follow the link here, but so far all I’m running into is a blank page. Will update if need be. (Sept 6, You can see it there now) Meanwhile, well-wishers rejoice! And many thanks.

Captain’s Backblog, Earthdate, August 10, 2009

Not entirely a coincidence that I’ve begun this backblog with a nod to Star Trek and all trekkies. After all, I did watch the movie on the flight over from Adelaide to Singapore. Granted I missed the last 5-10 minutes and also granted that it was only the 2nd movie I saw on that flight (the first being The Soloist) but saw it I did. Wasn’t too bad either. But I side trek (ha ha). The allusion to the flight and movie is just a prelude to my account of my 48-odd hours in Singapore.

After the winter climes in Oz – even the warmest cities had cold nights this time of the year and nights feel colder when heating is not automatic as it is in places where I’ve spent cold winters in for the better part of the past two decades…. – the muggy temperatures of Singapore felt welcome for all of a couple of hours, as I sat sipping tea in the circular back veranda of Ravi and Hema’s apartment. By night-time, I welcomed Hema’s suggestion that I turn on the AC in my room for a comfortable (and mosquito-free) night.

I believe I mentioned these cousins of mine in a post last summer talking about familar faces in chance places. In today’s Facebook world where people are reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances all the time, this may not be saying much, but I have not yet become one of those faceless faces, and meeting the other Sankaran couple was a a lovely bonus last year. I’m pleased to report that I didn’t let another 22 years lapse between our next meeting.

Ravi picked me up at the airport and after the aforementioned tea it was decided that going out to eat was in order for the evening. And for a true Singaporean experience, we went to have dinner at a void-deck restaurant.Now, the void deck is a architectural feature common (if not unique) to Singapore highrise  apartments maintained by the Housing development authority. Under i.e. in the basement, of each of these sites is the parking lot, sitting in the central void space between the different buildings that make up the complex. Rather than being a covered basement, is accessible nd visible from the ground level of the apartment, which is organized in decks with railings and staircases down into the void. Hence the term void decks. In Singapore at least, the void-deck level is seldom if ever a residential floor – instead a number of different businesses such as hair-and-nail salons, small groceries, and restaurants and cafes – run operations there. It was to one such void-deck restaurant – characterized by Hema as her favorite crab place – that they took me.

Folks acquainted with Hema might do a double take at that last claim, for she is actually a pure vegetarian. Always has been. And yet it was she and not the seafood-eating Ravi who insisted on this particular place. And on a particular dish – the black pepper crabs. Which Ravi and I settled down to eating with all the gusto it richly deserved. So the reason why the place is Hema’s favorite? Well, she actually loves the sauce they use for the crab. And the restaurant owners know her and her preferences so well, that they inform her even before we take our seats as to the availability of green beans in the same sauce. A yummy concoction, well meriting a try in it’s own right, but in no way substituting for the crab. Which was certainly everything I was led to believe it would be ! Fresh, succulent, and with a finger-licking and lip smackingly yummy sauce, every last bit of which is worth mopping up with a piece of steamed bun or some sticky rice.

Other than the good eats that marks the entire region, and the wonderful company of my relatives, Singapore itself is rather ho-hum. Or to quote my cousin, a bit antiseptic in character. But there are few landmarks worth a mention and a visit should you be there – Mustafa’s for one. An Indian Muslim, Mustafa opened up a small shop several years ago but has since expanded and taken over the wh0le street, with multiple operations (including, I kid you not, Indian Visa services) and most prominently a multi-storey store where everything is available if you look hard enough and in the right nook or cranny – and if it isn’t there then you won’t find it anywhere else in the country – at any given time of the day or night. It’s the place to go, according to Hema if you want a microwave at midnight. When we went, it was to buy a swimsuit for me so I could avail of their lovely pool (the cousins’ that is, not Mustafa’s though for all I know he may have one somewhere hidden away as well!). Right across the street, from Mustafa’s is Murugan’s idlis – serving up the best breakfast you are likely to find in town!

My account of this trip would hardly be complete without the story of how Hema and I became fish-food for half an hour. You may have heard of certain establishments known as fish spas. In Singapore you may catch sight of them in various malls. You might well pass them without even noticing anything unusual, after all with the different types of decor in malls nowadays, tanks of tiny fish are hardly unusual. But then you do a double take, because dangling in the water amid the fishes you’ll see people’s legs. Attached to their owners who are sitting above. The fish are called Garra Rufa or doctor fish, and are native to Turkey. How they were recruited into the human beauty-spa business I’m not sure, but it’s now all the rage. You go and you dip your feet into the fish tanks. And the let the fishies nibble away at you. It’s ticklish. The first five minutes both Hema and I giggled non-stop and then subsided to a the occasional squeal and giggle every couple of seconds. The feeling: a tickling and tingling, sort of like pins and needles or a very very mild electric current. A word of advice – start with the small fish, before graduating to the tank with the bigger ones. But don’t miss out the on bigger ones altogether. I’ll try to mount photos of our feet when Hema forwards them to me, but for now I’ll just say that when we emerged half an hour later (after the first 20 minutes by mutual consent we extended out time for 10 more minutes) our feet and legs felt soft as silk! Just follow it up with a Singapore Sling, the signature cocktail invented at Raffles, the world famous hotel evoking memories of Somerset Maugham just by it’s very name. (Okay so I didn’t get to do that last this time, but that’s what next times are for).

Until that next time, it’s sayanora Singapore

Breach is not usually a positive word. Breaching a contract can get someone sued. And a breach birth is hazardous for both mom and baby. But when whales breach the water, that’s great. And on my whale watching trip in Sydney, the day after my night at the opera, the young (at least our guides thought he was young) male was showing off enough to breach not once but twice! And while he wasn’t within splashing distance, he was within easy viewing reach and the view was spectacular from where I was watching. Aboard a boat off Sydney’s coastline, watching for the humpbacks who migrate past these waters around this time of the year. Another great present during what a friend Chris (yoga teacher in Eau Claire) called the birth-week.

Of course I didn’t get any photos of the breach. As I have mentioned before, one of the disadvantages of wielding a camera for me is the sacrifice of the full experience. Besides the jumps and sightings were not that predictable. A moment of fumbling for the camera and the the moment would be lost. So I just leaned over the deck of the boat and watched avidly as our show-off teased us a few times by poking his nose out of the water – until then both he and the pod of females he appeared to to be following had graced with sights of their humps (backs I mean) and a few flippers – and then came up way out of the water. It was a great treat. Especially since the whole trip was unexpected to begin with.

On a beautifully sunny July day in Sydney, I’d set out to the harbour from Turramurra intending to go on some sort of ferry ride or cruise to take advantage of the weather and my location. To my delight on alighting at Circular Quay (pronounced Key by the Aussies) there were whale-watching rides advertised. And the guy said there was a 100% chance that we’d see these animals. So sure he was, that the company offered a comeback chance if there were no sightings in July. Yes, I’d heard that before and even gotten an un-availed of coupon in Hawaii some years ago. But ever the optimist, I signed on and was delivered what was promised.

Rules in Oz mandate that one is not allowed to go closer than 100 m within any sighted whales, unless of course they come to us. As soon as we sighted the first blows (sprays of water the whales spout from the tops of their heads as they breathe just before surfacing) the captain cut the motor of the boat and we settled in for the show. There was obviously a pod of 2-3 whales and we followed them for a long while that afternoon as they left us their trail of blows to follow. The trick is to look a little ahead of the blows for the actual whales and to never keep looking at the same spot because these creatures are not only huge they also move fast! I was able to get some shots of them as they swam by. Here’s what I was able to snap –  including a passing gull – and while it’s not much, it’s an adequate reminder of a lovely afternoon. Thank you Sydney – you were good to me

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This post was going to be called “Night at the Opera.” But then I let the cat out of the bag in my last post and so figured that I had to change the title. Anyway, the whole thing began on the day after I landed in Oz, when I went for a wander in the city. After a meeting with a friend at the State library, I walked down toward the harbour via the botanical gardens, entering near or rather over the conservatory and ending at the Opera House. That iconic structure, which depending on your perspective and perhaps mood seems to resemble a flurry of sails or a collection of oyster shells, and the silhouette of which has come to symbolize Sydney and it’s harbor all over the world.

Here are some of my shots of the place – from within and without and from different angles:

The standard pic

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Looking out from within

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Concert Hall ceiling

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Opera house from whaling boat

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At the Opera House I signed up for an architectural tour and learned some fascinating tidbits about the history of the place. It was then that I found out that Aida had just opened, and I couldn’t resist telling our guide that I was in fact a visitor from Aida-land. AND that I had seen her in her homeland at the Cairo Opera just a few months ago. Which delighted him and lead to a long conversation about Egypt and tourism (for his benefit) but the bait was hooked. After our conversation I wandered back to the ticket counter and found out that there was a show on the day after I was getting back to Sydney after my conference. And that there were a few seats left. So after a quick phone consultation with my host(ess) Sapna, who was a good sport and thought that she might enjoy the experience once, I got us a couple of tickets. After all, I figured it was my birthday a few days after the show. I figured I’d indulge myself.

But the real indulgences came later! First, later the same evening that I bought the tix, Sapna and her husband Ananth, joined me in the city and took me out to a marvelous dinner at a classic Sydney venue complete with with a view of the night-lit Opera House. With a half dozen fresh oysters on my plate and the view of the oyster shells against the night sky, it was a a lovely time. Then on the actual night of the opera, we got there early enough for me to inquire about the possibility of an upgrade. And got the absolute best seat in the house. Center of the balcony front row which meant not only more leg room (by the way I have to hand it to the architect, this is the first time I went to a concert or Opera Hall where my knees wouldn’t cramp in excruciating pain midway through the concert no matter where I sat) but no heads to obstruct my line of vision. Cost me a pretty penny but it was worth it!

The performance itself was a Grand Spectacle as all good operas should be. There were unfortunately no live elephants or other animals as I’ve been told performances of Aida often have, and it is an unfortunate fact of opera that the characters can’t look their parts. No Soprano can truly look like Aida who is supposed to be a waifish Ethiopian slave girl – they are just too plump and buxom (deep chested ?) but then they need to be so in order to sing. But the visuals were interesting, and quite lavish, though not as golden and kitsch as the ones in the Cairo Opera House. The costumes and jewelry were everything one could have hoped for. The music was outstanding, and in this respect both singers and orchestra in the Sydney AIDA far outdid the my Cairo experience. As was the experience of stepping out when it was all over into the balcony with it’s stunning view of the harbour. So to sum it all up in one word – Magic!

And with that I’ll take my bow and bring the curtain down on this post.