Literary aspirations


A long time ago by blogosphere standards (8 years), I posted a fantasy about rendering Naguib Mahfouz’s story of the ancient Egyptian Rhadopis of Nubia into a Bollywood film. A recent viewing of the spectacle of Bhajirao Mastani immediately brought back memories of that post because it gave me ideas for those roles – the main characters as it happens – whom I had not fantasy-cast earlier. So …  I stand by my earlier line-up for Amitabh, Amir and Tabu as Sofkhatep, Tahu & the queen, Nitocris (I really do need to re-read those books again, if only I could find them), but with Irfan as a fine almost preferable alternative to Amir.  After watching Bajirao Mastani I want Priyanka Chopra as Rhadobis.. no contest. She’d be playing the opposite character from her BM role come to think of it. I also think that Ranvir Singh would fly as the Pharoah, although if one gives in to Egyptian preferences then the other Khan (Shah Rukh) would work as the Pharoah too as would Kajol as the queen because she really looks exquisite but at the same time older than Priyanka. The innocent Benamun and his physician father? Still uncast in my head though now I’m thinking a shaven Sunkrish (currently  Vikram Singh on Castle who also happens to be my cousin) might fit the bill, since he’s too young to be a Pharaoh to the queens that I’ve chosen. Another alternative is the kid from the Life of Pi. Om Puri would be a super cameo as the father  but the role isn’t meaty enough and any of the others might do (even the venerable ‘mitabachan in a double role).

Any takers-on for this project?

P.S. Om Puri died since I wrote this post, so there’s that fantasy gone with the wind or the khamsin…

 

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 8.16.49 AM … H.P. Lovecraft apparently, or so said an online statistical writing analysis piece of software, on three occasions. Two pieces of writing were recent academic book reviews, one about Darwin and the other about scientific styles. The third was a peer-reviewed paper. An excerpt from my food blog, however, has me likened to Cory Doctorow, whom I’ve never read! And my trip down memory lane to my childhood bedroom seems to recall David Foster Wallace, who to my delight is described as having “a mercurial mind that lights on many subjects.” Like a changing accent then, apparently my style, language etc changes depending on the forum I’m writing for, I adapt.

I wonder how to feel about the fact that my academic writing is consistently likened to a writer of pulp horror fiction. Does the software simply regard all academic material as horrific? Or should I take this analysis as a compliment, that my writing, even about technical subject stuff has a wider reach and appeal? That would be nice…

Most of all I think the food I cook reflects my sense of adventure, my willingness to try (almost) anything, my love for novelty and variety, and I fondly hope, creativity and innovation, although those last two might be derived from my cooking. Over the years it – my cooking – has also come to reflect my peregrine nature, as I’ve picked up knowledge about ingredients, cooking techniques and tastes from different parts of world. A recent example that comes to mind is the use of shiso (shisu?) aka sesame leaves – which I’ve only really seen used in Korean and Japanese food – as an ingredient in tadka (finishing a dish with a couple of teaspoons of oil heated with spiced and herbs) for daal.

It’s strange that I can’t think of more to write here.. at least about the main topic at hand. After all, the subject matter of the prompt (from a later chapter in Deutsch’s book) touches on the two things I write about the most: myself and food. So why then have I drawn a blank after that first paragraph, which flowed quite naturally from my finger-tips? Maybe because at some level my cooking is an expression in and of itself. It just is, the way I just am. Writing about the relationship between the two feels like the way I’d imagine cooking for a restaurant would feel like. It takes the joy out of the act, imposing rules and forcing into boxes, what is for me a flight of fancy – whatever I fancy – using the ingredients I can find in the fridge, freezer or pantry cupboard. A long-ago creation I was reminded of last weekend when I visited New Haven and the kitchen I created it in, was a low-&-slow baked Swedish meatballs (from IKEA) in a Kashmiri-inspired gravy of yogurt, ginger, fennel powder spiked with red chilli (cayenne) powder… And another memory that just sparked was of a salad  I conceted while visiting my friends Shomik and Renu during their stint in China, in response to their request for something that was not Chinese: Norwegian pickled herring dressed with Indian mustard oil and fresh cucumbers.

I suppose these reminisces also bring to light another way in which my cooking reflects who I am.. my being a people’s person, for so often the food I have cooked has been for more than just myself. I like to cook for others, an audience if you will, though not always as a demo. but then don’t most people?

Okay.. the verdict is in.. bored enough to get distracted to look at other things, I better put this post to bed and potential readers out of their misery.

The place I most associate with a semipatetic (as compared to outright peripatetic?) childhood is Chandigarh having lived there from when I was 5-1/2, and the home (and the bedroom as a subset) within this city would be the upstairs of 85, Sector 16, where we lived in three separate installments as I wound my way through childhood into my late teens. The bedroom in question, was not really a bedroom in the conventional sense of the word, but it was the space where my bed was as well as a small Godrej almira, that exists to this day in my parents home in Bangalore. Talk about indestructible furniture! I remember a Rudolf-like sticker of a reindeer or deer that I pasted on the door of said almira, remnants of which linger even now.

To give one a sense of space of my bedroom that wasn’t really a bedroom, it was part of a long, covered veranda area (at least that’s what I’d be prone to think it was) at one of which there was a door that led into the Master bedroom. The other end – was not really an end – consisted of indentations separating it from another like-sized space (my brother’s room) which then had a door to a wrap-around terrace, which on warm summer nights also served as the family bedroom come to think of it. The bed lay lengthwise against the inside wall, which not a full wall but separated from the living room by a mesh window. I can remember going to bed at night listening to the strains of music from BBC (nightly news I think it must have been) that my father would listen to every night, sucking on a little oval-shaped tablet of edible Vitamin C, trying in vain to make it last, but almost always giving in to the desire to also bite down on it. On nights when I was ill with tonsilitis or other infections that left me with a hacking cough (something I never outgrew I’m afraid) Daddy (the title of Appa became more frequent only as I got older) would dose me with a combination of warm water, brandy and honey. I would go out like a light, which might be the reason my parents swore by it’s curative effects. Occasionally another concoction – to my child’s tongue even yummier – of honey, raisins and ginger would also be given – our version of the spoonful of sugar that could make the medicine go down, not that I was a fussy child in that regard.

Funny where starting to write this trip down memory lane has taken me. I have actually been composing versions of this exercise ever since I read the prompt – only in my head mind – but each time has pulled up different memories and the cold-remedies were part of none of those mental versions. And it’s also funny how something else I had thought I would write about has not yet made her appearance. This her would be my doll, a beautiful 2.5-3 foot doll that Dad brought home for me from Italy – Naples seems to ring a bell – on his summer visit when I was 6 or 7. She had golden hair, blue eyes, and the cutest white shoes and socks ever. Her dress was a marvel to behold, white netting with panels of deep green satin, a green which in retrospect would have also made for a beautiful eye colour except for the fact that the eyes were, as I said, blue. Oddly enough, I neither named the doll – though I have had others, stuffed toys, well into my adulthood or at least the Tolkein-invented tweens, which I have named: A Canadian goodbye gift named Beaver Dom for obvious-to-some-of-us reasons, a bear who was spontaneously named Nantucket and a monkey called Choga for no real reasons I can thing of except that they seemed to fit…

But back to the doll and the room of my childhood. She didn’t have a name, but her presence was all important. For someone who has generally been careless of possessions – I have a vague memory of giving away a rather beautiful bottle of perfume resembling a Disney Castle much to my mother’s dismay (at the time neither of knew I was anosmic – lacking a sense of smell – that revelation was more than a decade in the future then) – I was very possessive of my nameless doll. I remember kicking up quite the fuss when my parents wanted me to give her to a young (much younger cousin) when I was well past the age of paying any real attention to her. I still regret that I didn’t keep her… I think said cousin tore her lovely golden locks off .. though one of the photo albums [my father was a prolific photographer when we were young] surely has a photo. Maybe the next time I visit my parents, I’ll scan her and put her here.

The Godrej almira as I said, is still with us. But as memories of the stickers return, I think the reindeer might have been stuck on my parents larger his-and-her-unit, which also remains in their possession. Like I said, indestructible metallic furniture. Mine had/has a toothpaste add I think where two kids are sitting on a tube made to look like an airplane. I have a memory of procuring that sticker along with my friend Dolly (a real person not a doll and in no way resembling my doll either) at an event which was likely something to do with dental hygiene. Easy enough to check the accuracy of these memories, just look for the residual sticker marks on the almiras…

To those who might be interested, the title of this and other posts are part, the whole or spin-offs of the prompts from Writing from the Senses which I’m using in an my experimental my-year-of-blogging-a la-Laura Deutsch experiment. I’m not sure if the prompts from the book serve as an aid to good writing, but certainly they are keys to unlocking memories from so long ago. Things I haven’t consciously thought about for years and years, suddenly came back to me as I was writing. There are other memories as well though I don’t have time to write about them.

I wonder what that room/space looks like today. The home is still owned by the family of the people from whom we rented it and who lived downstairs from us, so maybe I’ll go and check it out the next time I visit Chandigarh. Which ought to be much easier now that I live but a few hours away. I also wonder what kind of writing that visit will prompt! If and when it does,  I daresay it will show up as a sequel on this site. And on that note (imagine the fading strains of the BBC radio tune) Good night.

egg selfie

My dear Cherry Dumpling (to use oft-exchanged endearment in lieu of your real name),

Do you remember this photograph? I actually went looking for it today and despite it being some dozen years and two computers ago I found it! It was exactly where I thought it would be and even though I’d forgotten the name of the website I’d uploaded it on, a quick web search yielded the name. From there on in it was easy…

Anyway the reason I went looking for it, was a reaction to another photograph, more recent though even that’s nearly 2 summers old too, which I found on my phone.  There’s still another layer to this narrative.. the reason I was even looking for photos on my phone is related to a new year’s resolution I made after reading the first chapter of an interesting book full of writing exercises and prompts based on the senses! The first exercise was to find an old photograph and write to one of the people in it,  based on the prompt that is the title of this blog post: In this picture you were… The idea is to see what memories visual stimuli can evoke.

In the photograph/s that prompted the search for this one we were making funny faces at the camera sitting by a fountain in some square in Leon, France. It took me on a trip down memory lane to the numerous faces we’ve made in numerous places over the years. Of all the selfies we’ve taken though, this one remains my favorite because it was so clever! There we were, window-shopping Easter weekend in 2002 – can’t be sure if we were in Lucern or Bern since we visited both that weekend but I think it’s Bern – and our reflection in the egg-shaped mirror inspired you. This photo was take long before “selfies” were popular and it is the most natural composition, a photo of a reflection, Even the camera is in the photo though not too obvious. What I also like about it, and what makes it so appropriate for this write-up, is the slightly hazy edges of our images, much like a memory.. blurred but still very much there and alive.

So what were you (we) doing that long ago day? Gadding about enjoying spring, Easter, and all that. I remember talking to you a few days prior from Heidelberg and you asked if I wanted to come over and help you paint Easter eggs. So I took the train over. We never painted eggs or indeed anything else that time, though painting too had been an activity we’ve engaged in even further back in time. A Christmas break in Dusseldorf, armed with lipsticks rather than paints. And though that may be a story for another post, it too has it’s place here as a snapshot of a memory of good times we’ve had in all the years we’ve known each other since Edmonton, Alberta. More often than not you’ve been the person proffering hospitality though a few times (too few) I’ve had the chance to return the favor.

This letter is my toast to all our zany, nutty and egg-sactly perfect times .. may we brew many more in the years to come. Much love

     Neeraja

The following is an expansion of a book review I wrote for Amazon and I thought it apt for this blog, which has been untouched for many a month (or is that years?) now. The book in question is John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels about Venice. (I’ve indented the part from the Amazon review and then reverted to my own ramblings):

Two may be a small sample size to make a fair generalization but I sense a pattern to Berendt’s books. First, find a city with character, whether by accident or design. In very different ways and for vastly different reasons Savannah, GA and Venice both certainly fit that first requirement. Any place with character has its fair share of characters (of the human variety) and so, the second thing to do then, is to find them, talk to them and get to know their stories. For Berendt, a career writer and editor, that would be second nature. Finally, loosely weave the personalities and stories you find around some central event that is/was important to the city. In Savannah it was a murder and its aftermath. In Venice it was a murder (maybe?) of a different sort. Fire – negligence or arson the jury is still sort of out – was the form this murder took and the victim was La Fenice, Venice’s opera house. Voila! you have an interesting mosaic of vignettes and profiles that makes for a charming & quirky book.

Berendt pulled it off both times, I think. I have visited both cities more than once, but in both cases before reading his books about them. I think I would enjoy going back with his book in hand (disguised in my Kindle no one need ever know!) and scope out some of the locations he’s mentioned. Then maybe one day I can write a following-in-his-footsteps sort of book.

Interestingly – and here I take off on a Berendt-esque tangent – one factoid the author didn’t mention in his book or if he did I missed it, was the metaphoric significance of La Fenice’s name. Fenice is Italian (unlike Venice which isn’t but is rather the Anglicization of Venezia)… but I digress again. Fenice means phoenix, that legendary bird which dies by fire and is reborn time and again from its own ashes – and how apropos is that for this opera house which has been resurrected from it ashes more than once in its history?

Another thing Berendt failed to mention is Venice’s title of La Serenisima, something I picked up from my avid reading of Donna Leon’s Brunetti books. Leon is another absentee despite the fact that the book is chock full of expat personalities (maybe Leon is not enough of of personality as she too busy creating others for paper).  But these are minor quibbles about an otherwise immensely enjoyable read. It’s also a read that has inspired me to read Henry James, who is also mentioned frequently by Leon as the protagonist’s wife’s hero. And Berendt mentioned one of James’ shorter works, The Aspern Papers which apparently bears some uncanny parallels to the real life story of Ezra Pound’s papers and his lifelong love-not wife-Olga.

As to my my own literary aspirations? What city would I pick if I had to write a Berendt-style profile? Well Cairo obviously comes to mind with its glorious character and accompanying caste of characters, many of whom I am delighted to call my friends. But then again that’s the very reason I couldn’t write this book because pinning them down in print as it were might be such an awful invasion of their privacy. But yet, Cairo is the place, as I described to a non-Cairene friend of mine, where the people i knew and sat and enjoyed coffee or other libations with, are literally characters you would read about in books! Only they’re real. Salima, John Swanson and Hoath come to mind immediately from those near and dear to me, but also a few others who are larger than life and twice as natural, personality wise. And then there are those to whom I have positive antipathy – in code now so as to avoid slander charges, but friends in the know will be able to guess – include the ubiquitous A (a.k.a. Big Ears), the slimy dead-ringer for KFC’s Colonel Sanders and how can I forget the equally slimy wannabe-bitten Meatloaf wannabe? But ‘nuf said…

So, having steps one and two of the Berendt formula, what of the third? Some central event around which to build the book. Well for most people that would be the no brainer right? After all, I lived in Cairo right through the Tahrir-square demonstrations (and still have an unfinished “revolutionary diary” post that may yet see the light of day!) But here’s the thing about that. The revolution (for lack of a better word) is still ongoing and is a serious story, not one for amusing and whimsical vignettes, though Cairo is a source of the latter in spades! Also given my laxity over this and other blogs, is it ever likely that I’ll get a non-work related book to a publisher? Fat chance! Meanwhile though here’s a snapshot that distills the essence of that Cairo for me:

One year after the resignation of Mubarak I went back to Cairo for a short visit. For part of the time I was staying at the the apartment of my dearest friends there, right downtown on Sherif Street. One of his balconies overlooks the Ministry of the Interior, where one could see tear gas and men in uniform lined up with shields to protect the place from (justifiably) angry mobs. Looking out the wall of windows on the other side (90 degrees from the to give a sense of orientation) one sees a part of the city with pedestrian alleys lines with tables where local men and tourists used to stop for aahwah (coffee) and shisha. Well, but for the tourists the place was still the same! regular still sat around table smoking shishas and sipping coffee like the world wasn’t falling apart just a few corner away!

(I put crumbling rather than falling there first, but then realized, crumbling facades are very much a part of Cairo’s natural landscape and thus nothing for the shisha smokers to think much less worry about). So there it is, the heart of what makes Cairo live up to her name of El Kaahira, The Undefeated. No matter how much things change, there is a core to her that will endure, much like her pyramids!

Alone with my penses

I sat at my elevenses

At sixes and sevens-es…

About what?  You may ask and take me to task

For writing bad rhymes in these trying times

Okay okay enough bad poetry. I’ll stop now and explain the phrase that began this and go on to give a brief account of my second London walk on which my cousin Renuka accompanied me much to my delight and as I will explain later, gustatory gratification .

According to a dictionary, to be at sixes and sevens  is to be in a state of confusion over something, although I always understood there to be an element of rivalry between the parties that were at sixes and sevens with one another. I was not completely wrong, as it turns out. According to Peter, our guide on the Thursday night walk called the “Ancient city at night,” the phrase came to be as a result of  the confusion or rather competition for precedence between the trade guilds of the merchant tailors (excuse me, taylors) and the skinners in the City of London. The guilds were formed circa the twelfth century A.D. to protect member’s interests and were ranked according to their seniority. They were called livery companies incidentally for they got to wear a special distinctive livery or uniform too but that’s another story I got from the net not the walk. Anyway,  the livery companies for taylors and skinners (who traded in furs and were NOT tanners, who had/have a separate guild) being founded the same year were apparently at loggerheads over who got to be in sixth place. A year later it was decided in court no less, that they would alternate in ranking each year and thus they remain at sixes and sevens to this day.

Now there are other possibilities for the origins of the phrase – websites (including Wikipedia) give Chaucerian, Biblical and Shakespearean possibilities, but this was Peter’s story and I’m sticking to it! Moving on.. or rather back, our walk began at the Royal exchange at the base (and rear) of a statue of Wellington, where we were surrounded by these columned buildings that try so hard to look Grecian. The Royal exchange, the top part of the Bank of London and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion, all have this same architecture.

Thank goodness for the quintessential red double-decker buses that are so characteristic of London to remind you where you are, other than Bombay of course. From this busy hub we walked past the Lord Mayor’s where ladies and gentlemen dressed to the nines (I wonder where that expression came from?), at least one with a dress that was sweeping the cobbled streets before she entered the house, for some fancy event, and then (back to us now) down a narrow little alley along St. Stephen’s church to view another church, the one that transcended originality according to Eliot (who despite his American-ness I always thought of as English and after wandering in London I can see why).

And now my memory is getting fuzzy on the exact sequence of spots we paused at, to listen and learn, but my camera shows me a pair of original 16th (?) century houses as well as the London Stone before we stopped at our first watering hole. Here are glimpses of the Stone – stored behind a grating and marked with a plaque, which I thought was capturing since it gives the story so much better than I could…

Our first watering hole – this walk included pubs etc – was a little wine bar tucked in the middle of this financial area – and possibly one of the well-kept secretes of the city. Before we went in, we passed a mystery box on the side wall, about which we played guessing games over our drinks, mine a glass of the house red, a nice claret, a wine that I will not stick my nose up at unlike those Regency Bucks. Most of us thought it was an oven or furnace or coal storage-bin of some sort. We weren’t even close! Turns out it was a safe in the bedroom of the adjoining house. The prize for that one went to this Italian lady in our group. Fortified with our libations we walked on to the site of the original bridge and saw the livery house of the fishmongers and the site of the original London Bridge and learned about sixes and sevens, before heading out to the site of the gild-topped Monument (capitalized on purpose) and heard Peter’s account of the Great Fire.

Lovely names those streets had and thank goodness they haven’t changed… Pudding Lane & Fish  Street Hill. We saw the corner with the plaques commemorating the place where the infamous fire began, and Peter told us where it ended and why. The Monument for which the eponymous underground stop is named, designed mostly by Wren (who else) but crowned with a creation of that unsung and deeply weird hero of those times, Robert Hooke, is around the corner and you’ve seen pictures galore I’m sure or can elsewhere on cyberspace and so I won’t bother here. We passed another Wren church, which was once according to our regretful guide, one of the most  sumptuously-decorated interiors until about 30 years ago after which some catastrophe destroyed it and now he finds it heartbreaking to enter. We also passed an old building on Eastcheap (another lovely name)  bearing a boar’s head on its facade, which may well have been the inspiration for Falstaff’s drinking break.

From Eastcheap we headed to our next pub nestled in the marketplace that posed as  Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies. Lovely pub but unfortunately by that hour they were serving drinks only and no munchies and so I held my peace while we went to the site of the famed Lloyd’s whose modernistic and very original-looking exterior still houses a part of the original interior I believe. Standing in front of this building is an odd feeling for you really do see the old juxtaposed with the new here on four corners. There is Lloyd’s of course (photo on left), and London’s new iconic building, the one our guide so charmingly labeled the crystal phallus (right side). But then you can also see the stone medieval church (in the same picture with the crystal), which has an interesting association with one of the longest continuously-in-print histories of the City of London. There is also in another corner (not photographed) the inner city’s own Westminster Abbe-like church with headstones etc, which has been newly restored.

This was nearly the end of our tour. We ended at a pub called Dirty Dick’s whose banner I shall end the account of the walk with, and whose story is tragic indeed! But rather than repeat it I’ll exhort you to take the walk yourselves and learn about it yourselves, leaving you only with this teaser, He may have been the original Miss Havisham, of Dickens’ Great Expectations fame, who was mimicked in glorious detail by Jeanne Arnold last Hallowe’en.

Postscript: The walk ended at Dirty Dick’s but the evening was not over yet. One of the attractions of this walk was that it promised us a possible dinner at the best and best-value curry houses in London. This would be the famed Brick Lane. Nobody from the walk chose to join us, even the guide, but Renuka and I trudged down the way Peter told us and wound up at Brick Lane which at first glance with its flashing neons and pimp-like guys outside each restaurant brought to mind well, a red light district minus the gals. It also reminded me a bit of 6/7th st in the East Village in New York where the entire block between 1st and 2nd Avenues is full of Indian restaurants with near-identical menus. Same deal here with an offer for free drink etc. etc. Nothing seemed attractive – very generic chicken-tikka-masala places they all appeared to be. But we persevered and walked past all of these into one which had no over-anxious welcoming committee (in fact no one even greeted us on entry) and no menu on the window either. The folks were Bangladeshi and they seemed to my delight to have lots of different fish curries and the staple Bangla egg curry as well. We decided to eat there and our instincts served us well. I loved the fish – good and spicy – and Renuka liked her eggs, even asking for extra gravy, but the star of the show was a daal cooked together with mutton (but it was not Dhanshaak) which we both loved. We ate and ate and spent less than 25 pounds altogether, which is cheap by London standards. Then we rolled our very tired selves into the tube and home stopping to pick up ice-cream en route, only to find the man of the house already in bed, though he did get up for ice-cream.

A further postscript – Renuka & I did have our elevenses (albeit at one) aka high tea at Fortnum and Mason’s the next morning where I got a taste of a smoked Earl Grey that was delightful, along with all sorts of delectable canapes and scones and cream and lemon curd. For all that I turn my nose up at British cuisine, I do love their customs and idiosyncrasies concerning food. Enid Blyton worked her magic on me very early and it has proven indelible I’m afraid.  Viva Britannia, I write even as they lost today to Germany in the World Cup rounds and are out of the tourney this year.

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