An Asian Reading Fest

Regular readers of the blog know that we recently returned from an Asian vacation. Every time I take a vacation with the sister in the Middle East, she has a set of books ready for me to read. The books she had laid out for me this time included books written by Jean Sasson, who happens to be one of her favorite authors. Jean Sasson  was a nurse by profession and spent a little more than a decade working and living in Saudi Arabia. One of the princesses of the Al Saud family solicited Jean’s help in telling the inside story of a Saudi princess’s life. She has since written eleven books dealing with various problems faced by middle eastern women.

This time, the book I chose from her pile was ‘Growing Up Bin Laden’. It is a book about Osama Bin Laden as told to Jean Sasson by Osama Bin Laden’s fourth son, Omar Bin Laden and his first wife, Najwa Bin Laden. She uses their alternating voices in the book to tell the story of his life. It is the first book of the kind and is an interesting read.

I am following up this book with two books that I hope to write about soon in conjunction with Growing Up Bin Laden:
Al Qaeda, The Islamist State And The Jihadist War by Daniel Beaman &
The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

I suppose I expect to get a glimpse of the view from within Bin Laden’s family, from a professor on Middle Eastern Affairs and a President who finally caught Bin Laden, but is abetted by a world that is still host to a variety of terrorist organizations.

Serious fare thus far you will agree, so I followed it up with delightful fare.

What better mode to release those endorphins than by paying a visit to Malgudi?


I fell in love again with R.K.Narayan and his writings. Every time I read one of his books, I am amazed at how simply, how nonchalantly he takes you on a stroll along the Sarayu river after passing through the tantalizing wares on Market Street or on quieter days muse and saunter along Vinayak Mudali Street, passing Albert Mission College on the way. The charm of Malgudi never stales. I have come back and scoured the local library for books on R.K.Narayan and find very few.

Note to self: Buy some books by this great writer and donate to the library the next time I visit.


While I visited the hills of Dehradun with Ruskin Bond, or Malgudi with R.K.Narayan, the husband took off on his own into the Tamil world of Sujata.

Blissful are the days when one is visiting another world while sipping tea in a cool room.

The Olympic Spirit

Another glorious Olympics have come to a close. Heroes from within the contingent of heroes were selected, the human spirit soared itching to hear about what drove these champions to achieve, to relentlessly push themselves.

We thumped our fists in the air when the first Iranian woman, Kimia Alizadeh, won an Olympic medal, cheered the many girls who overcame societal pressures and barriers to go on to the Olympics from the Indian contingent. We pondered about the need for a personal struggle in order to achieve, we loved the concept of the Refugee team, and rooted for the heroes from this contingent as did the rest of the world. There were a few media gaffes quickly pounced upon by the judgmental social media audience: armchair solutions to world problems, that we mused about on our couches.

We went on to have discussions with the daughter, that we hope will stay with her long after the Olympics are over. In times of strife, humanity can be a marvelous force.

We are not folk who regularly watch Sports in the home. The odd cricket match aired at odd times is watched by the husband with bleary eyes. A few final matches of basketball or tennis comprises the bulk of our Sport watching thus far. However, I cannot fail to notice that every time we do so, it has a profound impact on the toddler (like the time Stephen Curry came to play) .

Every evening depending on the Olympic event aired, there was an inspirational performance at the old home.


Simon Biles and Dipa Karmankar flew to perfection in the gymnastics events, only to be followed by an evening of the toddler and his sister jumping off the broken sofa and spinning before landing perfectly on two feet. The doting brother gave his sister a score of 9.9 for this impossible feat.

The swimming events inspired many strokes and dives on the Queen bed.

Courtyard badminton flourished. Flighty shuttles soared to tree tops requiring brooms and sticks to dislodge.

The track and field events saw much charging about the house. Feverish runs between the kitchen and the garage were timed. After every fast charge up and down the house, we noticed the toddler also ran the slow motion version of the run. He thought he needed to run the slow-motion replays telecast by the television networks too.

The Men’s marathon was run in the rain. That meant he needed another hasty shower before bed, since he sprayed water on himself and ran 26 times around the house.

As long as there are broken beds and shuttles stuck on tree tops in enough number of homes, the Olympic torch will burn on as bright and promising as ever.

Onward to Tokyo 2020.

The Spirit in the Photograph

The family got together and tried to take a photograph together:

Challenges here: The Saga of the Family Photos

Precursor here: The Family Photo Saga Part 2

How do you dress for a family photograph?

Motive matters.

  • If you are going for the preserve-family-as-we-are aspect of things, then I suppose we lounge around in daily clothes, crack jokes and laugh at them in a manner that will make Vogue photographers cringe. #BeCool
  • If you are going for the best-behavior-photographs, then I suppose you resort to the prim look, and smile at the photographer like you are meeting him for a job interview. #JobInterview
  • If you are looking for the social propriety angle, then of course you observe and deduce based on women dressed in Tamil TV Serials before their daily evening coffee at home. #TamilTVSerials
  • If you are looking for the co-ordinated angle, what are the colors to pick out? Should we all wear blue and look like Smurfs? #Smurfs smurf_dino

The problem happens when each one is aiming for a different objective.

  • The sister-in-law in a bid to impress her mother-in-law (viz. my mother) shed the slacks and tights and swooped in looking beautiful in a saree (#TamilTVSerials look). The mother said, “See how beautiful your sister-in-law looks in a saree?” This did not bode well for me. Luckily a blouse emergency shot this option down.
  • The sister went in for the #Smurfs angle and said, “A bright color looks the best”. She paraded the sunflower-with-stalks look.
  • The t-shirt wearing men were hustled out of their t-shirts by smart men in pressed shirts and pants. (#JobInterview look)
  • Bearded Blokes refused to shave and went for the #BeCool look.

So it went. For every member of the family not playing with toy cars under sofas.

In all the melee, we forgot to soak the toddler boys, for whose sake the picture was being taken, in Dettol and scrub them with coconut-bristled-brushes. They continued playing till the last minute and looked delightfully dirty. It was in the car on the way to the studio that these boys were made look presentable.

The highlight of the family picture was the fact that as the photographer’s assistant tried to arrange folks one after the other in a way that will make us look good in spite of the clothes and the colors, the grand head of the family took a roll-call in true school teacher style only to find the youngest member of the family missing.

If one were to read through the chronicles – Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, you will notice the photograph was being taken to update the presence of the recently-added-to-family toddler boys. It turns out that the youngest one decided to play with his toy car under the studio chair beyond the range of the lens, and refused to budge. Chocolates did not help, future domestic world war threats did not work. Carrying him with the studio chair did not help. It looked like the picture was going to be taken without him after all.

Every picture has a story. I called the father a social dinosaur who might have called the photographer’s assistant to join in if you remember. True to the father’s nature, this family photograph did have the photographer’s assistant in it. His spirit can be spotted lingering in the photo. A chirpy young man, who showed absolute promise by cajoling the little fellow, hiding his toy car and flashing it out of his pocket at the right moment, making the boy look up in glee.


The boy who looked up at the last minute after all this drama looks best, and as far as we are concerned, it does not matter if the rest of us had our eyes open, or were picking our nose, or were about to sneeze.

That is probably why we looked like a dysfunctional bouquet of sorts. I have always liked the impromptu wildflower bouquets with their riot of color, wild grasses and ferns. Captures the beauty of the wilderness.

The Family Photo Saga – Part 2

Since the last time the family had gathered together in one place, two toddlers had been added to the family banyan branches, and it was time to take a family photograph. “Let’s leave at 5 p.m. sharp, so we can get done with the photographs by 6 p.m. sharp!.” Sharp words indeed for one trying to finish that blasted book, lying flat on the bed. Just 100 pages to go.

Let me paint the 3:59 p.m. picture for you and the 4:02 picture for readers to compare and contrast. There is no point in saying that the bustle started at 4 p.m. sharp. How did it start. Where did it all start from? These become questions and relevant ones at that.

3:59 p.m.:

If a cameraman were to walk into the old parents’ flat, there would have been no one in the camera’s span of vision. A wild-ish whoop and some loud vroom-vroom sounds could be heard at ground level, where two toddler boys were lying on their stomachs and putting hot wheels cars through the paces in the afternoon heat. Every now and then the cars would fly through the painstakingly constructed hoops, and zoom under the sofas in the sitting room. The boys would then roll over and then sidle up on their bellies under the sofa to retrieve the car, and come out looking like they had dipped themselves into the vacuum’s cleaner’s dust bag. Their cheeks were not the rosy little cheeks that their mothers lovingly spoke and sang off  while they were babies,  but rather ones that could use the detergents being relentlessly advertised on the muted television near them.

The 3-seater sofa housed a young, handsome boy with a ghastly beard in a supine position. He had clapped on large earphones that did not invite conversation. The sofa under which the toddlers had to crawl to retrieve their cars had on it another young man (not as young as the supine one, but with an equally ghastly beard) snoozing mildly in front of his laptop. This young man had piled into his afternoon biriyani plate saying he needed to complete work on an important document.

Two lazy chairs were reclined to full-back: On one of them rested the Calorie Master, who after a fitful serving of 500 calories of Biriyani, was preparing himself for the rigors of a photographic session.(

The other lazy chair found a septuagenarian who boo-ed at calorie counters and baa-ed at document writers, ate his heartful of his wife’s famous biriyani and snored peacefully. He did not seem to notice The Hindu newspaper placed on his tummy that mildly fluttered up and down with his breathing.


On the floor lay a pyol (paai), and on it lay a restless gentleman reading a Tamil book while keeping a benevolent eye on the men folk. The biriyani was working its wonders in his stomach too.

Further inside, in the bedrooms, three females lay reading quietly in one room while the fan whirred overhead and the incessant water dripped from the water filter into the stainless steel bucket below.  In another bedroom lay two others fast asleep – content in the afternoon heat, while a septuagenarian lady lay musing about when she should get started with the evening coffee. There is little point in getting the old lady out of the kitchen when her family is around. If she isn’t in there, she is thinking of what she could be doing in there to fatten up her loving brood.

The clock clicked sturdily and moved towards the 4:00 mark. It was at this time that the s.lady saw the clock and leaped out of bed. “Shouldn’t we get started if we have to leave at 5 o’clock sharp? “ , she said in her best school-teacher-addressing-the assembly-without-mike voice that had the following effect on the populace:

(1) The sleeping ladies moaned and shoo-ed her out. (Amma! What are you bellowing like this for? )

(2) The females reading in the opposite bedroom leapt in their beds. It never is pleasant to be reminded of frivolous things like dressing up when a book needs reading. (Aaaaghhggghwwwhhhh! Paati! Amma! Paati! Awggrhhh!)

(3) The Calorie Master stirred and fumbled the word ‘Coffee’ through the fleeing mists of sleep

(4) The s. who boo-ed and baa-ed slept on since he had prudently switched off his hearing aid for just such emergencies.

(5) The man on the pyol was happy that the house stirred. These quiet afternoons were draining for the man of action.

(6) The bearded fellow with the earphones could have remained at rest in a South Indian wedding hall with the nadaswaram blaring nearby. But he too stirred.

(7) The toddler boys behaved as if nothing at all happened. (Lightning McQueen is now rounding on the turn and chasing Chick Hicks. Now Chick Hicks is falling through the loop and yes…he is flying through the race and oh no…..he went under the sofa again.)

8) The document writer’s laptop slid from his lap, and he showed remarkable agility and managed to catch it before it plopped onto either of the toddler’s heads as they dove under his foot to retrieve Chick Hicks. This sudden jerk to reality gave him a peeved look, and he too managed a swear word that got him chastised by the toddlers (Blimey is a bad word!)

4:02 p.m.

Where a minute before, soporific peace reigned, now confusion did.

 Children walked up and down looking important.

The girls asking whether they needed to change, (Yes! ), and the boys looking for their misplaced toy cars, planes and headsets. (No!)

It is but a question of time before the question of dress pops up. Oh the drama.

What kind of clothes? It is an important photograph said everyone to no one.

Part 3: Dressing Up for the Family Photo.

The Saga of the Family Photos

The Saga of the Family Photos – Part 1

Our visit to India was long overdue. We had met sections of the family over the past few years, but we had yet to gather in one place together for over half a decade, during which time children had been added to the family tree as well. The occasion, we agreed, demanded a family picture. You see one of these specimens in most houses – all of the children are looking divine and innocent, the adults are looking calm, relaxed and are smiling into the camera, the grandparents are sitting regally in a sofa like object or two wooden chairs depending on the studio, while their brood clusters around them. The women are decked up in heavy sarees or ornate ethnic wear, the men in kurtas or sharp, freshly pressed trousers and shirts, and the children are clothed in themes that can go with the grand settee from which the grandparents rule.

Every time we see pictures like that in other people’s homes, the husband pipes up that it would be nice to have a family picture of both sides of the family taken, and I guardedly agree. It is not that I have anything against family photographs, it is just a tricky business.

You see, I have attempted to take a family picture of mia familia during my brother’s wedding. It was not a success, although the harried photographer would disagree. The father, social dinosaur that he is, feels compelled to holler at those near and dear to him to join in on every photograph. In fact, with the father, it takes a level of willpower to not be included in a photograph if you happen to be in the vicinity. One time, we took a picture of him in front of Lake Tahoe, and were hard put to find the 72 mile circumference lake in the picture. This sort of behavior at an Indian wedding results in photographs that look like Victoria Terminus Railway Station at 6 p.m. on Wednesday evening.

Most pictures had a lot of people jostling together in them, but they certainly had no theme.

Could this be one with us and the father’s friends? No – my father’s sister is in there, and so is my mother’s student.

How about this one? This could be one of everyone on the father’s side of the family, except this couple – they belong to both the paternal and maternal sides of the family (Second cousins got married. When the couple joined in the picture, so did their parents and it looks like avial and kootu were mixed together in the fridge during archival time –  sigh!)

Is that the guy who sold balloons outside the function hall?

Family Picture

And so it went with my side of the family.

With the husband’s side of the family, the problem took on unexpected dimensions. It turns out that the father-in-law is fond of photographs. In a bid to appease him, the photographer was instructed to spare no moment, big or small. He didn’t.  Every time, anybody gave somebody a Tamboolam (or haldi-kumkum : basically a plate with betel leaves & nuts, vermilion & turmeric) , the pesky photographer took a photograph.

Anyone who attends any South Indian function worth its name knows where that sort of thing leads to. Pretty soon, we had 1200 photographs of the mother-in-law giving haldikumkum to maamis and maamas in varying degrees of  exhaustion. The point is: not one of the thousand odd pictures are fit to go up on a wall for posterity and bored guests.

However, this time was to be different, I was assured by one and all. We cart only the relevant people off to a studio and flash the lights on their face. So unless the father calls for the photographer’s assistant to join in, we are safe, and the father-in-law shall have his pick of photographic combinations: passport size photos if need be, along with the family photos.

We just dress up and get there. Dress and Dazzle. It is all you need to do.

Yes Sir!

Part 2: The Family Photo.

Newton’s Sixth Law of Motion

A trip to visit the relatives in Asia is always one fraught with culinary splendors and calorific disasters. Indians are a breed that show their love in myriad ways from throwing approving glances at the foreign-returned daughter wearing a bindi to making aloo parathas for breakfast.

Image Courtesy: Google – Idlis, Dosas, Sambhar, Chutney

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 3.46.10 PM

Unfortunately for me, my reputation in the cooking department hit an all-time low with the aunts. One morning as the toddler son sat down to a breakfast of idlies, he announced in horror that idlies are not breakfast items, but items that make an occasional appearance in his lunch-box or sometimes at dinner, never for breakfast. (South Indians are a sturdy breed that can wolf down a half dozen idlies for breakfast followed by a  lunch with three – five servings of rice, and a dinner of dosas. ) Therefore, this simple statement had a variety of responses, all of which psychologists will be delighted to note, were dramatic in the extreme. To make things worse for me, the toddler then sat down and polished off the idlies on his plate in rapid succession.

The aunts rounded on me:

Poor child loves idlies.

How long does it take to make one plate of idlies for breakfast everyday?

The poor dear says he eats just cereal.

The mother pushed her oar in with glee and the lot of them roasted my reputation over a slow grill, while the emaciated toddler bounded off to play. It was, therefore, a sobered me who made her way through the streets of India. The one you saw eating pooris, dosas and white toast with marmalade before the gong hit nine, was one who had been told off for not giving the children nutritious breakfasts.

It was during one of these breakfasts that I moaned about packing the daily calorie count by 9 AM. The brother-in-law, assured us that he would help us stay on track and henceforth appointed himself the Calorie counter for us. The brother-in-law is a confirmed case of being a gourmet, and has been declared incurable by the best of cooks. He can detect a repaired sambhar with a single glance. With one taste, he can tell you the archival date of said sambhar, and the best by date of the repaired version. For one that fond of the right tastes, I was dubious with his self appointed role as Calorie Master.

I need not have worried.

The next morning, as we set off on an early morning walk, the Calorie Master started counting. Every few steps, he upped the calories expended. A small hillock counted for 500 calories, and every few steps the calorie counter charged up ahead like an auto given a hot boost at the rear end with a rhino’s horn in 108 degree heat. By the time we settled in for  breakfast, the Calorie Master announced that we had expended 2000 calories and we were therefore deemed fit to consume a sumptuous breakfast of 500 calories (pooris + masala dosa + slices of white bread with butter and jam + tea + fresh fruit). I must admit, I liked this version of the Calorie Counter better than the slow one that the bulky contraptions in gyms boast of.

Everybody questioned the Calorie Master, but nobody went unanswered. Unconvinced maybe, but unanswered, never. Pretty soon, scientists were called upon to lend their laws and principles to the cause.

Calorie Master

The uncertainty principle said that: While it may be uncertain whether a 500 meter amble is 500 calories or 600 calories, there is no uncertainty in the fact that it merits a serving of ice-cream after lunch.

When Newton saw an apple fall, he knew that falling involves energy. Food falls into the stomach, therefore we are expending energy while eating food.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity also states that food prepared by relatives do not have as many calories as food prepared by non-relatives. Therefore, it is safe to up the idli count.

My favorite was the Newton’s Sixth Law of Motion: When you eat, you motion.

Heisenberg, Newton and Einstein may have turned in their graves, but armed with these principles, I am proud to say, that we defied all natural laws of calorie consumption. We also laughed heartily the whole time the calorie calculations were afoot, that should have expended another 1000 calories a day at least.

To Live Like Sultan

It has been fifteen years since I saw Bangalore. 15 years in which I heard stories about the beautiful city bursting to its brims and enduring horrendous traffic snarls. I had spent some very pleasurable years early in my career in Bangalore, and some of the friends I made there still warm my heart, so I was obviously interested to see how it fared a decade and a half later.

I was dismayed at the way the city had exploded. Every place has to fall prey to urbanization. There is no way around it, but in Bangalore, once known as the Garden City, it was particularly brutal to see matchbox like apartments all over the city. The roads were struggling with cars from every one of those apartments, and the infrastructure was barely holding up. As I looked up into all those apartments, I wondered how many fellow residents each one knew, and the answer was what saddened me even more. In every apartment block of maybe 100 homes, residents hardly knew another 5 families. It seemed to me that more the people clustered together, the less we knew of one another.  

I stayed in Bangalore for just a day before we made our way to our childhood home, the dear old Nilgiri Hills.

sultan's life

It has been about a decade since I visited Nilgiri Hills – the home of my childhood days. This time, I was determined to go and visit. When mia familia heard  of my wish to do so, everybody joined in, and pretty soon, there we were bumping up the hills in a van loaded to the brim with luggage, children and people. Traveling light is a concept we often hear about, but we have absolutely no idea as to how it works. Maybe an experiment would help one day.

As the van made off with 11 people and 14 pieces of baggage, not including the toy cars and planes that had to ply within the van to ensure sanity and peace, I noticed that the pace of life steadily slowed down as we got farther and farther away from Bangalore city. Like an aircraft slowing down from 500 miles an hour to zero as it comes to rest. It was marvelous to see how it all culminated in one grand stroke to life with sultan.

I was looking forward to hop off at the sunflower fields en-route to the Nilgiris from Mysore. The sunflower fields were marvelous after the never ending concrete jungle that Bangalore has transformed into.


Likewise, once the van started bumping up the hills, I was happy and contented to take in the scent of the Nilgiri Hills and found myself taking in large gulps of the pristine air. Every now and then, we spotted elephants, bisons and deer freely roaming the forests.

Bisons in Mudumalai
Deer in Mudumalai
Elephants in Bandipur and Mudumalai

We stayed for a couple of days in a resort in Masinagudi. The beautiful resort was nestled in the hills with only 7 cottages, plenty of rolling hills, deer, bison, horses and a donkey. The children spent a good half day marveling at touch-me-nots as they folded and unfolded.

It was here we met Sultan. Sultan is a donkey and he was found by the resort owner in the streets of Chennai, where he was being teased and not given his due. She took pity on him and had him transported to this resort.  Sultan’s mates at the resort were two horses who occasionally gave the children a ride on their backs. Sultan had no such obligations as no one seemed interested in taking a picture riding a donkey, so he just grazed, all the while thinking he was a horse. He was a great favorite among the guests and was often called upon for a loving pat on the nose or a rub on the chin. Sultan knew all the residents of the resort.


It has since become a motto of sorts within our family to Live Like Sultan. A life of love, commendable self worth, fresh air, a contented mind and a slow pace of life to relish the many gifts that Earth has to offer.

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