Shadow of the Moon

Ok, so this one (also by M M Kaye) I picked up almost immediately after The Far Pavilions, with a couple of light books in between.

So Captain Alex Randall is sent to England by the Commissioner of Lunjore to accompany the latter’s betrothed back to India, an orphan named Winter who naively worships the Commissioner, not knowing how terrible a person he actually is. Obviously, Alex and Winter fall in love (after a fashion) and go through a truckload of trouble, in between all the intrigue of the 1857 Rebellion.

Since I read this one and TFP (The Far Pavilions) so close together, I couldn’t help comparing them, and unfortunately Shadow of the Moon doesn’t come off favourably at all. At its best, it feels like a treatise on the 1857 Rebellion, with a pinch of rather dispassionate romance thrown in, and that’s about it. Apparently Kaye wrote this first, but her agent liked TFP more, so that was published first, and with good reason. TFP is almost an epic, it encompasses a huge amount of history and romance, along with excellently etched out characters. Shadow of the Moon, sadly, ended up reading like a pastiche of TFP, even though it was written first. There is much more obvious British superiority here, and what is, even today, revered as a hugely patriotic deed (the 1857 Rebellion) in India, is written about as a crime/mutiny to be suppressed.

The India that had once seemed to her so glamorous and beautiful a country began to wear a different aspect, for she knew by now that underneath that glamour and beauty lurked undreamed-of depths of cruelty and terror, just as the graceful minarets and gilded domes of the palaces rose above narrow, filthy streets and the squalid hovels of the poor.

The contrast between our great cities and the squalor of the East must cause such visitors the greatest amazement.

Since the average native of the country, though for the most part careless of death, possessed a disproportionate fear of being painfully wounded.

Oh dear. Just you tell that to the warriors of Rajputana.

The characters are rather unremarkable. Kaye tries to make hero Alex Randall think exactly like Ash in TFP, but it just doesn’t work, primarily because we have no idea who Captain Randall actually is, or anything much about his past. The heroine, Winter, seems to be somewhat of an English-Rose-cum-doormat and I couldn’t sympathise much with her either. That left only the villain, Kishan Prasad, who is a gracious nobleman at the forefront of the Rebellion plans, and who, rather frustratingly, won all my admiration and empathy. This is one of the very few books that put me in this dilemma of being unable to see from the author’s point of view, because I identified more with the villains than with the ‘good’ people.

Usually a thrilling love story goes a long way in redeeming bad plots for me, but unfortunately in this case the romance was also rather dry and very uneventful. In fact, Alex doesn’t even realise he’s in love with Winter until a few days after a one-night-stand (yes, with her only, thankfully); upto then he keeps thinking of her as a burden, which is ideally not the stuff great romances (or any romance, for that matter) are made of.

The Far Pavilions worked because the romance propelled the plot and tied up all the knots neatly, and this one fails because the Rebellion propels the romance, and it is just not enough. It would probably have been better if there had been no love story at all, then Kaye could have written about the Rebellion and its horrors (oh the irony) to her heart’s content.

It is not all bad, however. There is a lovely story about Winter’s English mother and Spanish father in the very beginning; that was the part I liked the most. It is a beautiful story, and more in tune with what I thought were Kaye’s sensibilities. So read the book if you must, dear reader, for the writing is absolutely fantastic, but you would, I suspect, enjoy it more if you knew nothing about India; then it would probably feel more exotic and enchanting than disappointing.

Quotes to remember:

When churls rebel against their native prince, I arm their hands and furnish the pretence, and housing in the lion’s hateful sign, bought senates and deserting troops are mine – Dryden

Somewhere within those walls, a shadow among shadows, the last of the Moguls – an old, frail, withered pantaloon, stripped of all power and King only in name – shuffled through the marble magnificence of the palace built by Shah Jahan, composing Persian couplets to fill his aimless days.

As long as these people were divided by their castes and their creeds into antagonistic factions they would always be at the mercy of a conqueror, but if they once combined they could stand against any from sheer weight of numbers. But they will never combine. Never.

P.S. This is Book 9 in the Brunch Book Challenge, and my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge.. 🙂

Mayhem in the Home

So my mother took herself off to Chennai to visit her mother for a few days, plunging the rest of us (i.e. myself, brother and father) at home into deep despondency (mostly because none of us are great cooks, and also because all of us are slaves to our palates). For ten days, we somehow managed with salt-less khichdi (courtesy father), weird-tasting sambhar (courtesy yours truly) and bread toast with Hershey’s syrup and crushed Oreo sprinkled on top (my brother is a big fan of Masterchef Australia). The trouble began when my mother came back.

Having finished with Yashraj-style reunions (this was partly due to the relief of not having to eat burnt rasam day after day), my brother and I formed an orderly queue towards the bag with all the Chennai snacks in it (if pouncing on stuff from either side and banging our heads in the process can be called an orderly queue) and forgot ourselves for the next hour in the joys of thattai, seedai and Tirunelveli halwa (from l-r below).

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Then my mother came back from her bath and stepped into the kitchen. There came the sound of steel tiffins being opened and closed, containers being inspected, frying pans being overturned and placed back, and then there emerged a roar. I froze. My mother charged out of the kitchen with three steel dabbas in her hands, looking rather furious, and I couldn’t help sidling unobtrusively to the door.

“What the hell”, she shook the dabbas under my nose, “on earth is this?” There was a green mold-covered something that might have been a leftover chapatti a week ago (ok no judging me please, haven’t you ever done anything like this? On second thoughts, don’t answer that), a blackish looking something that might have been the poha from 4 days ago and another something I couldn’t recognize at all. I crept a bit further in the direction of the door and promptly stumbled over my father, who had obviously had the same brainwave and was muttering something about walks. My mother eyed him frostily, and he came back resignedly into the house, mumbling about heart patients and how weak they generally are. This card never fails to arouse my mother’s sympathy and concern, however unfairly it may be used, so she calmed down a bit and turned to glare at me. This time, though, I had my answer ready, “I went to college every day and came back only at night”, I wailed, “He was the one cooking and cleaning everything” and pointed at him rather melodramatically. My father blustered and blubbed a bit, but he needn’t have bothered with any explanation.

Both of us had forgotten a key player in the drama. My brother, who was, perhaps, taking revenge on us for all the nonsense he had been forced to eat for ten whole days, at once screamed, “Liars liars pants on fires” (No, he’s not very mature, and also, no, not very grammatical either), “She went to college only once, and dad was strong enough to wrestle with me daily”, and poured into her ears sob stories of how he had been force-fed watery rice and tasteless vegetables (which, I assure you, was an exaggeration; the rice was only watery twice, once when it was overcooked, and once when I tried to multitask (yes, me also Masterchef fan) and poured water into the rice instead of the dal (on that note, remind me never to trust my brother again, he seemed to believe me when I told him that it was Spanish rice with caliente agua)).

Anyway, the upshot of it all was that my mother gave us a good long lecture on the management of houses and kitchens, and asked me how I thought I was going to manage a household by myself after marriage, if my standards were so abysmal, and what my husband and mother-in-law would have to say about my upbringing if I cooked daily such burnt rice and watery rasam. Nose in the air, I replied, “You can just tell them I’m a career girl and don’t care for such petty chores”, which was, on second thought, possibly the worst thing to say to a mathematician who had given up her job to take care of a fragile husband and frail daughter (though nobody who has seen me anytime recently will believe that I have ever been anywhere near frail in my life). “What, then”, she asked rather acidly, “will you eat if both you and your husband don’t cook?” This, I must confess, had me stumped, and I bit back all sorts of feminist rants about cooking, because there are times when it is more about your stomach than about your gender.

Since she seemed to have calmed down quite a bit after this tirade, my father and I started inching towards the bedroom door again (this time to beat up my brother, who had mysteriously gone missing after denouncing us), but in our fear, we had failed to notice that my mother had opened the refrigerator and was rifling through its contents while haranguing us. “What”, she frowned, “is this?” and held up something which looked eerily like the unsuccessful mushroom tomato sabzi I had cooked 3 days ago, except that it had a purple layer on it (on an aside, this is my mother’s favourite colour, but possibly it does not quite matter in this case). “Toilet, I wanna go toilet”, I screamed and fled the scene (this, though obviously not a very mature scheme, was a very wise one, since my father promptly copied it).

So the moral of the story is, when the cat is away, the mice will play, provided they don’t have to cook, and when the cat comes back, will still be safe, since mice don’t have traitorous brothers.

P.S. This is a true story, and is only slightly exaggerated (I’m not really that bad a cook, although you don’t believe me now, do you?)

P.P.S. Please forgive my erratic posting schedule, dear readers (and also fellow writers whose posts I haven’t read and commented on for some time); this is in major part due to certain career decisions I took that have come back to bite me in the..er..neverwhere, so life is not all that it should be, but I’m trying to soldier on, please bear with me.. 🙂

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

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Ok, so I’ve been on a bit of an India spree of late, mostly due to the Brunch Book Challenge. I stumbled upon this one while sifting through Indian authors on Goodreads. I haven’t read any of Kiran Desai’s work before, although I have read one of her mother’s, Anita Desai’s Fasting and Feasting. Kiran is mostly known for her Inheritance of Loss (Man Booker Winner), and that being (or seeming to be) the kind of famous-but-heavy-and-depressing book I generally tend to avoid, I was a bit reluctant to begin this one, but turns out I needn’t have worried; this is a hidden gem of a book (on an aside..why isn’t stuff like this more famous?).

Anyway, Sampath Chawla, our hero, is born, rather auspiciously, on the very night that it begins raining after a long drought in the village of Shahkot, and everyone is convinced of the baby’s future greatness. But years pass, and Sampath is now a dull and uninteresting boy with an uninteresting job, until he chucks it all to climb up a tree and inadvertently becomes a sadhu of sorts. The premise alone lends itself to all sorts of comic possibilities, and Desai does full justice to it. I haven’t read anything this hilarious since Anuja Chauhan, at least not by an Indian author.

The language is impeccable, and Desai is wonderfully satirical and funny at all the right places. Here is a gem of a conversation between Sampath’s father and Sampath’s doting grandmother, Ammaji:

‘But the world is round,’ said Ammaji, pleased by her own cleverness. ‘Wait and see! Even if it appears he is going downhill, he will come up out on the other side. Yes, on top of the world. He is just taking the longer route.’

‘He is not taking any route, I tell you. He has missed the route altogether. He is just sitting by the side playing with flies.’ Mr. Chawla turned back to Sampath, who had closed his eyes, imagining a long and peaceful sleep in a cool dark place. ‘Come on,’ his father urged him. Get ready for work. It’s nine o’clock. Why are you still sitting here like a potato?’

The writing (I really cannot this stress this enough) is top-notch. Desai has got hold of the pulse of India – its small towns. This description of Shahkot in the heat is a particular delight, in that it encapsulates many of the vagaries of life in a small town (and sometimes in cities), along with the havoc the weather wreaks in people’s lives:

The heat softened and spread the roads into sticky pools of pitch and melted the grease in the Brigadier’s moustache so that it drooped and uncurled, casting shadows on his fine, crisp presence. It burned the Malhotras’ daughter far too dark for a decent marriage and caused the water, if it came at all, to spurt, scalding, from the taps. The bees flew drunk on nectar that had turned alcoholic; the policemen slept all day in the banana grove; the local judge bribed an immigration official and left to join his brother in Copenhagen. Foreigners in their tour buses went home, while Shahkotians argued for spots directly below their ceiling fans.

The character sketches are fantastic (I’m running out of superlatives now), and the interaction between the characters and their backstories alone would have made a nice book, without any need for a story as such. Mr. Chawla is sensible and normal, a proper government employee. His wife, Kulfi, is slightly, err..off her rocker, and keeps dreaming of and cooking up really exotic and sometimes eerie food. Their daughter, Sampath’s sister, Pinky, is feisty and foolish (a giggly subplot involving her and an ice-cream boy is the stuff great comedy is made of), and Sampath..ah Sampath, what to make of him, our hero? He is weird, very weird, somewhat like his mother, and a big disappointment to his father until he becomes a holy man. There is a running gag about the stuff Sampath spouts after he has become a sadhu. He has no idea what he is saying, it is all completely random, and yet people seem to understand it, or at least they think they do, which seems to be a sort of subtext about Sampath himself, nobody really understands him. I didn’t either. His mother, I can understand, she lives in some other world, completely detached from reality. But Sampath is a whole other issue..the author gives him a sort of vague aimlessness and emptiness; he doesn’t seem to have any kind of personality at all, and that makes it difficult to identify with his motivations. Why does he do what he does? That is the part where it begins to get a bit surreal.

One major caveat I had was the ending. What all along is a joyride in Shahkot with its people and a quasi-satire on religion and holy men now suddenly veers to magical realism and a really abrupt ending. I just couldn’t digest it; it leaves everything untied, and it’s not even very believable. It’s as if Desai reached a particular point and then ran out of inspiration and decided to end it any which way.

But such a flawless work can hardly be spoiled by a mediocre ending, and the latter counts for very less in the general scheme of things. This is a must read for comedy fans, humour and satire at its finest..now why didn’t this win the Booker?

Quotes to remember:

Drama has a way of overriding the embarrassment of a situation that should be privately experienced.

In some places there are people of quiet disposition and few words, but around Shahkot they were a very rare exception.

Sooner or later, there will come a magic hour,
When I spot a princess from the kingdom of Cooch Behar.
When my mouth I’ll open, I’ll think of nothing to say,
And this lady so fine and beautiful will continue on her way.
Goodbye, my princess of Cooch Behar, may we meet again…

P.S. This is Book 8 in the Brunch Book Challenge.. drop in on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge.. 🙂

The Far Pavilions

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Ok, so I stumbled upon this one when I was searching for historical books on India. The author is Mary Margaret Kaye, whose husband, father, grandfather and brother all served the Raj in India, and who seems to have led a very interesting life, by all accounts. It has a really good Goodreads rating, so I decided to give it a try.

I loved the book. At a whopping 1000 pages (!), it’s something of an epic, but you don’t even feel the pages fly past, it’s that good. The story mostly hinges upon the life and activities of Ashton Pelham-Martyn, who, born to an English couple somewhere in the Himalayas, ends up in the arms of a Hindu lady, and for the first ten years of his life thinks of himself as a Hindu and an Indian. Divided into three sections, the first section of the story deals with Ash’s childhood in the kingdom of Gulkote, at the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), and this was the part I liked the most. Even though it’s the late 19th Century, sometime after the 1857 Uprising, Gulkote seems to be stuck in time, protected from all the progress and the British, a sort of relic of the Mughal Empire, with all its attendant intrigue and excitement.

The idle, aimless days might drift placidly by, but under that smooth surface ran hidden undercurrents of plot and counterplot, and the wind was not the only thing that whispered in the endless corridors and alcoves of the Hawa Mahal.

The writing is fantastic, and Kaye uses the language so gracefully and elegantly, it’s all very poetry-in-prose. In fact, for most of the Hawa Mahal part, I kept thinking I was reading Indu Sundaresan; the level of detailing is amazing. Take, for example, two ways in which she writes about the mountains, the first as something to be worshipped, a living, breathing form, and the second describing a sunset scene; the mountains are now inanimate, it is the sunset that lives:

A crown of pinnacles that lifted high above the distant ranges like the towers and turrets of some fabulous city, and that were known in Gulkote as the Dur Khaima – the Far Pavilions. Once adopted, the beautiful, many-peaked massif acquired a personality of its own, until it almost seemed to Ash that it was a living thing, a goddess with a hundred faces, who, unlike the stone emblems of Vishnu and the shrouded rock in Mecca, took on a different guise with every change and chance of weather and season, and each hour of every day. A gleaming flame in the dawn light and a blaze of silver at mid-day. Gold and rose in the sunset, lilac and lavender in the dusk. Livid against the storm clouds or dark against the stars. And in the months of the monsoon, withdrawing herself behind veil after veil of mist and the steel-grey curtain of the rain.

Later, as the light began to fade and the dusk turn green about him, he reined in and turned to look back at the mountains that were already in shadow and sharply violet against the hyacinth of the darkening sky. One cluster of peaks still held a last gleam of the sunset: the crown of the Dur Khaima, rose-pink in the twilight… the far pavilions… The warm colour faded from them as he looked, and peak after peak turned from rose to lavender until at last only Tara Kilas, the Star Tower, held the light. Then suddenly that too had gone, and the whole range lost its sharpness of outline and merged into a night that was brilliant with stars.

How did she even come up with so many adjectives, and that too for the mountains alone? I have to run to Google Aunty every time I run out of synonyms for enchanting and dazzling and elegant.

Anyway, after a somewhat dangerous and confusing childhood, Ash is finally sent to England to his real relatives to be educated and schooled to be a proper sahib, but he doesn’t take much to his country, and when he comes back to India, is still very much a native on all accounts except birth. And this is Kaye’s masterstroke, a hero who understands the natives and even identifies with them, and is in no way as stiff necked as his own country-men; not someone who could be called great or wise, which is the very fact that makes him endearing. He is brash, impulsive, smart, and also a proper romantic.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn was not only an insubordinate young hot-head, but an adult enfant-terrible whose penchant for acting on the spur of the moment made him capable of doing any damned silly thing without pausing to think what it could lead to in the long run; yet it had to be remembered that these were the very defects that often proved invaluable in time of war, particularly when accompanied, as in Ashton’s case, with considerable courage.

The romance makes up most of the second section, which describes Ash’s journey as an officer of the Raj escorting a bridal party to be married to the Rana of Bhithor (sic). I didn’t like the heroine very much; she’s too soppy and sentimental, is constantly on the verge of tears, and keeps on sacrificing all the things most dear to her for silly reasons, like the heroines of our daily soaps. Plus the author makes her undergo so many trials and tribulations, it’s a wonder she even wants to live after everything is over. This second part, though, ends with a thrilling escape scene, and it absolutely manages to make up for any other deficiencies.

The trouble is with the third section and the climax. The escape scene would have made a wonderful ending in itself, but the author insists on transferring all the characters to bleak and snowy Afghanistan, and from here the story goes completely downhill. Where a line or two about the Afghan War would have sufficed, Kaye involves Ash in a war that has no place or work for him, except as a whistleblower that no one believes, and then ends the book so abruptly that I nearly wept. No, seriously, after you invest a thousand pages, days of your time (I might have given the impression I was studying), and exhaust all your emotions in the process, a “Yeah, maybe it was all ok” is just not enough. Seen as a whole with the book though, I suppose it isn’t that bad, except for leaving a slightly weird aftertaste.

There were many questions this book raised for me, and one of the main ones was about racism. Is the author racist? I really don’t think so, because if she had been one, she wouldn’t have taken such pains to flesh out Ash’s dual character, as somebody who thinks about both sides of the equation.

Ash had retorted with some heat that if the speaker and his father and his friends really thought along these lines, then the sooner the British cleared out of India and left her to run her own affairs the better, for she could probably do so more successfully with her own first-raters than with anyone else’s second raters.

But there is a slight superiority complex the author seems to have about certain things, for example:

It don’t do to believe a fraction of what these people tell you, for most of ‘em will always tell a lie rather than speak the truth, and trying to find out what really happened is like drawing eye-teeth or hunting for that proverbial needle in a haystack.

It’s a bit difficult to digest this sort of thinking from the author, when the general tone of the book is rather cautious about it, but I suppose a certain smugness has to be expected from a memsahib who actually lived here during the Raj.

Anyway, it was an absolutely wonderful read, and is a must for fans of all fiction. I only wish that I could be reborn as a Norwegian or an Australian or something, so I could read this again and enjoy the writing and the experience a bit more, than just fretting about colonialism and patriotism.

Quotes to remember:

Not the British India of cantonments and Clubs, or the artificial world of hill stations and horse shows, but that other India: that mixture of glamour and tawdriness, viciousness and nobility. A land full of gods and gold and famine. Ugly as a rotting corpse and beautiful beyond belief…

Times change, my friend; and men with them – even Hindus. Do your Christians in Belait (abroad) still burn witches, or fellow-Christians who do not agree as to the manner in which they shall worship the same God? I have heard that this was once your custom, but not that it is still so.

Only the Dur Khaima would not change. The months, the years, the centuries would pass, and when the Palace of the Winds was no more, the Far Pavilions would still be there, unchanged and unchanging.

P.S. I do seem to have rambled on a bit in this one, haven’t I? I shall blame the book for this, it was quite an experience. Beg, borrow or steal, dear readers, but read it. This is Book 7 in the Brunch Book Challenge and the 3rd Indian one, so I’ve completed the ‘Read 3 books related to India’ condition of the Brunch Book Challenge..visit me on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge 🙂

The Palace of Illusions

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Ok, so I’d been wanting to read this one for a long time; it’s got very good word-of-mouth reviews. I had read Divakaruni’s Sister of My Heart a few years ago and liked it quite a bit.

For the uninitiated, the Mahabharata is one of the most important (and popular) epics in Hindu mythology (mainly because the Gita is contained inside it). It is a vast saga of family and betrayal and revenge and love and war and everything else you can probably think of. The Palace of Illusions is Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharata, a feminist take of sorts on the epic. I liked the book; as a story on its own, it’s quite good, it is when it deviates from the original that it becomes indigestible.

The title here is derived from the dazzling and mystifying palace built for the Pandavas in Indraprastha by the asura architect Mayan. It is said that Duryodhana, when, visiting the palace, failed to realise that he was stepping into a pool instead of just glass, and wet his clothes. At this point Draupadi, who was looking down on this scene from an upstairs balcony, burst into laughter and remarked about a blind king’s son also being blind (Duryodhana’s father is the blind Dhritarashtra), which statement, it is said, led to the attempted public disrobing of Draupadi and the subsequent Kurukshetra war. All these incidents the author uses to great effect, and the story as a whole is quite gripping.

The language is fluid enough, and at some places the poetic prose really shines through:

Later, long after a forest was razed and a palace filled with wonders built in its place, after the game of dice, after treachery and loss, banishment and return, after the war with its blinding mountain of bones, bards would immortalize the swayamvar where, some claim, it all began.

In that hall perfumed with hopes and decorated with anxieties, where pride played the flute and anger the drum, the greatest kings of Bharat were unable to lift the Kindhara bow from the ground.

The trouble, however, lies in the characterisation; the author creates entirely new characters and gives them old names.
Draupadi, for example, is in love with Karna (in this version and this version only) and thinks of him even as she lies dying, and Karna (friend of Duryodhana, the enemy) actually reciprocates.

I tried harder than ever before to bar Karna from my mind. But can a sieve block the wind?

I confess, in spite of the vows I made each day to forget Karna, to be a better wife to the Pandavas, I longed to see him again.

Eh? What? I would have thought the Mahabharata has enough story material for any author to comfortably confine their versions inside its rather broad boundaries, than resort to sensationalism. Admittedly, “ANCIENT INDIAN PRINCESS SECRETLY IN LOVE WITH HER HUSBANDS’ ENEMY” does sound much better than “ANCIENT INDIAN PRINCESS SECRETLY IN LOVE WITH HER OWN HUSBANDS”, but it begins to jar after a point, especially when the author insists on further tweaking little details that makes the whole epic sound like one of our daily soaps (unkind mother-in-laws (Kunti!), woman power, that sort of thing).

Draupadi with her husbands, the Pandavas

As a woman’s version (and the most important woman at that), the story could have been framed in a better manner, but Divakaruni presents Draupadi as a rather put-upon woman, and burdens her with so many miseries that she becomes more of a representation of all the troubles women in general have, instead of just her individual sorrows. That she was publicly insulted and had to lead 13 years in exile is not enough, she must also have an unhappy childhood, be unable to marry the one she loves, have a scheming mother-in-law..why, Chitra aunty, why?

I am not against derivations and perspective changes; written in a proper manner, they could enhance our understanding of mythological texts (oooh this sounds so technical.. 😛 ). But drastic changes are a big no-no. What if, tomorrow, someone rewrote Harry Potter and had Hermione fall in love with Malfoy while still married to Ron (ugghh), and more importantly, what if, some catastrophe takes place and all our copies of Mahabharata are lost, and only this version remains? *Shudders* But it is quite a good read if taken as fiction, so don’t let this deter you.. 🙂

P.S. To be fair, there is a “This is a work of fiction” disclaimer in the book; I just wish they’d put it on the cover, or even in slightly bigger font.

P.P.S. This is Book 6 in the Brunch Book Challenge and the 2nd Indian one..so please visit me on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge.. 🙂

Chennai

So I spent the whole of last month (without mummy and co., yes) in Chennai at my grandmother’s place, ostensibly helping her out with..stuff. This was not a very difficult choice to make, since my grandmother’s cooking is absolutely phenomenal, and I like Madras a lot; it has the virtue of not being Bombay (grass on the other side..).

My grandmother lives in Triplicane (because the British couldn’t get their tongue around Tiruvallikeni), a crowded and temple-filled locality near the beach. The trouble with this particular area is cows. Cows abound in Triplicane. As my grandmother’s neighbour proudly proclaimed, apparently, at one point there were more cows than people in Triplicane (which is admittedly a considerable feat).  Black cows, brown cows, grey cows, mixed-colour cows, cows with coloured horns, cows with calves, cows looking for calves, cows tied to a tree, cows, cows, everywhere. I like cows, especially when they are tied to a tree or something. They look quite harmless, and it was rather pleasant seeing something other than stray dogs for once, until a cow ripped through my plastic bag of vegetables with its horns and chewed up all the spinach (this was the first time I went vegetable shopping alone; usually nobody trusts me enough to buy their raw material).

Anyway, I really like life in Chennai; it’s loads of fun, especially when your teenage brother is in Bombay. There’s The Hindu, for a start, it has delightful local news supplements with the main sheet everyday, with all sorts of classy Kollywood gossip. Then there’s coffee. Everyone here drinks coffee all the time (in Bombay it’s tea, except for the Madras export mamas and mamis); every house I went to, I was offered coffee, it’s almost like water. And shame on you if you drink nescafe and bru and shoe and all that nonsense (Jammu mami judges you), only filter coffee with proper decoction and all will do. My grandmother was rather horrified when she found out I couldn’t make filter coffee (we don’t drink coffee at home in Bombay). “I can make Nescafe or something though”, I said brightly. This, as it turned out, was quite the wrong thing to say. Within minutes, Bommi mami from Ireland called up to ask me if I was planning to get married without learning to make proper coffee first, and if so, advised me on how to handle divorce, while Chinnu mama from San Francisco was on the other line, wondering if this was how all these Bombay girls behaved, drinking tea and saying silly things to their grandmothers. Anyway, I have learnt to make proper coffee and tea now, so I can marry without fear.

Life in my grandmother’s house mostly revolves around cooking and Tamil serials. At lunch, we discuss what to have for dinner, and during dinner, we discuss what to cook the next day, while watching TV. My grandmother’s cooking is fabulous (I cannot repeat this enough); at 83, she made rasam and sambhar rice everyday for a month, and there wasn’t a single day I didn’t eat everything twice. Ah, to be blessed with such talent. The result of all this lovely cooking and lack of exercise (apparently going to buy chocolate and getting stared at by local cows is not an acceptable form of exercise) was that when my mother set eyes on me after a month, she blinked, put on her glasses, screamed loudly, called my father, and asked him if he could also see two daughters, whereupon he sniggered rather horribly and asked me how my fellow cows in Triplicane were faring.

Anyway, it’s been months since I wrote something and I can feel myself starting to get a bit rusty. I have been reading loads of books in the interim, so hopefully many reviews coming up.

P.S. Just out of curiosity, did anyone miss me?

Death and His Widows

Filter coffee, granny’s cooking, The Hindu, Marina Beach sunsets, and Dhanush and Vijay billboards..aah, Chennai! Four days of lazy bliss, before my maternal grandfather decided to retire to the Great Post Office in the sky and ruin my vacation (not that I blame him, he had no idea I was there because I didn’t visit him in the hospital he had been in for 7 months (cries and decides to visit everyone possible before they land in hospitals and mummy screams at me again for being so careless and procrastinating)).

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