Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lighting Up for Diwali

Yesterday night while coming back home, I was craning my neck out the window to see if I could spot any lights up for Diwali. I could, but only in the zillion-and-one stores we passed along the way, and those don't count, because businesses commercialize everything and create festivals even when there are none.

Closer to home, we passed some of our neighbouring residential buildings, but only one apartment had lights on in their balcony. I was more hopeful as we turned in towards our lane, but to my shock and disappointment, not a single flat had anything special going on.

I think one of the greatest things about India is how we go all out to celebrate our festivals, and after two years away from this festive cheer, I was really looking forward to Diwali because Ganesh Chaturthi and Navratri were pretty low-key here (at least where we stay), as compared to the atmosphere in Bombay. Even though none of these has a religious significance for me, it is nevertheless great fun to celebrate and I always have this warm feeling inside whenever any festival comes around, regardless of religion.

Anyway, earlier this night as we were coming back home, I still looked around, and one or two more places had lights on. At least that was something, I thought. But then we saw our building, and hubs and me both shouted out happily. There were our neighbours' balconies, all dripping with colourful lights!!! In front of the gate, children stood with sparklers and in the distance, we could hear the first of the firecrackers start to go off.

Its now a couple of hours later, and the firecrackers are going strong. My festive spirit has now received a rejuvenating boost and I'm all set to celebrate too! Out will come my candles and tealights! I'm also planning to attempt besan ka laddoo, one of my favourite sweets, which, back in the old days, a friend of my grandmother's used to make and send for me. Wish me luck on that front, and wish all who read this a Very Happy and bright Diwali :)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

To Booze or Not To Booze

Yesterday's B'lore Times led with an article on Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss's current focus - total nation-wide prohibition. The Minister's concern is driven by the increasing number of youth getting addicted to alcohol. I agree that this is becoming a serious problem, but I don't feel that a complete ban on alcohol is the solution.

I grew up in a family where nearly everybody consumed alcohol. Now I don't mean that the elders were constantly talli, but whenever we had get-togethers with family or friends, the booze flowed freely and all adults were welcome to it. Even us children could take a sip from our parents' glasses whenever curiosity got the better of us. And after I turned 18, I was always offered a drink too at our family parties.

There was never any taboo attached to alcohol in our family. Adults were free to drink, but only free to drink as adults. That meant knowing your capacity, and always, always staying within the bounds of decent behaviour. As long as we behaved responsibly, there was no reason not to enjoy and appreciate fine liquor.

But during college and ever since, I've realised that the real reason why many people drink is not to appreciate good liquor, but more to "fit in" and appear "cool". And the more you drink, the "cooler" you're thought to be. I remember girl friends from very conservative families, staying overnight at whichever girl's house was empty on the pretext of group study, while actually it was a booze party. The following day they used to brag about it very excitedly; it didn't matter what they had been drinking, as long as they could boast about drinking.

Today, with binge drinking becoming the latest trend, the situation is even worse. I've seen photos of girls in UK and the US sprawled unconscious in bars and pubs after bingeing. I don't know if its the same in India, but even if it isn't, we've got a far worse trend of people drinking, driving and running others over. While I enjoy the occassional drink, I really don't know what the appeal is in boozing to the extent that you're either just a useless lump, or a total menace to society.

I don't think that drinking in itself is bad, its irresponsible, excessive drinking that's the problem. The point is that anything, consumed excessively is bad for you. Even basic stuff like sugar, salt or oil can be potentially deadly if you have too much of it.

Banning alcohol completely is not going to resolve the issue. All this would do is give the black market a good boost, and further increase the hype around alcohol, making it a bigger deal than it really is.

If you truly wanted to make a difference, the thing to do would be to tackle mindsets about alcohol. Easier said than done, believe me, I know. But ultimately, having proper attitudes is the only thing that helps you make the right choices so that you can have your fun without being a nuisance to anyone else.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Angela's Ashes

I recently read a book called Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Its the author's memoirs of his childhood, and I picked it up because a friend had listed it as her favourite book and also because it had won a Pulitzer.

I was visiting my parents at the time, and had plenty of time to relax and read, so in this situation, it would've usually taken me 2-3 days to finish a book this size, 4 days at the max. I started reading one night after dinner, finished chapter 1 and then picked it up again only a few days later. I finally completed it only about 3 weeks later.

Why? Because the author recollects a childhood so unbelievably miserable, there was just no way I could spend too long with the book at one stretch. Definitely I could not bear the thought of reading it after I had enjoyed my mom's wonderful meals, not when he described the carelessness of his alcoholic father and embittered mother, his and his brothers' painful hunger, the many, many years they spent surviving only on bread and tea, and many more instances of desperate poverty.

His earliest memories are from when he was four, around the time of the Great Depression in America, and they were forced to move back to their native Ireland from the US because of their poverty. That's where things go from bad to worse and even more worse.

Though they have family nearby, they're forced to survive on dole money from the government, most of which the father drinks away. They live in a hellish house, with the street's only toilet right next to their door. The lack of proper clothes, nutrition and Ireland's bitter cold see to it that the author loses two younger siblings before he is five, another baby having already died back in the States. And the problems and tragedies just keep piling on.

But despite such a horrific childhood, the book is not written in a way to gain sympathy. Its just a straightforward narrative that's surprisingly funny at times, penned in such a way that you could almost hear someone narrating it in that typical Irish accent. And I think that, because its tone is never plainitive, or sad or bitter, but just matter-of-fact, is exactly what makes this book so hard-hitting.

We know that children, inspite of their innocence, are sometimes very insightful and see things much more clearly than adults do, and the author was no different. The book reflects that mix of innocence and insight in a way that just tugs on every emotional string.

All through their childhood, whenever their father returned home late at night, drunk, he would wake up the author and his brother and make them sing Irish patriotic songs and promise they would die for the country if the need arose. In school, their Catholic teachers made them promise to die for the faith if the need arose. Father wants them to die for the country, teachers want them to die for the faith, and the child McCourt wonders ..... doesn't anyone want them to live?

There were so many more such instances in the book that make you stop and think. One other thing that especially struck a chord with me was when the children have to live with their maternal aunt because the father takes off and the mother is hospitalized. The aunt is by no means rich, but is definitely better off than the author's family, yet still is a very angry and bitter woman (presumably because she is childless). She takes out all that anger on these children, and young McCourt again wonders, she has enough money for food, electricity in her house, her very own toilet ...... yet, why is she so angry?

This made me sit up and really count my blessings. Many people must be doing it, I'm sure, yet I don't think we remember to be grateful for things like having electricity, or food, or our own bathrooms, or even health, the fact that we have all our senses in working order, as blessings. We are so used to them, we tend to take them all for granted, and that's why I'm glad I picked this book up.

Reading it was certainly not easy, but it's worth it because it makes you realise how much you really have been blessed with, increases your level of awareness towards the poor and reinforces that we have a moral duty to help, whether it is by giving your time, effort or money.

Edit: would like to add running water to my list of taken-for-granted blessings ...... we didn't have water for a few hours yesterday, and it was hell.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Addiction Tag

Tagged again by Reflections, to post five of my addictions and here they are:

1. CHOCOLATE - my first true love!!!

2. Books - I am a voracious reader and I feel like something's missing if there are no books in the house waiting to be read. In my school days, I was a member of three libraries and during vacations, I would have at least four books at the same time - a Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys, an Enid Blyton school story, an Agatha Christie and an Archie comic - so I could pick & choose depending on my mood. Same goes now as well: I'm in the middle of a Christine Feehan goth romance & Yann Martel's Life of Pi - the latter has been on hold for a while coz it got a bit disturbing.

3. Music - I love listening to music, its how I unwind. I need a few minutes of not-so-quiet time every day - just me & the music & my thoughts, although this need was more pressing earlier when I was studying & working.

4. Games - no, no, I'm not the athletic type at all..... except for badminton & table tennis :) What I mean is, I have phases where I get hooked on to board games, card games, computer games etc. Spider Solitaire has caught my interest again and I'm desperately trying to crack the 'difficult' level. Also, last month my nephew re-introduced rummy to all of us and we had a blast!!! I am just dying to play again, and am irritating hubby constantly :D ....... would help if we got a pack of cards first though :D

5. Tea - this is the only, I suppose, serious addiction I have: I need my morning & evening cup of tea. Without it, I actually suffer headaches. Earlier, I thought I needed a mid-morning cup of coffee too, but now I have days when I can comfortably go without it, so yay..... although frankly, its not such a hardship to skip it considering the rubbish I make in the name of coffee! But it is definitely a must-have on weekends ...... why??? Because hubby makes coffee then, and it is a-ma-zing!!!

The rest of the instructions for this tag ..........The persons who have been tagged have to link the blogger who tagged them and also extend the tag to five or more bloggers and link them too.

So I pass this on to: Agnes, Diligent Candy, Preethi, Swats and Thought Warp.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Exploring Karnataka: From Palace to Pak!

On entering Mysore, we were struck by the clean streets, tidy houses and well-kept gardens. Further in, we drove past the imposing St. Philomena's Church, which is built along the unmistakable lines of the Cologne Cathedral.

After a quick lunch at Hotel Ramanashree, we moved on towards Mysore Palace. This was the first time I was seeing any kind of Indian palace, and I was quite unprepared for the sheer beauty of it.

You step in through the gates and there's the palace stretching out on the left, with an intricately carved temple on the right, just as you enter. We snapped off a good many pictures outside because cameras aren't allowed inside and rightly so, as the continual flashes from a steady stream of tourists would surely cause the paint to fade.

But still, that didn't stop me from wishing that I could've taken some photos, because the interiors were just that gorgeous. A plaque outside had stated that the palace was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style, which means that it combines British and Mughal design elements. Floors, walls, ceilings, doors are all exquisite, intricately crafted works of art. The overall colours inside were vibrant reds, greens and blues with gilded borders that somehow work wonderfully together to create this richly vibrant look. All the doors were masterpieces in wood, and in some of the rooms, so were the ceilings!!!

We saw the throne room with its famous golden throne which is only displayed to the public during the Dasara festival period - pretty lucky timing for us! This was also the first time I saw a machine gun. Not that machine guns were used in the palace's heydays ...... they belonged to the many security officers present in this particular room :)

The main door leading to this throne room is this jaw-dropping, absolutely stunningly carved creation, made of what we believe is silver, or definitely some metal because it has that silverish, pinkish tarnished look. I would've loved to run my fingers over it, but unfortunately you only see it as you go down a staircase.

Then we entered what I suppose is a viewing gallery which looks out onto the big courtyard, where preparations were on for Dasara. The ceiling is in sections here. Each section is lavishly painted with depictions of various gods and scenery, set against what appears to be the sky, all of which is surrounded by a huge painted frame.

And here's where I noticed something surprising. Nearly all the frames had what were unmistakably angels outside and in several depictions, Hindu gods were shown as having angel-like wings! On second thought, it made perfect sense because this palace was designed by an English architect. Leaving the palace then I was struck by what a beautiful testimony to intercultural art and architecture this palace is.

By then it was already around 5 p.m. and we desperately needed a caffeine fix. We also had one quick stop to make before moving on: I mean, what is the point of going to Mysore if you don't buy Mysore pak???

So off we went in search of coffee and sweets, looking for Cafe Coffee Day for the former, and a shop called Bombay Tiffany's for the latter. Fortunately, both turned out to be on Devaraj Urs Road which must be the fashion street of Mysore - all the big brand outlets were there! After tasting various mithai, hubs & me settled on some almond barfi for him, my all-time favourite - peda - and of course, some totally sinful, melt-in-your-mouth-coz-its-loaded-with-ghee Mysore pak! Yayyyy!!!

Our original plan had been to visit Brindavan next, and so we were off again. Only we didn't realise how far the gardens were (19 kms fyi) from Mysore, and so by the time we reached it was already dark. We could've caught the musical fountain show but the crowd there was overwhelming, being a Sunday and nearing festival time. Plus there were too many unsavoury looking types there which made us all a bit uncomfortable given that they turn off all the lights for the fountain show.

The decision to leave was quick, and since it had been a pretty long day, we decided to head home. SIL and me were a bit sad as we had hoped to drive through Mysore and see the palace and the rest of the town all lit up. We also couldn't make it back to St. Philomena's Church. But as BIL pragmatically pointed out: leave something for the next trip!

Exploring Karnataka: Feathers & Scales

Last Sunday, we set off on a day-long trip to see some of the sights near Bangalore. There were four of us: hubby & me, his bro & his wife (BIL and SIL for the rest of the post). On the agenda were the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, Mysore Palace and Brindavan Gardens.

We'd decided to start at 7:30 a.m., so naturally, we only left at 8:15 :) We took the Kanakpura road out onto the Bangalore-Mysore highway, and planned to stop for breakfast at the much-hyped Kamath's. The place was packed as usual, though I don't know why, because the food doesn't live up to its reputation. It was all quite lacklustre and I found myself comparing it to the absolutely scrumptious fare I'd enjoyed at my local Adiyar Ananda Bhavan (A2B as its popularly known, and how I love that name!!!) Maybe its just that I prefer the Tamilian take on the dishes over the Kannadiga style ..... I am told that they are quite different and I will take hubby's word for it.

Anyway, after that filling but not satisfying breakfast, we proceeded on to Ranganathittu. I fell into a light doze and only snapped out of it when SIL made an offhand comment about how many crocodiles we would see.

"What???" I croaked. Crocodiles??? In a bird sanctuary?????

Childhood memories of Khoon Bhari Maang flooded my brain and I started having a silent, but potent, panic attack. What if something terrible happened? What if I lost a limb? What if I didn't make it back at all? I tried to pray, but images of Rekha being attacked by the croc still dominated.

Next to me, hubby calmly flipped through a guidebook and handed the part on the bird sanctuary to me. That's when I realised that Ranganathittu is a set of small islets on the Cauvery river and you have to go around in a boat (silent groans.......because I am not a boating fan) to see the birds. Whoever wrote the review apparently also flipped out after realising there were crocs, only to be reassured that the beasts are amply fed on fish from the Cauvery and so are uninterested in humans.

The worst of the panic subsided after I read this, though I still had serious qualms about what was coming up. But I didn't have any choice except to go ahead, and so ...... I did. One of the first things that reassured me on entering the sanctuary was the number of people there, all happily enjoying the place. I thought, hmmm ...... nothing seems to have happened to them, nothing will happen to me too.

From then on, I was my usual camera-crazed self ........ for a bit. We went up to this viewing platform with insanely steep steps. Climbing up was no problem, but looking at the steps from the top set off the panic again (yeah, I have issues with heights and with going down steps too :)) Basically, I have issues with a lot of things, but then I recalled this realisation I had a long time ago, even posted over here.

So I took a deep breath, told myself to focus and stop being a wimp and went down the damn steps. That same focus and hubby's firm hand got me on to the pokey little boat and then off we went. We were oohing and aahing over the many, many birds when hubs excitedly pointed out the first croc. And there it was, swimming just about ten feet away from us, not even looking at us. Seconds later, on the shore of the islet we were passing, a massive croc got up and turned its back on us. No baring of teeth, or snapping of scary jaws ....... just outright disinterest.

Well, that wasn't so bad, I thought. In fact, it had actually been pretty cool! Then on, I truly did enjoy myself. The birds were amazing, with the sweetest sight being the mommy birds feeding the little babies. Our boatman was quite the informative guide, who told us that these birds were the White Ibis, who'd come over from Nigeria, and that there were 50 crocodiles in the sanctuary (we barely saw five of them by the end, and I was actually disappointed :D).

We also saw cormorants, night herons, lapwings, wagtails ..... (or was it laptails & wagwings??? No, I'm sure I got it right the first time :)) On some of the taller trees, there were loads of what appeared like black leaves hanging from the higher branches. I looked at them curiously till hubby grinned and said they were bats! Thank heaven we were there in the middle of the day and nowhere around when those awful things woke up!!!

One of the best sights were the birds gracefully flying from islet to islet, swooping low over the water as they did so. SIL and me were frantically twisting left and right, trying to get those perfect shots of a bird with widespread wings that you see in magazines. Needless to say, we were unsuccessful. Wildlife photography requires the utmost patience and I stand in complete awe and respect of those people who patiently wait it out in the wild, to capture the animals in all their ...... animalness!

Our trip around the sanctuary was a scant half hour and it felt like we'd barely begun when we reached back. We walked along the banks of the river, trying to see if we could spot birds on the mainland, but didn't see any except the omnipresent crow! After some refreshing drinks from the small cafeteria, we then headed on towards Mysore ........ to be continued!

p.s.: In case you're wondering why there are no photos accompanying this post, well, that's because I'm seriously considering starting a photoblog (don't know why I never thought of it before). Hope to have it up by the end of this week.