Category Archives: Real Life Stories

Being Vulnerable

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“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”

Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.

https://backchannel.com/sheryl-sandbergs-accidental-revolution-9fadfcf90d6d?mbid=social_cp_fb_tny

I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.

Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”

Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.

Portrait of Two Ladies

imageSome stories are like that. You can read it again and again and then some more. You start smiling in anticipation, the feelings remain the same irrespective of the number of times you have read and relished it. And the end, that is why you go back. To relive some memories. The kind that make you feel this world is after all a good place. If not humans, there are sparrows and mango trees that care for you.

I read it again, today. After an year or so. And the wistful smile in my eyes is still the same, I know. And the ever so gentle tug in my heart, hasn’t changed. Even a teeny weeny bit. If someone asks me how many times I’ve read this story, the only answer would be, ‘a lot.’

A grandson remembers his grandmother. Khushwant Singh’s ‘Portrait of a Lady.’ His memories of an old lady, one who hasn’t changed a bit in the twenty odd years he has known her,

“we were certain she had always been as we had known her. Old, so terribly old that she could not have  grown older, and had stayed at the same age for twenty years. She could never have been pretty; but she was always beautiful.”

Back in the village , they were good friends. The boy and the old lady. The tie began to fray as the family moved to the city and the boy’s horizon grew beyond the walls of their room and the road to the village temple. He got his own room and later moved abroad for higher studies. He didn’t expect his grandmother to be alive at the end of five years, when he came home. Yet, she was still there. The only change was she had started feeding sparrows instead of the stray dogs back in the village pathways. The prayer beads still continued to turn in her hand as her lips moved in prayers that only she could hear.

Her demeanor changed one evening. Instead of her prayers, she started singing to the tunes of an old drum that she thumped along with the women of neighborhood whom she had collected. She was a wise woman. She knew her time was up and leave she did, peacefully as she prayed. The ending of the  story leaves me with bittersweet memories. Every single time. Without fail.

“We lifted her off the bed and, as is customary, laid her on the ground and covered her with a red shroud. After a few hours of mourning we left her alone to make arrangements for the funeral.

In the evening we went to her room with a crude stretcher to take her to be cremated. The sun was setting and had lit her room and verandah with a blaze of golden light. We stopped halfway in the courtyard. All over the verandah and in her room right up to where she lay dead and stiff, wrapped in the red shroud, thousands of sparrows sat scattered on the floor. There was no chirping. We felt sorry for the birds and my mother fetched some bread for them. She broke it into little crumbs, the way my grandmother used to, and threw it to them. The sparrows took no notice of the bread. When we carried my grandmother’s corpse off, they flew away quietly. Next morning the sweeper swept the breadcrumbs into the dustbin.”

The other end of the country, another wrinkled face. The hands were as hard as a man’s. Calluses left behind by a lifetime of garden tools. Hues of green fell on her hair that was now white. Seventeen trees that dropped mangoes in the night rain and daytime breeze. Then the others, each had their own season. Jack Fruit, Bambloos Naaranga, Cinnamon, Kokum, Guava, even Oranges. But it was for the mangoes that her eyes shined the brightest. Neelam, Salem, Moovandan, Chandrika and a host of other nameless ones. The ones that stained her grandchildren’s dresses as it oozed down in thick yellow down the young chins that quivered with mirth.

It was a monsoon evening that she fell ill. She had a pact, with Mother Mary. To call her on a Saturday, that she could go directly to heaven. No purgatory in between. A straight pass. And Mary kept her promise. She went, on a Saturday evening. In style, thunder beating the drums and lightning showing the path. Straight, to heaven.

December came, cold and dry. The leaves turned tender everywhere. And then burst out in dull green flowers. Like stars in the sky.

But the seventeen that she left behind, they didn’t cry. Even a single teardrop.

The yard lay silent that year.

( picture courtesy – google images)

The Year through the Reads – Part 1

Resolutions and promises are alike. The intention is always good, unless it is to kill someone . The year started with a resolve that in hindsight sounds lofty. To write a review on each book that I read. That reminds me of another challenge that I took up on myself. To read 100 books  against 80 last year. If you get the drift of how most things in my life turn out, suffice to say the well begun things still remain half done. In fact, that was one proverb that has confused me no end as a kid. If you begin things well, would it always remain incomplete, my young brain used to wonder. Not that it has got better with age. The brain, that is. Anyway, if not all, let me make an attempt to run through some books that I enjoyed, a few that I loved and certain others that started well, and well, lay somewhere between the beginning and the end.

tuscanyThe year started slow. Work was low key, books were aplenty and I had all the time in the world. Chin propped on a few pillows, body spread languidly on my bed, I would read a few paragraphs and then gaze out into the horizon, lost in a world that was far away, yet so familiar. A dilapidated stone villa somewhere in the beautiful hills of Tuscany, pathways covered with bright bougainvilleas,  olive trees all around and an ancient kitchen, it was as if the writer had got into mind and stolen my dreams. It took me almost a week to finish the book, it was like drinking vintage wine, sip, swirl and savour, at leisure. Her memories of restoring a run down Tuscan villa, Frances Mayes’ ‘Under the Tuscan Sun‘ is definitely one of my favorites this year.

The next one couldn’t have been a wilder contrast. Life is not just stranger, it is much more starker than fiction. This was one story that proved it, yet again. A much talked about one, this was on the reading list for quite sometime. The Middle East is a land of honey and gold, for those who have never been there. To each who has made his millions there, there are hundreds who have burnt themselves, caught in a life that you could never even imagine. Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham‘ (translated as ‘Goat Days’) leaves you disturbed for days after you have finished reading it. The taste  that it leaves behind in your mouth is something that you would find difficult to swallow.

Authors are a breed that I normally know through their books and they inspire awe more than love and affection. This was a year that I learned the reverse could be true as well. When someone whom you love like a little sister publishes her first novella, one doesn’t need another reason to celebrate. When the story turns out to be as lyrical as a poem, it is like the proverbial cherry on the cake. Intermingling myth and love, Neelima Vinod has woven a story that is as beautiful as the yakshi in the old palace. ‘Unsettled: The Search for Love and Meaning‘ was a short and delightful read.

The year also saw a passionate book lover turn into an e reader. It is a blessing to have someone in your life who notices  what you do and thentuscany tries to ease your burdens that extra bit. The husband must have been noticing the weight of books that I lug around wherever I go, that he decided to gift me an iPad for my birthday. The transition was not easy, I admit. And I have to admire his optimism, a Kindle that was gifted two years ago lay long forgotten in the dark recesses of a cupboard. What they say about first impressions must be true about first reads as well. ‘The Goldfinch‘ by Donna Tart, which had won more than a few awards was the first e book of the year. To say that I was hooked would not be an exaggeration, by the book as well as the device.

Given a choice, travelling is something that I would do for a living, second only to reading. The motto is, if not in real life, vicarious at least. No surprise then that stories of travel turn favorites. I have to admit women travelling alone is something that fascinates me no end. And this was an year that I got to do a much longed for solo trip. Let me not digress. So, it was with great expectations that I started with ‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman‘ by Alice Steinbach. It didn’t take long to realize that what each of us expects out of travel and life could be as varied as chalk and cheese.
tuscanyIt was not all bad for travel, though. I first heard of P.G. Tenzing through his obituary. Someone who went before his time, to borrow a clichéd phrase, he might have had a foreboding as to what was waiting for him. For, he chucked his Civil Services job and went on a ride of his life on his Enfield Bullet. ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions‘ is a celebration of friends and life.

Husband says he is thankful I don’t ride a bike. He knows me well, I should say. Else, who knows where I would have taken off to. Having resigned to the fact that there are some things in life that you may not get to do, this book has rekindled my hopes. ‘The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle‘ by Diana Bletter may not be great literature, but it did remind me again that you are never too old for anything, even to get on a bike and ride all the way across to Alaska.

‘Things that your heart yearns for come searching for you’ is something that I live by. Life has proved it to me time and again, especially in the case of books. Serendipity it is then, when you find one of the best travel books of the year while travelling. The first thing that the eyes search for in a new place are the books that adorn the shelves. I have to be honest here and admit the expectation level was pretty low as I picked this book up from one of the old wooden shelves of a home stay in Himachal Pradesh. Alone, but not feeling lonely at all in the mountains, I was prepared to read through a documentary kind of book. The evidently Malayali name of the author had also piqued my interest. To say that Vivek Menon had me by hook right from page one would be an understatement. Tales about nine animals that were on the verge of disappearing from the face of the earth, in a style that has no parallels, the book had me in splits several times. Sparing no one including himself, he regales us with tales of rogues as well as honest to the core forest officers thanks to whom we still have semblance of forests across the country and animals in them. From Eravikulam to Ranthambore to lesser known national parks like Laokhawa in Assam, the author takes us to places we may never get to see otherwise. The sad part is that we may also never get to see the animals that he talks about, thanks to the roaring underground trade in exotic animals and birds. ‘On the Brink: Travels in the Wilds of India‘ is one of those rare finds for me this year. Especially because it has kindled my interest in a genre that I rarely venture into. A must read, for wildlife enthusiasts and those who love a good read.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet,” observed Jhumpa Lahiri in ‘The Namesake.’ If not for books, how could you traverse the paths followed by those famed travellers of the past? Marco Polo was just a name in school history text books and some passing references on travel. Until I read ‘Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu‘ by Laurence Bergreen. An expedition that ran over twenty four years, from Venice through Constantinople, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mongolia, China , Tibet, India and back to Venice. It is a treasure trove of customs that sound strange to us, of people whom we consider barbarians yet seem to have been far more progressive than us and of lands and paths that the wanderlust in our souls yearns for. Marco spent seventeen of the twenty  four years serving the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, son of the great Genghis Khan. This is again another book that a lover of history and travel should not miss.

It would have been no coincidence that two of the best books of the year were on travel and I got to read it during one of the best travels in my life. I cannot but mention another one that I read before my travel. It was a few quotes from his ‘On Love’ that made me go exploring the books of Alain de Botton. However,the first book of his that caught my attention was ‘The Art of Travel‘. The title was misleading, I was expecting to get some glimpses of the author’s thoughts on how to take travel as an art. Sometimes, not meeting your expectations can be a huge blessing. The last chapter of the book was the best and will stay with me for life. ‘On Possessing Beauty’ as it is called, talks about John Ruskin, an artist whom I’d never heard of before. According to Ruskin, humans have this innate desire to possess beauty. And he says, the only way to possess it is by understanding it. And the most effective way to understand, you ask?

“by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.”

This had set the tone to how I experienced the places and people on that trip. Look and observe, think of the minutest details, listen to the leaves rustling around you, feel the wind and its myriad forms on your face, in the water, see how the mountains change colours, in short be still and know the nature. When the hustle and bustle of daily life frays my nerves too much, I go back to Botton and Ruskin. Absolute serenity, it is.

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 The Ducal Palace, Venice by John Ruskin

(continued here…)

‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ by Samanth Subramanian

islandThe abbreviation IPKF, loud speakers blaring some mumbo jumbo and the name Rajiv Gandhi resonating in our ears in the early morning hours from a hostel room, the disbelief, shock and painful pictures that followed and years later, the portly figure of Velupillai Prabhakaran with the marks of a gun shot on his forehead, the war in Sri Lanka could very well have been summarized in these fleeting pictures. Strangely, it was the names of the places that had stuck on – Jaffna, Killinochi, Vavunia, Mannar, Mullativu, Batticaloa – were as familiar as a Fort Kochi, Ambalappuzha or Changanacherry. The newspaper statistics were something to be read like the daily weather report. Until I read this book.

For most of the world around, the war in Sri Lanka ceased to exist when Prabhakaran was shot dead. The silence that followed was eerie when you think of it in retrospect. Samanth Subramanian has tried to break through this darkness. Travelling cautiously and talking in hushed tones to people, who many a time sounds like ghosts stuck in a time warp, he has tried to bring out stories of a race who was betrayed by a country they thought was theirs as well as by those who was supposed to protect them.

Reading mostly one sided stories from a Tamil perspective, the LTTE and Prabhakaran were almost heroic figures of my youth. And with a name that is so obviously Tamil, I am guilty of expecting a somewhat biased story from a Subramanian, told from a parochial perspective. And as happens with unfounded prejudices, I was proved wrong, and for once am glad about it. Setting a context to the origins of the war, going back as far as 2500 years or more, the question at the root is what was the war all about? If it was about ethnicity, history proves the very foundation of the war to be absurd.

“Nobody knows with certainty whether the Sinhalese were here before the Tamils. Both communities have lived on the island for over twenty centuries, and they have spent that time not only feuding but also intermarrying. Legend informs us that, 2500 years ago, even the progenitor of the Sinhalese race imported a Tamil princess to be his wife.”

As you read on, you understand the origins of LTTE. A majority race trying to suppress the minority, forcing a ‘national’ langauge, reservations for ‘natives’, a systematic and focussed propaganda network, side lining a  community that seem to have thrived and as always, the hunger for ultimate power. Simultaneously reading Ramachandra Guha’s ‘India after Gandhi’ and following the chronology, the uncanny similarities were scary in some places. But then, when war is told from the angle of those who are affected the most, it is the same wherever in the world the war might be.

Subramanian’s success is the impartial way in which he writes , irrespective of whether it is about Prabhakaran or Rajapakse. Both of them are intoxicated by the power they wield. Where the reader is hooked is in the human elements. The author narrates stories instead of reporting. Whether it is the wife of an abducted journalist, a reformed terrorist in London or the innumerable ordinary men and women whom he meets, it is they that show us the travails of a war that did no one any good. The gradual loss of faith of the Tamil population is poignantly brought out in these words,

“It was a scene where Tamils were beating up Tamils and sending them to their certain deaths. It shouldn’t have been like that. If this was really our cause, we should have wanted to go voluntarily. But we didn’t.” This was the war the Tigers lost first, the war for the unconditional affections of the island’s Tamils and for the uncontested right to fight on their behalf.

Predominantly a country of Buddhists, one would think that the monks could have played an active role in bringing peace to this ravaged land. That notion is dispelled as you read of monks who turn politicians and who are equally bad or even worse than the others. Yes, they have their own theories too, on the why. As the author says,

“Shrink the humanity of your enemy, and the fighting must see easier, more just, less complicated. Warfare consists of several psychological tricks, not least the ones you play upon yourself.”

The psyche of paranoia is unbelievable and it shows the extent to which a forest brigand could terrorize a nation. The erstwhile home of Prabhakaran is razed to the ground, even the sand was dredged and dumped in some unknown location lest people start deifying the land blessed by his feet. The systematic destruction of anything that is even remotely Tamilian can only be described as a genocide. It is more about destroying something you hate than establishing what you believe in.

What leaves you with more than a heavy heart are the families of those that were abducted in front of their loved ones and about whom there are only rumours. A group of people who live in eternal hope, refusing to let go. For, many of the camps were in undisclosed locations with no access for even organizations  like the Red Cross and very few people have come out from there to tell any stories. There is a feeling of sheer despondency as  he leaves you with these words,

“In the wretchedness stakes of post-war Sri Lanka, there was always somebody worse off. Even hitting rock bottom was difficult because it was so thickly carpeted by the dead.”

Verdict – A must read, for anyone even remotely interested in human stories.

4/5

(p.s. I am going in search of his first book, ‘ Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast‘)

 

Francesca and Robert – some random thoughts

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I first read ‘The Bridges of Madison County‘ at an age when one believes love is only for the young. Anyone above forty would  have been done and dusted with romance and got lost in the mundane things of life. It was no wonder that the book left a kind of disbelief in my mind. Really? A fifty something house wife, somewhere in the wild falling in love with a wandering photographer? Not just that, plunging headlong into a full blown affair? And then, celebrating their anniversary? The feeling was of a mild disgust – how could she do this to her husband – and total disbelief.

Well, at times, with age comes wisdom and acceptance. So does a gradual change in the definition of romance. It is really difficult to remember when the change starts taking over you. The sudden surge in hormones that brings forth a luminous glow in your eyes, that makes your heart rate go at the rate of a super bike and turns your bones into jelly, slowly transitions to something deeper.  Looks doesn’t seem to matter much anymore. You are more interested  in what comes out of a mouth guarded by those sensuous lips rather than imagining a scorching kiss on them. Along with family and kids came a better understanding of Francesca, but questions remain aplenty.

Few days ago, a friend of mine shared this beautiful love story. It’s about a night that Sir Isiah Berlin spent in Leningrad in 1945. Through a friend, he met the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, twenty years older to him and about whom he did not know much. The article goes on about how as the night progressed, they went from one topic to another, discovering more and more about themselves, the books, thoughts and philosophies they had in common, “They had read all the same things, knew what the other knew, understood each other’s longings,” is what Berlin’s biographer says about the meeting. That night was something the two of them would never forget in their lives and probably influenced many a story and poem that the two brought out. A rare connection of heart and intellect.

Reading the story, my mind automatically went back to Robert Kincaid, the ‘peregrine’ photographer who had come to Iowa to capture the covered bridges of the county. He meets Francesca, wife of a country farmer and the next few days define the rest of their lives. They would have never imagined or even had the wildest dream  about such a confluence souls.

“It’s clear to me now that  I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty humming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.”

Call it destiny, fate, luck, serendipity or whatever you may, the essential feeling is the same, that this was bound to happen. All is well as long as the two of you are unattached and you know no one is going to get hurt. The power of recognition and love is so strong, it is just not possible to find fault in their relationship. Yet, a question keeps gnawing at the corners of my heart, “what if it was me? Would  I have jumped at the chance?”

Francesca was a free and passionate spirit and wanted to see the world. She had jumped at the chance to get out of her small Italian village, so got married to the dashing American soldier, only to live the rest of her life in a remote farm land in Iowa, miles away from civilization. Into her conventional life comes this leopard-like handsome creature, upsetting her plcaid existence and pulling out all that she had pushed down into the deepest recesses of her heart. She realizes that at her age, there could never be another chance. And she decides to give that gift to herself.

Not surprisingly, I haven’t given much thought to Robert, except as the handsome Clint Eastwood. He is free to do anything he wants without too many repercussions. It is Francesca that kept stealing silently into my thoughts, “why didn’t she take the chance of a lifetime? she could have had the life that she always dreamed of, why did she let go?” And then that nagging question again, “what would I have done, in her place?”

More often than not, we want more than what we already have. Especially so, if you are a dreamer. We are in constant search of that someone or something that would make you whole and complete. Someone who fits into the contours of your soul, mind, body and intellect with perfect ease, as if you were parts of the same puzzle. Alas, the imperfect mortals that we are, with all the associated faults and foibles, perfection turns out to be a mere chimera. So what would you do, if you are one of those rarest ones, who is lucky enough to find that elusive mate, even if it is only for sometime, irrespective of whether you are young or old? Would you grab that chance with everything that you have and let go of all else? Would  you just ignore it or would you do as Francesca did – fill her soul to the brim and feed from it for the rest of her life?

It was Francesca who gave me my answer,

“The paradox is this: If it hadn’t been for Robert Kincaid, I’m not sure I could have stayed on the farm all these years. In four days, he gave me a lifetime, a universe, and made the separate parts of me into whole. I have never stopped thinking of him, not for a moment. Even when he was not in my conscious mind, I could feel him somewhere, always he was there.

But it never took away from anything I felt for the two of you or your father. Thinking only of myself for a moment, I’m not sure I made the right decision. But taking the family into account, I’m pretty sure I did.”

‘One Life to Ride – A Motorcycle Journey to the High Himalayas’ by Ajit Harisinghani

rideAfter ‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’, I went on a downloading spree of biking books. Started with this one, the main reason was the ‘Himalayas’ in the name. Mountains have always fascinated me. Coming from a place where the land is flat and below sea level to boot, the first sight of mountains was pure awe. The hills of Idukki paled in comparison to the Snow Lord’s abode is something that I realized a few years later. Since then, Leh, Ladakh and The Valley of Flowers have been beckoning from far.

Coming back to the book, the author, in his mid fifties, decides to go on a trip of his dreams, all alone. Based out of Pune, he first makes a trip to Goa, to attune himself and his bike to the long and arduous trip later.

The book goes in a somewhat documentary style, describing places and people that he meets on the way, adding his thoughts to it. A couple of incidents, or rather people caught my heart. The first one was a fakir , a true one, cycling his way to Mecca from Mumbai. At times, profound thoughts turn into words and comes from least expected sources. To the author’s question of how long it takes to reach Mecca, the wise man replies,

“Sirf badan ko wahan le jaana hai.

Rooh to wahin rahtee hai.” *

The part that  stays with me is his meeting with the jawans in Kashmir. There is one incident where the author is frightened by a group of young men rushing at him, only to realize they were soldiers from the Maratha regiment and they had run to him seeing the MH number plate on his bike. They take him to their barracks and he realizes as he talks to them,

“The moment to moment stress is taking its toll. They try to camouflage it by an outward show of bravado but these young men, so far away from their homes, standing around me, look like lonely children marooned in a dangerous world.”

The longing for home, the need to talk to someone, the catch in their throats, the knowledge that this might be their last day, and the feeling of not knowing whom you can trust keep resonating in your heart long after you’re done reading . I was left with a feeling of guilt and despair at the world that we so take for granted.

Otherwise, the narration seemed quite ordinary in most places. Not one that tugged at my heart.

Verdict – A light read, may delight if you are interested in travel, not so much for a bike enthusiast.

3/5 for the story and narration and 5/5 for those encounters with the jawans.

 

(* He was merely transporting his body to where his soul already lived)

 

‘How to Bake a Perfect Life’ by Barbara O’Neal

“Out of such simple ingredients – only flour and salt and wild yeast and fresh water – comes the miraculous holiness of bread”

Friends and family know what an absolute foodie I am.  Baking has become not just a passion but an obsession in the past few years. Forget about others, even I was shocked that the cakes, cookies and breads that come out of my kitchen these days are at par to those you get from your patisseries. Yes, you guessed it right, modesty is one of my biggest virtues, indeed 😉

Have you ever been enticed into a shop by that most heavenly of all smells, that of baking bread? It was with trepidation that I started my first bread a year or so ago. As expected, the first few were near disasters. Then the dough started responding to the love that my palms were beating into it. There’s been no looking back since then. The process is one of the best therapeutic sessions you could think of and the smell of freshly baked bread is the most inviting of all. It was little wonder then that seconds after reading through the blurb, the book was on my Kindle.

breadRamona Gallagher is expecting her first grandchild. A single mother at 15, her daughter Sofia is the center of her life along with the boulangerie that she runs out of a Victorian house that was her grandmother’s. With Sofia’s soldier husband fighting for his life and her business under threat of closing down, her life seem to be on the verge of breaking down, again. If that was not enough, Katie, her daughter Sofia’s step daughter has come to stay with her.

An unexpected teenage pregnancy alienated Ramona from almost everyone in her family. Bread making comes to her rescue first as she is banished to her aunt Poppy’s house to give birth to her child.  As the yeast  ferments, loosens up  and raises the dough to a delicious, soft and fluffy bread, she comes to term with the restless and rioting emotions that was raging within her. As the author quotes from ‘The Art of Eating’ by M.F.K. Fisher, Ramona learns something that will keep her steady through life’s twists and turns.

“Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells…there is no chiropractic treatment…no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

She goes back to her family with her baby who captures their hearts instantly. After a divorce that further shatters her relationship with her already embittered family, Ramona finds herself in her grandmother’s house that was bequeathed to her.  Struggling to keep her business afloat, she now finds herself with the additional responsibility of an emotionally crushed teenager and her dog. As she tries to sort out Katie’s life, Ramona also comes to terms with her life – past and present – and her family.

A delightful read, I would say. The author has excelled in portraying the details, you get the essence of the places and people quite clearly, you can almost smell the bread baking in the ovens, the early morning busy feeling in the kitchen, the bread on the shelves that are brown, soft and inviting, it is as if you are an invisible presence there.

What pulled me back was the almost predictable storyline, it was as if I was reading an evolved and sophisticated Mills & Boon story. Like a perfect dough, all the ingredients for a happy life are thrown in the right proportions, with some failures in between to churn out the perfect piece of bread. Hence the title, maybe. The pieces fit too perfectly, including a perfect boy friend 🙂

Verdict : A must read, if you love baking bread. If you are someone who loves warm stories with good people and happy endings, go for it. In case you normally read serious stuff and need a break in between, pick it up…. only if you love the art of baking or even eating

3.5/5

‘Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions’ by P.G. Tenzing

blokeMany of us go through the existential pangs of life from time to time, especially when we are in a place that we don’t want to be or working with people whom we hate. Rarely does anyone show the courage to say out loud, “to hell with it” and walk the talk. Here is one guy who did just that and if that was not enough, went on a 25,000 km bike ride across the country.

P.G. Tenzing, an IAS officer from Sikkim, who spent almost 20 years in Kerala did just that when he was 43. This is his account of that journey, told in a no nonsense manner, in an inimitable style. Along with observations about his friends and people whom he meets along the way, he also writes about his disillusionment about the system and his helplessness about many a thing political as well.

His sense of humor is brilliant and is evident throughout the narration. Particularly enticing to me was his love for food,

” Food in Kerala is to die for. Fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever, all cooked in delectable coconut oil. Except ‘putte’ – a rice based cylindrical piece of poison which can choke you during breakfast.”

Starting from Varkala beach near Trivandrum, he rides up north, spending a minimum of 6-7 hours on the bike as he traverses the length and breadth of the country.

What makes his story more interesting in retrospect is his thoughts on death. Having survived it twice – once from an illness and the from an accident, he seems almost casual in his observation,

” my father tried to prepare us for death. He used to talk about its certainty, it’s inevitability. So when I started my search for life’s meaning, death was a significant part of the equation. I am nowhere near understanding anything, but am nowhere near understanding anything, but am at this point comfortable with the idea of death. It happens. Shit happens. Be prepared. Prepare your family, friends and all who will listen.”

Premonition? Definitely so. Not much later after his book was published, he passes on after a brief illness.

The story makes you want to just go and do whatever it is that you have always wanted to. It reminds us that life can sometimes to be too short. The friends along the way, in almost every town and village, give us glimpses of a man who was loved by many. And that makes us realize what a life well lived means. The tale ends with a thought that is so relevant to all of us ,

“I may have issues with my life, and I have been buffeted about a bit, but those are nothing compared to the daily battering taken by Mohan and his ilk. Living with them has made me rethink many established idiocies and realize that all those high-sounding spiritual, psychological and emotional arguments we have the luxury to engage in, in our temperature-controlled drawing rooms, take a very low backseat indeed when you are existing – subsisting- day to day.”

Verdict – A must read, I would say.

4/5

‘Absolute Khushwant’ by Khushwant Singh and Humra Quraishi

khushwant“An old man is entitled to his secrets, fantasies, Scotch, good company,”

says the inimitable Khushwant Singh at 95. The name was a taboo in my younger days, for what he was known most for was ‘sleaze and scotch.’ Reading his articles in the occasional ‘Illustrated Weekly’ I was lucky enough to get my hands on , the title bestowed on him was difficult to believe, at times. ‘Train to Pakistan’ was the first of his books that I came across. How could this man write about something so serious was the first thought. Finished it in one go and it was after many a day that the pain subsided. The next one was ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and I was in love with this ‘notorious’ author.

‘Absolute Khushwant’ is a collection of his thoughts and experiences on writing, religion, people he admire, partition, the Delhi riots, in short, his life. The one trait that comes through is his honesty, in all areas of his life, including his unhappy marriage. Here is a sample,

“I have never taken anyone seriously, least of all myself. I have always been a nosy person, forever probing into other people’s private lives. I love to gossip and have an insatiable appetite for scandal.”

The picture that he paints elsewhere sounds contradictory as he tells us about his work ethics.

“Over the years I have discovered what enormous energy silence creates, energy that socializing and useless chit chat depletes.”

The partition and the 1984 Delhi riots left a deep impact on him and it is evident that he could never get over the pain. His concern for the religious fundamentalism had landed him in trouble , he was on top of the Khalistani hit list. Even an almost successful attempt at his life did not stop him from speaking out about what he believed in. His philosophy on life is best summarized in his own words,

” I would like to be remembered as someone who made people smile.”

Isn’t that essence of being a true human being?

Verdict – An absolutely delightful read, whether you have read him before is irrelevant. Perfect for a pleasant afternoon.

4/5

Meanwhile in December….

So, I’ve been busy boozing baking, like it was going to be deemed illegal. Oh don’t raise your eyebrows, the rate at which things are being judged  immoral, illegal , illegitimate and what not, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Supreme Court judge finds baking soda to be against the tenets of some now obscure religion, baking could indeed be banned, you know 🙂

Anyway, December was one of most hectic months that I’d seen in a long time. Baked almost fifty cakes, sold half of them and played Santa to many a friend. Kids fell ill, one after another, thankfully. Office was crazy as usual, the change over from one legal entity to another did nothing to lessen the daily madness. None of these was a deterrent to my life mantra, “Come what may, I will read.” A few that I managed to devour in the odd moments out of life as usual..

‘Open : An Autobiography’ by Andre Agassi

andreHis fate was sealed even before he was born. Andre’s father had decided his youngest , whether boy or girl, would be the world number one in Tennis. From the day he was born, tennis was all he was allowed to even think of. Hard as it is to believe, the boy grew up to hate tennis, but he didn’t or was not allowed to know any other way of life. After a spate of local wins, he was sent   to the boot camp style tennis academy in Florida where he turns into a total rebel.

The book is less about tennis and more about life, in general. How parents can build or break their kids. The terrible sense of meaninglessness and bewilderment is what young Andre seem to plod on with during his teenage and youth years. It is as if he is searching for something all along, not knowing what exactly it is that he is searching for. This is the story of how he finds the answer finally.

It is also about the guardian angels in his life – the elder brother, the friend for life, the coach and last but never the least, his trainer Gil – they are the ones that need to be mentioned above all. Andre’s life and success as we know it, were built on these pillars. But for them, the story would have  had a totally different end. This was my take away from the book – that a single person believing in you, unwavering, can alter your life for ever. And yes, the story also covers his first marriage to Brooke Shields and then the calmer and stable one with Stefanie Graf. What is most heartening about the couple is the seamless understanding that they seem to have about each other and the way in which they bring up their kids. Both of them would rather not have their kids playing tennis.

True respect for the man comes when we read about his philanthropic activities, especially the ‘Andre Agassi College Preparatory School’ The school is located in one of the most economically challenged areas of Western Las Vegas. Having not completed his education, Agassi started the school with the belief that “the best way to change a child’s life is through education.” Rated as ‘High Achieving’ within eight years, I am sure this is going to be his lasting legacy,what he would be known for in future.

Verdict – Go get it, doesn’t matter whether you like tennis or not

5/5

‘Revolutionary Road ‘ by Richard Yates

One of those classic cases where too much expectation leads you to a  deep disappointment. The book is touted as a classic and was on my reading listrevolution for quite some time. The story revolves around Frank and April Wheeler, the quitessential all American couple – Frank with a job that he is complacent about but that pays him well enough for a home in the suburbs, a wife who can afford to stay at home and the customary two kids. The characters, their behavior, what they want to and what they actually do, their conversations, everything sounded artificial. Maybe that was the point of the story, anyway, found that this was a tea that I would have thrown out half way down, but for that masochistic streak that refuses to let me close a ‘classic’ half way through 🙂

Verdict – Will not recommend to anyone…..at least until I find some hidden meaning in there

3/5 – for the style, loved that

‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ by Paul Torday

salmonThe best antidote to an exhausting month, this was a Christmas gift from a fellow book lover. Like a hot cup of sulaimani chai after a heavy lunch, this book kept me company and solace on Christmas day and the next. Simple life of ordinary people, told in a straight from the heart language have always enamored me, and this wasn’t any different.

Dr. Alfred Jones, a timid fisheries scientist, who leads life in the shadows of his intimidating investment banker wife , would never have thought how his life would change after he gets a request to head a project that sounds not just foolish, but insane. A sheikh from the arid deserts of Yemen wants to start Salmon fishing in his country. And his only back up is his belief that Allah will perform a miracle if He so wills.

The story is also a satire on English politics, or rather politics everywhere. People who have no clue about ground realities are in charge of projects, their only concern is the image that would be presented to the world. I loved the way the story was told and how Dr. Jones’ life is transformed along with the Salmon project.

Verdict – A pleasant sunny read.  If you look for goodness in people, stories splashed with subtle humor, go for it.

4/5

December must have been the only month last year where I read less than a book per week. I had taken up a challenge to read 70 books and completed about 80. On that high, have set a bar of 100 for 2014, and have also promised myself to review all 100. Wish me luck folks!