February 22, 2007

For as long as I can remember, books have been my constant, faithful companions. They have been my refuge in troubled times, just as much as they have been a delight in times of leisure. They have filled up long, lovely summer holidays, and lured me away from all manner of ills, such as exams, boyfriends, TV, and work.

As a child, endowed with a vivid imagination, I would read while eating, walking, talking, being driven to school and back, and even – if I could – while sleeping, or pretending to sleep. In my imagination, I saw events unfold around me that had nothing to do with home, school, or family, and everything to do with Noddy, Winnie the Pooh, the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, William, Nancy Drew (for a short while), Biggles, Hercule Poirot, Lord Emsworth and all manner of other exotic people and locales.

More than ten years ago, straight out of college, I started making a list of books as I read them. Inevitably, the list of books grew into a series of book reviews. They were short, they were entirely subjective, they gave away nothing about the plot, but they were book reviews even before I knew what a book review was. Looking back over this list, I find that the number of books I’ve got through in the last ten-odd years is about 150, which number seems dismally small to me, when there are so many thousands of books out there that I simply must read.

My mother always had an eclectic collection of books. Over the years, it has grown so alarmingly that now it has practically taken over their house. I do believe that if you consider any subject under the sun (or, for that matter, beyond it), you’d find a book on it somewhere in their long miles of bookshelves.

Our own modest collection, begun with whatever Amit and I could salvage of our favorites from our parental homes, is not even a fraction as impressive. But there’s hope yet. Our bookshelves, few though they are, are overflowing, and there’ s no dearth of unread books at home. To photograph them, as Andy has done, I’d need to assemble them all into one bookshelf, an effort highly taxing and likely beyond the realms of possibility. For my part, I don’t let these minor considerations prevent me from acquiring more books at every occasion.

As for the matter of top ten books – my list would simply be too long! I could, however, attempt to list my top ten authors, but I’m not at all sure this list covers all my top ten authors. For whatever it’s worth, though, here goes (in no particular order):

  • P G Wodehouse
  • Charles Dickens
  • Gerald Durrell
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Agatha Christie
  • Dick Francis
  • J R R Tolkein
  • Enid Blyton
  • Herge

After much thought, I can’t think of a tenth. I can think of a lot of one-book wonders, but don’t want to include them in a list where the others have multiple works, many of which I have read more than once. Herge, of course, is not, strictly speaking, an author, but TinTin is such a wonderful character I could hardly leave him out of this list. Noticeably, J K Rowling didn’t find a mention in my list, somewhat to my own surprise. For me, she rates in the second list, the top 100, along with such luminaries as Bill Bryson, James Herriot, Ruth Rendell, Jane Austen, Rex Stout, Ed McBain, M Scott Peck, GK Chesterton, Robert Fulgham, Danielle Steele, Thomas Hardy, Douglas Adams, Homer, and sundry one-book-wonders (who merit a list unto themselves, maybe, some day).

The internet is a fantastic thing, and fills up many hours both happily and productively and lets you keep in touch with old friends and make new ones, and read about lots of things you might otherwise never have read about. But, for old-fashioned book-lovers like me, there’s nothing quite like curling up with a good book and in its pages meeting friends, old or new, and getting lost with them in a distant world that exists only in those pages and in your mind.

Renewing an Expired Passport – Part 4

February 14, 2007
My previous blog entry on this matter covered Part 1 and 2. Part 3, which was to be appended later, found brief mention in an unrelated (or at least, not directly related) blog entry and here can be cursorily summed up as: got passport by mail. Normally, the story should have ended there, but – such is life – it suddenly picked up the thread several weeks later. I got a phone call from the police station. The cop wanted to know if he could drop in and verify me. For my passport.

I informed him that I had I already got my passport.

“True, but I still need to verify you,” he explained courteously, and went on to ask my convenience!

After a couple of false alarms, he did finally land up on our doorstep one Sunday afternoon. He had already requested me to keep some photocopies and photographs ready, and I had them in my hand, hoping to hand them to him and see the last of him, but no: he settled himself in the only chair in our living room and fished out a sheaf of papers.

Over the next 20 minutes, he slowly and meticulously completed his paperwork, asking me questions and diligently noting down my replies. He conversed with me entirely in Kannada and to my own amazement I managed to stumble along, replying mostly in English, but at least replying appropriately (I guess – because he didn’t get any thoroughly confused looks on his face like I have sometimes caused in my effort to speak my father tongue, Bengali).

That Sunday was one of Amit’s (rare) “get-it-done-and-do-it-now” days, and when the cop came, he (Amit, not the cop) was sitting on the floor in the kitchen doing battle with a recalcitrant drawer in the kitchen cupboard. He (again, Amit, not the cop) was, of course, thoroughly disgracefully dressed in tennis clothes (T-shirt and obscenely short shorts). The whole scene amused the cop no end and he smiled and made some comments to the effect that the man of the house should not be sitting on the floor and that, mind you, he often did have to fix things at home in like manner himself. Or that’s what I understood him to say, though honestly, my knowledge of Kannada is so rudimentary that he might have been commenting on the weather, for all I know.

Perhaps because of my attempts to converse in Kannada, or perhaps because of Amit’s comely attire and homely task, the cop seemed quite pleased with us. We, likewise were extremely pleased with him, because he did not ask us for anything, other than a glass of water and a stapler, which he used to staple his papers and then politely returned. Of course, as I had already got my passport, he did not have much of a basis to demand anything, but it was nice to see that he didn’t even try. He even went so far as to explain, apologetically, that the police verification process had been delayed as the papers had been sent off to the wrong police station. (This was quite understandable; strangely enough, though our nearest police station is not even 1 km away, the police station that our apartment complex belongs to is several km away and not connected by any clear logical or geographical link.)

My proficiency in spoken Kannada fell far short of allowing me to make any polite conversation with the cop, but, as he was leaving, and once it was clear that he was not going to make any unwelcome demands, I ventured to give it a shot. “Sunday’s not a holiday for you,” I asked in ungrammatical Kannada. “No, no, no holiday, in fact it is the best day for doing this work because most people are available at home,” he replied cheerfully, as he waved a sheaf of passport verification forms at me and disappeared.

Again, I conclude that the Bangalore police force, much-maligned though it is, is not all bad.

Whistling at Guys

February 11, 2007
After my blog and offline discussions about being Violated, I have been thinking that, well, if this happens to so many of us women, and if it is so disturbing to us, why the hell don’t we do anything about it?

I have never been an “activist” sort of person, for primarily two reasons. One because, while I do believe that I don’t need to bend to those rules of the world that I don’t agree with, I also feel that I don’t need to attempt to change those rules, because that is out of my control and not worth wasting my time on. Secondly, many times I don’t believe in taking a stance on an issue, on a “live-and-let-live” basis. For example, I personally might feel that abortion is tantamount to murder, but I would not try to convince anyone else on this matter, because I believe that they are entitled to their own opinions.

So, while I generally stand by my beliefs, I don’t usually stand up for them.

And yet, after reading Hawkeye’s blog, I’ve realized that I also subscribe to the belief that rather than simply complaining about our problems, we need to do something about them. It is not enough to get around the problem, we need to confront it. Otherwise we, the victims of the system, are as much to blame for the continuation and propagation of the system, as the perpetrators. This supremely generic statement holds equally for sexual harassment, for shop-keepers charging more than MRP, and for corruption in government offices, amongst other issues. If we don’t make a noise about it, it’s never going to change.

And so I joined in the Blank Noise Project.

We met at the Rest House Road park on Sunday afternoon. 4.15 p.m was the appointed hour, and when I reached at 4.25, there were already a score of people gathered. Introductions and briefing went on till 5.30 and then we put our plan in action.

The first step was to wander around MG Road and Brigade Road distributing letters to the general public, mostly to women. The letters narrated similar incidents to those I describe in my blog, Violated. They were short, harsh, and attention-grabbing. They were simple text printed on plain white A4 paper and folded over into eighths. They were not pamphlets or brochures.

Being the sort who would just ignore papers thrust my way while strolling on MG Road, I was really surprised when most of the people I offered the letter to, took it. I handed out 20+.

Then, we 35-odd women lined up against the railing on Brigade Road, looking at the crowds passing by, chatting a little, and trying to look as if we were just “hanging out”. There ensued a little trouble with the cops, who were unhappy about us being there and tried to get us to move out, but they eventually gave up and left us alone. They had bigger issues to worry about, I’m sure, than a bunch of 35 women standing around doing nothing.

We were supposed to do some “eyes right” “eyes straight” stuff in tandem in response to a whistle from the head of the queue, but in my opinion this part did not work out very well. The timelines we were supposed to follow had sort of gone askew, and not all of us could see or hear the signals from the head of the queue. Nevertheless, a string of 35 women leaning against the railings on Brigade Road at peak hour on Sunday evening did attract a lot of attention (some of it unwanted) and a fair bit of comment.

Next, we were supposed to form a pyramid structure in the open area in front of Mota Arcade. The idea was that we should all spread out into a wide pyramid and just stand still, look people in the eye, and not speak. People should be able to move around us without much inconvenience, but we should not have to move to “give way”. The idea was that we should “reclaim space” from the men who make us walk with arms crossed and eyes cast down. In my opinion, this part of the proceedings was a flop. First, the area in front of Mota Arcade was already occupied by some street art display. Once those folk were persuaded to clear off, we formed our pyramid, but the crowd around us was too dense, the pyramid was messy, pedestrians could not find their way through, there was no real coordination or focus. I felt the impact was lost and had been much greater when 35 of us were lined up against the railing in a long, long row. That also had had a much lower “irritation” factor.

At last the whistle blew one last time. This was the signal for all 35 of us, who had been supplied with whistles, to walk down the length of Brigade Road towards MG Road blowing our whistles as loudly as we could. This was real ear-splitting hell. When 35 people all start blowing gustily into those small toy whistles (where the nuts don’t roll around inside properly and therefore result in a shrill, squealing sound rather than a proper whistling sounds), the noise level is almost unbelievable. If we wanted to attract attention, we sure did. If we wanted to make people wonder what on earth all this was about, we sure did. We didn’t provide the answer at this stage, though; that had already been done by the small bunch of guys handing out pamphlets during the entire operation.

Despite the protests from my ear-drums, I quite enjoyed the whistle-blowing bit. I had an overwhelming urge to giggle, though. Amit had been saying that I was going to stand on Brigade Road and whistle at men, and I had been trying to persuade him that I’d be doing nothing of the sort, this was a quiet protest… and here I was, being very far from quiet and whistling to boot!

Noisy though it was, if the aim of the entire exercise was to get attention, I feel that the whistle-blowing exit was the most effective tactic. A lot of participants disagreed though, saying it was stupid, noisy, did not give people any information, and created a nuisance and a bad impression. I agree with all that, but still feel it was effective -and fun.

Once we reached MG Road, most of us stopped blowing the whistle, and we headed for India Coffee House. India Coffee House is the meeting point for a lot of strange groups, but I’m not sure if they’ve witnessed a stranger one yet – 35 women and a few isolated men. We occupied the entire L-shaped side and back of the first floor, much to the dismay (I’m sure) of the few other patrons. We were a noisy bunch! The idea was a “debriefing” but I’m not sure how effective it was. A cup of coffee per head, 30 minutes of noise and laughter (nobody whistled, thank goodness) and then I left.

Overall comments: it’s the first time I’ve ever participated in any kind of gathering or action for something I believe in. I’m not sure I altogether buy all of it – as with any group, there were radical elements that I felt were just going overboard. I found some people bossy (as Andy mentions in her experience of a different group) and unwilling to listen to or respect others’ opinions. I did not agree with some of the strategies and opinions expressed. I’m not sure I’d want to repeat it. On the other hand, though, it felt good to be able to just hang out on Brigade Road, and having a lot of girls around to “hang out” with also felt good. I do believe my attitude changed from a defensive one to a more assertive one. I do believe it sort of took the fight to the men’s court. All the same, I don’t think I’m cut out to be an activist; I think I much prefer just writing/talking about it, so self-help groups, group therapy, discussion boards etc might be more up my alley than taking to the streets. Or maybe, I’m just plain lazy.

Recipe? Why Not?

February 5, 2007
If you really want to do this, Andy, just remember my mother and all her dire warnings.Start with two egg yolks. I’ve forgotten whether you add the seasonings now or later, but I did it later and it seemed to work. I think you should add a pinch of salt, though.

Add oil and beat it (remember: drop-by-drop with a manual egg-beater).

Mayonnaise is actually an “emulsion” – I’m not sure what that is (though it tastes pretty good), but it means that it has to hold, or bind, or something. If the eggs look curdled and disgusting, it’s not doing that, so you throw the whole thing out and start again.

After the drop-by-drop business has been going on for a while, you have a pale, creamy mass which looks like a lot more in quantity than the sum of the ingredients. This is good. You can gradually increase the volume of oil you add at each step, and keep beating. The mixture should start to get quite thick and gluey.

At some point, you stop and add lime juice, which will thin the mixture. After that, you can keep adding lime juice and oil alternatingly, to keep the mixture in the range of acceptable consistency.

After a while, your egg-beater hand will be hurting, so you stop.

If you taste the mixture, it will mostly taste of oil. Now add the seasonings: salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar, mustard powder, vinegar. If you want to turn it into tartar sauce, add finely chopped onion, tomato, garlic, green chillies, and whatever else you feel like.

This mayonnaise is not like the one you get from a jar. It will be tart with lime juice and not sweet. It us also usually a little thinner in consistency.

Usually the seasonings will mask the oil flavor, but it is better to use a mild flavored oil, or one that you actually like the flavor of, such as olive oil. Strangely, it doesn’t taste of raw egg yolk.

I used a small jar-full of oil. It was about the capacity of a small jar of jam, or coconut oil. Of course, I finally ended up needing four egg yolks, but usually two will do. Keep plenty of lemons handy (at least three) – you can keep adding lemon juice and oil until you think you’ve made enough.

Hint: If you think this recipe is a little dicey, do a quick search on Google for a better one.

And, if it still doesn’t work out, don’t forget the role played by the thunderstorm, and the vampire bat.

Making Mayonnaise

February 4, 2007
Homemade mayonnaise is one of the rare sins in a life that is otherwise liberally sprinkled with sin (mine, that is).

When I was growing up, my mother used to get into a frenzy and whip up a mayonnaise or a tartar sauce every so often, usually to go with crumb-fried fish; but, as calories, cholesterol and other such epiphanies found their way into my vocabulary, mayonnaise gradually faded from my menu. In all of my married life, I have made it only twice, and the second time was last Saturday.

My mother had always dramatized the making of mayonnaise. You can’t use an electric egg beater, she would remonstrate; you must use a copper-bottom or glass bowl, she’d insist; add the oil drop-by-drop, she’d add, threateningly; oh, and you can’t make it if there’s a thunderstorm impending or in progress…

What next, I wondered. Would she demand a white hair from a vampire bat plucked by a sparrow at noon on the day after the full moon…

All the same, when I started making mayonnaise on Saturday, I used a metal saucepan on the basis that it was copper-bottomed on the outside. I started with a wire-whisk (since for the life of me I can’t get my hands on a good, old-fashioned hand-held egg-beater) and two egg yolks and obediently set about adding oil drop-by-drop. After working at it for a while, I figured it was coming along nicely, so I started adding oil by the dollop, and switched to the electric egg-beater. In minutes, all my hard work was undone. The mixture turned into a curdled, sordid mess, and the more I worked at it, the more the egg and oil separated and sat disgustedly side-by-side like an old married couple who had just finished squabbling about what to watch on TV and were now forced to watch what neither of them wanted, in the name of compromise.

Adding lemon juice, whether the recommended approach or not, had no beneficial effect. I looked out the window, but the sky was a customary clear blue and the sun shone brightly: a thunderstorm clearly was not in progress and did not appear imminent either – at least not for the next several months.

There was only one thing to be done: start afresh. I dispatched Amit summarily to the nearest shop to fetch me more eggs. Six would be good, but two will do, I told him, and made short shrift of his reluctance to tear himself away from the computer and his even greater inclination to tarry and listen to the song that was playing on the radio. Meanwhile, I kept stirring the sorry mess, in the hope that it would become a little less revolting.

When the eggs arrived, I added one yolk to the existing mixture and worked it slowly, reverting to the wire whisk. To no avail: the curdled mixture corrupted my fresh egg yolk in no time. My mother had always emphasized that a messed up mayonnaise could only be remedied by starting afresh, in a clean bowl. Wearily, I started afresh. Having abandoned the electric egg-beater completely, I used the wire whisk to first add oil to the fresh egg yolk, and later add the curdled mess to the fresh mixture. And, wonder of wonders, I got a mayonnaise out of it. Despite all indications to the contrary, the curdled mess integrated into the fresh mixture with no detrimental effect at all. Half an hour later, I turned the fresh mayonnaise back into the original bowl, which was by then mostly empty, and proceeded to add lemon juice and seasoning. It tasted fine, especially after I had tossed in finely chopped tomato, onion, green chillies, and coriander – and even more so after I had fried fish to dip in it.

Which leads me, inescapably, to two terrible conclusions:

  • Sometimes, my mother really does know best (sigh).
  • Sometimes, starting afresh (and adding egg yolk) can clean up the ugliest mess you ever made in your life.

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