I thought Shankar’s sister was hot. She was the only girl in the neighborhood that had gotten into medical school, and ever since Rex told me about the things (he thought) Medical students did, I had the hots for them. The only problem was that Shankar happened to be my friend, so I had to watch it. Plus she was a good ten years older than me, so yeah, I really had to watch it. That didn’t stop me from trying to talk to her as much as I could, and bragging to my friends in school that I had a girlfriend. Of course, I didn’t tell them that I called her Akka – that was totally besides the point.

Whenever I went to Shankar’s place, she would be sitting on the sofa, or on their mottai madi , reading a Mills and Boone. She seemed to have an endless supply of the books.

It was my Hardy Boy’s phase, and I’d never come across M&B before. But, I had this vague notion that these were naughty books, reinforced by the covers that almost always had a pretty girl (and her cleavage) hugging a shirtless guy. To make sure my hypothesis was right, I went and asked an older friend. “Oh, they are sex books alright,” he assured me.

After this revelation, the object of my amorous attentions was no longer her, but the books. I resolved to read one of them, come what may. The next time Shankar and I were alone in his house, I asked him (rather rudely, in retrospect): “Hey, can we read one of those sex books that your sister has?”

“Man, how did you know?”

I was taken aback by this unexpected response, and muttered something about a friend at school, but he was too excited to care about my response.

“It’s an awesome book you know, it has pictures.”

“Pictures?” Damn, this was better than I thought. “And your dad doesn’t mind her reading them all the time?”

“No, why would he?”

As I was trying to figure out what this meant, he went in and brought a book back. He flipped through the book purposefully, and as soon as he located what he wanted to, directed my attention to it. He was pointing to a picture of a nude woman from his sister’s anatomy textbook.

PS : Check out this Guardian column byZoe Williams, where she talks about Mills and Boon launching a new line that will “tackle the harder edges of life – cancer, divorce, difficult children, the whole raft of dissatisfaction and weltschmertz that might beset the modern female as she lights some candles, sinks into a bath and, er, does those things that ladies do.” I did, and it triggered some memories.

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere…

Curious Gawker has a hilarious anecdote about applying for an Indian passport. (Link through: Sepia Mutiny ) .

And Krishnan Menon chimes in with his own (equally funny) horror story at an Indian Consulate, trying to get a replacement for his damaged passport. A tortuous conversation ensues with the guy at the counter, culminating in this gem:

“We are very busy right now.”

“My flight is in 4 days.”


He thought for a bit, and then his eyes lit up.

“I can give it to you in 6 days.”

“But I’m leaving in 4! How will I go?”

“It’s only 2 days difference. Change your ticket.”

“I’ll miss my wedding!”

He grunted, and stood up. Telling me to wait, he consulted a surly looking woman in the back, and they stood there buzzing to each other, ocassionally glancing in my direction. Finally, he made his way back to me.

“Ok, come back this afternoon. But please do not make a habit of this.”

Reminds me of the time a few friends and I went to a Subway in Orlando, late at night, exhausted. I was the first in line to order.

“I’ll have a footlong veggie, please”

“We have no wheat bread. Okay?” Y’all, WE HAVE NO WHEAT BREAD IN THE STORE!”


“Whatcha having again?”

“Umm.. a footlong veggie.”

“White or Wheat?”

Trick question, you think?

On another note, DoZ writes an insightful post about guilt, resentment, and master bedrooms. Neat.

Manoj explains why there is more to bags and vegetables than meets the eye.

Meanwhile this writer (I’ve always wanted to say that) lounges lazily, multiple half finished posts be damned.

In Death She Scared

Usha Mami was always nice to everyone. She was frail and timid, and spoke so softly, we had to strain our ears to hear her. We took more liberties with her than the other adults. Much to our amusement (and her consternation) her harshest admonishments came out sounding like gentle entreaties. Insolent smile, back to play. We weren’t afraid of her. No one was. “She couldn’t scare herself if she wanted to,” was the general consensus.

On the other hand, everything scared her. Snakes and ghosts, dogs barking at night, people knocking on neighbors doors, son sleepwalking. A likable, pleasant scaredy cat. Paavamana Ponnu.

She had recently acquired an electronic chanting machine, a gadget that chants a phrase over and over again when you turn it on. Om. Om. Om. An eerie sounding female voice, dangerously close to being labelled a male voice; sounding eerier still due to poor acoustics. Flip a switch, and it’ll chant something else. Nama Shivaya. She would turn it on for a couple of hours every day, a prayer ritual of sorts.

She turned it on that day and forgot to turn it off when she stepped out to go enquire about Yoga lessons. Yoga, she had been told, could help her achy legs. Called my uncle, locked the house, put her eyeglasses into a yellow bag (with best compliments from the bride and groom at a wedding she had been to) and off she went.

Off she went in a city bus. Enquiry done, she hopped back on to another bus to go home (or so she thought). She got down where she had to, and died when crossing the road, hit by a speeding scooter driven by an unlicensed young man in a rush to buy school uniforms for his boss’s daughter. Who then carted her off to the nearest hospital, claiming she was a relative to avoid being beaten up.

She was pronounced dead on arrival, and the hospital promptly moved her to the nearest Government hospital where she was left to lie, unidentified except the yellow bag with her eyeglasses. A few vain (but valiant) attempts were made to call the phone number on the bag (Marriage Hall in Salem: “Don’t know saar”) and the optician (Trichy: “Many people buy glasses from me”).

Finally my panic stricken uncle arrived there through a circuitous route that took him through the yoga school, a couple of police stations, and the hospital.

Meanwhile, their house had lost power. She was moved to her native town to be cremated, and a full two days after it tripped, electricity was restored to the neighborhood.

That night, the neighbors next door heard weird chanting noises and spent the next few hours mortified, worried her ghost had returned to haunt them. The maid refused to go near the house.

Had she been around to listen to the story, she’d have enjoyed it.

Identification Parade

A group of sailors – talented mavericks – set out to sea on a warship. Americans, World War I if my memory serves me right. They get near the Bermuda triangle and mysterious things start to happen. An eerie light comes out of nowhere – and the ship sinks. One cannot be too sure though – the captain’s log for the day is cryptic. But wait; there was a survivor, a young man who can shed little light on what really happened. Several years (forty? fifty?) later, the ship unsinks all by itself. A passing vessel notices the battered old ship on the surface of the ocean, and lets the Navy know. The Navy tows the ship back, and it sits idly in a shipyard – until someone has a bright idea. He wants to find out what happened to the ship, and what better way than to recreate the voyage.

The Navy is convinced to give up the ship, and a crew is recruited. And surprise! The crew includes the sole survivor. The ship gets a make over, and they set sail on the same route. Near Bermuda, same thing happens – an eerie light, some weird noise, a long drawn out climax at the end of which the ship sinks. Again. But this crew was smarter – they had a lifeboat, and all of them survive. Except one, that is. The sole survivor of the first shipwreck dies. The moral being, the ship unsunk itself to get the guy that managed to elude it the first time around.

A creepy tale that scared a young me. An uneasy, pervasive fear for a few weeks after. Close windows at night, sleep next to daddy. An anonymous tale I want to read now and prove that old fears have been conquered.

Suresh Anna was Lakshmi teacher’s son. She worked in the same school as my mom, and like my mom, got the suffix “teacher” appended to her name whenever someone wanted to refer to her. Our families knew each other quite well. Suresh Anna had a “business mind” (my mom claimed in private that his marks were not so good) and so after finishing school, he did a quick course that taught him clinical laboratory technology, and set up a lab in our neighborhood. His dad was friends with the local doctor, and once in a while the good doctor would direct some blood and urine the lab’s way and everyone was happy. Except Suresh Anna’s business mind, that is.

Not content with a clinical lab, he wanted to expand. And given the extra room he had in front of the rented house that was his lab, he decided a lending library would be a perfect fit. Not an extra room per se, the patients waited there to have their blood drawn, but what sick fool would mind a few healthy people browsing a few shelves with a few books? Plus, it was really none of their business.

Blood together with Blood Line, seminal works interspersed with semen samples. Yeah. Penguin Flyer’s was born thus – apostrophe and all, and “Blood, Urine, Sputum tested here” gave way to “Penguin Flyer’s Lending Library – Tamil, English and Magazines.” The business mind did not care that technically speaking, Magazines was not a language.

Used books were bought, mom’s old books – home bound versions of serialized Tamil works – were brought, magazines were subscribed to, and the Penguin was flying. Flying, but not very high. Cheap books were needed. Business mind started thinking hard, and it came up with an answer that had been right in front of its nose all along. Ask mom to ask teacher friends for books. Forget cheap books, these were free books. So my teacher mom got asked, and the question bounced off her and landed on me, with a recommendation attached – “Paavam, he is trying to make a living, why don’t you give him some of your brother’s books, they are sitting on the attic gathering dust.” My response about dust being a superior alternative to germs was ignored, and several conversations were held out (but not too far out) of earshot about someone climbing the attic the following weekend and bringing down the books.

Come Sunday, Suresh came by the house, and I learnt that I was the designated climber. I got on the attic using a makeshift ladder constructed from two stacked dining chairs held in place by my dad and started gathering the books from boxes, and throwing them down (“gently, gently”) one by one. Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn, The Guns of Navarone, The Day of the Jackal, The Bourne Identity, Second Lady, Pirates, piranhas – maybe about fifty books in all, doubling Penguin Flyer’s stocks in under 30 minutes. Collected book by book by my brother, now slogging away at a bank in Ooty.

One more box left – with all of three books. In tatters, missing front covers, starting with a fervent plea about not buying books without front covers and depriving authors of their rightful dues. I climb down just in time to hear Suresh telling my mom that he didn’t want the three books in tatters. Gift horses, mouths – ring a bell? Turning towards me, sensing hostility, he generously offers free book rentals if I were to go to his place. Yeah, and rent my own books back right? I try to hint to him that he was being loaned the books. But he didn’t get it. Or didn’t want to. So he left, carting away my books, leaving the tattered three behind.

Three torn, termite eaten books – naked, vulnerable and anonymous. I read a few pages from the first one, and immediately recognize it – Tightrope men, Desmond Bagley’s taut thriller, now a little thinner, and not very anonymous. The other two remained nameless though – no vain author’s name on top of every page to rescue them from obscurity.

One bored day sometime in the future, I started reading one of them. Thick, small print, long hours. About Los Angeles – the growth of the city traced through a two families that settle there. A feud between two brothers, a tender, delicate young girl called Amelia, and the home they stayed in, Paloverde. Lots of romance, adultery, some sex, a nascent Los Angeles serving as a historical backdrop, daughters falling in love with sons of enemies, bitter-sweet ending, a potboiler. Fun. Curiosity piqued, who wrote it. Finally unpiqued by Amazon – Jacqueline Briskin, and the book was Paloverde (duh!).

The third book remains anonymous. No names in memory, no keywords to jog Google. So I blog the plot. And cross my fingers.


Flashback to a few weeks. We check into a hotel on our arrival in Malaysia, and collect our keys. We turn the key cards around, and it says in block letters, NO DURIAN. A red circle with a line drawn across it to emphasise the point. The genius in me assumes that Durian probably meant smoking. Then, we rent a car, turn the rental agreement around, and … yeah, same thing.

A few days later (we are still in flashback mode, remember?) a friend at work tells us, “Let’s go try some Durian today.” And around him, quite a few people snicker.


“Yeah, it is the king of fruits.”

So he drives the whole group over to a thatched tent like structure, four people to a car, three cars, just before dinner on a Friday. Through the drive, I keep thinking about why a fruit would be banned from a hotel room.

As we enter the tent, a strong smell hits us – my eyes scan the place for a giant pile of rotten fruits sprinkled with Calvin Klein Obsession, and seasoned with various other olfactory irritants. But all they see are some jackfruit like thingies, shaped like giant pineapples.

The friend points to a couple of them thingies, and the guys at the store (for the thatched tent was a fruit store) nod, smile, take a knife, rip it open and let out the strongest, potentest, baddest odor I will ever get close to in this life. Oh, how I wish I could inflicit it on you!

Holding my breath, I boldly get close to the thing and peer closely at it. Inside were a few yellow pods, shaped like a triangle, with a texture like an avocado, buttery. I get away for a minute, take a deep breath and get close to the group again, which is by now in the grip of frenzy.

I watch in disbelief as they all grab the hideous pods, and actually put them into their mouth. I looked closely, because I was pretty familiar with the experiment where a professor put his index finger into a bad substance, and fooled his students by licking his middle finger. In this case though, the pods I smelled were the pods that were being eaten.

And then the inevitable followed – “Eat some,” someone offered. Lavanya and I took a slimy, slippery (and yes, smelly but I’ve stressed that enough) pod in our hands, and I watched as she boldly nibbled at the corner of hers. She followed it up with a most remarkable contortion of her facial muscles, and then aware of the glances of the frenzied mob beside her, she recovered quickly enough to state that it was, er, not too bad. My turn to nibble, and I took a small bite. The smell immediately located the backdoor to my nose and took it. I chortled, politely smiled at the guys, and threw the rest of it away. The group by now was in splits, leading me to recognize an important truth: they enjoyed our discomfort as much as they enjoyed the fruit.

So if I am ever stranded in the middle of the Pacific, a la Piscine, and if the only store in the middle of the ocean sells Durian, I will probably pass. Unless the alternative is torpedo soup.

A couple of people here told me that being a vegetarian prevented me from enjoying the pleasures of torpedo soup. And they waited expectantly for me to take the bait and ask what that was. I did.

“It is made from a bull,” one of them said. And the other chimed in, gratuitously, “From the part of the bull that looks like a torpedo.”

“You actually eat that?”



Me Meme

How many books do I own?

A few hundred probably. Over the last few years, I’ve been getting rid of my paperbacks and replacing them with hardcovers, a habit that has convinced my dad, mom and wife that I am slightly off my rocker. (“Why would you buy the same books again and again?” my dad asked me when he visited us, as my mom vigorously nodded.) My prized possessions include first editions of the World According to Garp, and a couple of books from the Earth’s Children series. And a signed first edition of QuickSilver, thanks to Manoj.

Last books bought

From Amazon: Seize the Day, a nice bound copy of Humboldt’s gift, Lolita, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

The Man who Knew Infinity was an impulse buy – we drove all the way to Miami to buy it – after a Sepia Mutiny comment that recommended it. Babyji too – I saw it at Barnes and Noble as a store employee recommendation. That and an excerpt that had Anamika proclaiming something about collapsing wave functions. No, the cover art had almost nothing to do with it.

And one called The Wisdom of Crowds, by New Yorker columnist James Surowiecki. That was the _last_ book bought. I am not a big reader of non-fiction, but the premise was intriguing (Why the Many are Smarter than the Few), and the first couple of chapters were interesting. Perhaps my next post…

Last books read

Babyji, The Man Who Knew Infinity, The Wisdom Of Crowds. A little bit of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And Seize the Day.

Five Books that mean a lot to me

The World According to Garp. quirky, witty and weird. For the unexpected pleasure it provided.

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson’s best work. Snow Crash and Diamond Age were cool, but this one is uber cool. I can’t think of a book that was more fun than this. Stephenson’s irreverent prose, a complex plot, and large doses of irrelevant detail that is nevertheless interesting make for an amazing read. I still chuckle when I think of the scene where Daniel Waterhouse goes to London, and everyone calls him Woe-To-Hice. (Say it out loud) He spends the better part of an important meeting trying to figure out why they hate this dude called Hice so much.

A Confederacy of Dunces. Not many books make you laugh so hard, and leave you a little sad at the end. Sadder still when you know that the author committed suicide because the book got rejected for publication.

Gravity’s Rainbow Dense, Frenetic, intricately plotted, filled with arcane references and insider jokes. Also happens to be a classic. I must’ve spent a month reading the book, and it was worth every minute.

Humboldt’s Gift. Bellow’s best book. ’nuff said.

Don Quixote. I approached it with a little bit of trepidation, but it was thorougly enjoyable. Classics can be fun reads too.

Now the hard part, tag a few more people…. I got in late, so I have to try really hard.

Manoj. Updated.




More as I keep thinking of names.

Thanks again to Navin and Sybil.


No access to the internets for a couple of weeks. Yes, in spite of what she thinks, it is possible. At least no access from home, and I don’t blog from work. Really.

So, what do I write about now?

The relative prosperity of Penang and the benefits of liberal economies and free trade zones?

The amazing feeling when you step out of work and see at least three Indian restaurants around you, all serving misspelt Indian dishes (Thusai, Roti) that are unbelievably close approximations of the stuff you get in India?

The beautiful English that people here speak – clipped vowels, (especially the O’s), a sing-song undulation that stresses unexpected syllables, and the La’s that adorn every sentence. Lyrical. The way they use can as a substitute for yes. “Can I park here?” “Can.” Cannot be any clearer.

Perhaps a profound post about the insularity of the cultures here, how they don’t seem to marry each other… Ooh, or a post about the hookers outside an Indian restaurant, wearing shirts that only hookers and Hrithik Roshan wear.

The popularity of Dan Brown… The local bookstore’s bestseller shelf had 3 Brown books, a GossipGirl book and this: “How To Write Effective Business And Other Letters As Well As (wait, I’m almost there) Prepare Essential Documents.”

Umm…, perhaps I should just respond to Navin and Sybil, and get on the book-meme-tag train… Yes, that’s what I will do. Tomorrow. Can.


So we are in Penang now, staying at a fancy hotel right on the ocean front. And the wife wants us to go exercise some, what with the fancy hotel advertising that it had a whole recreation park on the premises. A fully equipped gymnasium, and a waterpark. We go there, and are greeted by this:

Any entry and or usage of the recreation park and its facilities is subject to the conditions that the hotel is not responsible or liable for the loss or damage to any property and or personal effects, injuries or deaths whatosever or howsoever suffered from the entry and or usage of the recreation park and its facilities whether in contract, tort, negligence or howsoever.

We ran back to the room.

PS: Later, we braved the disclaimer to go back to the recreation area. Lavanya got on to the treadmill, and pressed several buttons repeatedly in futile attempts to start it. Then I tried some. And then, we called someone for help, and he said “This treadmill only works in manual mode, sir. Auto is broken”

“Manual is fine, how do you start it.”

He gave us a funny look, and said again, “Manual, sir. You get on to the treadmill and push the thing back with your legs.”

This time, we really ran back to the room.

PPS: Penang is a lot of fun. Food is inexpensive, the weather is Florida like, everyone is so friendly. Add to it the pleasure of talking to people in Tamil and having them actually understand it. So very cool. Everyone seems to have a job, and there are no visible signs of poverty anywhere. Perhaps India will look like this a few years from now.


There is English, and then there is Inglish. An obsequious version of the language, fawningly humble, filled with “the sames” and “above saids.” Where two words are always better than one, and how good you are is judged by the length of your, ahem, words. Where you shave “visages,” and are never angry: you just express “disapprobation.”

You use words straight out of obsolete thesauri, and send emails like this:

I would prefer to humbly submit my sincere apologies to all of (sic) for the unexpected but long delay in posting the minutes of the XI Meeting of “<” . . .”>” held on Sunday, April 24, 2005 at Chennai in the “<” . . .”>”, before beginning to pen the same.

PS : As I type this, my wife and I are on the first leg of a flight to Penang, Malaysia – an expat assignment that could last at least a few weeks. Flying first class (I had to say that!)… we still got the same “set the beef aside and eat the mashed potatoes” treatment when we asked for something veggie.