Monday, November 30, 2009

Shopping Away

Before I came to the States, I knew what Thanksgiving was all about, and I knew that they have crazy “Black Friday” sales the day after. I knew that people camp outside stores in the night so that they can be first in line. But I didn’t know just how crazy it all gets.

The stores open at about four in the morning for shoppers. (Toys ‘R’ Us actually opened at midnight this Black Friday.) And there are already hundreds of people queued outside, waiting for the doors to open. There’s no parking, the place outside the stores are all lined with Dunkin’ Donuts cups, and people are just crazy. Apparently one of the salespeople who opened the doors to a Wal-Mart died in a stampede last year. Now they have special training for people who open the doors.

By six in the morning, most of the good deals are gone, but people are still trying to find parking spots and waiting for hours in the checkout queues for most of the day. There’s also a “Cyber Monday” sale in most of the larger stores, where they have great online deals for a day. That’s what I’m restricting my shopping to!

A Thought

You know how, when someone lives in a foreign country like the States or England for a while, they pick up the local accent? The younger they are, the faster and more apparent the transition is.

And then there are the African Americans who have lived here for generations and still have a distinctive accent. Why are we Indians trying so very hard to fit in?

Happiness Sold Separately

Happiness Sold Separately by Lolly Winston is the story of a marriage undergoing extreme trials and tribulations. It’s the story of a couple battling infertility and infidelity and arriving at a point when they no longer really know how to be there for each other.

The story is about the complications of life and relationships, about dealing with everyday and not-so-everyday stress. It has characters who are confused and not completely sure of what they do or do not want. These are characters almost everyone can relate to.

The story is well told, with subtle humor and adequate descriptions of human emotions. It makes for relatively quick and easy reading, in spite of the fact that it is a heavy story. Nothing very new or unique about it, though. The characters are slightly stereotypical in a lot of ways. On the whole, it’s an average read, reasonably appealing but lacking in novelty.

Fantastic Mr Fox

Fantastic Mr Fox is based on a Roald Dahl novel, which I never read. Dahl was and still is quite a popular author but I never got round to reading anything he wrote. I watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though, and I liked it. We went out for this one because my uncle is quite fond of movies with animals, especially canines. I think that runs in the family, because my mother and I share this sort of liking.

This particular movie, however, did not live up to my expectations. Not that it was a bad movie. It was a reasonably entertaining family movie with family values nicely woven into the story. And it does have its occasional dose of witty humor. But somehow it comes across as a movie for adults trying to disguise itself as a children’s film by simply changing the characters from humans to animals and not changing much else. The animals behave just like people and the story has a mundane, everyday theme with not much appeal or novelty to it. It's like they took a few days out of the life of an ordinary family and made it into a story. Nothing fantastic about it. Just okay-ish.

Giving Thanks

I went to my uncle’s place for Thanksgiving, which is, in case you didn’t know, a major holiday in the US and an occasion for family get-togethers. The traditional Thanksgiving Day meal includes a whole turkey and pumpkin pie, among other things. I’d never has turkey before, except in a sandwich or two, and they don’t put too much of it in there. I got to see how the whole meal is prepared, how the big bird is marinated overnight and roasted in the oven. My aunt made pumpkin chiffon for dessert, a lighter, fluffier variation of pumpkin pie that I absolutely loved. This was probably the first time in my life that I had dessert that was delicious and did not make me feel over stuffed and heavy in the stomach.

I like the way Americans plan their meal for this day. They start out with the turkey and everything else at about three or four in the afternoon, and eat slowly, for an hour or so, then take a break before dessert. It combines lunch and dinner into one meal and doesn’t leave you feeling heavy at the end of it. It’s a lavish meal with a number of dishes, but none of them use a significant amount of oil or butter or anything of the sort. The turkey is roasted; the mashed potatoes are baked and then mashed, as are the mashed sweet potatoes. I don’t know about traditional pumpkin pie, but the pumpkin chiffon was lighter than air.

The weather is quite cold now. My aunt ran out of space in both of the extra large refrigerators that they have, and she put the turkey and some other stuff outside on the deck overnight. I’m thinking it was cooled better than the stuff that was actually refrigerated.

The point of this holiday is to count your blessings and be thankful for them. I am thankful that, in spite of being so far away from home, I have a place to go home for the holidays.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Song of the Week

If you haven't already, you must listen to Mere Paa from Paa. It takes a while to recognize the voice, if you don't already know that it's been sung by Amitabh Bachchan. Of course, he's been singing a lot of his own songs throughout his career, but this is in a league of its own. It captures the innocence of a child with in the ageing voice of the character whose physical growth is accelerated but mental growth is normal. Absolutely amazing.

By the way, can somebody remind me of the name of the Robin Williams movie with a similar storyline?

While we're talking about songs, if you haven't heard the songs in the soundtrack of Couples Retreat, it has a few tracks by Rahman which are rather different from his usual stuff. One of them is in Tamil. This one is in English and Hindi.

Italian Cuisine

The Italians sure know what they are doing when they're in the kitchen. I think theirs is some of the greatest food in the world. Even though I've become slightly partial to Mexican food lately, nothing beats Italian. Pizzas, pastas, and oh, their cakes and pastries are just out of this world.

I've discovered that it's really easy and economical to make your own pasta. You get great marinara sauce (and in a variety of flavors) in a bottle, and all you need to do is boil the pasta and mix it with the sauce. And maybe cook some vegetables to add to it. It's quick and easy, and if you buy the whole grain pasta and the all-natural sauce, it's pretty healthy too.

The Domino's guys have this unique dish on their menu. They give you pasta in a bread bowl. That's a bowl made out of bread. So you eat the pasta, and then you can eat the bowl too. Saves space in the dishwasher.

All these Italian places have some sort of molten chocolate cake on their dessert menu. It's a soft cake with a liquid centre. I tried it in only one place, but it was just amazing. Normally, they serve you huge platters of pasta and don't leave you any room for dessert. And then they come along with their dessert trays and try to tempt you into eating it anyway. That's right, they don't bring you a menu, they bring a tray with a sample of each kind of dessert so that it's all the more difficult to resist the temptation. I've learnt to resist anyway. But sometimes I do give in and, I must say, it's worth it.

Holiday Cheer

The Holiday season is visibly approaching now. With Thanksgiving this Thursday and Christmas just over a month away, the whole place is looking different. There are special discounts and sales all over, and people are out shopping with their kids all the time.

One thing I really like about this season is all the great food. The Pumpkin Donuts are just great (They don't beat the double chocolate donuts, but they come quite close.), as are the Peppermint Brownies (They beat the double chocolate brownies.). There are all kinds of pies and cakes and chocolates all over the place. It's the perfect time to ruin your diet.

Friday, November 20, 2009


I normally write only about movies that I watch in theatres while they are still new, but Changeling is an extremely exceptional movie and I don't think that too many people I know have actually seen it.

It is a period drama set in the late 1920s - early 30s, primarily in Los Angeles, California. It is based on the true story of a mother looking for her missing child and not getting enough co-operation from the police. At first they tell her that, in line with their policy, they do not dispatch search parties for lost children for twenty four hours because ninety percent of them turn up by morning. Then they find her a child, not her child, and tell her that she is unable to recognize him because she is in shock and not thinking clearly, and that the boy lost weight over the past five months when he was missing.

The LAPD's appalling acts do not stop there. When the mother continues to insist that the boy is not her son, they accuse her of trying to shirk her responsibilities as a mother by turning the boy over to the state, and deem her mentally unstable and throw her into an asylum.

This film showed me a world I'd never seen before, or known that it existed. This is an extremely riveting performance by Angelina Jolie in the lead role, which was definitely worthy of the Academy Award nomination, perhaps even the Award, although I should probably watch The Reader before I express an opinion on that.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Sunflower

The Sunflower by Richard Paul Evans is the first book I picked up based only on what the book jacket said; no book reviews or peer recommendations went into this one.

The story is set in Peru, and is about a woman who goes there from America on a humanitarian mission, hoping to be able to mend a broken heart in the process. She meets a man who came to the place with a similar purpose in mind, who takes her on an adventurous journey comprising of activities like crocodile hunting, caring for an orphaned girl with all her heart, and coming down with dengue fever.

It's a beautiful narrative that takes the reader into a different world, geographically as well as otherwise, a world largely unknown to the average reader. It's something that appeals to the adventurous at heart and also to the romantic, sentimental reader. Some parts, such a description of a camping trip, took me back to some great times I had when camping out with my teammates.

The story is written in an artistic, slightly poetic style which makes it a little more appealing. All in all, a pretty good read.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

With Best Wishes

This is for all those friends of mine who are getting married this season. I have seven wedding invitations and counting for the next two weeks, and I am not going to be able to attend any of them. Because they are all in India. And, in case you didn’t know, I am not.

I remember, when we went to Tanu’s place for
her mehendi function in February this year, we knew that Kavita and Anuradha were getting married within a week of each other in November. Ruchi mentioned that we would then be able to apply mehendi only once for the two weddings. Nobody knew then that Ruchi would be the one to get married first!

Ruchi’s been a close friend for nine years now, being classmates in college, in the postgraduate years, and also, briefly, a colleague. We’ve been out together to watch movies that nobody else wanted to see, and shop when nobody else wanted to shop. Hers is one wedding I never would have liked to miss.

Kavita, Ruchi and I had some wonderful times together because we lived close to each other’s houses and travelled together by bus in our college days. We talked of everything under the sun on those journeys. On a rare occasion when our bus was practically empty, we passed the time in a traffic jam by playing antakshari and singing at the top of our voices, unworried about the few but existent co-passengers staring at us. The company of friends makes even the DTC buses you travel by and the subway you use to cross the road, memorable, doesn’t it?

And Aman, who, as most of my former colleagues are only too familiar with, has been like an elder brother to me. Teasing me, pulling my leg, and also watching out for me and being protective.

This is for all of you, Ruchi, Kavita, Aman, Anuradha, Pavitra, Surbhi and Manoj. Don’t let the geographic distance fool you. My heartfelt wishes are with all you people. On your special day and forever after.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life Lessons From A Diet And Exercise Plan

It takes a lot of courage, persistence and willpower to follow through with a diet and exercise plan and achieve your goals. But then, doesn’t one need all these things to get through just about anything in life? There are some things that I learnt as I went about my own weight loss regime. Things which are equally valid and applicable to other things in life.

  1. If you really want something in life, you have to sacrifice something else. You can’t have everything. You have to choose. You cannot eat all the foods you like and still be the weight that you want to be.

    In life, you can’t have a high powered, extremely successful career and an extremely fulfilling family life. You can’t have all the money you want and all the leisure time you want. You have to learn to strike a balance between the things that make you feel good in the short run, and the ones that are good for you in the longer run.

  2. If you put your heart into doing something, you achieve a lot more than what you first set out to achieve. When you work out a healthy diet and exercise plan and stick to it, you don’t just lose weight, you develop a healthier, happier way of life.

    If you find a job that makes you happy, if you like what you are doing, you don’t just make a living out of it, you make a life. If, on the other hand, you like being a mother and choose to do that full time, that can turn out to be more fulfilling than any job that you have ever held.

  3. If you feel like you don’t have the energy to go on and just want to stop and give up, don’t stop. Slow down, but keep moving towards your goal, slowly and steadily. Working towards a goal requires you to be persistent and regular in your efforts. If you think you don’t have the energy to complete your usual thirty minutes on the treadmill and are feeling tired after just fifteen, don’t stop at fifteen. Decrease your speed to a more comfortable level, catch your breath and go on. Even if you didn’t burn your usual three hundred calories, burning two hundred is better than just one hundred and fifty, right?

    When you feel that the stress of your job is getting to you and you want to just throw it all away and quit, just slow down. Discipline yourself to adhere to strict limits on working hours. Know how much work load you can take on, and politely but firmly refuse any more than you can handle.

  4. Achieving something significant does not have to be about depriving yourself of all pleasure. It is about making sensible, better choices which lead to a better output in the long term. You don’t have to stop eating all the things you like if you want to lose weight. You don’t have to give up chocolate and fried food all together. But make it a point to choose grilled meat over fried as often as you can, and to reduce your portion size when you have dessert.

    If you want to go back to college and get an advanced degree, that doesn’t mean that you will need to live on a tight budget and have very little social life. Eliminate unnecessary expenditures, such as designer labels. Choose the more economical places to buy your clothes, stationery and breakfast cereal. Watch movies on DVD at home. Cook for yourself as often as you can instead of picking up frozen dinners or takeouts. Make a few small sacrifices now and reap great benefits in the future.

  5. If you slip up once, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. If you gorge on pizza and chocolate pie one day, that doesn’t mean that your diet is ruined. Just don’t let that thought take control of your mind and pick up from where you left off.

    If you betray a friend’s trust once, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person and a terrible friend. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Even the people we trust the most will let us down once in a while. Just don’t let it get to you, apologize and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  6. Weekends are for fun, relaxation, for being yourself and for doing the things you love doing. When on a diet, eat normally on weekends. It prevents you from putting the weight back on when you go back to normal eating. Plus, it ensures you don’t feel deprived.

    Spend weekends with family and friends, watching movies you like, going out to places you like, and generally doing things that you like. Don’t ever work on weekends or worry about what you’re going to be facing on Monday. This is your time. Enjoy it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Timeless Charm

Some things just seem to lose their charm over time. The TV shows you follow begin to fade in their appeal, the food you eat begins to taste bland. But some things live forever.

Sometimes I find myself getting bored of just about everything around me. How I Met Your Mother is becoming an unnecessarily long, stretched out story, and The Big Bang Theory's appeal, it seems, was only in the novelty of its theme, which is no longer new to me. There are times when I don't feel like shopping and I don't feel like watching movies.

And then, there are those things that come to the rescue. Like writing for pleasure, without worrying about what anyone is going to think of what you write. Having the time and opportunity to do exactly what you want to do. Reading a good book. Achieving something people thought you couldn't. Achieving something you thought you couldn't. Like when I finally got my rajma to taste just like my mom's. Doing something for someone else, and seeing them happy that you did. Some things are just made for that - making you and the people around you happy. They don't bring in money or food or fame, but they bring a renewed sense of self and achievement.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Foliage and Flora

When I was a kid, my mother had a collection of about two hundred potted plants. She would spend quite a lot of time with them, adding fertilizer, trimming them, planting new lily bulbs. But watering them was my job. For as long back as I can remember. It was my own special time, when I would be out in the courtyard, all alone, spraying water on the plants and also on the warm cement floor, cooling off in the summer evenings.

My mother had a special affection for plants with colored leaves. Purple leaves, red leaves, multicolored leaves. She still does. She says she would love to see an autumn like what I’m getting to see this year.

We had to give up those plants when we moved into our own apartment, because there was no room for them in our single, tiny balcony. They went to the village with my grandmother, and wilted away soon afterwards because her health did not allow her to take good care of them.

But they still live on in my memories. That garden has always been and will always be a part of my childhood memories. It will always be the place where we took pictures of my brother and me when he was just starting primary school, and had put on his new uniform for the first time. The place where we sprayed each other with the watering hose. The place where we played with kittens that the alley cat had in my mother’s closet. Where we learnt to ride our tricycles. Where we were children.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Daylight Savings Time

I never really experienced jetlag when I first came to the United States. But I did experience a very mild variation of it when they turned off Daylight Savings Time on Sunday. I woke up in the morning to see that it was daylight outside, though not yet bright and sunny. Checked the time on my phone to see that it was only six in the morning. That struck me as strange, because I distinctly remembered that on the morning of Karva Chauth, about three weeks back, it was still dark until a little more than half past six.

I got out of bed to see the clocks that were set automatically, such as the ones on our phones and the one on the cable TV set top box, showed a different time from what the wall clocks showed. Well, what do you know, we have a forty nine hour weekend, don’t we?

It was a little disturbing to see the sky turning completely dark at only a quarter past five in the evening. And it’s not even really winter yet. I remember reading the classic tale A Christmas Carol and the fact that it said that Scrooge was going home at about four in the afternoon and it was beginning to get dark. I thought that kind of thing happened only in stories, just like the leaves turning red and orange and being shed. Now I’ll get to see it with my own eyes. Around Christmas we’ll get only about eight or nine hours of daylight, and none too bright at that too. But of course, things will be nice and bright with all the red and green decorations everywhere.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Advertising In America

One thing that really strikes me when I watch TV here is how people advertise their products and tell you that they are better than their competitors. In India, it's like, "Your favourite detergent can't remove this stain. But Tide can!" Here, it's like this: "People say Honda is America's most fuel efficient car. But the Chevy Malibu is more efficient than the Accord, the Chevy Cobalt does better than the comparable Civic, and model X (some SUV type car from Chevrolet whose name I can't remember) is more fuel efficient than the Honda CRV."

And that's only the beginning. These people insult the competition like anything. The insurance guys, the breakfast cereal guys, the soda guys, everybody. They come with actual figures that represent an actual product from a competitor. They're aggressive advertisers who know just what they're doing. It's a very different style of advertising from what I've been accustomed to. I'm not saying that either is better or worse than the other, but it certainly stands out.


I've always held a certain amount of fascination for this festival that I'd seen in so many movies, stories and TV series. On Saturday I got to see for myself all the kids dressed up in costumes, going trick-or-treating all over the place.

We happened to be out, and I was window shopping at a mall. I wasn't too interested in that, because I didn't really need to shop. But I was interested in the adorable little kids dressed like pirates, witches, Darth Vader, Superman, Superwoman, Tinker Bell, Snow White, and whatever else you could think of. Even the little ones, the ones too young to understand what was going on, were dressed up by their parents and taken around in their strollers. There was this baby dressed up like a kangaroo. Another one was a ladybug. The cutest ladybug I ever saw, that's for sure! Chinese and Thai babies are just so cute in general, but they are even cuter when they're dressed up in a Disney Princess costume. And there was a pair of twin babies, in a twin stroller, dressed as identical pink bunnies. I saw another pair of twins in another twin stroller, dressed as pixies.

I watched the kids go from store to store, graciously accepting the candy that was given to them, with excited "Thank you!"s. I was a little surprised to see how disciplined these kids were. They were rushing off from store to store, but not trying to run around and create chaos, and when somebody held out a huge bowl of candy for them, they'd take one or two pieces and make way for the next kid in line. I mean, that's a little more than I expect from a child of four or five.

This celebration is apparently a pretty big deal to parents and children alike. The shops have been selling Halloween stuff - pumpkins, ornamental black cats, costumes, stuff to make costumes out of, hollow plastic pumpkins to collect the candy in - for a little over two months now. I've seen mothers looking around for feathers and beads to decorate their daughters' costumes. I've heard them discussing how they want to dress up their kids for the day. It's a beautiful, large-scale fancy dress party, and everyone seems to be having a good time!