Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Prodigal Summer" by Barbara Kingsolver

I recently read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by the same author and found it to be one of the best and most meaningful books I have ever read. Then I found out that she also writes fiction, and actually has more works of fiction to her credit. So I decided to try one of those. This was picked randomly from among the choices, but it was a good choice.

Prodigal Summer contains three interconnected but fairly independent stories set in southern Appalachia, where the author actually lives on a farm with her family. There is the story of a female forest ranger who watches over the mountains, the story of a newly widowed young woman who now owns her husband's family farm and is trying to save it from going bankrupt, and the story of two elderly neighbors, a man and a woman, who cannot see eye to eye on most things but do have a hint of underlying sympathy for each other.

In this story, it's not just the people that are significant, it's all the flora and fauna around them that they are inevitably connected to. From moths to chestnut trees to snakes to coyotes, everything is part of the same ecosystem that we are and everything affects us in some way or the other. The author gets that message through to her readers in a very beautiful way. The way she talks about every creature being connected to every other creature, ecologically, is deliciously poetic and a pleasure to read.

All three stories have an important character who is a strong, independent woman who speaks her mind and does what she thinks is right, regardless of what anyone else thinks. A woman perfectly capable of looking after herself and everything else that needs looking after. That is another thing I liked about this story.

Not this minute (I think I should take a bit of a break) but I will definitely pick up more of Barbara Kingsolver's books in the near future.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reading On

I have recently rediscovered the joy of reading. Because of my long commute. I do dislike the fact that I have a long commute to work once again, but it's much better than before because I can ride a train from a station that's a four minute drive from home to a station that's a ten minute walk to the office. Sure, they have wi-fi on the train and lots of people use their laptops to work, but I like to take some time to unplug and unwind. I had this one day recently when I forgot to pack another book after I finished reading the one that was in my bag and I felt all restless and fidgety and did bad things to my iPod earphones.

So recently I read two books by Elinor Lipman back to back. I know, it's not the best idea and I don't usually read two books by the same person in succession, but this time I did. The first one was called "The Ladies' Man" and was a fairly entertaining, light read, so I picked up "Then She Found Me" next. Totally not what I'd expect from a book which has been made into a movie by someone like Helen Hunt. Crazy book about a woman who first finds the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago and then tells her untrue story after story about her father. Makes no sense at all. It reminded me of the scene in Chameli where Kareena Kapoor tells Rahul Bose one made up sad story after another about why she got into her line of work.

Anyway, I have now picked up a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. I did not know that she was much better known for her fiction than her nonfiction and that she wrote a bunch of novels before "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle." This book feels good so far.

Friday, September 16, 2011

"Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a writer of fiction and non-fiction books who, with her family, decided that, for a whole year, they would only eat food grown in their neighbourhood, grow it themselves, or learn to do without it. That's what it said on the back cover, and I thought, hmm... they probably live somewhere down south where it doesn't snow and you can grow fruit and vegetables all year round.

But no, they moved to a 40 acre farm in Virginia where they can basically harvest fresh produce from April (towards late April with careful planning) to October. Not too far south and not too different from Massachusetts. That is not to say that I am planning on growing my own food in my backyard (Maybe a few plants next spring, but certainly not enough to live on. We'll see.).

The point is, these days we see food being transported halfway across the globe all the time. And when we see California grapes in Delhi or Mexican watermelon in Boston, we think it's a great thing to be able to enjoy all of that stuff. But that comes with a lot of strings attached.

All of this carrying food around uses enormous amounts of fossil fuel. This, of course, always comes to the foreground when a fuel price hike is followed by a tomato price hike. The fuel is needed not just to move the food from one point to another, but also to keep it cool at its ideal temperature. Using fossil fuel like that has numerous consequences for the planet that all of us know about.

But that's not the only downside to eating fruit grown halfway across the globe. In order to help keep fruit from rotting on its journey, it is often picked before it is ripe. Now some fruit, like peaches, will sit at room temperature and ripen for you after you bring it home. But some will not. Consider tomatoes (technically fruit). They are picked when they are not yet ripe, so they are still green colored. Then they are exposed to ethylene gas, which turns them red but does not give them the flavor or the nutrition that a vine ripened tomato has.

Now, since everybody in the world wants to eat exotic fruit and vegetables grown on different continents and wants to eat them all year long, farmers are forced to rely on chemical fertilizers. pesticides, growth hormones for both plants and animals, and genetically modified seeds and animals. These chemicals pollute our soil and water and kill off birds and other helpful creatures which would otherwise aid in natural pest control. The residual chemicals found in the food we eat and the water we drink spell trouble for us, by, among other things, speeding up ageing and encouraging cancerous growths. The growth hormone used for cows, in particular, has been shown to cause premature puberty (as early as age 7 or 8) in girls and to encourage breast cancer. Chicken growth hormones encourage uterine and ovarian cancers, among others.

As awareness of these issues is growing, a lot of farmers are moving back to organic (no chemical pesticides, fertilizer, or hormones) farming methods and large chain restaurants are taking the initiative not to buy meat and dairy treated with hormones. A number of ordinary people are growing some of their own food in their own backyards and buying the rest from local farms and farmers' markets. There are steps in the right direction, but there are still major obstacles to be crossed.

Barbara Kingsolver and her family were not purists in their endeavour, in that they did buy flour and a few other items manufactured outside their community, but they still did a remarkable job. Their adventure involved the whole family, down to the six year old daughter who raised her own chickens. At the end of the summer, they dehydrated tomatoes, froze zucchini, canned sauce and did everything they needed to do to enable them to get through the winter. And they did get through it all.

The book is written very beautifully, in an almost poetic style that is also occasionally humorous. It is a memoir bundled together with a food encyclopedia and a recipe book. The book writing is also a team effort, with contributions from Barbara's husband and her older daughter (the younger one was too young to sign a book contract). It is an inspiration, a joy ride, and definitely one of the best and most meaningful books I have ever read.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So there was an earthquake centered in Virginia this afternoon. The epicentre was less than 400 miles from Boston, and CNN reports that tremors were felt even across international boundaries in Toronto. I felt nothing. I had gone out for a short walk by the waterfront, as I do on most afternoons that aren't rainy, overly windy, snowy, or overly cold (and there are not a whole lot of those in Boston). When I was walking back to the office, I saw people gathered on the streets. At first I thought they were gathered around the Children's Museum, and that there was probably some special event going on over there. Then I noticed that not a lot of them were accompanied by children. And then I saw that there were people in the streets all the way to the office. Hmm... maybe they have decided to gather around and protest in order to impeach Obama. That's the first thought that came to my mind. A fairly reasonable one for someone who has been following both American and Indian news and reading bumper stickers. But then I noticed that most of these people were just checking their phones or talking on the phones and did not really look predisposed for a protest.

I ran into one of my colleagues as I turned around the corner towards my office, and he asked me, "Were you scared?"
"Huh? What just happened in here?"
And then he told me that there had been an earthquake a few minutes ago, and the security staff had evacuated the building and we were not allowed to go back in until they were finished "checking the architecture of the building."
This particular colleague hadn't felt anything either, since he had been on the ground as well. But those up on the fourth floor where I usually spend my weekdays had felt quite a shake and had had quite a scare.

Now I take only my phone and my office key card with me on my walks. I leave my wallet behind to avoid giving myself an opportunity to give in to the lure of the aromas of bakeries and ice cream stands. (On a side note, there is a pretty well known bakery one block away from my office which sometimes smells like a cinnamon explosion when I walk past it.) I saw some of my colleagues, who usually leave the office around four, standing outside the office with their bags packed up and ready to take home in case the building inspection took too long. I was a little concerned about how I would kill time if it actually did take that long. I could not go home without my train pass or any money, and I could not read my book. Oh well, we'll see.

Much productivity was lost as many buildings were evacuated throughout the political and financial capitals of the country this afternoon, but I was rather surprised later, when I realized that all of the office buildings in downtown Boston had been evacuated at the same time as each other, and yet the sidewalk was not so crowded that you had to jostle through the crowd to walk across it. There was not an overwhelming amount of noise, no pushing other people around, no panic. I can't help thinking about what it would have been like if this had happened in Delhi (or even if I had been in New York this afternoon). What if all the buildings in Connaught Place were evacuated at the same time? Would I be able to walk around without getting squashed or hurt or maybe having the straps on my handbag torn off?

This is one of the things I like about Boston. It is a city, but not a huge or overly populated city like New York or Delhi where there are people and more people everywhere you look. Just enough people to make if feel like a city and set it apart from the quieter suburbs. I was surprised an confused by the fact that all the buildings were evacuated, but there was not enough surprise and confusion on the streets to impede pedestrian or vehicular traffic. And everything was back to normal in less than half an hour, much to my relief.

"My Journey With Farrah" by Alana Stewart

This book contains the memoirs of a woman who stood by her friend for over thirty years, through thick and thin. The part of their lives that it covers, in particular, is from the time Farrah was diagnosed with cancer to the time Alana no longer found herself mentally disposed to write about it, which was only a few days before Farrah died.

Both these women were Hollywood actresses, seen more on TV than on the silver screen, but that is not of much consequence, except to raise the popularity of the book. Not so much for me, since I hadn't heard of either of them. I just read a few random pages of the book and found it to be heartfelt and touching.

The book talks about the emotional and the logistic aspects of cancer treatments, most of which were carried out in Germany for Farrah, since Alana knew of this particular clinic carrying out the latest cutting edge procedures. In the US, apparently, it takes longer to get everything approved by the FDA, before any new treatment or medication can be used on an actual patient.

Cancer treatments can be a very harrowing experience for the patient and also for those close to her, who are, in a lot of ways, going through all of it with her. This woman accompanied her best friend all the way to Germany (from California) and took care of a lot of her physical and emotional needs in a most selfless manner. She did everything she could - call the doctors, find out about newer treatments, bring food, spend quality time - to try to save her friend and keep her happy for as long as she was alive.

Farrah's cancer went through ups and downs, with doctors declaring that it was gone, then that it was back, then that it was shrinking, then out of control and growing to the size of a tennis ball, but neither Farrah nor Alana ever gave up hope. Farrah kept her strong will to live and her sense of humor through all of it.

This is a story of friendship, love, courage, selflessness - all of these are exhibited in an exemplary way. It is a story that reminds us of the value of life and tells us to savor the moments of happiness, while also giving us courage to power through the rough patches.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

"A Good Indian Wife" by Anne Cherian

This is the story of a South Indian woman who has lived in a small town all her life and marries a doctor who is settled in the States but was brought up in the same small town. It walks through her journey of getting used to her new life and new situation, of discovering a new country and a new husband, and of finding out that her husband has had an American girlfriend for a long time and got into the arranged marriage mainly because his old and dying grandfather wanted to see him married to a nice Indian girl.

As the story moves on with the process of the newlyweds discovering things about each other's personalities and actually growing to like each other, it shows the immense strength of the woman's character. It is a strength that I believe a lot of women have and can harness when the need arises, and I have seen it help them get through the toughest situations.

The plot of the book does seem reminiscent of a Bollywood movie at times, but the book is well written and gives a lot of attention to the character development and thought process, which adds to its literary merit. A review on the book jacket compares Anne Cherian to Jane Austen, which, I thought, was, in some ways, very appropriate. The defining quality that I found in Austen's stories is that there was never anything extraordinary in the plot, but the narration and the way the author played with her words made the book worth reading. Anne Cherian does the same thing pretty well, though probably not quite as well as Jane Austen. Even so, this one was a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"The Sari Shop Widow" by Shobhan Bantwal

This is probably the first time I have read something written by an Indian living in the United States, about Indians living in the United States. Being set in Edison in New Jersey, which is nicknamed "Little India" and has a large Indian population and all manner of Indian stores selling clothing, jewelry, food, groceries and what have you, it's actually not very different from the way it would have been if it had been set in modern day urban India.

The central character is a 37 year old widow who has devoted her life to expanding and running her parents' sari shop, after she turned it into a more upscale and exclusive boutique. She lives with her parents, having moved back in after losing her husband. The family is a relatively conservative traditional Gujarati family. They are in financial distress and they bring in the autocratic rich uncle to help them out and save their business from bankruptcy. The uncle also brings with him an English-Indian business partner, who develops a love interest in the widowed niece.

As far as I am concerned, the story could just as well have happened in Delhi. I have not been to Edison and have not seen any Indian clothing stores in this country, though I am told that there are a couple in Cambridge in Massachusetts as well. There is only one character in the story who is American, a bar keeper and owner. He could just as well have been an Indian guy from a less conservative family.

Anyway, the point is, there's nothing in the book, as far as I can see, that is specific to the lives of Indians in America. However, it is still an entertaining read with quite a bit of Bollywood style drama and romance thrown in. A bit of suspense, a bit of action, flashbacks from thirty years ago, the works. Enough to keep me entertained and wanting to read more. A colorful, vibrant story and a reasonably light read.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

After nearly four days of taking care of household chores, being rather bored and being miserable about not being able to go to India at this time, I decided that all of this had to stop. My husband is in India. I know I am not by his side, but he has friends and family by his side. He even has my family by his side. I'm the one who is alone and sad and with nobody around who can really cheer me up. So I have to take things into my own hands and do some cheering for up myself. So I decided to go out for a movie, and Farhan Akhtar's latest work seemed promising. Well, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. A few good belly laughs and some inspiration about living life to the fullest and celebrating the fact that you are alive.

It had been a while since I went out for a Hindi movie. It had also been a really long while since I caught a movie on its opening weekend. I think this may be the most enjoyable movie I've seen since 3 Idiots. Though, of course, I have been watching a relatively limited number of movies lately.

It was nice to see Katrina Kaif opposite a relatively good looking, non annoying actor. A charming actress like her needs and deserves to be seen opposite the likes of Hrithik Roshan and Ranbir Kapoor and to stay away from those of Akshay Kumar and Salman Khan.

The other day I was watching MTV India and they were playing the title song from Rock On!! The words Rock on!! Zindagi milegi na dobra... merged beautifully into the next song, which happened to be Dil Dhadakne Do. Some lovely tracks have gone into this soundtrack, which, like the rest of the film, are reminiscent of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's earlier collaborations with Farhan Akhtar but manage to hold their own.

Performances by the lead trio were all really good, especially Farhan Akhtar. The character he played was also very interesting, with his almost cheesy sense of humor. Almost cheesy but not quite. He had the audience laughing their heart out at various points in the film with his jokes. And he also managed to hold their hearts with his poetry. Farhan Akhtar may be one of the best things that has happened to the Indian film industry in recent times. Although, if I may add, when they screened a promo of Don 2 right before the movie, I was thinking, I can't believe this same guy made that movie too. But you know, he's a versatile guy. He can make a commendable Karthik Calling Karthik and a wonderful Rock On!! so it's okay if he occasionally disappoints with a Luck By Chance.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Random Thoughts

Does anyone else think that Reese Witherspoon and Konkona Sen resemble each other from certain angles? I was watching a Reese Witherspoon movie last night and I thought that when you see her profile and she is smiling, she looks exactly like Konkona.

I am stuck with quite a lot of food that I need to eat by myself before it goes bad since my husband left for India rather suddenly. The fruit and vegetables I can take care of, and I drink most of the milk anyway, but there were two loaves of bread and I don't normally eat that much of it, he eats most of it. So tonight I adapted from a recipe I saw on Food Network once. I put four tomatoes and four slices of bread in a blender, and used that blend as the base for my lobiya dal. The end result was a thick curry with a rich taste and texture. Not bad at all. Food Network rocks.

Is it just me or does anyone else crave peanut butter when they read the Peanuts comic strip?

Why is that some people spend all day on Facebook and then complain about how people resort to text messages or Facebook posts for things that warrant a phone call? (Bhatti, this is not targeted at you.)

In Memory

My father-in-law passed away yesterday after about ten days in intensive care. He was quite critical, and all of us were preparing ourselves for this for those ten days. What we were not prepared for was him going from walking about and talking almost normally to being unable to breathe on his own in a single day.

It was less than a year ago that my father-in-law told me that his father-in-law had passed away. I lost my grandfather a few months later. I thought we were at the age when we would have to deal with the loss of grandparents.

I saw my husband off yesterday as he took a flight to India. I would give anything to be with him right now. I cannot travel internationally right now because of visa hassles. I have been trying my level best to console and comfort him over the last few days but I hate that I can't do all that when he really needs me to. Today was the first day in a long time when I ate all three meals by myself. I'm not too happy about that either.

When I was a kid, I had all four grandparents. My maternal grandmother was paralyzed, wheelchair ridden and unable to speak intelligibly, but she still had a presence that could not be denied or ignored. We lost her when I was only eight, and then my maternal grandfather went to be with her only a few months later. But I still have memories of all four grandparents. I can visualize their faces. I can hear their voices in my head. In the case of my other grandmother, I can hear still her voice on the phone. I am sad at the thought that any kids I will have will never get to see and know their other grandfather. As a matter of fact, even I didn't really get to know him all that well, in the limited time we spent together and the weekly phone conversations we had.

Life has its way of reminding us, every so often, that we cannot take anything for granted and that our time with our loved ones is limited and we should do what we can to make the best of it. My heart goes out to my mother-in-law in this moment of sorrow.


For lack of a better title, I put what I put in the title box. This is about my perspective on my little brother's engagement, who, I am beginning to see, is not so little any more.

I was a little taken by surprise when my mother first told me that my brother was getting engaged in June and then they would set a date for the wedding. The first thought that came to my mind was, isn't he too young? I know he's financially stable now and doing pretty well for himself, but, you know, even though I am only a little over two years older than he is, he has always been the little one. When we argued and fought, my mom always told me that I ought to know better since I was the older one. I guess that's true for pretty much every mom. Every Indian mom, at least. My husband had the same sort of experience with his not-so-little-any-more brother.

When I had had a chance to think about it, after they had set a date for the wedding, I calculated that he would be a few months older on his wedding day than I was on mine. Which is, I'll admit now, not too young to get married, although at the time I was constantly telling my family that I wasn't quite ready yet. It's about the right time and the right age. But of course, what is more important is finding the right person. And that piece of the puzzle is in place.

"Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

I'd wanted to read something by Amitav Ghosh for quite a while. This book was the one I happened to pick up.

Set against the backdrop of the lead-up to the opium war, the central character is woman with a young daughter and an opium addicted husband. Part of it is set in poppy fields and an opium factory, and part of it aboard a ship. The two settings come together in the play of words that forms the title.

Readers can tell that a lot of research went into this book. The author has taken great care to get all his facts right. He has explored at great length the dialect spoken by Indian and middle eastern ship workers, the cultural situation and the caste divide of the time and the issues faced by farmers forced to cultivate poppies. He's also acquired a lot of knowledge on how every part of the poppy plant, the flowers, seeds, leaves and stem, was used at the time.

The story itself is intriguing. It starts out as four, maybe five independent stories which evidently are going to come together later in the book, but it is interesting to keep guessing exactly how everything will come together. The only downside was that the book was a little long for my liking, but I surprised myself by managing to finish it anyhow. Good read.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Simpler Things in Life

After being addicted to e-mail, cell phones, blogger and the like for years, I have been trying to teach myself to take it easy and slow down. I barely check e-mail on weekends and in the evening after work these days. It's much nicer to just relax, listen to some music or settle down with a good book or cook something or maybe just enjoy a meal at leisure. I no longer carry my phone everywhere I go. Unless I am driving by myself, in which case I have to be prepared in case I have car trouble (which, thankfully, has not happened to me while driving alone). If I am out in the neighbourhood taking a walk, I don't need a phone. Maybe an iPod, but not necessarily. I sometimes like to walk at a leisurely pace and see which flowers are blooming around the neighbourhood and how many of them I can name. Or, if I am walking near my office at lunch time, I just visit the waterfront and watch the seagulls and the little kids (I work very close to the Boston Children's Museum. There are always a lot of kids around. At least in good weather, which is a prerequisite for me taking a walk outdoors.) as they play around.

And you know what? It may sound like a cliche, but it feels really good to slow down and smell the roses.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"The Writing Class" by Jincy Willett

This was actually a book I picked randomly from Amazon and is in a genre that I do not read all that often. It is a murder mystery. Actually, it is a mystery that turns into a murder mystery near the end of the story.

It is about a group of students attending a writing workshop at an extension school, and their instructor. One of the students is someone who has been trying to get published for a long time, without success, and is bitter as a result. This person is always pulling pranks on the members of the group, the instructor, and, as we find out later, various publishing houses. The pranks go from being just a little dangerous but causing no actual harm, to actually taking people's lives.

It is a situation where every single member of the group is a suspect. The story nudges the reader towards suspecting one person and then another and so on, until we find out who the prankster really was. It keeps you glued to its pages and keeps you guessing what's coming next. I managed to finish this book because it was a mystery but it was not spine-chilling scary. Probably because it built up gradually, starting with mostly harmless pranks. And I have to admit that I enjoyed it, though I do not usually like to read books in this genre. This is the kind of thing that would be fun to read again and look for the clues hidden in the story. Maybe I will.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"One Two Three . . . Infinity" by George Gamow

Another book I'd meant to read for quite a while. This one was recommended by Bhatti a long time ago.

It started out seeming to be a mathematics book. The number theory discussed in the beginning was one of the most engaging pieces of non fiction or fiction I have read in recent times. And then it moved on to talking about relativity, time and space, single celled organisms, genetic structure, and just about everything that makes up part of why the world that we live in is the way it is.

I have to admit, I skipped a few passages which were going deeper into physics or chemistry than I would have liked them to, but I read all of the stuff about maths and genetics. I also have to admit that I may have given up and closed the book if the author had started with the nebulae and stars and talked about numbers later in the book. But the number theory part was interesting enough to make me believe in the book.

This book has a quality to it that I do not recall having seen in any other texts I have read on similar subjects. It made me actually marvel at the intricacies of the functioning of the world that we live in, and the developments that have been made in scientific studies after overcoming obstacles that seemed insurmountable at first. It made me appreciate all of that like I have not done before, even though I actually knew a lot of the stuff that the book talks about.

Monday, May 9, 2011

An Observation

A few days ago, we were at a food court in a mall and we chose to get some Chicken Teriyaki at a Japanese place. There was a Chinese (or Japanese, Korean, Thai or Vietnamese - I'm afraid I cannot tell them apart) family at the table next to ours eating naan with dal and paneer. I found that pretty interesting. A few days later, on the train, I was reading a random book by an American author whom I had never heard of (but I am enjoying her book so far). The American lady sitting across the aisle from me was reading The God of Small Things (which, I admit, I don't remember much of, but was the only book that, as soon as I finished it, made me think, "I would love to read this again." I haven't actually done that.).

This country has its good and its evil, like any other country, but one thing I like about it is that you can find people of various different cultures and nationalities who enrich the culture with their own contributions and are also, often, willing to take some things from other cultures and adapt it into their lifestyle.

A Thought

So I was reading this book called Food Rules by Michael Pollan, which, by the way, is an interesting book that you can read cover to cover in under an hour and should definitely read, especially if you eat at all in the States.

This guy talks about highly processed and preservative added foods like breakfast cereal and snack bars, which are alarmingly popular in this part of the world. These foods never go bad, even after their suggested "Best Before" date. They can sit on shelves for years and years and not rot. Pollan suggests that you should only eat food that will eventually go bad.

In a different context, he talks about why food goes bad. He puts it differently from what I've usually read or heard. He says that we are in competition with the fungi and bacteria and what not around us for nutrition. When these creatures get to the food before we do, we say that the food has gone bad.

When you put these two things together, which he doesn't do in his book, you see that single celled bacteria know that processed food items do not deliver real nutrition, but we, the ones with the more highly developed brains, eat that "food" anyway. Something to think about.

Monday, April 11, 2011

More Experiments in the Kitchen

I have been learning to make my favorite dishes healthier without sacrificing their taste and texture. There's a lot of information on doing that if you look for it on the Internet or in specialized cookbooks. I am learning to use that information to my advantage.

One very popular trick among the health conscious folks out here is to bake food that you would normally fry. They use it for chicken wings, French fries, crispy fish and so on. I tried it with samosas and pakoras. You have to be familiar with your oven to know the best height for your baking racks for something you are experimenting with, but it's a great way to save a whole lot of fat and calories. The samosas turned out pretty well, and the pakoras turned out really well. Maybe because I knew my oven better when I did the pakoras, or maybe because of the nature of the dish.

But the stuff I am most excited about is the almost fat free chocolate cake and the almost fat free dal makhani I made. These are both things I really, really like. I made both of these without any butter, oil or cream. Well, except for the tablespoon of olive oil (for about four servings) that went into the dal to help keep the liquid from rushing out from under the pressure cooker's whistle. I don't really know if you can do without that little bit of oil, and I don't really think you should try to do without it. A little oil, especially the good kind, should always be part of your diet.

Here's what I did with the cake. I replaced the butter in the recipe with pureed prunes in the same quantity by volume. When I first read about this suggestion on the Food Network website, I was more than a little scared, because I have always hated prunes. My grandmother would sing their praises and try to get us to eat them everyday, but I couldn't really swallow them without feeling a desire to throw up.

But after having tried a bunch of food network recipes and cooking ideas, I put a little more trust in these people and decided to try it. Of course, prunes are good for you because they have a boatload of antioxidants. Plus, they are on the sweeter side, especially if compared to the butter they replace, so you can cut down significantly on the sugar in the recipe. You know what? Once you mix up the prune puree with cocoa powder, everything tastes like cocoa. It's all good. Mix it up with some flour and eggs, bake it up, eat it up. You can see some prune bits, depending on how finely you puree it, but you can't really taste them.

And for the dal, I replaced cream with unsweetened fat free condensed milk (or evaporated milk, whatever you like to call it). The milk, though unsweetened, is a little on the sweeter side because its sugars caramelize at the high temperatures that it is subjected to, so you would want to either balance it out with some yogurt, or spice it up a little more than usual. The dal tasted just like my mom used to make it. To me, that's really terrific taste.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Life in the Suburbs

I was never able to sleep on a moving vehicle while I was in India. Not on a bus, train, metro rail, car, or even a smooth flight on a Sahara Airlines plane, or even the Continental Airlines plane on which I flew to the States, where you couldn't really tell you were sitting in something that was moving. But now, I take a good nap on the local train either in the morning or in the evening or both, depending on how tired I am, at least once or twice a week. It's not a particularly comfortable train, though it is comfortable enough. I don't know if it has to do with the fact that I am getting older and feel the need to rest more. But it definitely has to do with the fact that I feel safe. I can fall asleep with my wallet on my lap, which is where I usually leave it after I take it out to retrieve my rail pass. I'll often have a book and/or an iPod on my lap or in my hands, and nobody will touch it even if I am sound asleep and have to set an alarm on my phone to make sure I don't miss my station.

When my office first decided to move to Boston from the suburban location (which was less than twenty minutes away from my house), I wasn't so sure about how I would respond to the long commute, which is about as long as it used to be when I was in Delhi and travelling to Noida for work. But the good part about it is that there is a mostly reliable train service to get into the city. It lets me endure a long commute since I do not have to put up with the stress of driving or sitting in traffic with someone else driving. It gives me a chance to read a lot of the books I have long wanted to read but never got around to, not because I didn't have the time, but because there were so many other things I could do at home - cook, eat, walk around, or just watch TV, that the reading was often sidelined.

So these days, I am a city mouse by day and a country mouse by evening. During the day, I am in a place where there are lots of people and cars (though a lot less than Delhi or New York City) and there are restaurants and stores of all sorts all over the place. I sometimes go out for a walk after lunch and enjoy the bustling city. In the evening, I take a quiet walk around a quiet neighbourhood where I sometimes don't see anybody pass by at all. Sometimes I do see a car or someone else walking or jogging, but not necessarily. I like the peace and quiet of the outdoors and the feel of the indoors when I come back in to cook something for dinner. I like the wide open spaces in the neighbourhood that I do not see in the city. There are wide open fields all over the place that sometimes seem to stretch out indefinitely. I like the fact that the only sounds I can usually hear are birds and maybe a neighbor's dog. And the ticking of a wall clock. If I am at home by myself and not watching TV, that is. It's kind of the best of both worlds - being surrounded by lively crowds during the day, and getting the peace and quiet you need in the evening.

Monday, March 21, 2011

"All He Ever Wanted" by Anita Shreve

After I read Body Surfing, I developed a certain idea about Anita Shreve's writing. Intriguing and passionate. The second book I read, however, reached up to expectations only in bits and pieces. Expectations formed based on the earlier book by the same author as well as reviews of this one.

This one is also set in New England (which makes it easier for me to relate to it all), but not in the present day (which makes it more difficult for me to relate to it all). It takes us back to the late 1800s- early 1900s. It is set in a small academic town, with the main character being a college Professor. It revolves around the two things he wants most - to marry the girl he is attracted to, and to be promoted to the post of Dean of the college. He does eventually get both of these things, after some struggle, but each is a bit of a compromise that fails to make him as happy as he had hoped to be.

The most interesting part about this book is that it is written by a female author but narrated in the first person from the point of view of a man. When I started the book, I thought this might lead to a slightly odd narrative, but it was perfectly natural, and a few pages into the book I forgot about this little tidbit of information. There are only a few scattered episodes in the story, however, that generate the kind of intrigue and passion I was hoping to find in this book. The rest of it is fairly mundane and everyday. Towards the end of the book, however, Shreve does manage to generate enough interest to keep the pages turning fast and to keep me from falling asleep on the train ride home after a long day at work. All in all, it was only okay and I would perhaps have had regrets about buying this book if I hadn't bought it dirt cheap at a yard sale.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Traveling With Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story

When I read The Secret Life of Bees, I did not know that its author, Sue Monk Kidd, was someone better known for nonfiction and that this was her first attempt at fiction. I found that out later. This is one of her nonfiction works, in collaboration with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor.

This is a memoir of the mother-daughter pair's travels spanning Greece, France and Turkey. Sue, at that point, was trying to conceive her first novel (The Secret Life of Bees) and also going through a number of other changes in her life, including menopause. Ann was trying to figure out what to do with her life, trying to sort out her passion for Greek history and for writing.

This is Ann's first book, but Sue was a well-known writer with a number of bestsellers to her credit at the time of writing this. Yet she was unclear and unsure about writing fiction for the first time. Ann had someone like Sue for a mother, who would obviously know a lot about writing and would know lots of people in the publishing industry, but was still unsure of whether or not she could write.

The narrative shows a very human, very delicate side of both the authors. It gives you an insight into how even well known, accomplished people can be less than completely confident about things rather closely related to their area of specialization. It makes you feel that you are not alone in being uncertain about whether or not you can accomplish everything you want to.

The mother-daughter relationship is very beautifully described in the book as well. Sue doesn't want to push Ann into being a writer, even though she believes that her daughter does have the talent. She wants Ann to discover, on her own, her talent and her willingness to write. Ann, on the other hand, doesn't want to be her mother's shadow, she wants to be her own person and she wants to be different from her mother.

It's a great book for mothers and daughters all over the world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Of Crushes and Dreams

Remember when you were a teenager and had a crush on the cute guy (or girl) and your world was suddenly centered around that one person? Remember how you thought that it was the truest of true love and that nothing would ever make that love wane? But then, slowly but surely, it did wane. The next time you had a crush on someone, you would think that the last one was just a silly crush, but this time, it's for real.

I was just thinking about the number of times I thought that way. I cannot clearly remember the faces of most of those guys. There were a few on whom I didn't just have a crush, but felt something stronger based on a solid foundation of friendship, and those are the only ones I really remember. But, at that time, it was very hard to say which ones I would remember and which ones I would think back to and laugh at how silly it all seems now.

(Don't get me wrong, I'm happily married, but I do still remember some very good friends for whom I once had feelings. Because those are memories of experiences that have been happy and sad and confusing and have taught me a little bit more about myself and what I actually need in the person I eventually end up with. They all got me one step closer to being able to choose the right kind of guy to settle down with.)

Now think about other kinds of dreams that you had or still have. Maybe you dreamed of being on TV. Flying a plane. Opening your own restaurant. Some of that stuff seems silly now, and some of it, you had to give up because you weren't quite as good at it as you first thought you were. Some of it, you may still be thinking about and may not be completely sure yet. But, once again, you can't quite tell when you're dreaming a dream if it's the one that's quite right for you or if it's one that you'll be laughing to yourself about a few months later. How do you tell them apart?

The only way to be able to tell is to actually go ahead and give it a serious shot. Not once, not twice, but as many times as it takes for you to be completely convinced. This way or that. If this is what you're looking for or if it's just a passing fling. That's the only way to actually find your calling, to be where your heart is.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winter Blues

I remember the time when I went to Manali with my friends from the office about two years ago. There was a day of travelling to Solang Valley in rain and snow. It was a lot of fun, but it was certainly really cold. Later that evening, I had a little bit of rum to warm myself up.

It's been a crazy winter which makes me think of that rum just about every other day. I arrive at work chilled to the bone, although I've been out in the open only for about ten minutes - that's how long it takes me to walk from the train station to the office. But a significant portion of those ten minutes is spent in an area that's not shielded by buildings on either side. It is actually right where the Charles river meets the sea. So it's open to sea breeze. Breeze is actually a very mild term for winds gusting up to 40mph on an average day, and even 80 mph on a bad day. I have seen the river freeze over in other areas, but even in mid-January, this part wasn't frozen and I figured it wouldn't freeze because it was so close to the sea. But it did. It froze, then thawed, then froze again, and thawed again. The parts of the river farther from the sea, however, stay frozen and accumulate snow and you cannot tell where the river bank ends and the river begins.

I grew up in a place where daytime temperatures hardly ever, if at all, went below 10 C. Out here, if the temperature begins to approach that figure, the weather service announces that we're going to have "mild" weather and people ditch their jackets. Even I felt like doing that this evening, but discovered that it was more comfortable to wear the jacket without zipping up the front than it was to carry it. I actually saw a guy standing right next to the river wearing shorts.

Every four or five days for the last six or so weeks, the weather service has issued a winter storm warning and predicted eighteen or so inches of snow in our area. Pretty accurate predictions most of the time. At one point, I was sure that if we had a little bit more snow, I wouldn't be able to see out of my windows. The snow on the ground had come just a little higher than the window sill and the icicles hanging from the roof had come down as low as the window sill.

But it's not the crazy amounts of snow that really bothers me, though this winter has seen really crazy amounts of snow even by New England standards and people who have lived here a long time are also rather tired of it now. What I find difficult to get used to is the variation in temperature we see from day to day. One day, we have a high of 23 F. The next day, we have a low of 33 F. And the third day is a high of 17. It's crazy. You have to check the weather just about every day to really know how many layers to wear.

But I am relieved to see almost two weeks pass by without any major snowfall, and quite some snow melting. The sidewalks in the city are almost completely clear now. Our driveway is almost dry, though there is still over a foot of snow in the yard. A foot of highly compressed, very heavy snow. But it's slowly melting. And spring is on its way. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

If Tomorrow Comes

This book by Sidney Sheldon is another one I'd been meaning to read for a while, but just did not get around to it. Actually, I'd always meant to try out at least one of Sheldon's books and never actually got to it. This was a recommendation from some friends for a good book to start with.

This book is not like anything I've ever read before. I'm told that Sheldon's books are rather similar to each other in many ways, though, but I've never read any of those.

The main character, Tracy Whitney, is a woman wronged by a lot of people and determined to get even with them. Her initial attempt at revenge against the person responsible for her mother's death lands her in even deeper trouble and ignites within her an even stronger desire to retaliate. And retaliate she does. From then on, everything she does is well thought out and carefully planned. She leaves nothing to chance and no reasons for anyone to suspect that it was her doing.

There are certainly other, fairly interesting, characters in the story who do leave a mark on the reader, but none quite as impressive as Tracy herself. A very intriguing heroine who keeps the reader wondering about her next escapade. A brilliantly crafted plot, or series of plots, makes this book an engaging and difficult to put down read. It definitely takes an extremely intelligent mind to come up with something like this, to create a character who never fails to impress or surprise. She's someone who crosses over to the wrong side of the law, but still has you rooting for her and cheering her on because she is so real, so much a person you can relate to even though you may never have done anything like what she does, or thought about doing anything like it.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

"Letter To My Daughter" by Maya Angelou

This is one of the shorter books I've read in recent times. It is a collections of essays, with a little bit of poetry thrown in, describing life's lessons and experiences through the eyes of a strong, independent African-American woman. (You can read more about her on her website. There's a lot to say about her and I can't say all of it here.)

The author never actually had a daughter, she has just one son. But she sees women all over the world, women of different cultures and races, as her daughters to whom she can pass on her experience and wisdom.

The book, though short, is packed with insights and interesting incidents, often occurring during her travels, which took her far and wide. She talks about respecting other cultures and respecting people who are different from yourself while being straightforward with people who do not deserve your respect.

The book gives the reader a certain amount of insight into a vibrant life of courage and strong will, of refusing to accept things as they are and trying to be your own person and shaping your own destiny. You may not be able to relate to her, because she is a rather unique person, but you can definitely appreciate and respect her and her writing.

Maya Angelou is an inspiration to people, especially women, of all ages and all countries. This book definitely makes a worthwhile read.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Of Commutes and Commuting

It has been a long while since I used public transport for my daily commute. Now, when my office moved away from the suburbs into the heart of the city, I am doing just that after almost five years. I am no longer used to it and I worry about forgetting something on the train. I am also not extremely pleased with the idea of being tied down by the train schedule. But it beat driving on the expressway during peak commuting hours any day. Plus, when I settle down with a good book on my way back, I find that I am already quite relaxed by the time I get home. On the other hand, when I was sitting in traffic, sometimes for over two hours, during my commute from work in Delhi, I would get home exhausted. There is no way I could have found the energy to cook dinner in the evening after that kind of thing.

But here's what I totally dislike about this commute. That I have to do it alone. In Delhi, I always had friends living close by whom I could carpool with. People I could talk to on the way. Or maybe not talk (I'm not much of a talker, and there were days when I didn't feel like it at all.), but just look at the familiar, friendly faces. I miss some of those people a lot. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

100 Shades of White

This book by Preethi Nair is something I'd been meaning to read for years, and I finally got around to it. It is the story of a mother who is left to bring up her two young children by herself and struggles at her task. It is also the story of a daughter caught in the turmoil of all kinds of family drama and romance.

The mother's life resembles a Phoenix rising from the ashes, more than once. The daughter has her own struggle to deal with and her own difficult decisions. All of it is set against the backdrop of the abundant variety of flavours found in Indian food. The food and the spices are described with a kind of passion that enables the reader to almost smell and taste them.

The story is very beautifully written and the fact that it alternates between the points of view of the mother and the daughter makes it a very complete and comprehensive narrative. It shows how two different people see the same situation differently, how they deal with the same pain differently, how misunderstandings disrupt the delicate balance of human relationships. It also demonstrates the well known but sometimes ignored fact that parents are always there for their children, even when the children doubt themselves or their parents, though sometimes the child's love for the parent may not be quite as unconditional.

This is a book that has all the colors and spices of life blended in just the right way, without being too light or too heavy a read.