About book stores and their stories…

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Book stores have always held a special place in my heart, and the charm of tiny book stores run by independent small business owners is undeniable. When I was in middle school, my first library was this little place operated by an old man and was located next to the busy train station. As per the library rules, you were allowed to check out only one book at a time, and if you wanted to check out another one, then the cost was 50 paise. The library was far enough from my house that my visit was usually accompanied by an adult, and since my parents never put any restrictions on reading, I was allowed to check out 2-3 books at a time. As I grew older, the library became too small for me, and I closed out my membership in that library. That tiny one room library doesn’t exist anymore, except in the minds of young impressionable patrons like myself who cannot forget their first library.

On my last visit to India, I was visiting the town where I did my high school from, and I remembered there stood a small bookstore, around 18-20 years ago. On a whim I thought of checking out if this bookstore still existed…and imagine my happiness when I saw it still standing there; books spilling from the store and on the sidewalk.  I entered the place with reverence in my heart that is reserved only for the temple of books. There was something for everyone in that store; from trashy romance novels to religious texts, from Bollywood magazines to biographies, from textbook on Economics to Chicken Soup for Soul, and from a book about Satyajit Ray to the latest thriller by Stephen King to the Archie comics. All arranged haphazardly on shelves which could barely hold them, irrespective of their categories and authors. As my eyes roamed through the shelves, alighting on titles I recognized and others that looked interesting, the chaos of the books on shelves, soothed something in me that I didn’t know was ruffled. These shelves trying to hold on to the books which tell a million stories unheard, show you the places unseen and the characters you didn’t know who were missing from your life till date. I brought about 5 books from that store, a Rishi Kapoor biography, a Devdutt Patnaik book, a Shashi Tharoor and two vintage Chacha Chaudhary comic books ; and paid way too much for those comics; but it was like paying to get a slice of childhood back.

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A walk through the pristine aisles of Barnes and Noble or a Crossword bookstore while can provide me with a book when needed, doesn’t ignite a reverence in me like those shelves spilling on the sidewalk. Though rather than buying new books through a commercial bookstore, I would rather walk through the aisles of the public library, which even though is in no shape or size like my first library, it is at least a temple for the stories.

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Those Pricey Thakur Girls – Book review

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Those Pricey Thakur Girls, by Anuja Chauhan revolves around the drama in the lives of Justice LN Thakur, his wife Mamta and their daughters, residing in New Delhi.

LN and his wife have named their daughters alphabetically from A to E. They have married off the first two daughters, the third one has eloped (much to their shame and chagrin) and are trying to figure out how to arrange for finances for the wedding of their 4th and 5th daughters. The story mainly centers on the love life of Debjani with a handsome journalist and the circumstances and factors leading to their relationship. Inter-woven between Debjani’s and Dylan’s story are the stories of Ajni – who is childless and is trying to understand her marriage, Binodini – who wants her share of her father’s estate to fund into her husband’s business, Chandu – whom nobody is allowed to talk to as she eloped with an Estonian and the fifth daughter Eshwari – who is a 16 yr old sensible teenager with interest in good looking boys!

While the Debjani and her journalist are the semi-protagonists of this story, the readers are given enough meat about the other characters in the story to keep it from getting one dimensional. The development of other characters – even the ones with minor roles like Satish or the kids Bonu and Monu is well developed and well written. My favorite characters were the mother and the youngest Thakur daughter Eshwari, there was something so endearing about Mamta’s character; like doesn’t matter how unpleasant your daughters sometimes get, you correct them and still take care of them because they are your own kids. Eshwari’s character is a typical 16 year old who likes sports and boys, but is still the kid of the family. The romance in the story is toe curling and sexy, even though the central characters were not as endearing.

This was my second book by Anuja Chauhan with the first one being Baaz. While Baaz did not impress me at all, I still decided to go ahead and read Those Pricey Thakur Girls; and I am glad I read it! TPTG was a super fun and quick read. Yes, it is melodramatic and it reads like how a commercial masala hindi movie would read if it were a book, but it has a good story and is well written.

From the two books that I have read, it seems like Anuja Chauhan has a formula for her central characters – the hero is handsome, dashing, young and brave and is a ladies’ man; the heroine is plucky, out spoken, beautiful and the two fall in love with each other at the first sight! It might be formulaic but it is fun to read non-fussy stories that make you feel good and help you relax. Do give this story a read if you get a chance.

Three Dark Crowns-Kendare Blake

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Three dark queens

are born in a glen,

sweet little triplets

will never be friends

Three dark sisters

all fair to be seen ,

two to devour

and one to be Queen

So begins Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake. It is a dark read, set in a mythical island of Fennbirn where the only way to become a queen, is by killing the other two sisters of a set of triplets. Each of the triplets is born with a gift- either power over the five elements, or over the nature or a poisoner who can stomach all kinds of poison; and only the strongest of the three will become the queen.

The Three Dark Crowns has a very intriguing concept of royalty and crown, where instead of the first born being a natural heir to the throne, the triplets are all an equal heir to the crown, you just have to be willing to kill the other two sisters in a fair game. I have been on a look out for a good series for a long while now and I think I have found it in this series by Kendare Blake.

Her writing flows easily, but grips you in the story almost immediately from the first chapter. I don’t care much for lot of flowery descriptions of the surroundings, but almost nothing about the people in the book, it is the character development is very important and Kendare achieves that superbly. All the characters from the suitors Billy and Pietyr, the foster families of Arrons, Milones and Westwood to the queens, Mirabella, Arsinoe and Katharine, is written about beautifully. A small scene involving Sara Westwood was so well written that you could gauge her character in couple of paragraphs.

I will recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy genre and wants to read something unconventional. I cannot wait to read the next one in the series: One Dark Throne.

Zinda hoon yaar….

When I first heard the song “Zinda Hoon Yaar” by Amit Trivedi from the movie Lootera, I thought what a fatalistic song. The lyrics of the song are: Mujhe chod do mere haal pe, Zinda hoon yaar….Kaafi hai. Translation: leave me alone in whatever state I am… I am alive and that’s enough. I don’t like fatalistic songs and this song made me think…oh what a loser that all he wants to do is live his life the way it is.

But there was something about it that made me go back to it again and again; the background score, the singer, or something else. The beauty of a poem is you can interpret it any which way it pleases you sometimes you interpret it in five different ways depending on your mood. In my current state of mind (running around sorting out my personal and professional life) when I heard this song, I absolutely agreed with the song. The song tells you “leave me alone, I am alive and that should be enough…” When everyone is running in the rat race trying to prove themselves to some corporation, trying to get a higher paying job, a higher figure salary, better benefits; all to improve their quality of life. The life which they are too busy worrying and working for and which they have no time to live! Each of us, including myself is a corporate rat; scurrying around…trying to finish that one last task at the expense of our health and life, living from one weekend to next. Every Friday is the same phrase, “thank god it’s Friday today” and every Monday are the same droll faces with an expression on their face saying “please take me far far away!” I sometimes wonder if everyone collectively hates their job or Monday blues are contagious.

The last line of the song is “kuch mangna baaki nahi, jitna mila…kaafi hai…” translation: I don’t need to ask for anything more, whatever I have received is enough. My life is a constant struggle between needs and wants, and I am sure most of our life is wanting more- I need more clothes, more shoes, more money, more status even more knowledge and more love! For once, I wish I could say I am happy with what I have, and don’t want more.

I wish I could follow this song and say- I am alive and kicking and that’s more than enough!

Canadian Rockies

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Lately a lot of people have been asking me details about my itinerary from my Canadian Rockies trip from last year. So I decided to put together a blog post about my trip, even though I am a full year late; at this time last year, I was almost finishing my trip!

I did the Canadian Rockies with my parents and then we went ahead for the Alaska Cruise from Seattle. The idea for the trip began when my cousins from India did this trip with an Indian tour operator. I was initially skeptical about doing a tour with an Indian operator, but when I realized the tour would be done by a Canadian local I was happily got on board with the idea. It was a relief not to worry about lunch and dinner ideas for my parents, and the tour was a really good one! I would recommend it to anyone who wants to do this trip with Indian parents.

Firstly, Indian passport holders need a Canadian tourist visa. It is a fairly easy process, but the website for the visa process is user unfriendly, so be prepared for some irritations in the initial process when you are uploading your documents. But once you get everything submitted, it only took about 15-20 days to get the visa. Then came booking the tickets, and let me tell you Boston to Calgary isn’t cheap to fly, but it is worth it!

So we started our journey from Calgary where we spent half a day and then drove to the town of Banff. On the first day in Banff we saw the Johnston Canyon Lower Falls, the beautiful Lake Morraine and then Lake Louise. We hiked up to the lower falls in the Johnston Canyons and it was about an hour or so hike. It was an absolutely beautiful walk, and I took about a zillion pictures there. From there we went to Lake Morraine, which I had no idea was so blue and so beautiful! The melting glaciers from the surrounding peaks feed into the lake, and as the streams moves through the rocks on the peaks it collects the minerals which eventually give the lake a deep turquoise color in sunlight. After that we walked around the perimeter of the Lake Louise, which was a bit more crowded because of the Fairmont Chateau Hotel. On the second day, we took the gondola up the Sulfur mountain. The view would have been spectacular but for the relentless rain that day! Later in the day as the rain abated we did a cruise along the Minnewanka Lake, which was peaceful and beautiful.

Next day we left for the Columbia Icefields while viewing the spectacular scenery on the way. We spent about 4-5 hours there; we went up the Athabasca glacier and clicked silly pictures, and then did the glacier skywalk across the valley. The view while walking on the skywalk was beautiful and scary at the same time! We spent the night in Jasper where we saw the sun not set until 11 pm…it was surreal! We spent the next day touring the lakes around Jasper; Maligne lake, Pine Lake, Pyramid Lake. Even though it was mid June the weather was quite chilly in Jasper, so do carry a jacket and scarf with you. Later in the afternoon my mom and I spent the day walking around the Jasper downtown. It was a perfect day spent with family.

The next day we left for Whistler with a pit stop in Kamloops for the night. Whistler is a beautiful, quaint ski town, and a stroll through its village on a late summer night, is a wonderful experience. The next day we did the peak to peak gondola between Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and the view was unbelievable from high up there!

The next morning we left for Vancouver where we spent 2 nights in Vancouver downtown. I am partial to coastal towns and Vancouver completely charmed me! We did ride of sea plane over the ocean and a 4D show called Flyover Canada near the harbor in Vancouver. The next day we took the ferry over to Victoria to see the famous Butchart Gardens. These show gardens are spectacular and just a day strolling through them isn’t enough to do complete justice to these gardens. On the final day we did the city tour of Vancouver and toured the Capilano suspension bridge.

These are just few spots in a beautiful country…it is full of random beautiful lakes and sceneries. Sometimes instead of clicking away pictures, it is better to appreciate the beauty with your eyes and mind so that you can remember it in your heart.

 

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Norse Mythology: Neil Gaiman

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I have to admit, it was the cover that attracted me first to this book; second was the name-Norse Mythology and finally Neil Gaiman as the author convinced me that I should read it! And I am glad I did! I don’t know much about Norse Mythology at all, but I have definitely heard of Asgard and of Thor and his legendary hammer.

Before I started reading it, I was expecting the book to flow like the usual fictional novel in a linear pattern; but now that I have finished it, I agree that the small short stories was a better way to go. The book starts by introducing the usual players, then goes on to describe the beginnings, how Thor got his hammer and then the other stories which display the slyness of Loki, the stubbornness of Thor, and general the fickle nature of gods, ending with the end of the world.

As the book is written in short stories you can take breaks while reading but the book in general is pretty unstoppable once you start reading it. What I found very fascinating was even in the times when gods walked the earth, the characteristics of good and evil, weakness and strength, compassion and greed are timeless. Even the gods are not above these traits, and are not above death and mortality-even though they do tend to come back from the dead sometimes.

I love books on mythology because they make me think that maybe these ancient times did exist, who is to deny or accept that claim. Just as maybe Mahabharata existed in ancient old worlds, so did Norse gods. Maybe over time people have not forgotten their deeds, but because they seem so much larger than human lives, people have conveniently decided that this must be all mythology and legends; but who is to say that the legends did not exist years and years ago?

Of childhood and birthday cakes….

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Today I picked up some Indian style pastries: a black forest cake, a pineapple cake and a butterscotch cake from a small Indian snack shop on my way home. You have to be an Indian to understand the lure of these cake flavours. Black Forest cake is a layered chocolate sponge cake, with vanilla butter cream frosting in between and on top, decorated with chocolate shavings and a sugared cherry; pineapple cake is a layered vanilla cake with pineapple flavored frosting in between and on the top layer and topped off with a sugared cherry; butter scotch cake is also a layered vanilla sponge cake with vanilla and butterscotch flavored frosting and topped with some hard butter scotch pieces and a sugared cherry. Notice, how all the cakes are topped with cherries…I don’t know why but all the Indian style pastries always have a cherry on the top!

When I started sharing these cakes with my friends, I realized that they were not particularly tasty nor were they true to their names in terms of flavors. They all just tasted like sponge cakes with some kind of butter cream frosting. We had a bag of potato chips and we ended up eating a completely unhealthy snack of pastries and potato chips. That’s when a friend remarked, “Isn’t this what we ate at birthday parties growing up?” Our childhood birthday parties consisted of going to a friend’s place, whose house was decorated with balloons and confetti, where after the birthday cake cutting ceremony, your friend’s mother served you a piece of cake, some chips and maybe a samosa on a disposable paper plate. All this was eaten up quickly and then you were served an orange drink called Rasna in disposable cups.

Growing up we had only one cake shop in our town, and probably only that one brand of pastries existed throughout India at that time. It was called Monginis, and having a pastry there was considered a treat which was reserved only for special occasions. So of course all the birthday cakes growing up were from Monginis. I remember it would be such a treat to select your birthday cake a week before your birthday, looking through the pages of their ‘made to order birthday cakes’ book, so you could select exactly the one you wanted for yourself and your friends. I remember Monginis being the only cake shop around until much later when I was in my 20s that couple of local brands sprung up in some corners of the town.

I know the pastries that I bought here in Boston don’t taste anything like what they used to be in India; but they tasted like childhood memories, of the days when lives were simpler and birthday parties were joyous occasions intended only for gorging on Monginis cakes and rasna!

Escape while you can!

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Unless you have been living under a rock in the last few months, then you know the media has been buzzing constantly; first with endless US presidential election campaigning, then the US election night, Indian PM demonetizing the Rs.500 and Rs.1000 bills and then the final cherry on the top: Donald Trump winning the elections to be the 45th President of United States. While all the outside news has been constantly hammering on in my mind, the twists and turns of life and work have also kept me constantly busy.

For as long as I remember whenever life overwhelms me, I have turned to books and reading. Like Hermione in Harry Potter, when faced with a problem I have looked for answers in books and library. So it isn’t surprising that in whatever little time I have had lately I have read voraciously. When there is so much drama happening in real life, one doesn’t want to read anyone else’s life drama; even that of a fictitious character. So I picked up couple of books from science fiction and fantasy genre. Fantasy genre is one of my favourite genres and if the book is a fantasy thriller….my life is all set! I mean who is thinking about real life problems and presidential elects when you are hot on the trail of aliens trying to invade earth or a wizard trying to save humans!

For science fiction this time I tried a book called The Three-body Problem written originally by a Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated in English. I just finished it yesterday and it was one of the most interesting science fiction books I have read; it was mainly about how a group of people are sick of the current state of humanity and decide to invite a race of aliens to save the human kind. It resonated with me because this is exactly how I feel about human race today, where we are completely losing touch with our humanity. While realistic it was also thrilling, fun and educational. Today I picked up Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I have never read any Ursula Le Guin, but have heard wonderful things about her writing and I am excited to start the book. The other one I picked up was Fool Moon by Jim Butcher which is the book 2 in the Dresden Files series. Most of the books in this series can be read standalone and I have read a couple of them in no particular order; but this time I decided to start reading the series in its right sequence.

I have always loved to read thrillers, mysteries and adventure stories.  I guess I have always looked for a way to escape the reality even if it is for a little while, if I can get a fun ride with a wizard or an alien during that escape I am more than happy to get on it!

Lands we leave behind

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More than half a century ago a man left the green fields and farm lands of western Maharashtra to try his luck in the glittering city of Mumbai. His mother had passed away a while ago and he left behind his father and younger brothers with the promise to bring them to the city. In Mumbai he found friends, a small place to live, got his degree as a certified accountant, and a job. Eventually he started his own company that manufactured chemicals and trained his brothers to manage that company. That man was my uncle, who brought his younger brothers from a small rural village in Maharashtra to Mumbai, give them better education and to give them a chance at a better life. Once he came to Mumbai, he never went back to the village except to visit the other relatives there every now and then. He got married and found matches for his brothers one by one, including my father. Everyone started their families in Mumbai and nobody gave a thought to return back to the village. The second generation of my family (my cousins and myself) decided to come further away to improve their lives and a few of us immigrated to the USA. Like our elders before us, we have not given much of a serious thought to going back to our lands. Like my uncles and my father who were immigrants to Mumbai and eventually became citizens of Mumbai (called mumbaikars), we have slowly become Americanized.

People all over the globe move from their home towns and home countries and become immigrants elsewhere. Mostly they move for a better life, better opportunities for families, and sometimes just for the sheer adventure of living unmoored in a new place. I moved away from my home when I was young to find a life different than the one I had back in India. Maybe like my uncle I thought this was the right move to have a better future; but unlike my uncle I didn’t have to bring any of my family here with me.

When you move far away to make your life better, you leave something behind…usually elder parents, other family. You lie to yourself saying you will be back one day but you never get back. Whether it is moving 350 km to Mumbai or 10000 miles to US, it is a move where eventually you will never look back. You have to make a life where you move in order to be successful, but the happier you are in new place the guiltier you sometimes feel about all that you have left behind.

I don’t know if my uncle ever felt the guilt or worry about his move decades ago (he wasn’t the kind of person to talk about his feelings), but he was very happy when his daughters moved to US, he felt that like him they were moving on to something better in life. I just wish I had asked him about all this when he was still coherent, I wish I had talked to him about how to immigrate when you leave half your life behind.

Raksha Bandhan for sisters!

Today is Raksha Bandhan in India, meaning it is a festival dedicated to brothers and sisters. It is the day when a sister ties a thread on her brother’s wrist and in turn the brother promises to protect her and care for her. As far as I can remember I have never tied a rakhi (the thread is called rakhi) on anyone’s wrist. My only cousin of the male variety lived in a different state and I never got into the habit of sending him any rakhi by post. I think my mother probably sent rakhi to him when I was younger but stopped it at some point. Today he lives in a different country and I consider it a good day if I can manage to have a 15 minute conversation with him without being at each other’s throat.

For me my elder sister has been everything…my brother, my mother, my friend and my protector! Who needs a brother when you have a sister standing strong by your side. Cheers to all those who have a strong sister standing by their side!