Friday, March 27, 2009

Back to Business

The Formula One season begins this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix. This time, the hype and anticipation seem more justified than usual, considering the fact that there are some genuine changes coming into force; the FIA is doing more than just amending the qualifying rules this time around. The introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery System or KERS, while optional, does seem to hold some promise, of course counterbalanced by reduced downforce and aerodynamic changes; so does the introduction of slick tyres, albeit with the use of both soft and hard compounds in each race still being mandatory.

The whole business of recession has taken its toll on F1. With Honda pulling out and jeopardising the population on the F1 grid, the epitome of reliability, Ross Brawn, came to the rescue with the Brawn GP team. Brawn force with Rubens Barrichello, reminiscent of the good old Ferrari days when a legend called Michael Schumacher stalked the circuits, along with charismatic Brit Jenson Button, should definitely pack some punch and bring life into a grid that is raring for a show of unpredictability. BMW drivers Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld linger on the horizon as men of immense talent, and hopefully this season their consistency will develop into improved performance and race victories. Toyota still remain the sometime-soon-will-prove team, the wins have remained an unrealised dream, and Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock (in particular, after the notoriety he gained following the dubious slowing down at the Brazilian GP 2008) will really have to work some magic to justify their presence on the grid.

Renault seem to have entered the latter stages of convalescence, and after their strong showing at the end of 2008, Fernando Alonso should be a happier man than he has been the past couple of years. Some flamboyant Latino spirit seems imminent this year, with Alonso, Massa and Barrichello promising much. Boys, you'd better deliver.

Force India, through some stroke of luck, are not the last team on the grid in terms of their position on the pit lane; that will not carry them up the grid when it comes to points, sadly, and Giancarlo Fisichella will have much work to do to add to his tally of points as his career evidently enters its last stages. Adrian Sutil, well, is it misfortune for him or luck for Force India? Time will tell, though there doesn't seem to be much on the surprise or unpredictability front coming in from that quarter.

The heirs, the sons of ex-F1 drivers, unfortunately, are yet to create their own identity. Talented but still in the shadows of drivers delivering more consistently or worse still, of their fathers, Nico Rosberg, Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Jr. have their tasks cut out for them. With younger drivers waiting in the wings or already on the grid, this is possibly their last chance to get a firm foothold in the sport.

One rule I would recommend the FIA include in next season's changes is a ban on the name Sebastien (or Sebastian- irrespective of the way it is spelt). The Red Bull-Toro Rosso combine seems to have a knack for picking them out, though I'm sure nobody is really complaining. While Sebastien Bourdais was nothing much to talk about last season, Sebastian Vettel proved a stunner, winning the Italian GP. This season, he can well play the role of upstart, if not a potential title contender. That will have to wait until Red Bull take their game up several notches. Sebastien Buemi, much praised and watched out for, replaces Vettel at Toro Rosso as the young 'veteran' slides up into Red Bull. Mark Webber remains at home there, though, still waiting for the performance of a lifetime.

Ferrari remain unmoved from their position of favourites, of course, as Kimi Raikkonen will try to refute all the criticism of last year as critics insisted he was losing focus. Massa will attempt to get over the bitter loss (how cruel it is to lose the championship by a point!), putting his guts in. McLaren-Mercedes, on the other hand, have had a rather rocky start to the season with chassis problems and testing crashes, but can pre-season testing be a true enough indicator of what the races will be like? Lewis Hamiton will drive his heart out before he concedes the championship for sure, Heikki Kovalainen perhaps trying to prove a point beside his more fancied teammate.

This season will not feature races in North America. F1 is growing increasingly Asian in terms of geography as seven of the seventeen races this season take place in Asia or Asia-Pacific. Call me old-fashioned, but I do admire the natural settings of European circuits much better than the polished to perfection, blue-and-grey swanky structures of the new ones springing up all over Asia- not to mention the street circuits among skyscrapers, a patch of harbour and sleek yachts thrown in to relieve the monotony. Whatever happened to the forests, mountains and chateaus? Oh yes, this is F1. It's all about money. And also surprises, plotting, sportsmanship. So what are the odds like for the drivers?

Speculation ends (or begins?) this weekend.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Exposed!

Few people have lives interesting enough to receive threatening emails from people they know. This made me realise that my life isn't all that bland after all. If my posts have been sounding philosophical or touristy or solemn, with the only traces of humour coming at the expense of my flatmates more often than not, prepare for an overdose of solemnity, to have all humour and lightheartedness wiped out of this blog. I have had threatening emails asking me to behave myself; I have been accused of unfair victimisation and large-scale plans for the persecution of an unjustly indicted innocent young woman (I, of course) had almost been drawn out when the so-called victim (my roommate) saw it fit to laugh at the instances that portrayed her as not exactly the most brilliant housekeeper (good housekeeping is a very important accomplishment indeed, when you're living on your own in a house where the average age of the occupants is 22 years, 7 months).



If all your experience of detective novels, starting from the gingerbread and gingerbeer days of the Five Find Outers to the frosty Scandinavian settings of Henning Mankell's crime stories, hasn't quite helped you figure out what is going on, let me put it simply and plainly for you: my flatmates have begun reading my blog. In a moment of weakness, I gave away the link to my blog as carelessly as I chop potatoes. It is surprising that I haven't had the blade of a knife slice neatly through my finger yet- did I tell you I broke a knife chopping a potato as hard as a bit of rock from a quarry? The blade got wrenched out of the handle and flew across the table, and I sat staring at a sad little bit of black plastic in my hand.



Anyway, casting aside potatoes and knives for the moment, I was in danger of being emotionally tormented and blackmailed as the girls raked up the past and rounded up on me for my not-so-flattering comments. The fact that I haven't mentioned a single name, that they've always remained 'the girls' or 'my flatmates' helped me in my defence; the only chink in the armour was the reference to 'my roommate', but as she is a girl with a pretty practical disposition, I have been saved the blushes- and this blog. So now I must think ahead, be prepared for unwonted circumstances, and be angelically good.

Whom am I kidding?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Huck Finn meets Robinson Crusoe as a girl embarks on a potentially dangerous adventure over the seas on a Kon-Tiki like vessel. Dark storm clouds hover menacingly on the horizon, crushing soft, harmless white fluff between their fangs, following the vessel with astonishing accuracy and deftness. What will happen to the adventurers? Will they be marooned on the island with nothing but two packets of potato chips, three bottles of water and half a carton of orange juice for their only rations? Cell phones are part of their apparatus, of course, but there is always the possibility of running out of charge before a proper SOS can be sent out.

Even my imagination has limits, and I'd better stop now, because nothing exciting enough happened on our cruise to two little islands this afternoon. Everything was literally smooth sailing and I came to a couple of firm conclusions which, if there is any justice on earth, will not be shaken. One: The ocean is green. Green as can be. A murky, alga-like green, but green nevertheless. Two: The purest shade of white is the colour of the foam that is churned up as the boat's prow cuts through the rippling green waters.

I had never been out on the ocean before this afternoon, and the first few minutes on the anchored ferry as it bobbed on the restless waves made me anxious about a possible bout of seasickness. My fears were thankfully unfounded, and I found myself enjoying the ride as the ferry cut through the water, the ocean turning very slightly choppy at times as the storm clouds brewed up. The salty tang of the sea-spray and the breeze rising from unknown quarters on the sea were invigorating, the sun was mercifully bound and cloistered by the clouds, and the few vestiges of heat that lingered were soon driven away.

The islands were trsand underfoot with a firm forceanquil and lovely, the waves that lapped the shores came clean and transparent on the soft sand. Shells crunched underfoot as we splashed and ran in gay abandon over the sparsely-populated beach, ignoring the loud honeymooning Indian couples (how on earth do they 'honeymoon' in pairs?) and the families too busy snapping away to care for their surroundings (or so it seemed). We picked up some intriguing shells as we walked/ran down the stretch, tried to play some badminton (a silly idea, considering how windy it was), visited the Chinese temple (not really impressive after the grand monastery at Chinatown- would equate it with the small temples dedicated to local deities in India) and looked at the slimy tortoises with unwarranted distaste. We tried our luck at the Wishing Pool- most of us were second-time lucky as the coins went in where they should- at my first attempt, I couldn't even see where my coin went. I also tried my hand at the Wishing Well. Twice. I am not sure if this is how it is supposed to be interpreted, but this is what I thought- of the three bells there, you have to hit one with the coin as you wish, and make it toll. At my first try, the bell rang- but I being I, I'd forgotten to make a wish in my zeal to aim with perfection. The second time, I did remember to wish (with some trepidation, though, for what if it said my wish wouldn't materialise?), and hit the bell again. So, if things go as predicted, my dreams will come true in a few years' time. (Okay, if you're the practical kind, please don't tell me I don't need a Wishing Well to tell me what I'll do with my life. I know I don't. Sometimes, though, legends and fantasies are just too irresistible for words. And logic.)

As dusk fell, a blue haze descended over the distant city. The tops of the skyscrapers on the horizon were swallowed up by blue-grey clouds, the ocean took on a mantle of blue, the trees stood silhouetted dark and ghostly against the pallor of the evening. We climbed up the steps to the top of a hill, the eerie murmur of crickets accompanying us as we struggled upwards. The stairway led to a shrine dedicated to three Malay saints, but it was pretty lonely up there, and the walk up through the thickets that shivered and moved at the most indiscernible of stimuli had been rather creepy in itself. We made our way back down quickly, and to our surprise, ended up on almost the other end of the island. Interesting, indeed, how the trail went all around the island, up and down the hill. The walk through the evening afforded us some fascinating vistas, the waters sweeping gracefully in a wide arc as they cut into the sandy edge of the island.

Soon enough, the relaxing Sunday came to an end. We found ourselves on the ferry back to Marina South Pier, and we stood on the edge watching the prow cut in and send out hypnotising swirls of foam- how hard it was to get my eyes off them! Big and small cargo ships indistinctly outfitted dotted the ocean, an aeroplane accompanied us on our journey back to the mainland, the ferry slackened its speed as solid land approached and the bookish non-adventure came to an end. The thick blackened coils of rope, the rough, wizened faces of the deck hands, the angles and the bait, the breakers and the buoys will now have to be relegated to the recesses of imagination. However, I'm glad to have experienced a bit, if only a very tiny bit, of it. How much better I understand now that urge all my storybook heroes had to run away to sea!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Revelations

Two important revelations to my unseeing eyes:
1) People do read my blog, maybe stumble upon them, but there has been atleast one recorded celebrity visit. Hurrah!
2) Never ever give people nicknames out of a book before you have finished it, because the character that seems to be might not be what he/she actually is, if that makes any sense. And never call the 'nicknamed' person directly by that name, for it might lead to much explanation and retraction later.

Reasons: Too delighted (1), embarrassed (2), exhausted (1 & 2) at the moment for any. Some of the details just might remain buried in posterity, or be blurted out in a moment of indiscretion. With me, I can hardly tell.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Inspired!

It's three in the morning, and if you consider the age I feel, I should rightfully be in bed, but because I'm rather above the age I feel and in a pretty loquacious mood, I shall not carry myself off straightaway to my 'attic' room, but sit by this standing fan and let it blow into my damp hair. I almost put shower gel in my hair today, so absorbed was I in my thoughts; thankfully, I realised it in time (I wonder how I've been saved any cooking mishaps- does my subconscious turn its alarms on whenever I'm in the kitchen?).

The kind of writing I'm doing now is what you would equate with breathless talking. I am not too much of a talker, I can pretty much keep quiet when needed, but I've been reading Daddy-Long-Legs, a book I should have read ten years ago, perhaps, when I read Anne of Green Gables (ten whole years, reading and re-reading it!), and I feel like Jerusha Abbott at the moment. She has such a gift for writing letters, oh, and I wish I had someone to write to, just the way she does. Oh no, I wouldn't want to be her, because it isn't very nice not to have a family and belong to no one. But she writes such lovely letters to Daddy-Long-Legs Mr. John Smith (as of now- don't reveal his identity to me, because I'm just halfway through the book), and I'd give quite anything to be able to talk like she does. She finds the right words for the thoughts in her head, comes up with the most splendid questions, and kind of reminds me of Anne Shirley. However, I can't let Jerusha (okay, Judy) replace Anne, can I, whom I've loved and admired so loyally over the last ten years? Okay, Katy Carr sometimes toppled Anne off her pedestal, but that was only when I was siezed by the Katy fit while re-reading her stories. If you ask me now, this moment, it is Anne who rules. I am glad I didn't know Judy Abbott earlier.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the kind of book to be held, breathed in and read in the comfort of your bed, at a stretch if possible. Reading on my laptop after eight hours at a computer in office isn't my idea of a pleasurable reading session. This is what I look forward to all day, though, the nightcap, the dessert, the grand end to the day with a book, any book, and Judy is certainly as adorable as Heidi, Anne, Katy and all the little heroines of my girlhood. What a thing it is to be young! Judy is right, a good childhood to look back on is definitely one of the requisites of life.

Worldly matters call, tell me to put an end to the dreaming and imagining (both Judy and Anne believe in the powers of the imagination: isn't that marvellous?), so I shall force myself under the covers now.

PS: This is my hundredth post here. Do numbers matter? I don't think they do. Not even age. Okay, that's not entirely true, but I'm hoping it will seem so when I'm on the brink of (gulp) middle age.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

What Makes a Book

How do you pick your books?

A few days ago, I read an article on the books blog of the Guardian which mentioned how certain books are worth owning just for their covers. Oh, the pleasures of possession! While being too possessive about books is probably viewed as plain old selfishness, you must take into account how much it pains the owner of a much-loved book to see the beginnings of a dog-eared edge or fingerprints on a glossy cover...it isn't like the yellowing or the brown spots that are the sign of age and make the book seem very real, if you know what I mean.

I looked at the books I brought back from the library yesterday, stacked now on my table, and scrutinised their covers. All Quiet on the Western Front has a yellow, faded, blurred cover that reminds me of the inky black pictures from the World Wars, the Dandi March and the numerous sessions of the Indian National Congress, where row after row of faces stared ahead, unseeing and thoughtful; Annie Besant wrapped in a shawl, a graceful womanly presence among the straight coats and khadi kurtas and twirling moustaches of brave, troubled men. Isaac Bashevis Singer's Old Love has a quirky cover with figures in sharp lines, for some reason making me feel like an undergrad in a musty room in a University hostel, preparing for a lesson in literature. (Don't ask me for an explanation on the comparisons; I have none.) Animal's People is simple and plain, nothing much to write about, a little like A Thousand Splendid Suns, but not quite as bold. Kanthapura is colourful and very like the copies of R K Narayan's novels. Different publishes, yet similar styles. Was that some kind of stereotype for pre-independence Indian authors writing in English?

I picked none of these books for their covers. It was the blurbs that attracted me, and I must confessed that the fact that Animal's People was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker made me more than justifiably curious. I never learn, you see. The Booker winners or contenders have never really satisfied me. Kiran Desai was okay, Arundhati Roy got rather repulsive at times, Anne Enright was sometimes incomprehensible and absolutely revolting most of the time. I still expect better from Indra Sinha, though. Hope and optimism, that's the new me. The reason I picked up Kanthapura, though, was downright silly. True, I wanted something earthy, rustic and Indian after the overdose of 'civilisation' I'd been subjecting myself to, but what really spurred me on was the realisation, when my roving eyes suddenly hit the name, that my mother had studied it in college for the prescribed 'non-detailed' lessons. The funny part is she hardly remembers anything of it now, but I'm extremely keen on reading it. Raja Rao isn't as impressive as Narayan, but maybe that is the way he intended the narration to be. Atleast that's what he says in the foreword.

I do pick books for their names, pretty often. Famous names, attractive names, curious names. Covers don't really matter. Names are more powerful than covers, I think. Think of A Brief History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and The Hindi-Bindi Club or The Saree Show (or some such title). Which of these would I rather read? I'm probably being silly, but the first inexplicable, mysterious title attracts me infinitely more than the other two which sound like books written by aspiring Page 3 women, wives of businessmen or writers for a vague, glossy women's magazine that has little of sense to offer. (I'm way off the target in all probability, but come on, I think NRI stories are causing an overkill. Culture shocks are inevitable, but we definitely have more to us than garish colours and raucous Aunties.) Covers come later. It is indeed a delight to run your hands on the raised letters of a smooth cover or on the spine of a book, but it isn't quite as much a deciding factor for me as the name of the book.

In the end, though, it's what is inside the book that matters most. The keen, sharp feeling of disappointment that shoots through you when a book you expected much of fails to deliver, when writers flatter to deceive; the extreme delight and thrill that comes from brilliant writing- such real emotions these are, capable of making or breaking a day. Oh yes, words do create magic.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Through the Streets of the Orient

Chinatown never does fail to delight. Everytime I go there, the excitement is palpable, it courses through my veins, and I am never disappointed. I remember the first time I walked out of the train at the Chinatown station on an impulse, and the magic has lingered ever since.

I am sure there is more to it than just my own curiosity about Chinese culture, because evidently, I am not the only person fascinated by the colours and the warmth of the area. The exit that I normally take from the station, the one that leads on to Pagoda Street, opens out on a flea market. Things are delightfully attractive and rather inexpensive, and even if you are not a huge fan of shopping, you can walk up and down the aisles between the rows of shops stocked to the brim with colourful clothes, artefacts and other curiosities. You lose yourself among the tourists, you are just one person in a stream of humanity; people searching for presents to carry home to friends, burrowing through heaps of pretty clothes, stopping to finger strange bits of stone or shells or beads at stalls that lie unabashedly open to susceptible, greedy eyes and purses.

It isn’t just the shopping, though. There is more to Chinatown than mere words can explain. Old, graceful buildings stand proud amidst the endlessly changing, milling crowds, red-and-gold lanterns suspended over the variously coloured people, bobbing briskly under the influence of the slightest gust of wind. Walking down the streets on a sunshiny afternoon gives you a profound sense of peace and quiet, almost like the serene calm of a clear pool untroubled by pebbles or wading feet.

The whole morning at work was spent waiting for 2.30 pm, when I’d get off and be able to make my way to the mesmerizing alleys of Chinatown, to travel backwards or forwards in time I know not, but to an entirely different, mysterious world for sure. Laughing Buddhas and frogs in jade and metal; unbelievably chunky jewellery, glimmering beads strung and twisted inextricably together; dolls dressed with loving care in bright ethnic costumes; beaded and brocaded bags; silken cushion covers and slippers; pretty fans, umbrellas and chopsticks- the stuff of plundered loot from ships returning from the Orient in the marvellous stories that we read and loved and still do.

The best part of the afternoon, though, was more spiritual than material. Bursting plastic bags in blue, orange and green notwithstanding, there was something I was really looking forward to- the visit to the monastery. Normally, too much grandeur makes me uncomfortable, but the red and gold d├ęcor within the Buddhist temple just left me awestruck without disconcerting me. The serene, benevolent faces of the deities, the powerful, overwhelming presence of the Buddha seemed to pervade the atmosphere within with a sense of incredible calm and reassurance, spelling an end to unhappiness and turmoil. Numerous incense sticks were lit in a huge cauldron just outside the doors, and the mellow fragrance wafted in on the breeze as people held up lanterns and laid their faith and conscience bare, in humility and surrender, to the inexplicable Power.

Stumbling upon a Mariamman temple next, I couldn’t quite let go of the opportunity to go in. It is incredible how, when you are physically spent, your head and heart conspire to carry you through. So it was, laden with shopping as I mentioned, that I walked into the temple with my friend. Strains of the nadaswaram and the rhythmic tolling of bells accompanied the ancient chants as curious tourists crowded in to take in the sights and the sounds of unfamiliar rituals. Walking around the temple courtyard, I looked up at the discoloured figures carved out on the gopuram and the walls, and then at the metallic blue-and-grey skyscrapers, which seemed rather incongruous when set against the more tranquil, less ambitious symbols of faith and beseeching.

And before the magic wears off, before the commonplace becomes life once again and drives away the wonder of the unexplained, I am glad I have written it all down.