Paris: From a previous trip … 

Paris: From a previous trip … 

It’s not New Year’s Day today, nor is it any other festival marking the beginning or end of a time cycle. It’s not Ugadi, for instance. It’s not my birthday, either. It’s just a chilly sunny Saturday, on which day a thought has chosen to visit me, telling me that in my long life I’ve spoken too much, eaten too much, thought petty too much. “Resolve now,” a follow on thought is urging me: “Eat less! Think less! Speak less!” And there’s a new thought forming: “Wow,” it appears to be shaping up to say: “Can these vows be kept really?”

I’m happy to write down that my mind is going blank.

I’m going to Paris tomorrow, returning Saturday. I’d be in the city four days. One day would be spent in preparation for two days’ business, and a day is free for roaming the city. The temperatures are about 5°/0°. I’ll go to the Picasso Museum, and, of course, the Apple Store in the Louvre. I can’t take the rainy windy cold so much anymore.

I’d be making a day trip to Brussels. That’s on one of the two business days I mentioned. I’d be taking the high-speed train, but my customer’s plant is by the airport, so I won’t get to spend a half-hour in a downtown Brussels cafe. I’ll enjoy the ride out and back. I’ll read. I’ll look out the window. I’ll quarrel with my wife. We always pack a fight for a train ride, and a quick-acting making-up kit as well.

I’m travelling very light. How I love that!

I’ve been writing trash like this on my blog. So I wrote a short story, my first, and gave it to my wife, and waited. She read it sitting next to me, as I watched her face, and she gave me her honest opinion. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, the sting in an honest opinion. I sent the story to a dear young man I know, a PhD in English literature, who has returned to India to teach at a beautiful location in the North. “Thanks for writing,” he wrote me. “And thanks for sharing. I’ll get back tomorrow or so.”

A week has gone by. There’s greater honesty in his silence, I’m afraid.

I’m resolving to keep my posts to four-hundred words or less. You’re nodding, I can see that.

Unhappy Diwali

 Image: Unsplash

Image: Unsplash

There were two instead of the one regular when I turned the corner of 1st Main and 5th Cross. They were leaning forward, peering, but they couldn’t see what was happening on 5th Cross from where I approached them. The dogs hadn’t the courage to come to the very end of the street and find out.

They weren’t firing crackers on 5th Cross. Still, seeing me, and probably thinking I was the creator of the sounds all around and the coloured lights exploding above, the pair turned and bounded back along 1st Main. I watched them until they disappeared after a gentle curve in the distance. Strange. They must’ve been through a few Diwali experiences, being full-grown dogs, not puppies. They were acting as though the apocalypse was upon them.

It was my turn to get apprehensive when I completed the length of 1st Main, went all the way down 3rd Cross, and turned into 2nd Main. Even before I got there, I could hear the serial explosions, loud and unsettling.

The chain ran about fifty meters along the middle of the road. About ten meters of the chain had blown, and cracker after cracker was sparking off the next in line in rapid succession — like a runaway machine gun, cruel, violent, with not a hint of the celebration of a good thing.

The man who’d perhaps lit the chain walked along it, in step with the crackers going off. A bunch of young men watched the scene, and they and the man by the chain were surely one party from a posh dwelling close by. The light from the streetlamp above had lit their hair, and it had caught their high-fashion silk sherwanis as well, which gleamed golden and silver.

I glared my nastiest at them. They were engrossed in their play, but after a long while, with the thudding of the crackers still going, they looked up. Seeing me looking as I was at them, they were surprised. They turned away.

The 2nd Main is the widest in my neighborhood and is host to a half dozen strays. They were all far down the road, in a single united pack, cocked and looking and perhaps whining a little.

On 3rd Main, where I live, after I’d walked a few paces the explosions from 2nd Main ended, but there was still a maddening din in the air, from fireworks going off all over town. They assailed the ear, the eye, the nose, and, most terribly, the heart. When I reached my gate, there was a little white fellow whom I’d never seen before. His tail was tucked in, and he was shrunken, and he was too much in fright of the sound and the fury to make any sign for help. Round his neck was a collar.

All dogs in my neighbourhood are so dressed in cute collars — the kept dogs behind the gate, the strays outside. It is an act of duty and kindness performed by most homes on all streets. The folks will allow none to be taken away by the catcher.

I opened my gate wide enough just for me. I slid in sideways. I closed the gate after me, and when I reached my front door, I looked back, to be sure the dog at the gate hadn’t somehow followed me in.

I hope this Diwali was perfect for you.

Dolce Far Niente

  A street in Pompeii

A street in Pompeii

In his gentle voice, Leonard said Romans prefer to eat gelato off a cone. “We cannot eat from a cup,” he said. “Because then we would need both hands. If we use both hands for gelato, we cannot talk. If you can talk without your hands, you can order gelato in a cup.”

Fair enough.

Leonard was tall and lanky, and broad in the chest and flat in the belly. He had the natural athletic grace of the European. He spoke of food all the time, and he was so relaxed through the day, I couldn’t help but wonder how he got that build and preserved it.

Why is olive oil is a touch bitter when it is Neapolitan? What are the merits of the Tuscan wine, versus those of the wine from the region of Pompeii, and Positano? Leonard wrote down names for the best places for Margherita in Rome and in Positano after he’d explained the history behind the tricolour pizza. To vegetarian listeners, he clarified: “We must have meat here. And fish. Without them, we cannot complete our cuisine.”

For a long time, it has been the Italian restaurant that reliably meets my vegan needs when I’m travelling in the West.

He did speak a little about where we were going. About the cloud of ash that hung over Pompeii, lingering long in the sky before it fell. He told the story in a languorous, drawn-out tone, painting the picture at a leisurely pace, giving the finishing touches as we passed the Vesuvius. His style was conversational, intimate, although he spoke into the microphone with eyes to the highway.

A little about Vesuvius. The story of Spartacus, and Capua where he fought, which was by our route. And the Appalachian Way, along which Spartacus’s men were crucified. The avenue of umbrella pines came up and went past before I could grab a shot.

Done with history, Leonard got back to food. Nobody minded.

“In Rome, we are unlike the Italians in the north. We love a relaxed life. And, as we have learnt from the drama of the Greeks, the future is not in our hands. So let us see. Our trip to Pompeii and Positano today may be good. Who knows? It may not be so good. Let us leave it to destiny.”

With that, he asked us to take a nap if we wished to.

It would rain a little in Pompeii when we reached in the afternoon, and we’d buy China-made umbrellas and raincoats at a kiosk. The rain would stop by the time we entered the amphitheatre, a few minutes from the entrance. Earlier to Pompeii, it would be blazing in Positano at lunch, but the entire population on this planet would be lying in wait for us there, to throttle us full-body from the moment of arrival until the point of exit. But I would get to be happy, finding a vegan feast, listed as Buddha’s Bowl on the menu, at a terrace restaurant called Collina, by a narrow street named Cristoforo Colombo.

How is limoncello made? With the rind of lemon over several weeks. The lemon were growing right there along the street, and olives, and grape. What’s the best pasta to carry home? Grainy pasta, because it assures al dente. One must take time and trouble to match the colours while asking for gelato. Choose three, but it is up to you. What does the black soil of Pompeii do to the olive above it?

“The Italian breakfast is espresso with a croissant.” But I knew that. “And you must never drink a cappuccino after morning.” I’d learnt that one too, but only three years or so ago.

“We are simple people,” Leonard said in his soothing voice with the sun pouring in. “Our approach to life isdolce far niente— the sweet art of doing nothing. Not everybody can achieve it. But if you keep trying you can.”

I wonder about that. I’ve spent a lifetime doing nothing, yet I’ve never known I’ve been practising high Roman-art all these decades. So I’m raising a toast here at home: I won’t drink wine; I can’t take take limoncello; but here’s a glass of water, I’m holding it high for Leonard, and for me, and my mastery of dolce far niente.

Michael Wood: The Story of India


He has a limp and an honest smile. He reaches out to children with love and engages with Indian men and women with natural warmth and affection. His home is congenial Britain but he is just as comfortable in a grimy mosquito-ridden guesthouse in Harappa, on the commoner’s coach of an Indian train, in any filthy Indian lane and bylane — his fatigue shows in the heat and the dust, but his smile and his love of place (and its past) never fades. He accepts without hesitation cake and coffee such as sold on our trains, and without any fear, he drinks tea served in clay-cups, and meals at any street-side hawker’s. “Delicious!” he exclaims, over a South Indian meal at the modest home of his hosts in Tamil Nadu, squatting on the floor with them.

It seems Wood carries the light traveller’s single change of clothes, no more. To perhaps soothe his sweating neck he wears a lot a blue-linen stole. In sum this man is an adorable host of his BBC program and the perfect guest in India, brimming with respect and curiosity toward her people. He doesn't pull back from pinching his olden-day countrymen for their misdeeds in India, and now and then he subtly submits a good or two that possibly came out of their time on the subcontinent.

So, watching his 360-minute India on DVD over four days was a pleasure and a terrific learning experience.

So much so, I bought his book as well. It read like an expansive version of the screenplay for the documentary, very well written, of course, but I put the book away after I’d gone in a few pages. The book proved too much a panegyric on my nation, and each time Wood exults in wonderment for India I squirm — my own love for my motherland is cased in a crust of anger, and my high hopes for it are smothered under terrible angst. India has had a great past, and she is poised for another round of greatness, of this I am as sure as Wood, or as any other, but I have to reconcile yet to the present, to my own life in this squalid, festering, incorrigible peninsula. I am committed to working in it, but I cannot help my everyday exasperation with it.

I’ve pulled John Keay from my shelf instead, his 600-page tome, India: A History. I'll come back to Wood’s book another time — no doubt I will — and I’ll watch his documentary a couple of times again.

My Muse Alexa

I watched last week a film based on the life of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Manto wrote with pencil, on paper. Often, he squatted on his haunches on his chair as he wrote — any chair would do, any desk. He wrote in noisy places, in hot sweaty rooms, in troubled uncertain times, with little money and much criticism. He wrote without traveling far, traveling almost not at all.

People are reading him even now, sixty-three years after he died, aged 42.

I have the use of a Herman Miller Aeron chair for writing, and the Herman Miller Eames chair (with ottoman) for reading. It is not so quiet in my home as in European and American towns, but quiet enough for Bangalore and India. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro. And, just today, on the day of its launch in India, the iPhone XS Max was delivered me. I am not rich, but I am not poor either — I mean my lot is better than Manto’s was.

Why can't I write like Manto, then? How unkind is my life to me!

Supine on my Eames, I asked for help from Alexa, who is playing “Soothing Jazz” at my request. “Alexa,” I said, and after she’d begun rolling her electric blue eye I asked: “Can you suggest something for me to write?” She didn’t hesitate: “Concepts include,” she began, “The Indus Valley Civilization, The Theory of Relativity … ,” and she ended the list with, “Does that answer your question?”

“No," I said.

“Thanks for your feedback,” she said.

That line of hers sounded cheeky. I cannot answer cheekiness. I fell silent, laptop on my lap, its battery burning my thighs. After a few minutes of doing nothing, I asked again, rather plaintive this time: “Alexa, can you suggest something for me to write?”

“What do you want?” she said.

“I want ideas to write a blog post,” I said, cowed somewhat by this assured voice and tone of woman.

“I found two books for you,” she said, and named two long titles. After she'd suggested the first title, she asked: “Shall I add it to your cart?” I said, “No.” She asked the same question after the second suggestion. “Okay,” I said, too fearful to refuse a second time. “Do you want me to add it to your cart?” she asked the question again, tougher this time: She was wanting the precise word. “Yes!” I said, and she confirmed the title, and said she'd dropped the book in my cart.

Done dealing with me, she went back to playing the music that she had been playing until my interruption. And I, I opened my browser, went to my cart on Amazon, gawped at what Alexa had chosen for me, and deleted it: The One-Hour Content Plan: The Solopreneur's Guide to a Year's Worth of Blog Post Ideas in 60 Minutes and Creating Content That Sells and Hooks.

Then I looked to the Amazon Echo (Plus) in the corner, to see if Alexa was watching me, glaring at me for what I’d gone and done. I can't tell, but she's playing for me that thing everybody loves: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald: Cheek to Cheek.

There’s a lesson here for me: Don’t mess with that rich man’s woman.