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1. You were at the beach when it happened. What was it like, that day on the beach?

There was no one in the water – it wasn’t warm enough for that, you know – but that apart it was like any other sunny day on the beach. Kids playing in the sand; families picnicking; women sunbathing; seagulls gliding; sailboats in the distance. Nothing unusual at all…except –

Continue reading “Ten”

Remembering Grandpa

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

Marcel Proust  (Swann’s way)

It is one week since I received news of Grandpa’s demise, and in this period I have tried, for the most part unsuccessfully, to recreate moments I spent with him during my childhood.  All that remains is a collection of hazy images that lack the depth of more recent memories, and a few incidents which, for unclear reasons, I can recollect as if they happened yesterday.  Continue reading “Remembering Grandpa”

Utsav, and lists in The Kama Sutra

Yesterday, while scanning a set of disks for a movie to watch, I stumbled upon Utsav.  I had bought the movie a couple of years previously on a trip to India but had never got around to watching it. The choice for this Saturday evening seemed to agree with Wife also, so we settled down under a quilt on the sofa, in a dark room suffused with the dim glow of city lights filtering in through the windows. Continue reading “Utsav, and lists in The Kama Sutra”

2008 in lists

A summary of the year in lists of notable experiences/events/things: 

Books – Fiction

The Reader (Berhnard Schlink)
The Book of Other People (edited by Zadie Smith)
Sea of Poppies (Amitav Ghosh)
The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie)
The White Tiger (Arvinda Adiga)
Thank you, Jeeves (P.G.Wodehouse)
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
Buddha – part 1 (Osamu Tezuka)

Books – Non-fiction

The shadow of the sun (Richard Kapuscinski)
The Halo effect (Phil Rosenzweig)
Fixing Climate (Wallace Broecker and Robert Kunzig)
Cultural Amnesia (Clive James)
A Little History of the World (E.H.Gombrich)
Antiquity (Norman Cantor)
Essays in Love (Alain De Botton)
Edward Hopper (Lloyd Goodrich) Continue reading “2008 in lists”


“In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat: and since the shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby are never two, but many, and they increase further for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on dry land.And so Esmeralda’s inhabitants are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day. And that is not all: the network of streets is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets. Combining segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places. The most fixed and calm lives in Esmeralda are spent without repetition.“

This is Marco Polo speaking to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, describing Esmeralda while thinking of Venice, the city Marco Polo grew up in.


Last year, during this first week of April, I was roaming the streets of Venice. The twelve months since then have not diluted my memories or lessened my longing to spend a small portion of my life in that city.

I spent some time today going through those photos again: the gondolas, the bridges, the systems, the people. And memories of my visit spread through the mind like canals criss-crossing the streets of Venice.

There are, as Italo Calvino writes, two cities in Venice: one above water, and one below:

“Thus the traveller, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada down in the water contains not only all the flutings and juttings of the facades that rise above the lake, but also the rooms’ interiors with ceilings and floors, the perspective of the halls, the mirrors of the wardrobes. Valdrada’s inhabitants know that each of their actions is, at once, that action and its mirror image …”


Earth and Water were not the only elements of duality I found in Venice. There were streets where one half was stuck in the 13th century, while the other half had progressed into the 21st; there were other streets where antiquity and modernity were so intertwined that you couldn’t decide if the new had draped itself upon the old, trying to hide it, or the old had been used to decorate and enhance the new.


“A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira’s past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”


I had a strange dream one of those nights in Venice: I dreamed of a city that had been hit by a flood, a city where streets that once separated buildings across each other were now overflowing with water, a flood that spread from one street to another through the entire city so that what was left was a collection of half-submerged buildings. Yet – and this I found baffling in the panic of my dream – the city’s inhabitants went on with their tasks as if nothing catastrophic had happened: in place of cars I saw people using boats; bridges had sprung up to carry people over the water; and women hung clothes on lines thrown across the other side unmindful of the water below.


After I awakened, I sat thinking for a long time whether this was how Venice evolved into its present form: water had once entered the city, and its inhabitants gradually built their life in and around it.

It wasn’t true, the history books said, but I thought it was a good story. Perhaps an old woman in Venice remembered this story passed on to her over generations, like a legend the historians had ignored. I intend to find out when I go there next.

A Treasure chest

In the last few days I came across many reports that spoke of Manmohan Singh’s appointment as Finance Minister in 1991, and the turnaround in the economy he engineered. Repeated references to the year, 1991, triggered a train of thoughts.

What did I do in 1991, I wondered.

It was the year I completed my schooling, my 12th standard. At the beginning of the year I donated my tonsils. Then there were a couple of picnics with schoolmates; those were our last few months together, and we wanted to have some fun outside the school boundaries. There were many group photographs. There was also a threat from a dada of our class asking me to stop “going behind” a girl I rather fancied. He fancied her too, but his threat was along the lines of “she is my sister; leave her alone”. I left her alone.

Then came the board exams – bad – followed by entrance exams – worse. I then had to move to Bangalore for my graduation (under-graduation, if you follow American terminology). New place, new college, new hostel. The hostel was managed by a strict octogenarian who switched of the hot-water boilers by 7 am (so we all had to finish our bath by then), peeped into our bedrooms from time to time (curtains were forbidden), and held a roll-call at dinner time to ensure no one was out late (we jumped over the gates after dinner anyway).

Sketchy details, at best. A pity, really, because memories are our biggest wealth – the more we have, the wealthier we are. How do we preserve this precious commodity?

Of the different ways to preserve memories, letters, journals and photographs are the ones that come readily into mind. Photographs are common; the other two less so. Had I maintained a regular correspondence with someone during those years, my treasure chest labeled “1991” wouldn’t appear so depleted. Had I maintained a journal, the details would probably have been richer.

I hope not to carry such regrets about 2004. I now have a blog; I have to maintain it well.

Welcome aboard, Captain!

…for the sailor’s worst enemy is not the raging storm; it is not the foaming wave which pounds upon the bridge, sweeping all before it; it is not the treacherous reef lurking beneath the sea, ready to rend the keel asunder; the sailor’s worst enemy is drink!

No, that isn’t an extract from the Alcoholics Anonymous manifesto. Speaking on the radio at the end of his first adventure with Tintin, that is Captain Archibald Haddock, president of the Society of Sober Sailors. He is sharing his views on a topic close to his heart, and after these words when he pauses for a moment to wet his lips with a drink, he promptly collapses. We learn that the drink was something he isn’t quite used to: water.


Like many others, I discovered the adventures of Tintin during my childhood. Looking back, it strikes me that Tintin contributed significantly to my education about the world during those days. I learnt about the moon’s rocky surface not from photographs published by NASA but from Tintin’s explorations on the moon, and I discovered the wonders that lay at the bottom of the sea not through Discovery channel but while hunting for Red Rackham’s treasure. Red Indians came to my knowledge when Tintin went to America, and the Inca civilization revealed itself to me when he was made a prisoner of the Sun. The first footprints of the Yeti were the ones I saw when Tintin visited Tibet, and the first opera singer I encountered was the irresistible Bianca Castafiore, whose melody transcended those pages, tickled my ears and sent a chill down my spine.

These days I am reading these timeless adventures in chronological order, discovering the minute details depicted there, and rediscovering the idiosyncrasies of adorable characters who surface from time to time. Captain Haddock has just made his acquaintance with Tintin in The Crab with the Golden Claws, where he is in his elements from the beginning, causing one calamity after another in his inebriated state and reserving the choicest words for Tintin’s worst enemies. His vocabulary, when carefully accounted, is prodigious:

Miserable whipper-snapper! … Meddlesome cabin-boy!… Swine!…Jellyfish!… Tramps!…Troglodytes!…Toffee-noses!… Savages!… Aztecs!… Toads!… Carpet-sellers!!… Iconoclasts!… Rats!…Ectoplasms!… Freshwater Swabs!… Bashi-bazouks!… Cannibals!… Caterpillars!… Cowards!… Baboons!… Parasites!… Pockmarks!… Blistering Barnacles!!!…Bandits!… Brutes!… Oh Columbus!… Slave-trader!… Twister!… Heretic!… Technocrat!!!… Bucaneer!… Vegetarian!!!!…Politician!!… Pirate!… Corsair!… Harlequin!… Hydrocarbon!… Aborigine!… Polynesian!… Gyroscope!… Blackamoor!… Anthracite!… Coconut!!!… Fuzzy-wuzzy!… Anthropithecus!… Blackbird!… Nincompoop!… Anacoluthon!… Invertebrate!… Liquorice!

All this in his very first outing with Tintin. Phew!

When this rekindled interest in Tintin had me hooked, I scouted the web for Tintin related sources and found plenty. The official Tintin site is a real treat for Tintin lovers. An interesting piece of information I gathered there was about the usage of the Golden Ratio by Herge – creator of Tintin – to depict some scenes :

Vitruvius, a Roman architect from the 1st century B.C., defines the principle as follows. For an area divided in unequal parts to be aesthetical, there must exist between the smaller area and the larger one, the same relation than between the latter and the entire area.
The result is 4 golden points, among which the artist can choose one to place the most important element of his work, thus be assured that it will be placed most appropriately on an aesthetics stand point.

Apart from the official site, I found a Tintin Webring, Tintin trivia quiz, Tintin wallpapers, Tintin Video previews, Tintin Video Games, Tintin Magazine, and Tintin Stores. There is also an exhibition of Tintin’s sea adventures scheduled to be held in March in London’s National Maritime museum.

About an year back there was a press release which stated that Steven Spielberg will be making a movie based on Tintin. The film is expected to be released in 2004, so after three years of Lord of the Rings this year there is something new and different I can look forward to.

Year end inventory

As the year draws to a close, it is time to take stock. So here is a laundry list of books read in 2003.

Books read

Bones of the master (George Crane): A beautifully written account by an American poet who accompanies a Buddhist monk to Inner Mongolia in search of the bones of his master, whom he had left around 50 years earlier when he fled China in the wake of the Red Army onslaught on Buddhist establishments. The confrontations between East and West are subtly conveyed through conflicts between monk and poet, and glimpses of rural China bring out rarely encountered qualities about the country.

Swami and Friends (R.K. Narayan): A delightful read. Swami is one of the most endearing characters I’ve encountered so far.

Bachelor of Arts (R.K. Narayan): Narayan’s second novel about a young man passing through the difficult phase of young-adulthood. With characteristic simplicity Narayan brings forth the conflicts the young man faces, and finally comes to terms with. The book makes us look back at that phase of life and smile at ourselves, at the ideologies youth clings to, at the rebel that billows within.

Youth (J.M.Coetzee) : reviewed here in The Literary Soul.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K.Rowling): Not Rowling’s best. Parts of it made me wonder who was the central character: Harry or Hermione. Nothing much happens through the book, and that highlighted a principle difference between this and the Lord of the Rings: movement. While Lord Of The Rings is like Voyager II – moving across the solar system exploring one planet after another in a journey to the unknown – the Potter series is like a geostationary satellite – circling the Earth and crossing the same path once every year.

The Business of Books (Andre Schiffrin) : reviewed here in The Literary Soul.

J.K.Rowling : A Biography (Sean Smith) : A few comments here.

Books read in parts

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino) : Magic, sheer magic. That is the only way I can describe Italo Calvino’s writing. I hope to write more about this book once I complete it.

Essays of E.B White (E.B.White): Excellent collection of essays from a master of prose.

The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (Amit Chaudhuri): Good starting point to a number of Indian writers writing in English and the vernacular. The most memorable piece I’ve read so far in this collection is a memoir titled “Edmund Wilson in Benaras” by Pankaj Misra. Misra, known for having spotted The God of Small Things and for coining the term “Rushdieitis”, is one bright young star in the horizon of Indian Literature. I’ve read a few of his articles so far, and I’m looking forward to his book on The Buddha he is currently working on.

The Vintage book of Indian Writing (Salman Rushdie & Elizabeth West): Interesting collection, but slanted towards Indians writing in English ( a point that caused quite some animated discussions about the selection ).

Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): Beautiful collection of short stories, mostly touching upon the condition of the Indian Immigrant. What struck me was the author’s understanding of human nature – at so young an age – that came across in those pages. This year I re-read some of the stories in this collection, and the experience left me convinced Lahiri was a writer to relish. Her next book The Namesake is on my to-be-read list.

Chess Master Vs Chess Amateur (Max Euwe): Great book for serious amateurs who wish to rise beyond the ranks of hobbyists.

The development of Chess Style (Max Euwe and John Nunn): Traces the history of chess champions from the 17th century upto the present, focussing on how the style of each great player influenced other players and the general style of play in that era.

What should I do with my life? (Po Bronson): Could not go beyond first few chapters – too much authorial intrusion makes it unreadable. Instead of trying to find out from his subjects, he tries to influence his own views – on what they should do in their life, or how they should go about finding it – upon them. Instead of letting the subjects speak for themselves, he inserts – very often – his own judgements about their ways of thinking.

White Mughals (William Darlymple): I picked this up on our India Trip and read around fifty absorbing pages while travelling. I somehow haven’t been able to pick it up again after we got back. In 2004, perhaps…

Books apart, this has been the year where I overcame my inertia and started writing a bit. This site, begun early this year in Geocities and later transferred to Typepad, is what little there is to indicate this small beginning. I’m sure it will grow in time; I may not write a lot, but I know this isn’t a fad, so slowly but surely – atom by atom – this mostly private universe will grow, documenting a progression in thought, and in life.

Three years hence

On Monday it was three years since we relocated to Germany. I still remember the day we landed here: our airport shuttle dropped us in front of the house we had been allotted for our first month’s stay, and a young lady was waiting there to hand over the keys of a shining black Mercedes A Class standing next to her. I do not remember if she was blonde or brunette; all my attention was on the Mercedes, which, looking back, seems rather regrettable as the A Class is really a very ordinary car.

The house was an old, spooky one, and our apartment on the top floor had a nice view of the village: rooftops covered with snow, just like a painting.


About a fortnight later we shifted to an apartment we liked, and after three years the rooms we once considered spacious are now stuffed with belongings we hardly use but do not wish to part with.

The years have gone by in a hurry. Memories that remain are those of travel and people.

Of our drive through France, across the Pyrenees into Spain, ahead to the southern coast of Portugal and back: five thousand five hundred kilometers filled with kaleidoscopic variety.

Of the rolling meadows of Tuscany and the cluttered rooftops of Florence.

Of trying to ski in the slopes of the Swiss Alps, falling, getting up and falling again.

Of the gypsy dance in the square of Luxembourg, and the saxophone quartet in the tower of Belfort.

Of the timelessness felt in the Viennese coffeehouses.

Of the tinge of sun’s warmth in the middle of Zurich-see.

Of playing cards in the car in the middle of a long traffic jam.

Of hiking in Bernese Oberland, with rain on our heads and snow at our feet.

Of our neighbor who always spoke of his constipation or his sore throat when we greeted him with “How are you doing?”

Of another neighbor who spoke of his escape into West Germany from the East, smuggled across the border by a shepherd when he was a boy of 10.

Of yet another neighbor who told us she just came back from the friedhof, while we smiled gaily, unaware that friedhof meant cemetery.

Of the piano tuner’s magical skills.

Of the stranger, an English teacher, who drove us from the railway station to the spot in town we wished to visit.

Of Madhu’s commentaries during Hindi movies, and Bala’s amazing skills of negotiation while playing Siedler.

Of places and events revealed to us by Uta and Stefan.

Of the scrabble game at Mark and Venita’s.

Of places yet to visit, people yet to meet.

An interest rekindled

There was a time during school days when chess was a pastime I frequently indulged in. A rivalry that instantly comes to mind is the one I had with Sai, a friend who beat me convincingly most times and yet left me each time with the feeling that the result could have been otherwise; it made me go back and try again and again. After school we went our ways and my active interest in the game dwindled, surfacing now and then during sporadic encounters with classmates or colleagues.

These days it has come into favor again.

It all began a few weeks back when I took part in a fascinating simultaneous event organized by a local club. After that, I joined the local chess club. The club meets on Friday evenings, when most people informally play against each other and some – who have a tournament match on that day – play official games. The five weeks so far have been full of fun and learning. Some of the members have an ELO rating of around 2100, and playing against players of such strength is a humbling experience for hobbyists like me who think of themselves as ‘above-average’ in their own category.

I also recently bought Fritz 8. One way to describe this piece of chess software would be to mention that it has an ELO rating of over 2600 and that it can beat 99.9 % of chess players on this planet. But that would miss the point. Fritz contains an array of features to help players at different levels improve their game, and it is this feature-set – and not the Herculean strength it boasts of – that would prove most useful to players like me intending to improve their skills. I hope to discuss some of these features in this space sometime in the near future.

On the recommendation of a player in the chess club I bought the book ‘Chess Master Vs Chess Amateur‘ by Max Euwe. I’ve read a few chess books in the past, but none of those went to the depth this book delves into while explaining the basics for amateurs. The approach is novel and effective : by highlighting the contrast between the thinking of the Master and Amateur, Euwe presents a path an amateur could take to bridge that gap. There are twenty five games discussed in the book; I’m currently into the fifth game, and I find that the games are presented in increasing order of complexity and amateur skill, so each new games takes longer to complete ( and the variations discussed also increase ).

I intend to start – as soon as I can make time for it – a chess journal : a section where I could discuss happenings in the club, talk a bit about Fritz and also log some of the games I play ( in the club and with Fritz ). Adding some algebraic notation might bring some variety into these pages.