Tuesday, July 25, 2017

White Teeth

The first novel of the author, I came across this when I read up about Zadie Smith's new book, Swing Time. I thought let me start with the very first one and opened White Teeth.

Set in North London in very ordinary neighbourhoods filled with immigrants and their second generation children, I could understand it as could many people I would assume given the success of this book. As with such books, the story and the end of where it takes us is less important than the journey itself.

Andrew, a white guy who is racially blind ends up marrying Clara who is a Caribbean black woman raised in London and decades younger. They have a daughter Irie who is more black than she is white. Andrew's friend from serving in World War II is Samad, a Bangladeshi who marries his decades younger cousin Alsana from Bangladesh. They have twins Magid and Millat. Samad and Andrew often reminisce the war days, spending more time with each other alienating their younger families. Samad also has a pet peeve of going off on a tangent about how Mangal Pandey (a hero of the Indian independence movement) was his great great grandfather. Enter the Chalfens, a perfect over achieving English middle class family who become obsessed with these non white kids and believe they can groom the kids out of their "difficult" homes.

There are many layers and themes in this story. One of lies and secrets: nothing is ever what it seems at the Jones or the Iqbals, or at least that's what Irie thinks. One of religions: Samad is a staunch Muslim, Clara's mother is a Jenovah's witness, Chalfens are religiously scientific, there is also a group of vegans and animal welfare activists. Etc etc.
There is one theme of teeth which I suppose is where the title comes from but that theme feels so forced, it's ridiculous and not in the funny way. Many chapters for example are titled the root canal of so and so. Then there is Clara who doesn't have front teeth and Iris feels cheated when she finds out.

So anyway, it's a little funny overall. I think it was meant to be a little more funny than I found it. And I also realised that Roopa Farookhi sort of made me like this book less.
You see, I read this book called Bitter Sweets. A first generation Bangladeshi couple move to London and have a pair of extremely good looking kids that they name them Omar and Sharif after the famous actor and one of them grows up to be a cool dude while the other is a geeky kid; overlaying all this is a story of how the immigrant families live in lies while the white people are so truthful. Bitter Sweets was written after White Teeth. I can't help thinking that Bitter Sweets was hugely "inspired" by this book.

Samad's twins were indeed so handsome there were references to Omar Sharif. I googled him and I was disappointed. Anyway, the twins are also similarly different - one is the cool dude and the other a geek. In this case however, they didn't get along well. And we discussed anyway, the Chalfens are truthful. However, let's ignore this.

The ending of the book was somewhat too theatrical ( but so was the entire book now that I think about it) and rather unnecessary. Too many things happening at the same time that the author couldn't write it well enough and each segment comes off as half done.

In summary, the book has a lot in it that is worth exploring and in most instances it was well explored however in bits and pieces the writing falls short of the intention and it shows that it is a debutant effort.

Never Let Me Go

This is so deep on so many levels and yet is such a refreshingly light read. It does make you cry at the end. If you want to read it I recommend you don't read any preamble and for that reason, I will keep this very spoiler proof.

No, it's not a thriller. The book is written from the perspective of one Kathy H, a student at Hailsham and about her greatly ordinary life. Over time as people grow older, we chance upon information about the bad bad world out there and learn to deal with it. So does Kathy, supported by some friends.

It's endearing in a way to see campus life in Hailsham and remember that my six years of campus life were similar. We all have things that seem so important at that stage within the confines of that word, that outside it they seem so silly. And that is what makes this book so very special. The author was able to look at the world through the eyes of this little child and then a young adult all the while. This is also what makes epics like To Kill a Mockingbird. May be that's why this book is now part of school curricula. The author did use the older Kathy H as the narrator looking back at her life, I suppose in the off chance that he found himself not sounding young enough. This flashback angle also allowed for a non linear narrative, going back and forth between different experiences at different ages but all muddled up and remembered as and when our older Kathy H pleases.

The story goes on and on through how people deal with different situations, like bullying, falling in love and hating someone for something silly, etc. It's not a great epic of changing the world. I mean the story has potential to make for an action sequence but the author chooses not to. Because we are not knights and most of us deal with unpleasant information by ignoring it and pretending like it does not affect us, which exactly what Kathy and her friends do most of time.

The melancholy that Murakami brings and the ordinary told extraordinarily that shapes up Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the marquee of loneliness that underlines their works are all themes that run in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I just picked up his legendary piece of book, The Remains of the Day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

10,000 miles away - Leon, Nicaragua

On our official finally day in Nicaragua, we or rather my friend, since I've clearly been freeriding, booked a tour service for an interesting tour. We woke up really early to be picked up at 6.30 am at home in Nicaragua and made our way to Leon and past to Cerro Negro.

Cerro Negro as the name suggests is a short hill of black volcanic sand. It's a new volcano and last erupted in 1999. It's much shorter than it's neighbouring extinct volcanos. As a volcano erupts, it increases in height.

Once we reached the base we were given our very own boards that we had to carry them up a hike of 45-60 mins. I nearly made it. We went up the steepest part of it and it was all fine. But when we came near to the top, the wind changed direction and was really strong. I felt that the wind would take my board and if I tried to stop it, I would go too. So I took two steps when the rest of my team went 10. Not proud of it that I just sat down after that. The guide took my board then and it was easy after that. We went up to the rim of the crater. From there, any direction you see, the hill is just black sand. It felt similar to Jungfrau except that time it was all white and snow and cold. 

The crater had nothing much to see except it's yellow because of sulphur and anywhere on the surface, if you dig enough, you'll feel hot wet sand and possibly fumes. Once we took in the sights, we went to other edge of the other side of the hill to do what we came for. Our guide gave us a quick intro and a demo on how to do it. And off we went, sitting on our boards and slide off the side of the volcano, in what is called volcano boarding. What fun ! It's among two or three places in the world where you can do this. I highly recommend it.

We had woken up early for this so by the time we reached Leon, it was early noon and we headed to one of the hotels we knew had a restaurant with air conditioning. Yes, Leon is really hot. So hot, head started to hurt when we reached the cathedral and waited to get to the top of the tower. The view from the cathedral was a bustling city with mountains not far away and you know one of them is active. We then roamed a market for a little while before heading back.

10,000 miles away - Isla Ometepe

Isla Ometepe an island created out of two volcanos, Volcan ConcepciĆ³n and Volcan Maderas, and is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Since we were staying in Managua, we had to drive up to 3 hours to the ferry and load up the car for a 90 min ferry ride. The ferry is very small so it barely fits a few cars and advanced reservation is recommended.

Given how long it takes for us to get there, it was lunch time when we reached so after a quick lunch, we checked into our beach side cabins at Villa Aller in Santo Domingo which is the area where the two volcanic island meet.

We then headed to Ojo dear Agua. It literally translates to a waterhole and that's what it is. It's a natural pool (which now has a cemented embankment). The water is extraordinarily clear and you can see the rocky floor, parts of which are also cemented, and there is a canapy of trees above. There is a trapeze hanging from one of the trees to dive in if you like and we also spotted turtles at the bottom. We all took a dip though I wasn't in there for very long since the water was cold (for me). 

We came back to our cabins and relaxed on the front porch in a hammock and rocking chairs overlooking the beach, watching the waves. After darkness fell and there isn't much to see, we headed to another resort nearby for dinner and listened to the song Ometepe. When we reached home, we were so tired from the whole day that I slept the minute I hit the bed.

Sleeping early has its benefits because i woke up the next day to see the sunrise at the beach with golden waters everywhere as I strolled the beach. By the time the others woke up, the sun was well up and we all went to dip into the water. At first I was afraid having grown up on a sea coast with strong currents. Lake Nicaragua is so large, it looks like the sea, basically you can't see the other side and water stretches as far as you can see. But once I went into the water, I realised the difference. The waves are light push you towards the bank but there is no pull into the waters because there is no current. The lake is shallow for a long way so you can keep walking in for a distance if you like. But the most bizarre thing for me was that this sea like water body did not contain salty water! 

The water was also extremely muddy I realised as i showered later trying to get the mud out of my hair. After we showered and ate breakfast at a vegetarian natural cafe, we made our way to Puente Jesus Maria. This is one edge of Isla Ometepe overlooking the two volcanos on one side and Volcan Mombacho and Granada on the other side. An extraordinary isthmus or a narrow sand bridge (or puente in Spanish) goes into the lake for a mile or so giving one the earrie feeling that one is walking on water, famously like the Jesus, son of Maria is said to have. We couldn't walk too far because the wind was strong and hence, so were the waves.

 After taking in the beautiful views, we went to Charco Verde for some more wonderful views of Volcan ConcepciĆ³n in the background and beautiful green pond in the foreground. The area is also supposed to be a home for many butterflies. 

Soon after, we had lunch and headed out to the ferry for yet another long journey back to Managua.

10,000 miles away - Granada, Nicaragua

We woke up early to make our way to Granada, more specifically, the protected area of Volcan Mombacho. If Volcan Masaya is a simmering dark crater looking to absorb all life around it, Volcan Mombacho is the exact opposite with its very own microclimate that nurtures a cloud forest (a slightly lighter shrunken version of a rain forest). It's an extinct volcano and as the surface grew cooler, the extremely fertile volcanic soil allowed for plants and trees to grow, which in turn grew dense enough to create their own world. In spite of that, there are still some tunnels in the ground through which hot gases escape, amidst all the greenery.

It was surreal when we hiked our way up to one such tunnel, so shrouded by greenery that we could see it but we could still see the fumes. It was somewhat chilly and also extremely windy as we go higher up. There are brilliant view points covering the city of Granada, Lake Nicaragua and the islets. The volcano also has a zip lining experience which we couldn't do due to time constraints.

So once we got off the volcano, we headed to the city of Granada. Granada is the first colonial city of the continent and you can see the Spanish effect when you climb up the tower of the chapel from where you have the beautiful view of the settlement against Volcan Mombacho in the background.

We then went to the little harbour to find a boatman who would take us on a short tour of the isletas. The isletas are basically little pieces of land the surfaced on the Lake Nicaragua close to each other and some of which are inhabited. Some of the slightly larger ones have small huts and houses, one of which belonged to our boatman where he dropped off a gas cylinder. Some of the other isletas are tiny enough to hold just one mansion such that the whole of it becomes private property. And some are so tiny that they are basically dense mangroves. May be Sunderbans feels like this. 

After that, we just walked to the touristy pedestrian-only high street of Granada that was littered with foreign cuisine restaurants and alfresco dining where we caught up with Ivo's friend who helped us hunt down the art schools replica of the Iron Throne from A Song of Ice and Fire.

10,000 miles away - Masaya, Nicaragua

On the very first official day of our trip we figured out that Nicaragua is land of volcanoes, lakes and revolution. After a lazy breakfast at home, we headed out to our first stop - a shooting range. K and I have never held a gun before and here we were shooting .22 rifle and 9mm pistol. And managing to hit the targets (more with the rifle and less so with the pistol). Guns are a popular hobby in Nicaragua thanks to its revolutionary past and especially the Sandinista movement in the late 1970s leading to independence from Somozoa's US-supported dictatorship on 19 July 1979.

Our second stop was Volcan Masaya. It's active and spewing hot gases that you can smell the stench of sulphur and if the wind subsides a little leading the smoke into a steady stream, you can see the bright orange coloured, agitated lava. The walls of the crater are blackened but one of the outer sides still holds greenery in a dramatic difference. Also because it is a young volcano, it's pretty short and flat so you can drive up to the crater. Apparently there are also night tours where the illuminance of the lava is more assistant and beautiful.

Our final stop for the day was a lagoon or a Laguna. You can see Laguna Masaya from the top of the crater. It's crescent moon shaped lake because it keeps getting filled up from one side every time Vulcan Masaya erupts. However that's now that lagoon we went to. We went to Laguna de Apoyo which is in a sink hole of sorts of an extinct volcano, so essentially it's a lake with high walls which now support a lot of greenery. It's a very picturesque place for a dip and given it's depth, people can go scuba diving. We didn't go for a dip though. This is where JR came as a child to play.

We stopped by JR's family at a traditional Nicaraguan home with a little garden in the courtyard of the house and though we didn't speak their language we played with JR's nephew.

East Sussex for Easter

This is our first road trip. We have been on road trips before but this our first own road trip. Because I can drive and we have a car. Very late in life to be learning how to drive, but hey, better late than never - even if it is only an automatic driving license.

In the beginning of 2016, K and I decided (or K decided for both of us) that we need to learn to swim and learn to drive. I was reluctant about both but it does make sense on paper to be able to do both activities. One step a time though. So K learnt to swim and I learnt to drive. Having written by theory test in March and failing my driving test 3 times, I passed in my 4th attempt in November and then the hunt for a car began, until finally, we got a neat little city car in February. So here we are in April, going on our very first road trip.

We wanted to avoid the Easter weekend traffic so instead of driving on Thursday night or Friday morning we decided to leave on Friday afternoon and made our way to this cute little town called Rye (yes, like the catcher in the rye). We also had a couple of friends who decided they could trust my driving ! Rye is a small little fishing village with what was voted as the prettiest street in England a couple of years ago - Mermaid street. (This year it is Shambles, York though neither Shambles nor Mermaid Street would have changed the slightest bit over the last few years.) Nevertheless, Mermaid Street is quaint British and perfect for the trip down there.

After a British meal/coffee at Rye, we headed down to Camber Sands beach and found ourselves running after a sky filled with parachute-style kites and an endless flat beach.

We headed to our hotel for the trip near Herstmonceux. It was this wonderful old building with white walls and timber. And had a British dinner of Chicken Tikka Masala!

The next day we headed to city of Hastings with its beach and cliffs and funiculars and seafood huts but the Battle of Hastings did not take place here. It had wonderful views from above the hills and castle in ruins by the time we reached it.

Soon we drove up to this spot where we heard we get great views of the seven sisters and we did. We could actually see seven peaks of white cliffs against the English Channel and the sun was kind enough to give us a good time.

The next day we went to Herstmonceux castle gardens. There were a handful of landscaped gardens and then an expansive area of woods that you can keep going but we walked for probably an hour around the estate.

Then we moved on to the reason for picking 1066 county as the destination for the trip, Battle. Battle is where the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. We took a 30min walk around the battlefield with an audio guide that took us through the story in detail.

From Battle, and a tea and scones with clotted cream, we drove back to London. Our first road trip taught us that in a relatively short period of time we can see a lot if we can drive around.

Ten Thousand Miles Away - My Nicaragua Family

Our first foray into Latin America!

The furthest I have been from home (in India) was generally about 8 or 9 thousand kilometres (the East or the West coast of the USA).The furthest I have ever been before this was Niagara falls at some 13000 km. Nicaragua is 10,000 miles away or 16,000 km. And yet I have never felt closer to home...

What would normally take lots of research and planning for a week-long trip to Nicaragua became a case of simply landing at the airport, thanks to our wonderful friends, Ivo and JR who opened their home and family to us.
Nicaragua, as Ivo explained to me when we first met more than 6 years ago, is the centre of Central America. It's a land of volcanoes and lakes, and of revolution. And like most (or all) other Central American countries, it is flanked by the two great oceans. Hence the two blue bands flanking a white band in their flags.

The moment we landed I felt at home, trading cold and wet London for hot and airy tropical Managua. After a home-cooked lunch and a well deserved afternoon siesta, in the evening after the day cooled down, we went around the city, specifically to the beach where there is a mini version of a high street in the city before the 1972 earthquake destroyed most of the city. When I say the beach, I mean the beach of Lake Managua but the lake is so expansive that it might as well have been a sea (more on that later). Noticeably for a capital city, it scarcely has any high-rise buildings due to the aforementioned earthquake and the fear of a repeat. Also noticeable are the new "trees of life" that are colourful tree-like structures littered everywhere in the city that light up in the night, so much so that the night view of Managua is essentially the trees. We ended the day with dinner at a nice place with Ivo and JR's friends and family and met Ivo's.

10,000 miles away - Masaya, NicaraguaNext day, we visited Masaya, JR's hometown with an active Volcano and a Laguna that JR grew up near. We also visited JR's family home and his family.

10,000 miles away - Granada, Nicaragua: The day after we visited Granada, a colonial town, and Mombacho, a luscious green volcano.

Nearly midweek, Ivo planned it as a"relax day". We went to this resort on the Pacific coast called Barcelo Montelimar. Here the resorts do an all-inclusive day pass as well, instead of staying overnight to avail the resort facilities (which you can do of course). I have no idea how large the resort is or how many pools it has, we saw at least 5 pools. We had a huge breakfast and then went into the pool for a while. Then we just lazed around before lunch and then we went to another pool before playing mini golf and then dipped in the main pool again for some time. We went to see the Pacific ocean but it was too hot to stay and there was no shade around much. Basically, we didn't do much except eat and dip into the pools. We ended a well-relaxed day with nice little home cooked meal at Ivo's sister's place.

10,000 miles away - Isla Ometepe: Then we went for an overnight trip to Isla Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua.

10,000 miles away - Leon, Nicaragua: Finally, we went to Cerro Negro, an active volcano, for an adventure trip.

After our trip to Cerro Negro, we went to Ivo and JR's friend's surprise birthday party after a sushi dinner at a local new plaza. On our final day, we have a nice breakfast at home and heading to the airport wishing we didn't have to.
Thank you Ivo and JR !!!

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Bitter Sweets

After reading The Lives of Others, I felt this was a bit of an overload of Kolkata and Dhaka. But indeed it's a much lighter read with dark humour. It's a story of how people create intricate lies so perfectly for so long that often they successfully deceive themselves. I suppose that's the key to a perfect lie that even the liar has forgotten the truth.
It takes us through three generations of the Karim family that engage in double lives. What's the most interesting bit is that at some point they all seem to know the truth and yet ignore it. It's so much easier to create and live another lie instead.
And when it becomes a habit, it's hard to shake off.

There I've said it, the essence of the book. I need not have written so many lines where one would suffice ! It's a soap opera with overtones of the bold and the beautiful.

The first generation of Henna and Rashid is a marriage based on lies, which doesn't surprise me because in the olden days I believe it was acceptable to have some level of deception in talking up a prospective bride or groom. It's like a CV after all. This leads Rashid to have a second life (or the first depending on how you look at it) as Ricky in London, while Henna keeps up appearances as a dutiful glamorous wife of a globe trotting businessman.
The second generation of Parvez and Shona also start double lives as they have other interests.
The third generation of the twins Omar and Sharif is filled with lies too but a lot of that seemed normal to me. Both of them keep their love interests from their parents.

I don't know whether I'm supposed to be sad that none of the lies seemed outrageous to me because people lie all the time or it may be that this book has tried to show to western audiences how deceitful the Bangla community can be. After all, the only supposedly truthful people in this book are the very British Verity Trueman and her half white daughter Candida. Even though Candida is as deceitful as Sharif. But then again she is only half white. May be I'm judging the author too harshly. I don't know how London was all those years ago.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude

It's not a hundred years but one hundred years of solitude. The word one gives a sense of certainly to it. So it is that the fate of Macando is certain as well. It does not matter that there is such a long story through generations on and on, only history repeats itself. It does not matter how many times the matriarch Ursula tries to change the course of the future to stop history from repeating, to save Macando from its fate. The fate is certain and it will be so.
It's a long story and a very long one, and so densely packed that every page is oozing with detail and the story just keeps going on and on. Yet you know the end is coming, soon. Yet you are never bored, not for once. Yes, you occasionally wonder where it's all going and why it's so repetitive but that is what it is. You see, history repeats itself.
A man and his wife, escape their village because the man murdered another and they travel far and wide and finally settle down in a place and that's how the Buendias establish Macando. There they have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters. Most of the sons are named either Aureliano or Arcadio and the daughters are few and have a few different names. The repetitive nature of the names adds to the confusion while reading the book but when you follow the story it helps in setting the similarities of every generation. Ursula sees it too, especially when a pair of twins named these two names get swapped at birth and spend their whole lives being called by the other name. Yet traits tell Ursula that they were probably swapped. Aurelianos are supposed to be pensive and poetic while Arcadios impulsive. Talk of magical realism, the twins die at the same time and mistakenly get swapped when they are buried, ensuring that each went to the grave with their birth name.
Through out the story, it seems like many ills befall this little settlement and yet it was meant to be. Eventually the settlement is destroyed and just before it is, the last of the family decodes an ancient parchment that had been with the family for generations. And when the fate of his family dawns on him, it is also the end of it. And when it has all ended, a passerby would never know Macando once existed there...
They say Gabriel Garcia modelled this story on Colombia. I don't know enough about Colombia to know. All I know is the beauty of his magical realism that I had understood when I read the obituary of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on The Economist and I knew that I had to read this book.