Thursday, May 29, 2008

Well then!

Usually, the evening cooking is accompanied by music from J's laptop. This music collection is so vast, it would go on for thirteen days if you played it without stopping. Consequently, everything is on there- the majority of which I've never heard.
However, to prove that he has a few tricks up his sleeve, the wily fox, what does he play today?
"Woh shaam kuch ajeeb thee
yeh shaam bhi ajeeb hai..."

I kid you not! And of course, like all good desis, the voice of Kishore immediately transported me back to the motherland and the good times. Even as my deliriously happy fingers type this, I can hear from the kitchen...
"poocho na yaar kya hua..."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


One good way to keep oneself stimulated mentally, I read, is to try as many new things as possible. Say, one new thing every month. So I have been doing a few Sudoku puzzles over the past three or four weeks.
And what can I say, I am stimulated almost to the point of tears every time I attack one of the things. I once attempted one on a plane, with a pen. Needless to say, that did not go well.
J caught on to my new habit and bought me a book with four levels of puzzles, from Easy to Diabolical.
Now, I can do one of the Easy ones without creating great big holes in the paper from too much erasing and re-writing. I may even get through one entire puzzle without vicious doodling on the sides of the page, although the eraser is still my best friend.
J and his Dad just shake their heads- the poor sods still think Sudoku has to do with being good at numbers, and by association, think I'm incredibly brilliant. Of course, I haven't corrected this notion- I just smirk and chirp about how interesting the things are.
More when I get to Diabolical. Until then, there is a lot more stimulation I owe my brain.

Monday, May 26, 2008

the moment

He hands me a bunch of green onions to chop- they yield to the knife with a satisfying crunch. Next, the red onion- deep fuschia crescents spill smoothly from my knife, and then comes fresh basil in sweetly fragrant shreds. Dinah Washington sings on the radio- "you go to my head, you linger like a haunting refrain..."
The salt and pepper grinders stand like little lighthouses over the sea of bubbling onions and garlic in a pan of olive oil. The bowl of lemons on the table gleams quietly.
Outside, the light shifts in pale shafts from lavender pre-dusk to ribbons of soft yellow.
A glass of crisp white wine. The warm soapy water as I rinse the dishes. Layering the pasta, the tomato sauce, the cheese in the lasagna dish.
And again I come to realize the truth of it: nothing happens next. This is it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ask and you shall get...

A painting of a Japanese woman using chopstick...Image via Wikipedia
Chopsticks confound me. It's not that I've never tried to master the art of using them- it's just that I fail.
Not even the famous sneer of the waitress in that Japanese place where I asked for a fork--"forkkk?" has pushed me to the point where I strain mightily and finally learn.
Besides, I always reason that the food would take way too long to finish if I ended up using chopsticks. Uh huh.
Like today- the bowl of cold noodles topped with crunchy greens and spicy pork and wasabi and slivers of silvery cucumber- come on! I was overcome, again.
Yes, I asked for the fork again. And this time the waitress didn't sneer. She smiled and clinked the fork down without so much as an eye-brow raise. And so I shall continue speaking up for my rights even in the face of those two little spindly sticks everyone else knows how to eat with.
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Monday, May 19, 2008

The flower moon

The Algonquian tribe of North America had the practice of giving each full moon of the year its own name, quite a pretty idea. For this month, it's the Flower moon.
However, because of the way it shone last night, full on my face and discouraging sleep, gah, here's my suggestion: Disco Ball moon.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

At the outset, let me say that I'm not familiar with director Wes Anderson's work, so my thoughts on this film aren't colored with opinions on his earlier films.
Here, the three brothers Whitman- played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and one Jason Schwartzmann- embark on a train ride through India, as a 'spiritual journey,' a concept I've never fully understood. Also, they are seeking to bond together again as brothers, and then, the oldest one reveals, to search for their mother who didn't turn up for their father's funeral. This train, the Darjeeling Limited, never does get to Darjeeling by the way; it meanders around in Rajasthan for the most part .
So. For no particular reason, the youngest brother goes barefoot. Can you imagine a foreign tourist spending his entire time in India barefoot? Neither can I. For no particular reason, there is copious downing of cough syrup and "Indian muscle relaxants."
Inexplicably, one of them buys a poisonous snake and carries it around in a metal box. (Apparently, those Indian muscle-relaxants really relaxed his brain, daft fellow.)What were they planning to feed the creature? Savory snacks and sweet lime?
And then, the train attendants. The Sikh attendant has an American accent. He is also the resident herpetologist, as shown by his expert capture of the poor serpent when it escapes from its metal prison. The girl attendant, whose accent verges dangerously towards crisp Brit, in one scene carries in a snack tray in a salwar-kameez --minus the salwar.
Notice that so far I haven't mentioned anything more about the story. This is because it all unravels rather quickly after the three boys are thrown off the train. Oh, also, at one point the train is 'lost'- because it took a wrong turn somewhere. This, in a nation that has one of the oldest and most complex railway systems in the world.
It is simply impossible to get past these gratingly irritating inconsistencies. The movie meanders along its unrealistic way, chronicling the never-ending adventures that the dysfunctional bunch have. (Irfan Khan is in there somewhere in a near-wordless cameo as a bereaved father.) In the end, they track down the mother who is a nun in some sort of convent in the 'Himalayan foothills', but the locales still look suspiciously like Rajasthan.
To speak of performances, none stand out. Visually the fim is pleasing. The music is good, some borrowed from Satyajit Ray films. But that is it. I failed to see the humor or the symbolism. (If the act of leaving behind your 11-piece handpainted Vuitton luggage when you are running to catch a train signifies letting go of emotional baggage, then I stand corrected.)
Spiritual journeys taken in India are beyond my understanding. Films telling stories about these journeys, I am henceforth going to avoid.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tailor tales

A conversation about kid's clothes the other day where the topics of style and going out of fashion came up. Where I grew up, I stated, there was really not much of a concept of 'style.' You just wore clothes. My clothes were, for the most part, a long series of lovingly hand-tailored dresses and skirts that may or not have been previously worn by either of the sisters. The skilled hand behind these garments was known simply as Tailor, his greatness having overtaken the need for a mere name. Gaunt, tall, and sad-eyed, he would arrive on his bicycle, armed with his measuring tape, a pencil, and the Pattern Book.
This Pattern Book was a vast repository of designs for the young woman of style, procured somewhere in Tailor's youth, i.e., sometime in the '50s. My sisters and I would pore through, then pick out the ones we wanted. Depending on the mother's approval, we would make Tailor note the chosen ones with his pencil-stub, and a week or two later, the finished garment would arrive, perfect in its detail; hardy enough to withstand rough-housing, delicate enough to attend birthday parties in, each piece of lace and each button hewn into place until the end of time.
Tailor re-appeared in our lives when I was eighteen. At this point, he took on the role of curmudegeonly moral guardian- he tried to make me see reason when I shockingly wanted a short skirt, with a slit at the back. We argued like seasoned attorneys in a tense court of law. Finally, he broke me. He made the skirt short, but instead of the slit, it had a decorous pleat of fabric that would protect my modesty from the evil world.
Over the next few years our struggles continued sporadically. Once he dreamed up a fabulous new design for the sleeves of my kurta. Obtuse and fashion-challenged as I was, I failed to 'see' the splendor of his design. So he grabbed a sheet of newspaper, and a few snips of his heavy old iron scissors later, I had a perfect representation of his grand idea. I sighed and gave in. In the face of such craftsmanship and pitiless determination, one must succumb.
I took inordinate pleasure in his struggles with our little dog. On one occasion, the black-and- white mutt, Howdy, had the measuring tape in her mouth and there ensued an epic tug of war which Howdy eventually won.
Tailor muttered, in his Hyderabadi accent, "nonsense kutta!"
To this day, no member of my family can say the word 'nonsense' without the urge to attach 'kutta' to it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The rare white hedgehog

The love of my life, Dennis. Click and read, I'm generous like that.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


There is a brilliant sequence in the movie Ice Age 2 where a flock of vultures bursts into a song titled "Food, Glorious Food!" I now identify keenly with those critters- food has been much of what occupies my brain these days. What brought this on? In all my long life I've never been accused of being much of a foodie. Well, it just goes to show that it's not food, per se- it is familiar food.
And in this land of food and drink, it is a strange situation to be in. I have taken, in wild desperation, to dousing even boiled eggs in hot sauce. Once, at a sandwich place advertising their 'fire-hot' sauce for sandwich toppings, I of course, wanted one such. The server insisted, nay, browbeat us into first tasting the sauce so that we could truly know its fearsome heat. I took a taste on the little plastic spoon and was satisfied. OK, it was hot. The teenaged server's eyes widened in admiration. And J deadpanned, "she has an iron tongue."
Sigh. To all those who say, why can't you just cook Indian food, you twit: I do, not infrequently at that. But what drives me mad is the absence of little joints where you can smell curry leaf and garam masala and tandoor flavors. The food markets where you buy whacking big bunches of fresh, aromatic coriander, and mango pickles. Or the guy on the corner who roasts a bhutta and brushes it with mint chutney and a salted lime wedge with such perfection, it is the high point of your day.
I cannot walk into a Mexican restaurant and ask to have my dosa with extra butter, now can I.
P.S. I have not even mentioned the Indian restaurant that served fish curry topped with - I kid you not - fresh strawberries. Yes. It was a sad day indeed.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Now there are four

He goes by every evening, tall, blue-jeans, long ponytail. Behind him, in a neat line, his dogs. None of them are on leashes, and they all hop along in perfect harmony. I've taken to calling him, imaginatively, DogMan.
The smallest one is always the last. He is so small that from our kitchen window he looks more the size of a biggish rodent. There is something the matter with his legs, but nothing's the matter with his energy. He skips and hops in his own fashion, just like the others.
This little procession, as it winds its way along the pavements, by our lawn and under all the flowering trees, is enough to make the neighborhood smile.
But there used to be five.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Watched: Before the Rains

Santosh Sivan, 1930's Kerala, and never having heard of the movie before made me want to watch it.
The film tells the story of one Henry Moores, a British planter ambitiously building a private road in Kerala's tea-country, ably helped by his assistant TK played by Rahul Bose. Then there is Nandita Das as the curiously-named Sajani, the domestic helper. It turns out that Moores' wife and child are away in England and he is carrying on with Sajani, who is also married- only, her husband is a brute of a man who likes her to wash his feet in a basin, beats her regularly and lives just one village away.
Inevitably, Mrs. Moores arrives back with their bland young son Peter. Inevitably, the brutish husband finds out about Sajani's affair. What happens next? Dramatic events, which will be spoilers, so I will refrain from telling all. Suffice it to say that this Moores is a roundly un-likeable character, Sajani is incredibly naive, and that leaves TK. And it is about him that I will now proceed to rant.
WHY oh WHY did they make Rahul Bose speak in Malayalam? I am still reeling from the effects of this catastrophe. So Mr. Sivan is trying to tell us that there was not one Keralite actor of merit that he could have cast as TK, a premise I feel inclined to shoot down, instantly. Fortunately, Nandita Das does not have as much Mal dialog to spout, although her English is strained and strange enough. At one point, she reminisces to TK about their childhood games involving 'the bad Ravana.' It made me almost feel sorry for these two able Bengali/Oriya actors as Malayalees-who-converse-mutually-only-in-English.
Sigh. The entire film's credibility is shot by this cock-eyed casting decision. Especially tragic was the scene where TK has to go through the ancient truth-telling ritual. He looks up imploringly at his father (played impressively by Mal actor Thilakan) and bleats that he is telling the truth. The moment is electric, the atmosphere tense, and the emotion heart-rending. But ALL I wanted to do was screech with frustration at the way R. Bose managed to mangle the language. Then there's a moment where he has to react instinctively to Moores' sudden and dramatic entry into his room. He bursts out, in Malayalam of course, "what happened?" Only, in his other-worldly accent, the word for 'happened' sounds like the word for 'dog' and the effect is so hilarious as to be almost illegal.
All in all, the film is good, if a bit unsatisfying in the exploration of the characters and a few inconsistencies that lead to questions. I was also hoping for more sweepingly beautiful shots of the tea-garden locales and a bit more emphasis on the colors and textures of rural Kerala. It is incumbent upon me to to issue a warning that all Malayalam speakers will cringe at the theater, though.
Some may never even recover.

Friday, May 09, 2008

'Indian films'

At the movies tonight, there was an outsize poster for Tashan- this poster was the biggest in the entire theater. Barely had I taken this in, that I ran smack-dab into a cutout of a pink-haired, pouty Priyanka Chopra with a toy rabbit attached to her head. Apparently, this, together with an expressionless male in a black catsuit by her side, signifies love in the year 2050. How did I know this? The film's title told me so: Love 2050.
Then, as I straightened up and walked on, who should I spot but Mr. Bacchan, in profile with his mouth wide open. He is the star of some film called Bhoothnath. So that made three in-your-face Hindi movie promotions in this small-size theather in suburban California.
I was impressed, I'll admit. Even if, in the billboards outside, the sign for Before the Rains was followed by 'Indian Film.'
The producers of Tashan won't be happy if they knew that, I'm willing to bet.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Maureen McGrath

Last night, fueled by wine and chocolate cheesecake, we started talking with J's dad about old vacations taken in the Caribbean; later he showed me pictures of several trips over the years. The last one was from fifteen years ago. He talked about the sand, the way rain fell on the umbrella, the huge crab they found on their window-sill the morning of the honeymoon.
Then J took out some old slides he'd been meaning to ask about: he wanted his dad to identify people on the slides he didn't know.
There were one or two slides of young, mini-skirted women posing in office-like surroundings. J sniggered and made jokes, these were obviously from the '60s when his Dad was young. So we showed his Dad the slides. First young woman, wearing a black top with sheer sleeves and a gold, really, gold, miniskirt, and black high heels with big buckles. She has straight long hair and nice legs. J's Dad looks blank for a second, then bursts out, "Maureen McGrath!"
J and I feel as if a long-standing mystery of epic proportions has been solved. We go on to other pictures and one by one, identities are revealed; grandparents, cousins, a brother's ex-wife, an Uncle when he was a year old. Many of their stories are over now, but in the photos they are dressed in the fashion of the day, big purses, skinny ties; there is something touching in their youth and the way they smile trustingly into the camera so many years later before our eyes. And then there are a few stragglers who stubbornly remain on the edge of identification and labeling. They will join the ranks of those who exist in every old photo-album- the phantom people. People who were once known, perhaps an afternoon spent with them at a lakeside picnic, or a sly after-dinner cigarette shared.
I have a stronger resolve now than ever to go to my parents' house, attack the storage rooms, and hunt down every old picture I can find.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Idle predictions

Time for an American Idol round-up. After several weeks of dogged watching, the show has already had its usual ousting of my favorite, this year that being Aussie hottie Michael Johns. Unlike last year though, another contender quickly emerged for me: the intriguing David Cook, resident rocker-dude and overall sweet guy who rarely disappoints. His cover version of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean left me reeling, and several other performances have been really stellar.
What to make of this year's Phenomenon, D. Archuleta? As someone I know bitingly remarked, "How old is he, two?" Yes. I confess I am somewhat of an ageist and am reluctant to take seriously someone whose birth certificate says '1990.' Still, one cannot dispute that last night he was very much in form, belting out two pop-chart ready melodies with tons of soul and tween-girl-swoon-inducing earnestness. His voice? To me, it sounds like the child has a permanent cold. But then again, based on last night, he ain't leaving yet.
Poor, poor Jason Castro. Dreadlock-cutie had a horrible night and was roundly upbraided by Cowell, "utterly atrocious" being the exact words. Even permanently-pep-talk-prone Paula brushed him off, albeit using 'amazing' and 'blow me away' somewhere in there. Still, Jason's perma-stoned surfer dude grin and his dreamy blue peepers will get him a lot of votes.
And Miss Mercado? I shall call her Surprising Sy-she has really stepped out into her own of late. Plus, she's managed several fetching outfits and tastefully flashed right amounts of leg, infamously prompting Mad Dog Cowell to call her "sexy." It may be too late for this dark horse, but then she does lack something, not quite sure what it is.
So, the all too obvious prediction: Dreadlock cutie and Surprising Sy cannot both stay next week; ergo, David vs. David in the Finals.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Art and all that

The weekend was spent lolling on the fabulous grounds of the Getty Museum. Yes, this great repository of art was given a tour and then the grand gardens and lawns beckoned...I can only appreciate art for five minutes at a time, anyway. Although, there were some truly great pieces that I immediately wanted the reproductions of so I could hang them on the walls of my imaginary home. With great relish, I bought a small-scale version of a grand Venetian canal scene by one Bolletto. I also coveted a spectacular charcoal sketch by an Italian artist named Tiepolo, but couldn't find it. Oh, well.
Then there was Georges Seurat. His technique of creating pictures out of pencil dots is fascinating, and my painterly sister will soon have in her mailbox a postcard I bought of this very artist's work. But the museum grounds turned out to be the real gem; sweeping views of 10-lane traffic, the hills, the breath-taking flowers and the shady nooks and dells with their artistic waterfalls. I spotted two little Brit kids who were disproportionately delighted upon sighting one such cascade, and started yelling, "wa-tter! wa-tter!" at the tops of their lungs, whereupon their very proper mother scolded gently, "now, no shout-ting!" It was comical.
If I visit the Getty again, I suspect that the pattern will be very much the same. A little bit of art, and a whole lot of lolling.

Monday, May 05, 2008


Frida. Now this here is one movie where the impossibly hot Salma Hayek manages to make you gawk at her purely because of her performance. Not to take away from her other roles, but seriously, she does an amazing job as the strong-willed and controversial Frida Kahlo. Her physical transformation through the movie is spot-on, uni-brow, mustache and all. The movie itself tells the story of her life, simply enough, starting with the schoolgirl Frida and ending with her death.
Salma cries, loves, suffers, dances and lives through the movie in grand abandonment, carrying it solely on her shoulders. Her husband Diego Rivera, played by Alfred Molina, and the others are able as the supporting cast. Oh, and there is a one-scene appearance by Ashley Judd and Antonio Banderas . Judd gets to do a sort of drunken girl-on-girl tango with Hayek that is a masterful scene; Banderas says his one piece of dialog in his knee-melting accent and is never seen again, more's the pity.
The movie is definitely great. Especially touching were the scenes of Frida's rehabilitation after the major accident she has while still a schoolgirl, leaving her bedridden. And the one in which she discovers her husband's infidelity with her sister. Also captured perfectly are the tumultuous times of the '20s and '30s; my knowledge is hazy at best, of course, but the movie was very well-constructed.
In the end, the film belongs to the leading lady. Salma, you are not only a goddess, you are also an amazing actor!
The Sheltering Sky. Ahem. Now, at the outset, let me say that I had put on my objective viewer's mask, which is to say, I did not expect to understand this movie but was fully prepared to try. And it turned out exactly as I had envisioned.
Let's see about the plot. Husband and wife Kit and Port, played by Debra Winger and John Malkovich. Traveling around in North Africa, trying to salvage their crumbling relationship, accompanied by their rich friend Tunner played by Campbell Scott. To show how crumbled their marriage is, Port spends a night with a bootylicious Arab prostitute in her desert tent in the company of live chickens. Kit spends a night with Tunner after too much champagne. Port suspects, then manages to plan their tour so Tunner isn't with them anymore. Then, Port falls ill. Dies. Kit loses her mind, takes up with a black-clad nomad of some sort and his camel-caravan. Lands up in some strange village, has a roll in the hay with Nomad-Guy, then is rescued by an American Embassy official who has been contacted by Tunner. The End.
Note: The couple's last name is Moresby. So that makes him Port Moresby. I did not get the context of this little joke- the character is connected to the capital city of Papua New Guinea how?
Like I said, Ahem. I truly appreciate the grand cinematography, the luscious desert scenes, the fine performances and the air of sadness- this is a Bertolucci film, after all. I could have done without the needless shots of Winger's butt or Malkovich's what's-it, but that's just me.
This is a pretty film- pretty incomprehensible. I'm one of those philistines who needs an actual plot, or storyline, and a somewhat satisfying ending. So, while I did not hate it, I didn't swoon with ecstasy either.
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