Friday, November 04, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: 7 Años

Imagine you are one of four partners of a highly successful technology firm. Imagine that you become frustrated with the government spending of your hard-earned tax money in your country, Spain, and decide to overcome the problem by committing tax fraud and stashing away millions in secure Swiss accounts. Now, the Spanish tax authorities smell a rat and are about to pounce on your clandestine accounts et al. You are all certain to go to jail for at least seven years. But. There is a way out. If one of you takes the fall, not all need to be imprisoned. One can save the other three. 

How do you decide who makes the sacrifice?

This is the premise of the hot-off-the-press drama 7 Años. It premiered on the 28th of October, and thank you Netflix for bringing us this first original European Spanish production. 

So, the four friends and business partners are Luis, Veronica, Marcel, and Carlos. Rather astutely, they hire a mediator to help them solve their conundrum. (Jose the mediator  has a rather thorny task, obviously, but he's offered a cushy sum for his troubles.) The very fact that the four have hired him at all tells us something about them, and as we progress in this tight 77-minute drama, we see more and more of these characters. 

And that's all there is to it. Filmed entirely in the large and modern space of their tech company headquarters/meeting room, the camera pans from face to face, limning gestures, recording voices, extracting motivations and back-stories. In the beginning the camera-work was in fact a little jumpy, leading me to doubt whether I would be able to focus for the duration. But as it went along, the path taken by the characters becomes so engaging and wholly relevant that camera-work is relegated to the background.

All of the actors were unknown to me except for Juana Acosta who plays Vero. (She appeared in the t.v. series Velvet.) And suffice to say, I'm looking forward to seeing more of them. The performances are spot on. Understated but deeply-felt, fully meshing with the realist-minimalist vision of the director. As the minutes pass, the viewer is tempted to form their own hypothesis of the ending, knowing full-well that s/he will probably be thwarted. I had formed my own, and when the ending did arrive I was proven pleasantly off-track.

Not much more one can ask from a film.

Director: Roger Gual
Overall rating: 7/10

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Hazel and buckthorn in the dells

Quite appropriately, J has picked up a book by John Muir to read. Appropriate because he (J, not Muir) is taking me to see the Yosemite valley soon. Finally, I will have seen this legendary place. 

I feel fortunate to have seen a good slice of the national parks in this country. In fact the entire system owes its origins to the passion of Muir. And some 125 years later, the lands remain untouched by interference of any kind, available for all to enjoy and learn from. This is remarkable, especially in this extremely commercially-oriented society. Sometimes I wonder, if not for Muir, what would have become of Yosemite and countless other wilderness areas? Many would be hosting pipelines and townships, I suspect. (But then, Muir himself was in fact a Scot, heh, heh, a fact I poke at J rather unkindly at times.)

Incidentally John Muir is an extremely fascinating figure. Once while watching a documentary on him I became quite taken with him. His writings on nature and botany aside, those eyes! 

Sigh. Someone should come up with a version of Tinder for people long dead. (I borrowed the title of this post from a line in one of his writings.) 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

When history was the present

My maternal grandmother was 19 when India gained independence from the British in 1947. How I long now to ask her about life then. Of course, being 19 then was vastly more 'adult' than it is now. She'd been married a year and was pregnant with her first child, my mother. Her husband was 11 years older than she was. She was not expected to pursue a career, although she had a razor-sharp brain and came from a long line of distinguished lawyers. 

Sadly, that never-told first-hand account of life in British India is lost to me forever. Why did I never have those talks with her? During the last years of her life I saw her quite frequently. Those were the good days of cheap flights in India (I once got a ticket for a rupee) and it was a short hop away. We developed a friendly, almost mischievous relationship in which I would tease her mercilessly about her various suitors and the effect of her cleavage in obtaining super-fast and efficient home-delivery for her groceries. 

Now I'm finding that I am simply blazing with curiosity to hear about what India was like in the 1940s. It's one thing to watch a glitzy t.v. show or read a well-crafted book, and quite another to hear it from someone who lived it.

Maybe this sense of lost history is another insidious way of realizing that I am now older. History means something entirely different to me now. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Sweets for beasts and the kindness of vampires

Last night there was a rather urgent knocking on our door. Now this has happened perhaps just once in the time that I have lived here, so it was quite a momentous occasion. In keeping with the pitch blackness outside and the rapidly-gathering cold, it was a monster who'd come calling. 

Covered in coarse grayish fur with red glowing eyes and an impressive tail, the monster breathed heavily through a large black snout. "Trick or treat?" he then pronounced, somewhat anti-climactic in his tentativeness. 

And we were not even prepared, oh how inexcusable of us. Still I managed to rustle up some dark chocolate in a fancy bowl, of which the beast timidly took just one. Go on, I urged, have more, have it all! "I can have it all?" he squealed, again belying the ferocity of his appearance. If only his father, watching from beneath the staircase, hadn't urged him not to be greedy, the poor creature would have had a good-ish supply of fine dark chocolate flavored with heavenly raspberry. Still, he trotted off quite contentedly.  

This year we simply stayed home in our pajamas. (Next year I really need to come up with a costume.) Last year J and I set out to get ourselves some. And, overcome by the profusion of cheap colorful goods in the store, for no particular reason purchased a couple of frizzy purple wigs and set off for the Carnaval downtown. Only on the bus, crammed between dozens of wizards, ghouls, Incredible Hulks, pumpkins, serial killers, mermaids and jedis, did we begin to realize the shallowness of our planning when asked what we were going as. Finally, a plump, good-natured vampire christened us Thing 1 and Thing 2 and we gratefully latched on to our given identities when we disembarked, in the midst of the half-million strong crowd. 

Maybe we should start planning right away. There may not be a vampire next year to rescue us and we will have to bear the ridicule of all the monsters in the universe. Or in all of L.A. county, at least.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Light

Half of the enjoyment of a festival is the anticipation of it. If there is no anticipation, the day can just come and go like any other. 

I was saddened this year by the realization that I'd been oblivious of the impending arrival of Diwali. In India this is my favorite festival of sorts. The weather changes to a crispness, if not a coldness, in much of the country. Most cities are lit up with a variety of multi-colored lights, people are out shopping or are cleaning house, and on the big night there is a delightful multitude of fairy lights on virtually every dwelling. Still, my favorites were always the rough clay lamps called diyas, filled with sesame oil and lit with simple cotton wicks. In my youth my sister and I would be the ones to prepare the diyas by soaking them in water a few days before, drying them in the sun, preparing the wicks by hand, then laying them out in every conceivable nook of the house and garden, and finally lighting them all one by one. 

This year, I only woke up a couple of days before. Diwali is Sunday, October 30th, Google told me coldly. I had missed the entire window of anticipation and preparation. 

Still, last night, J and I put on some variety of finery and laid out a few cosmetic diyas and a few fairy lights. I made a rice kheer

I'd better be well and truly alert next year. Perhaps we will actually be in India, that would be the most meaningful thing of all. 

Saturday, October 29, 2016

French movie Friday: Dans la cour

How do you take the theme of mid-life depression and anguish and turn it into an intimate little film with sweetness and truth? Ask Pierre Salvadori, who's in fine form here. 

After having watched his matchless Hors de prix a couple of times, I'd decided to watch more films of his. I can't quite review that earlier one though, because the review would come out too sappy. I just liked it too much, enough to re-watch it and keep re-watching well into the future. Well, then. 

Dans la cour is altogether more earthly. So earthly in fact, that true to its title we get to see little besides the eponymous courtyard. But because it is Paris and the building itself is quite old, even a plain old courtyard has its charms. This is where Antoine, a musician who one days walks out of his entire life, ends up as the janitor, or 'le gardien' officially. He mumbles and shrugs his way into the job, somewhat hastily hired by the energetic resident Mathilde who is in charge of all such building affairs, among many other things. 

Mathilde and Antoine slowly develop a hesitant friendship. The other residents meanwhile, run somewhat roughshod over Antoine: his inability to be assertive being an advantage for all. Poor Antoine and his travails! He ends up being clouted with a ripe peach from four floors up, hosts a very large dog in his tiny apartment, endures the ravings of a cult member, and suffers from severe physical problems when he partakes of the drugs offered by one resident. 

Still, all is not misery, somehow, even though everyone has their own version of kookiness going on. These stories are the kind to be found if we scratched beneath the surface of just about anyone's life, anywhere. Meanwhile, Mathilde's slow unraveling is given the most attention by Antoine. This is not remotely about romance or the usual attraction though; rather, it is a slow drawing together of souls caught in the terror of realizing that they are really, really lost, and are on the brink of losing hope altogether. 

Antoine does show a bit of assertiveness towards the end of the story, and then...the ending left me sad and wondering if there could have been other possibilities for him. Still, this is not a bad thing. The whole film has after all been created with a sense of unerring reality, however tenderly. Depression, middle-age depression at that, is still poorly understood and vastly under-diagnosed. In fact, after learning that a friend who recently passed away had in fact been depressed, this  movie hit home rather hard. 

Dans la cour is a gently-paced and lovingly detailed piece of life. I'll have to be on the lookout for more from this director.

Director: Pierre Salvadori
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Drunken sticks, all over

After a season of plentiful jacarandas, the city has another trick up its sleeve: the silk floss tree. They started popping up a few weeks ago, showy orchid-like pink blooms atop a nondescript tree with ferocious big thorns all down its side. 

I found out that they are called 'palo borracho' in Spanish, meaning 'drunken stick.' Eh? I must find out the origins. But for now I'm tempted to devise a foxy pink cocktail on one of my aimless evenings and name it this. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Je suis un peu fatigué

Just when one thinks one has understood the Subjunctive, it slips out of one's grasp yet again. This is how I imagine the Queen would lament if she had in fact undertaken the study of the beautiful espanol.

My valiant little class has been tackling the subjunctive for most of this year now. Yet whenever it crops up, fresh problems arise. But...that is, I thought..er, what, erm...when do you...WHAT? And this is how most trains of thoughts go on the subject, for me at least.

Still, I am yet young. I may have a few good years left before my brain degenerates entirely, and within that slim window I might still grasp a few solid basics. I may be framing coherent sentences before I depart this mortal coil,  with just the right flavor of subjunctive. Not too much, not too little, but just right.

What a joy would that be? I will send in my precisely-crafted gems to all newspapers in the land. Let all take note of the sweat and the weight of the years that went behind.

Sigh.

Learning a language is the most exquisite form of torture. I am in the throes of it, and I will miss it when it's done.

There is always francaise, eh? If I thought espanol was dificil....

Monday, October 24, 2016

Night Market, Not

I've recently had the rather memorable experience of walking into a funeral dressed in a bright, multi-colored floral dress. 

To be fair, J and I had the location off by just a hair. We were actually after the Thai food market. We really couldn't be blamed if it happens to be just next door to the Wat Thai temple, which also just happened to be the site of a large funeral yesterday. Still, we cottoned on very quickly: must have been something about the fact of everyone else being in solid black and looking somber. We backed out as nonchalantly as we could, and to their credit the attendees didn't give us the stink-eye. This is Los Angeles. 

We stumbled into the food market with great relief, and it was just as we'd dreamed. (Ever since we went to the big Night Market three years ago in Phuket, Thailand, we've both been rather enamored of the whole Thai food market experience.) This little affair was about a hundredth the size of the original, but we weren't counting. A handful of stalls stood invitingly before us, offering all sorts of mistily-remembered delights. First you buy a bunch of plastic tokens at a separate counter and then come back to the food. All rather quaint, and we were getting happier by the minute.

First up we had the intriguing "Rice with Two Item." The two items we chose were a fiery-looking curry and a salad heaped with gleaming roasted eggplant. Having no idea of what anything was is part of the charm; you simply point, and the hosts tell you what you are about to eat. 

The Two Item went down well, and then we went back to a different stall. This time I had a great heap of bamboo-shoot salad accompanied by thin wedges of fresh ginger, chopped on the spot, and tiny green chilies added only after the server gets your consent. With good reason- these little dainty things were the equivalent of nuclear missiles when I took one micro-bite. Never mind, the ice-heavy longan-berry juice to accompany it was sweet enough to save me from death by fire. Longan juice is really a marvel; slightly smoky, very sweet, and superbly refreshing. Why isn't it more popular? We need more longans in our lives.

We finished up with some tiny coconut-custard filled shells called Karnakrop or some such musical Thai name. (The custard was creamy and the shell lacy and crisp, a true delight.) And that was that. J and I are both possess appetites that have been widely panned as pathetic by various aunties across India, with good reason. So next time we go, we've planned to starve; a missed breakfast should enable us to do better justice to the next set of delights. Or so we hope.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Filmi Friday: Raman Raghav 2.0

Director Anurag Kashyap rather deservedly enjoys a reputation as being something of a daring stylist in Hindi cinema: his bold, lush, adult-candy romp, Dev D, was considered by many to be unique in the history of our film. And in that I quite agree, because Dev D really does occupy its own place especially since it is the third or fourth retelling of a popular classic novel. 

Now. Raman Raghav 2.0 is not a retelling, rather it is roughly based on the reality of a serial killer in the Mumbai of the 1960s who admitted to killing some 41 people. The film, though, is adamant that it is not about this killer. No, our protagonist here is one very creepy dude indeed, but he's completely fictional. Rather a relief that, because Nawazuddin Siddiqui as killer Ramanna is so completely creepy that, well, I don't want to think about the original version. 

However, there is such a thing as uneven distribution of talent. When you cast someone like Siddiqui, you should make very sure that the rest of your cast matches wits with him. Else, he is going to run away with the engagement of your audience. He is going to make them care about him, only him, and some audience members might even keep glancing at the clock especially in the scenes where he is absent, wondering how much longer dear Mr. Director is going to stretch the proceedings. (To be fair there was one other gripping performance though- the sister of the killer.)

The second piece of the titular character puzzle, the cop named Raghavan, failed almost entirely for me- even if he has garnered much praise for his performance, and I do not want to knock him. I get the irony of the bad behavior - drugs, beatings, misogyny, etc., that is second nature to him. I get that we are meant to look at both the killer and the cop through the same lens because their inherent nature is being portrayed only through that lens. But why was I emotionally affected by the killer, and left flat and bored by the cop? 

The other thing that fell flat for me was the use of music: It almost overshadowed the real menace and horror of the visual impact when the killer dons his helmet and drags his horrible tire-iron around. 

But lest this seem like an endless list of complaints, I will end that here. There is a good bit of hard-hitting visual wizardry to be seen: Mumbai is effectively rendered as the backdrop for desperation and a sliding moral scale especially when the camera, drenched in grainy dark green, shows you the claustrophobia of the existing slum labyrinths. 

Er, I find rather awkwardly that that was the only other thing that stood out besides the simmering, sinister Siddiqui: stylistic and bordering-on-noir visuals. Perhaps there should be a term for this: India-Noir? Because is there a better playing ground for a filmmaker than India? The place practically begs to be shot on film  and served up, gorgeous even in base reality.

I'll wait for Kashyap's next. Here's hoping he'll cast Siddiqui again, this time backing him up with those who won't be overshadowed, a stronger narrative scaffolding of empathy and exploration, and a less-indulgent use of music.

Director: Anurag Kashyap
Overall rating: 5/10

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Readings: Radiance

Catherynne Valente tackles a hefty raft of ideas in Radiance: The novel is self-described as a decopunk pulp science fiction alt-history space-opera mystery set in Hollywood. 

With that as the introduction, I was rather prepared to tire of Radiance pretty quickly, yet there was no doubt that there was some attraction. And somewhat surprisingly, the weariness never did arrive, except in small doses toward the end. What Valente has done here is use language to beautifully transcend time and place while hinting that there is something, shall we say, more metaphysical (?) that grounds us or sets us free.

The mysterious death of docu-filmmaker Severin Unck is the central point of the story, told from varying points of view and with jumps in chronology and location. The world of Severin is not Earth; in fact, here the entire solar system as we know it is actually fully populated by humans. (Homo-sapiens as the ultimate colonizer is a rather attractive hook, one that I did not fully grasp when I read the eye-popping introduction.) Severin had set off to Venus to make a documentary about the disappearance of a diving colony on that planet, but although some of her crew perished, she herself disappeared and is presumed dead. Her father, legendary director Percival, is trying to cope with her loss by crafting a film that aims at constructing an 'ending' for his truth-obsessed daughter. 

The narrative structure is meant to mimic that of physical film, i.e., shot, chopped up, spliced, etc. So Radiance is definitely not for the sort of reader who is annoyed at multiple and frequent shifts in time; in fact, had it not been for the chronology at the beginning, I would have myself abandoned this venture. Differing points of view result in audio and film recordings, personal recollections, screenplay, gossip columns, and so on. The world of film-making, silent films at that, is a sort of shadow world in itself here transcending the actual locations, hinting at the question: What stories would we tell if we were to roam free through all the universe? 

Towards the end there were some episodes that I found maddeningly over-stylized: as 'commercials' or then suddenly, a 'children's story' or then a completely mad mash-up of all characters put together in order to explain a critical plot point that in fact is not explained at all. The explanation comes at the very end, and here too there is a strong invitation to open interpretation. This was not a bad thing, in fact the ending was quite intriguing. It's just that at times it seemed like the author was having too much fun, got carried away in the dazzle of her own language, and ended up with a style that was simply too much on top of the heavily-layered and demanding narrative.

Still, Radiance does live up to its own rather ornate description. I would be willing to try more of this author in hopes that she tempers her inclinations to load the tale with stylistic curlicues. This is because at times Radiance felt like a cup of excellent coffee that some zealous barista has over-decorated with one of those foamy designs on the top. And then, added a too-generous sprinkle of cinnamon.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Ti Ricordi di me?

*Some spoilers ahead.*

This 2014 Italian confection is a retelling of the two-misfits-who-find-love tale, with a slight salting of 'reality' as perceived in its own universe. I must confess I'm less of a demanding film-viewer than reader. As such, I can be happy with sweetish stories like this one that offer not depth but simple engagement and curiosity.

The boy here is Roberto Marino, kleptomaniac, children's story writer. The girl is Beatrice Benassi, narcoleptic schoolteacher with some variety of amnesia problem as well. (The beauty of Italian names!) They happen to share a therapist, and it is here outside this building that Roberto becomes quickly enamored of Beatrice, tenderly watching her cross the street by skipping precisely over the white lines of a zebra crossing. In fact, after being an irritating git who keeps showing up with gifts for her, he finally gets her to soften by a cool trick he pulls in regard to this same zebra crossing.

The two become friends, the sort who hang out to eat gelato and talk about past hurts. She has a long-term boyfriend, though this does not deter the by-now less-annoying Roberto. In fact the director's nimble touch starts becoming evident here, when you realize that although things seem wafer-thin and airy, there is some substance beginning to emerge.

Roberto lives with his cop brother, Francesco and his wife, Valeria. This couple has their own bitter-sweet love story in the backdrop of the ups and downs of Beatrice and Roberto; finally, the misfits get together and there are more candy-sweet montages of their life together. Six years go by, in fact, and they've produced a little boy. Then, in an abrupt stroke of fate similar to those that Roberto is fond of using in his unsuitable children's stories, something happens to Beatrice. With the sudden-ness of real life, poor Roberto and the child are left behind in befuddlement.

Suffice to say that all is not quite lost at the ending, as in Roberto's stories.They happen to become wildly successful once they are targeted at the teenage-reader market - so we know that some sort of redemption is not off the table for their hapless creator, even if it is not explicitly shown.

For me, a big hook, besides the two leads' competence, was the tantalizing glimpses of Rome throughout. The cinematography is lush and flattering, and the use of color and light is simply put, very, very pretty. (In fact I was annoyed at having to look at sub-titles. I wanted to focus more on the faces and the almost casual beauty of the city in springtime.) Even Beatrice's sweet outfits in the first part of the story tell a sub-story of their own, as one sees in the last segment. And when you realize at the six-year mark when the crisis takes place that both she and Roberto actually look older, there is some sneaking respect for all involved in the crafting of this simple little chocolate and sea-salt bonbon of a film.

Director:Rolando Ravello
Overall rating: 6.5/10
English title: Remember me?

Monday, October 10, 2016

You, me, and an airplane

J and I have just realized with a shock that it has been two full years since we have traveled anywhere foreign. "It's been two years since foreign?" I squawked, foregoing proper sentences because I was in the middle of the usual punishing routine he has me on in the gym. 

That last trip was to J's childhood fantasy land, Hong Kong. (For some reason, he fibbed in kindergarten that he was going away to Hong Kong on vacation. He achieved much coolness until his teacher happened to ask his mother about it and all was revealed.) As an adult, J tripped around there with plainly childlike glee. One of the best afternoons was when we found a bench on the side of a street so steep it had stairs on it, and watched the city go by. J ate a custard pie, alarmingly good, while I scribbled in my notebook.

And all this time later we still do not have a destination picked out. The intervening two years have had a few little projects like selling a house, shipping belongings, quitting jobs and moving halfway across the world, and oh, I don't know why but all this seems to have kept us rather occupied.

Sigh. This is a sure sign that L.A. is no longer new, no? But that happened months and months ago; this is just that old old wanderlust again. J and I both need to be foreign together.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

A conspiracy of ravens

Some mornings the crows outside the window make such a racket that they seem to be having a great fight, but it's not just mindless cawing you hear. It seems layered, a back and forth so involved that when it ends, it seems only logical if you have been listening carefully. 

What can it be, that they fight over? Today again I saw them rise in a rush from some unknown spot, swooping up into the sky in a kind of choreographed swathe of black. How poetic for such a common bird! The older I get the more fascinated I am by them. I have seen them picking through the trash at the neighboring schoolyard with great finesse, discarding items until they got the very ones they wanted. J has long been an observer: his favorite story being the one where a crow, having obtained a dry cracker, patiently moistened it with great care (on both sides) before swallowing it.

With such intelligence, no wonder then that their cousins the ravens and rooks have long been associated with magic. The big ones we saw on our recent road trip high up in the mountains, seemed to belong not there but to some ancient tor or crag, whipped by the rain of centuries, watching all.

And here in the city they must have been present those few hundred years ago when this was a mere village. Did Los Angeles narrowly escape being named Los Cuervos? If only the birds could talk to us in our language. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Retornos

Retornos is billed as a thriller, but I would say that the thrill in fact never arrives. There is slow burning-tension, to be sure, but no flashpoint and no ultimate satisfaction once the truth comes to light, so I would be inclined to just call it a moody redemption saga and be done with it. 

Not that Retornos is a bad film. It starts out with adequate warning as to its somber, adult themes with its dark palette of blues, olive greens and charcoal grays against mostly rainy skies. And the opening scene is of a funeral with many volumes told between two brothers in the looks that they exchange. This intrigues you enough, giving you the patience for the fairly slow unfolding of back-story to the background score of stormy piano. 

The trouble is, there is no payoff. The main character, Alvaro, has done something horrible ten years ago and has been living in Switzerland since. His wounded ex-wife and daughter are now understandably hostile when he arrives at the funeral of his father to their small community in Galicia, northern Spain. His brother, Xose, whom we had seen in the opening scene, is similarly resentful. How does all this tie in to the death of a young woman, a prostitute in the club run by the new husband of Alvaro's ex-wife Elisa? This is revealed while Alvaro tries to uncover the truth behind this death, as he is involved if only by accident. 

With the terrible goings-on of a decade ago, the characters' exchanges come off as curiously flat. Alvaro's now-grown daughter Mar, has the onerous task of portraying long-held resentment against an absentee father. In this she is adequate, but for some reason the entire film's mood does not let any character fully flesh out his or her motivations. Xose perhaps gets some bit of leeway here, but again the result is not emotional involvement on the part of the viewer; rather it is the awareness of being just that: a viewer, and not privy to anything more intimate in this difficult and emotionally-scarred set of lives.

The Galician dialect in about half the movie also ensured that I did not understand, increasing my sense of distance. What could have elevated Retornos? I think the crux was that we needed to care about the young dead woman, and we never got the opportunity to do so. Still, if one is in the mood for some dark and turbulent Galician crime-and-redemption on a rainy afternoon, I suppose Retornos will do. 

Director: Luis Aviles
Overall rating: 5.5/10

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I'm chewing on it

In Bangalore we had a quite good collection of street dogs. In a stroke of brilliance, I had named most of them according to location. Hence: Bootleg, found by the bootleg DVD stall, Lakshmi by the ATM (Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth), Florian by the florist, and Our Lady of the Trash who met with her demise shortly after she was named.

Here all the dogs are properly labeled and leashed. Not one of them wanders at will, so I'm thwarted. Still, our building has four. In honor of temperament, two I have named Meanie and Brown Sugar. The adorable deaf Husky downstairs is too precious to name anything other than his beautiful real name, and then there is the newcomer. He's a perfect, boxy reddish-brown thing with a smart set of ears and a spiffy walk. The big problem right now is what to christen him. 

I still think about Bootleg though.

Monday, October 03, 2016

For no reason at all

In all my long life, I have never baked a cake. Why has it taken me so very long to realize this fact? It seems stupendous. Sure, I've used those ready mixes that I would dunk in the pressure cooker back in Bangalore, and with fairly satisfactory results. But what I refer to as actual cake- with the measuring and mixing and er...baking- that I have yet to achieve.

So I resolved rather ceremoniously the other day to do so. In the true spirit of new year resolutions, let this be mine for the next year, and let no one call me a procrastinator ever again. J was the only witness to this, and he heartily approved.

My first creation will be a dark and velvety chocolate with a hint of rich red chilies. 

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The last day of September

The light has definitely changed now. October is here.

Speaking to my father on his birthday, I see he looks no older than when I last saw him. This has made me absurdly happy.

Maybe this winter will not be harsh.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Perdiendo El Norte

This is another example of a movie I wanted to like the moment I spotted it, the other being the baffling French The Bridesmaid two weeks ago. Here, there were two main reasons. One was that Spain was the country of origin, and two, it stars my beloved Ivan and Julia from the t.v. show El Internado. Sadly, neither of these reasons gave the film enough support for me to be a fan.

Ivan (who in real life is known as Yon Gonzalez) plays one Hugo: a young MBA who finds, upon graduating, that present-day Spain is littered with similar youth who have crashed and burned in their attempt to start a career. Rather than languish in their parents' homes, he and his brainy friend Braulio, a molecular biologist with similarly dim prospects, decide to embark on a quest for monetary redemption to Germany: better to have some money with no career, as opposed to no money and no career.

'Spaniards in Germany' could have been a rich source of material for sensitive story-telling, even if humor was the main track the makers were after. The themes, in fact, are many: young dreams, a sense of displacement, the fear of failure, Germany's own attitudes to migrant workers, national identities, and so on. But none of that appears. Hugo quickly decides to flat-out lie to his parents and fiancee about his having a promising job. (He's actually a waiter at a cafe owned by a Turkish chap who goes around mangling both the Spanish language and the German.)Meanwhile, all around him all characters indulge so heavily in slapstick that I was surprised no-one slipped on a banana peel. 

These other characters are mainly the roommates, the sibling pair of Rafa and Carla, the latter being Blanca Suarez who plays Julia in my t.v. show. Now, I know what she and Hugo (Yon Gonzalez) are capable of as actors because of their luminous performances in that show. The chemistry between them and their individual characters' nuances are sensitive and memorable. Here, they seem straitjacketed by the script's insistence on too-easy gags and reliance on stereotypes. Despite doing their best, the two rather fetching actors cannot lift their surroundings out of this dimness.

Even a theme like Alzheimer's which a neighbor, Andres, suffers from, came across as short-changed here, tending towards the facile. Also short-changed were the German characters. There were none, they just appeared as indistinct fillers who vigorously indulged in stereotypical "German" behavior.

In the end it's deception to the rescue again, this time twisted around: Hugo leaves his fiancee at the altar in order to rekindle his flame with Carla, who had before inexplicably been involved with a married man herself. The climax includes a marathon in Berlin and a baby being delivered in a car: sigh.

I was a persistent viewer and did keep at it until the bitter end, and the movie admittedly became slightly better as it progressed. But I was left with a sense of lost potential here, in fact I'm sure most viewers would be. Audiences are now exposed to such fine examples of film-making from the world over, and I was hoping Espana would stand up to the task. Still, there is fine talent aplenty. I'm sure the next Spanish movie I pick will be muy muy bueno.

Director: Nacho Velilla
Overall rating: 4/10

Monday, September 26, 2016

Readings: Under Major Domo Minor

Author Patrick deWitt is back with another wittily (!) titled little novel that manages to defy genre and era. However, this time the effect was not quite as novel (!) as the last time. This was primarily because the characters ultimately remained un-knowable. The strangely deadpan humor and almost exasperating roundabout conversational style is no doubt very engaging. But it does not hold up in the face of the fact that one is never quite sure as to why any of this is happening at all. 

The protagonist, young Lucien Minor, takes off from his village, the deadly dull Bury, after mysteriously escaping death from a serious illness. His father dies instead: a fact that seems to make him even less popular with his stoutly practical mother. He sets off to take up a job in the Castle von Aux, as second-in-command to its major domo, one Mr. Olderslough. Hence the inexplicable title suddenly becomes clear.

En route, he meets two petty thieves named Memel and Mewe whom he befriends, and in the village he meets Memel's daughter Klara, with whom he falls in love. Lucy, as he is known, has a peculiar penchant for lying. Other than that he seems pretty vacant and listless, but then he is only seventeen, and this seems to be a problem I face with such young protagonists. They're teenagers, so motivation and solid character traits are very difficult to pin down. 

So what happens during his job at the castle? Oh, nothing much, except that its owner, the Baron, is a raving (and I mean raving) lunatic, his wife the Baroness is estranged, the major domo himself appears to be slowly losing his marbles, the cook Agnes serves up only unpalatable gruel at all meals, etc. Lucy, however,  does manage to carry on a fairly successful affair with Klara when she's not being aggressively pursued by the local aimless warrior, Adolphus. 

Then the Baroness re-appears, and there is a party hosted at the castle soon after. The guests and the hosts proceed, at this party, to have a rather unsavory orgy which Lucy witnesses. Hereafter, the narrative totally loses steam. In fact in the last third of the book I kept searching for what the story was meant to represent, for surely I was missing a gigantic metaphor of some sort? The ending, also, was meant to tell us that there is a sequel, failing which, it will have left me feeling very unsatisfied indeed.

However, far from this being an inferior work, Under Major Domo Minor is in fact quite accomplished. It is not easy to construct a world peopled by characters whose exchanges are for the most part, unique, and at its heart the writing is quiet and lucid. (I particularly enjoyed the droll and circuitous chats between Lucy and the batty Mr. Olderslough.) It's just that at the beginning, the novel was so promising, and by the end, so disappointing.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Love's austere and lonely offices

The winter that I was eight, my family went on a vacation to Rajasthan. We took a train at one point, I don't recall from where to where but a guess would be from Delhi to Jaipur. In any event, it was mid-morning when we passed an enormous field of mustard. What I remember about this is not the mustard specifically, which was glorious enough in that great blaze of yellow under very blue skies. It is the fact that as we were passing it, my father pulled me onto his knee and pointed at the field, relating some little story of his own childhood and how happy he had been at the time he was recalling. (He grew up in Rajasthan.)

It was one of the best moments of my life, though this memory surfaces only rarely. A few years ago I and many others I knew were going through a particularly trying time in our lives. One night I had a dream that I was gifted with the power of effortless flight, and was flying over a great golden field of flowers under a blue endless sky. The dream brought much solace and peace. Why is it only now that I find the link between my treasured childhood memory and this obvious bit of comfort that my own brain had devised?

I find that this September is a similar time of trials. May everyone find their own dream of yellow flowers. 

I'm also inspired to post a particularly beautiful poem here, in honor of love and loss:

Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueback cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices? 

~By Robert Hayden

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Two worlds

The whole house smells wonderful tonight. J has been preparing for cooking an Indian dish, spending almost three-quarters of an hour chopping, slicing, roasting, grinding, and then laying out the results in little platters on the counters. The overall effect is of a miniature banquet, totally at odds with the fact that these small treasures will soon be obliterated of their individual identities when they go into the making of a new dish.

It's at times like this that we miss that big old market we used to live close to in Bangalore. Set on both sides of a long, shady street, it would begin at sunrise and carry on to just after sunset. Sometimes we would wake up early, gather a few bags, and walk down. Now they mostly sold to wholesalers, so this resulted in a little bit of amusement when I timidly asked for only three lemons or a single tiny bunch of coriander. (One time the lady, with a gap-toothed grin, just gave me an extra fistful of green chilies for free. She was clearly unsatisfied by my paltry request for a mere bunch.) My rudimentary Kannada earned me many points, however, as did J's rudimentary Hindi.

I remember one occasion when, overcome by the beauty and freshness of the produce, J and I simply went overboard. We could barely return home with our purchases, so heavy were our bags. I had bought mangoes, limes, curry leaf, ginger in great quantities, some bunches of tiny local finger-sized bananas which I could never do without, and a great heap of creamy jasmine blossoms. When we got home, I arranged most of this on the dining table. The mangoes, plump and heavy, smelled vaguely of rain and were tinted with just the faintest flush of rose pink. (Did we even eat them all, I wonder now, or just gape the rest of the week?)

Today we searched the shelves of a local supermarket. We did find a small bottle of coriander seeds, pouncing on it gladly. I experienced the usual odd, juxtaposed feeling of existing in two places at once: One half of my brain was back in that market under the trees, the other was in this Southern California market with its hand-sanitizers and its hybrid fruit and gluten-free what-nots.

Friday, September 23, 2016

French movie Friday: Chic!

"I don't do fashion," said Coco Chanel once," I am fashion". A good philosophy to live by, apparently, since Alicia Ricosi in Chic! has built a fashion empire, is considered a goddess by others in the business, and has a (terrified and sycophantic) staff who will go to absurd lengths to cater to her every whim.

Alicia, played by the magnetic Fanny Ardant, has a rather strangely warm aura for all her kookiness and self-aggrandizing; you can see why her staff is so worshipful. Her second-in-command, the craven, highly temperamental and yet hilarious Alain, is at his wits' end when she goes into a funk following a bad breakup. He turns to his second-in-command, Helene, to rustle up a fellow who will bring Alicia back to herself, by...er...distracting her through whatever means necessary. This is a high-risk situation, since Alicia is unable to create a single sketch for the upcoming collection and their entire reputation is at stake. 

Helene, however, delivers a dud. Meanwhile, she is herself being mean and unnecessarily harsh in classic 'kick the cat' progression, with her landscaper, a rustic Breton named Julien. Ultimately, Julien ends up being the much-needed 'muse'; he gets served up to Alicia like a grand entree, and things now seem set to go in a certain direction. But then comes a slow and sly change. You do see it coming, but its pace is leisurely and thus doesn't seem absurd. And there's a nice neat ending to tie things up...but I almost, almost wish for a sequel.

Of the characters, all except Julien were quite a bunch of meanies overall. Still, because they're all so self-aware and capable of great wit and vulnerability, they're not one-dimensional, but human. As a bonus, everyone has spectacular houses, especially the swoon-worthy one in Bretagne belonging to Julien. And Helene and Alicia have the great gift of panache in carrying themselves, making me admire the clothes all the more. (I wished to see more of the couture though.)

Finally, Chic! was just funny in a sort of painful and almost-implausible way; in fact it's the humor that carries the story through in the midst of so much bad behavior by almost everyone. As Alicia tells Alain on one memorable occasion, "If you have to be a shit, be an elegant shit!" Indeed.

Director: Jerome Cornuau
Overall rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Readings: Johannes Cabal the Detective

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L.…
I
Necromancers can be detectives too. Of course if the necromancer in question is a certain Johannes Cabal, I suspect there are any number of things he could be. Metallurgist? Horologist? Alchemist? I rather like all these ideas. Now if only his creator, the unstoppable Jonathan Howard, would take note. 

In any event, this time Cabal is trying to escape the authorities of some uptight country called Senza because he's stolen a priceless and much-guarded book from its national library. To seal his escape, he dons the identity of one of its civil servants, and proceeds to board the Princess Hortense. This vessel, however, is not a ship, but an aeroship...it even comes with its own delightfully detailed diagram. It's a kind of zeppelin-meets-hot air balloon, and it is here that Cabal runs into some serious trouble. As though impersonating a somewhat-sociable civil servant weren't hard enough, now he has to contend with someone trying to off him by pushing him off the Hortense!

Leonie Barrow from the previous novel, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, is a prominent character here too. The author does try to explain Cabal's and Leonie's antecedents, but readers who haven't read Necromancer might end up feeling a bit foggy. The rest of the cast though is brand new, and no one has any trouble being memorable. The format is classic old-world evening-dress and chit-chat laden, with the quintessential 'suicide or murder' question being presented early in the voyage of the Hortense. Cabal with his relentlessly probing brain notices things about the 'suicide'; very soon after he begins investigating comes the attempt on his life and then he really starts to play detective.

"Play" is of course a loosely-used term. Cabal is still Cabal, after all: a misanthropic loner who only wants to pursue his science in peace. Still, there's the complication of his having gotten his soul back from Satan in his previous caper, so now he has to deal with strange new feelings, i.e., his own conscience. And the redoubtable Miss Barrow is always giving him headaches too. 

All is tied up at the end. I did have a fundamental question about how one of the main characters even got to be a passenger aboard the aeroship considering its ultimate mission, but I will let it rest. There was enough else going on to occupy me, this being a different world altogether from the carnival-train of Necromancer. However, I did miss Horst, Cabal's hip brother, and kept hoping he would make an appearance somehow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

In my corner

About two months ago, I found out that the younger cousin of a close friend had died. This cousin, I will call her A, had been facing quite serious health problems since birth. My friend, whom I'll call B, is years older and is the naturally giving type. So when A had been in and out of hospital, it was B who was at her side. (A was working and living alone.) 

Finally A's time was up. She collapsed in B's arms while recuperating from her latest hospital stay. A nightmarish sequence of events followed, what with ambulance delays, bureaucracy and other such ugly facts. At the age of 26, A's story ended. 

Through the years I've listened to how B has held her hand, chided her, tried to shepherd her down the path of more rigorous self-care, monitored her, fought with doctors, and advised her. When A died, I heard a real sense of resignation in B's voice. Many years of giving of herself like this will no doubt leave their mark. (B is one of the more empathetic souls I've ever known.) 

I was a good listener during my last phone call with B. But in the emotion of the moment, I realized later, I had neglected to say how lucky A had been in the final years to have such a fierce and big heart in her corner. May we all be so lucky. 

All this makes me appreciate the little things all the more. So when I find that as a present for a special occasion, J has procured a bag of black licorice shaped exactly like Scottie dogs, I want to weep with joy.

I'm off to write to B.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Watched

I've never been so enthusiastic about television in my entire life. When we first got t.v., we had a b&w one and one channel. There was no remote, and programming began only in the evenings. Now, t.v. is a different beast indeed. I keep discovering new things, and since I am not a binge-watcher, this is enough to keep me satisfied. I have quite a juicy crop going right now:

Les Revenants: A moody, artistic yet creepy version of events when the dead start returning to life in a small French mountain town. Not the zombie variety of un-dead, mind, but the same living and breathing person who just walks back into town with no memory of his or her own death. All this has something to do with the explosion at the local dam, I'm discovering now that I am on to Season 2. A little slow-moving, this, but entirely without high-pitched drama that delivers it straight into disturbing-but-compelling territory.


Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: The novel on which it is based is an energy-sappingly hefty tome, so when I found this on Netflix it solved my problem. (The problem being, I was itching to read it, but how to devote months of attention to what was probably densely-packed text?) My fretting has ceased now, especially since the one episode I did watch was satisfying and beautifully produced. The subject? Magic, in 19th century England. The two title characters are the 'chosen ones' of sorts to resolve the situation of magic not being practiced, rather, merely studied, like theology or grammar...the return of English magic, if you will.

Lark Rise to Candleford: This is the replacement to the sweet but too-short Cranford. It's the story of two neighboring English villages sometime in the 19th century. I'm only two episodes in but am charmed by the production design which is lovely, particularly the lighting. And English village life, in fact, two English villages! Of course.

Indian Summers: Season 2 is on PBS. It's 1930s India, Shimla, to be precise, and political turmoil is underway along with a lot of personal scheming and entanglements. Despite some maddening errors in casting and language, it's well-directed with convincing characters, plus it's very visually appealing.

Chef's Table: France: This too is a replacement, to the excellent A Cook Abroad which had, regrettably, only six episodes. (The best of these was chef Tony Singh's journey from Scotland to India.) Chef's Table has blown our socks off with the only episode we've watched so far, in which a chef named Alain something-or-other makes the unthinkable leap of cooking only with vegetables. In FRANCE, the brave fellow. Suffice to say, vegetables will now forever look ugly to me when I cook them myself. In fact, it is hard to say when I've seen food presented so beautifully. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

I rarely remember dreams

I had a dream early this morning. There was a big house, a sort of boarding house, the purpose of which wasn't clear but there were other women living there. I saw a staircase with a mirror at one end, many balconies, secret rooms, alcoves. I became friendly with one young woman there. I came to realize that who one sought out and who one befriended were entirely dependent on one's own choices. Was it a sort of half-way house for friends?

Then suddenly I was out on a balcony that overlooked the ocean. The balcony is made of glass, and I can see the ocean in glorious detail: a sunlit day, the water deep green and blue with a lot of surf. And then there's a plane, a giant jet careening down from the sky and just a few feet away from hitting the water, which is now being churned violently from the massive force of the jet. Its doors are opening. A few people jump out to their deaths despite nearly being in the water already. I am very close on the glass balcony watching all this, terror-stricken and mute. The noise is almost deafening. Then I woke up. 

Rarely do I remember a dream in any detail at all, usually even the fragments are gone by the time I'm fully awake. But this time the detail was so vivid that my voice faltered while relating it to J, a good twelve hours later. (He recalls dreams in much greater detail, usually beginning with something like,"there was a cabbage, a purple moon and it was Tuesday...").

No one can truly interpret dreams, I believe. But now I wish someone did. Images that are so critical in their vividness, that affected my brain with their urgency, and left a memory that didn't fade with usual dream-like flimsiness, must mean something.

Friday, September 16, 2016

French movie Friday: The Bridesmaid

Claude Chabrol may be another one of those celebrated directors whose films remain beyond my liking. (There are a few others but with my woeful knowledge of such things I recall no names.) In The Bridesmaid, the central force of the entire narrative is the all-consuming and logic-defying passion felt between the girl and the boy. Now the girl, Stephanie or Senta as she calls herself, is presented upfront as a bit of a kook. The first time we see her, she's in a filmy blue dress the very color of innocence: she's the bridesmaid, though her steely eyes and staccato speech hint at anything but innocence. But the boy, we've been shown, is a fairly responsible, conventional, and dutiful sort, devoted to the welfare of his mom and two younger sisters. 

They meet, and sparks are supposedly flying everywhere: sparks which must have been so tiny that I missed them altogether. Soon after a few cursory sentences for conversation, they are meeting again; she drags him into bed, using the unimaginative but clearly-effective device of "I'm soaked and need to get out of these clothes" that led to the ruination of many a young heroine in our Hindi movies of yore. Philippe, her new amour, is clearly dumbstruck. He gets swept along in her icy, single-minded, and frankly, unnerving lust. That's not what she believes it is at all though, expressionlessly mouthing cliches about undying love and being meant to be together.

Then, she lets slip one of her real desires. And instead of alarm bells going off in Philippe's head, he actually plays along. Now this might have been to illustrate the fact that their sudden passion was  in fact mutual, but for me as a viewer it was excruciating. A character like Philippe was so oblivious to this very disturbed girl's mental state: was this a form of escape for him, from his dutiful life? But he likes that life and is even good at his job. So the only explanation was of course that we are meant to see the obvious and all-consuming devotion that is being shown to us.

Without going into the details, a sad ending prevails. (Apart from the lack of chemistry, there was also a side story involving the stone bust that used to be in the garden of Philippe's house. I could not grasp the relevance of this peculiar track to the story, and this annoyed me.)

I wanted to like this movie particularly since it's an adaptation of a novel by the astounding Ruth Rendell. However, I find that there is nothing that I can say to recommend watching it. In fact I was left baffled and a little sore with disappointment despite the likability of a lot of the characters and because of the attempts at mystery attached to Senta's character like a distracting tinsel crown. Perhaps I should just stick to my usual practice of reading the book first, and then attempting the movie.

Director: Claude Chabrol
Overall rating: 4/10

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Going to the Fog

The chill from yesterday has solidified into a more intense cold today morning. In fact, when we drive out towards Glacier National Park, the whole world seems intimidated by it, crouching down to evade the fog. Suddenly we come upon a slash of green in all the gray: it's the McDonald Falls! We scamper out to look at a fairy-tale pool of the most intense jewel green beneath some foamy cascades. No-one else is there, and this is ours for the moment. 

Then we begin the climb up the famed Going to the Sun Road. We have no hope of seeing anything at all though, because even as we begin, the fog has thickened devilishly. The mountain peaks remain mockingly blurred; when we stop at a somewhat-clear overlook to take a picture it rolls up thickly, racing to defeat our view. We still take a few pictures, huddled together while J keeps a tight hold on my arm to prevent me from being blown off altogether: The wind has teeth here. My eyes water, my hair is whipped wildly, and I can see not an inch of the turquoise-blue lake and the sharp majestic peaks. They must be mere rumors. 

Some time later the fog relents somewhat and allows us a glimpse of another lake, this one vast and dark; it looks like a twin of Loch Ness a continent away. There is no doubt that there is an ancient Nessie living down there in its depths. Still, all this weather seems just. We are, after all, at the mercy of the mountain gods. I recall legends of their harshness from the highest ranges in the world close to the Indian border; one is known as the Savage Mountain, another named after a harvest goddess; a third is worshiped by the local people. It is difficult to imagine that we ever overcame our fear and awe of the mountain; for instance, we are here today just because we wanted to come. It seems almost callous. I look down into the dark lake and the teeth of the mountain just visible high above, and feel spoiled.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Huckleberry country

I realized today that driving through the wilderness of Idaho may be one of the better pastimes in the world. With the Selway river still below for company, we marvel. There are moose and elk rumored to be sighted here, if somewhat rarely. I peer out the windows as thoroughly as possible, unsuccessful in that regard. I do spot some bird of prey perched on a crooked tree, still as stone: an osprey?

Most of the settlements we pass appear ghostly. Logging towns with no people. The effect, situated as these are in the dense greenery of misty pines, is almost cinematic. Once, we drive past a line of rusty old pickup trucks in the lot of an abandoned mill, just standing there glumly under the clean blue sky. I jump out to take a picture then try to creep about in case some hardy rustic type appears, in a rage at my having stepped on his property. Almost sadly, no-one does. 

When the sun comes out again, it isn't long before we pass a gigantic sign: Welcome to Montana. There is an impressive bear painted right above the lettering. We have arrived. As if to solidify the welcome, Lake Flathead comes up suddenly before us. It's immense, like the sea, glimpsed beyond a panoramic golden field of grass. 

However, Missoula, the town that we had planned to spend the afternoon in, fails to thrill us. For what reason? Perhaps it is altogether too urban, and we have been spoiled so far and carry romantic images of something else in our heads. Grumpily, we push on after some coffee and a consultation of the map.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A few thousand miles through time

There is so much livestock in Oregon! The eastern part of this state, J had warned me, is nothing like the western. But for me there is no comparison between east or west or anything for that matter. I'm driving through Oregon, J knows, because there is no traffic; the only traffic we do see is livestock trailers. And wild hares crossing the road, big and brown. There is only land and sky and the hares, in fact. Once or twice we see passing motorbikes and a car, and it seems like a grand social occasion. 

Soon we are driving alongside a lake. A rather large one which we discover is called Lake Abert; it looks morose, with the big gray clouds fallen across its face. This is another change from L.A: that gray substance covering the sun. Clouds. What a strange meteorological phenomenon we are witnessing! Time also seems strange here, like it is not passing at all; we ourselves are merely passing through physically on a ribbon of road and that is all.

Snake River lookout
Then Idaho appears, much to my elation. We stop for lunch at what has to be one of the more scenic rest stops in the country: It overlooks the famous Snake River, has a dormant volcano in the background, and is so clean and staffed with such friendly folk that we wonder if we have actually entered another dimension. We chat with the staff for a bit; I spot an Idaho license plate bearing the merry inscription, "Famous Potatoes!" This looks to be my kind of state. 

It changes not long after this though, into something more dramatic. We are now in the Payette national forest. There is a dense pine forest on either side of a cliffy road, the Selway River is flowing dark and foamy beneath us, and a thin but assertive fog is circling the trees. Witches should be appearing, uttering incantations, anytime now. 

Regrettably, none do. What we do spot is human campers along the river, some with little fires going in spite of the damp: Fresh fish for a late lunch? One tent is absurdly precarious; its owner sits staring blankly at the dark water, a dog sleeping at his side. We wonder what he is recovering from. It's all so beautiful that we feel compelled to take a break just outside of a settlement called Riggins, nothing more really than a clutch of houses and a business or two slapped down on a bend in the river. The cliffs at our stop loom darkly, the sky is gray, and the water is a curious graphite-dark. Still, the overall effect is not one of menace; on the contrary, we feel joyous and giddy, slurping on our coffee and prancing along the whitish pebbled shores of the river.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Strangers in a strange land

I have slept so little that when I do wake, I feel grit beneath my eyelids. I have one quiet, bitter cup of coffee out by the creek, watching the robins diving and soaring. The silence except for their sounds and the creek sound is crystalline, absolute. I have a conversation, one of many to come, in my head with my friend about the absurdity of his departure from this world. He is laughing, and I imagine this brings a shred of peace. Peace without acceptance is simply numbness, though.

It is but natural that we will dedicate this trip to him. (I cannot bring myself to say, 'to his memory.') We drive in silence to Lake Tahoe, the much-awaited sight that I have been thinking of for months. It is there, held like a jewel down many thousands of feet from our vantage point in the mountains. It is ringed by pines and covered with a fine net of sunlight sequins. Driving around the perimeter, we see stylish wooden houses with front doors left open to show off the full view of the lake behind: backless houses, we call them. But to J's chagrin, we discover that the whole area is abuzz with bees. Stopping by a scenic overlook to take pictures, this proves too much for him and he runs off. I spend a few minutes in solitude there.

We find a small pebble beach for breakfast, having carefully ascertained the absence of bees. We've resolved to find only stunning backdrops for our picnic meals, and so far we are doing admirably. The lake is a benevolent blue behind us as we walk around on the smooth shore pebbles.  

Then we push on. (To get to Montana is the sole and vague objective of this trip. The rest is being filled in as we go along.) Briefly, we drive in Nevada which presents us with gambling houses and balding hills as opposed to the pristine California side of the lake. 

Quickly, the route is back in California. We begin seeing mostly ghostly towns with populations in the two digits. My favorite town name for the day: Likely, pop. 73. Its single cafe is named, obviously, The Most Likely Cafe. Perhaps we should have stopped off for a cup, even if it looked unlikely that there was anyone at all to serve it. We see an inviting sign in another town called Litchfield: Come to the Buckaroo Countrywomen's Breakfast! 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Shooting stars from the other side of the world

If there was ever a triumphant start to a trip, this is it: We are in the thick of  traffic on the 405, office-bound. It is only 7 am but everyone, I spy, looks weary. Not we. The morning mist be damned, we feel full of glory and promise. There will have to be a word to describe this feeling at the beginning of a trip, especially a road trip, especially now. I will have to invent it.

Soon it becomes clear that we are out, truly out, of L.A: a bar called the Robbers' Roost, out in the middle of nowhere but promising cheap cold beer, is a sign of this. Some cows, evidently not bothered by it being a robbers' roost, lounge right behind. An unknown radio station is now playing unknown music, all of it good. Suddenly we find ourselves in the town of Bishop, elevation 4150 feet. A mint-green house- already postcard perfect, I think- flashes past, and then I see a sign on it promising 'Watercolors for Sale.' Rolling past the main drag, I see an outdoor market underneath some very old eucalyptus trees, a canal flowing in back. The stalls are all selling local and handmade goods; there's a sign for hand-crafted batches of BBQ seasoning, limited quantities. The whole scene seems out of time. What tranquility here, these people with their canal and their flower-lined main street somewhere in the mountains. This triggers the first stirrings of what we have long ago come to know as the 'let's move here' syndrome. Plainly put, we are wanderers. And wherever we wander, we see places that make us want to stop wandering. But it never does stop. 

The mountains soon make their presence felt. The numbers on the elevation signs rise and rise. The Monitor Pass has impressive ones: 8,314 feet. It was the first pass in the Sierra Nevadas to be crossed by a non-native, one Jedediah Smith in the spring of 1827. This bit of history- supplied by J- gives the mountains a sense of occasion, even if our names will never be recorded as the millionth and such party to cross this pass. 

Saturday, September 03, 2016

This trip's for you

J and I began our much-awaited road trip yesterday. Big open roads and the thrill of adventures yet to come. 

There was one friend in particular who lived for this thrill. So of course I kept bringing him up all day yesterday, especially when we saw those big bikes on the road.

Late last night I got the news that he has gone off on the ultimate road trip, without any of us for company. And I feel bereft, but also numb. I don't have the courage to let it sink in yet. My thoughts are with his wife, his mother, all the other friends and colleagues who make up that very special network I was initiated into more than a decade ago. 

Let's hit the road, R. You know I won't complain even if you smoke in the car.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Rams

Set in Iceland? Of course I was going to watch it. The poster itself seems to suggest that there is a kind of mad hilarity underfoot, and in this it's not misleading. However, that hilarity seems almost un-intentional; indeed hilarity is a too-harsh description of the almost grumpy, earthy humor that underlies Rams.

The first shot, a sweeping view of two sheep farms in a wind-swept Icelandic valley, is breath-taking. These vistas form such a strong visual element- whether showing off primary colors in summertime or then the gelid blue of a winter storm- that they have a narrative voice of their own. Joining this voice is the seldom-heard pair of voices of the two human protagonists, the brothers Gummi and Kiddi: Despite being neighbors, they haven't spoken for four decades.

Then, the sudden onset of a deadly sheep epidemic upsets the rhythm of life in this craggy, slate-gray and indeed masculine world. (The women, we are informed taciturnly, have run away.) We already know that Kiddi is a bit of a hellion, a drinker prone to bursts of rage. Gummi is seemingly more rule-bound. Until, that is, he decides to flout the authorities' decision regarding the curtailment of the sheep disease.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Holding grudges...slightly

While watching the morning news I sometimes surf channels. Today on some channel I came across a talk-show host discussing some woman's flirting techniques, one among them being the hair-flip. 

Very interesting, this. The little ways men and women have to signal attraction to one another. For some reason these common signals have never been easy for me to master. It's all been pretty much verbal for me, rather than such physical subtleties as the hair-flip. 

However. There was that one memorable occasion, a decade ago now. There was this certain gentleman who had casually breezed into the scene and totally thrown my 100% accurate that-guy-likes-you radar out of whack. I liked him. And now I had no real idea if he liked me! Zounds! It was simply too confounding. 

So one evening I arrived early at a certain restaurant for our date, already nervous. By the time he arrived, I was a veritable wreck. I babbled on for several minutes. And then, horror of horrors, I asked him, I actually asked him, "How does my hair look?" (It was a marginally new hairstyle, undetectable to all but myself.) 

To his credit, he manfully answered with a perfectly acceptable compliment. But for me, it was dreadful. I excused myself and ran to the restroom. There I proceeded to give myself a lacerating mental thrashing. I've lost much of the transcript, mercifully, because the tongue-lashing was extreme in its severity. You see, I was convinced that an intelligent specimen such as this gent here was certain to lose esteem for me based on my having asked such a patently daft question. 

Thankfully he did no such thing. Today, a decade later, I brought it up again. I even asked him rather timidly, "Did I do the hair-flip?" 

"No, " he replied, laughing. "You're not a hair-flipper."

Good. Even if he had confounded my radar, he didn't turn me into the totally opposite version of myself. Still, he did make me into a blithering idiot for that one evening, though. 

Maybe I should forgive him already.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Blues and purples

Skirball Center auditorium
Summertime has been quite a pleasing round of concerts, festivals, beaches and garden parties. Of the concerts, there's one that stands out as memorable. 

Performed in the delightful amphitheater of our local Skirball Center, this was by a group of blues musicians from Alabama, Louisiana and various other states. It's rare for me to watch live blues, regretfully. I hope this changes soon. 

This particular group was made up of a very sassy older bunch, and the moment we saw them walking to the stage, we just knew it was going to be something special. It was that rare magic that happens when you see true talent in a perfect setting. (And I mean perfect! Summer's evening; the jacarandas are still blooming this year and a purple blossom or two would plop down on my head every once in a while.)

The blues has been a longtime favorite genre of music. It's easy to see its appeal: Heartbreak and longing are pretty universal, even if the performing artists have nothing in common with the audience. One of the musicians, who casually announced that he is totally blind, turned out to be the star of the show, although each one had his turn. It was very moving to witness such talent pouring out of the stage, and the sweat, and the laughter and that great electric joy that bound them together with one another and with us. 

The blues will never die. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Cease and desist

There are two pieces of a diverse problem to which I have come up with a solution. 

One, I've been noticing recently how aggressive many of our local drivers are. In fact honking is quite common around here; folks are in a hurry you see, and if you drive sedately you'll be at the receiving end of the honk-version of a severe tongue-lashing. Might even get the finger.

Now this is astonishing. I come from a country that has the dubious honor of having some of the worst traffic in the entire world. So while dense, the traffic here does nothing to faze me. And I still simply cannot understand the entitled, spoiled approach of these road-brats here. 

The second part is: men, in India, who stare at female drivers. Yep, it still happens. There was this one (young, attractive, female) colleague of mine who use to give me a ride everyday. While we were getting out of the office campus, the stares! A woman driving this whacking big SUV, that too with ease! With confidence! Whattay sight! And so went the thinking, clearly. 

So now to the final solution. Aggro-L.A.-drivers are to be sent to Bangalore for a full week of traffic hell. And gaping-Bangalore-boys-who-will-never-grow-up are to be sent to L.A. to witness hundreds, nay, thousands of women driving confidently enough to give them a quick lesson in growing up. (There is still the pestilential Indian habit of ceaseless honking, but that is as yet unsolvable.)

End result? Both parties will return to their home grounds chastened. The former will shut up and the latter will cease to gape. Much happiness will ensue.

Brilliance, I say. The only thing that stumps me is what to call this fantastic exchange program of mine.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Clothes maketh the woman

Style blogger site
Sometimes it feels like half the women one sees out and about in L.A. are models, actresses, or style bloggers. This is quite a delight, because I like fashion and love observing people and the way they present themselves. (Sorely lacking though are similarly delightful men, but that is a sad and separate topic.) And while I find it ludicrous to totter around in life-threatening heels on the cracked pavements of this city, that doesn't stop me from admiring said heels on someone else.

Also, while this is all very wonderful, I confess I do miss seeing Indian clothes out and about. I can always just design my own Indian-inspired things, I suppose...what fun if I actually had the energy to be a good shopper! While I lived in India I did attempt this. But even on those rare occasions when I did shop for fabric, those diabolical Bangalore tailors would always thwart me: My patterns and ideas were simply too outlandish for them, clearly. The experience ultimately became so stressful that I gave up the very idea of designing my own clothes and submitted to store-bought conformity. Sigh. 

And neither did the good lord see fit to grant me the motor skills to sew my own. What's a girl to do? So I go about in plain t-shirts of various colors with some unmemorable shorts or jeans. (Friend, who himself goes about solely in gray t-shirts and jeans, is going to be delighted to hear this.) One or two occasions per week when I go out to interact with other humans, I try to break out of this Steve Jobs-esque sense of style and actually put together an outfit. 

I wonder if the days of regular going out, human interaction etc. etc., are nearing. I hope my advanced plain t-shirt skills will not get the better of me then.
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