Sunday, April 06, 2014


For the first time in exactly 1 year and 8 months, Lil A took a nap all by himself. The two of us were alone at home in the morning. I was sitting at my desk and making my day's to-do list. He was on the bed, lying down and playing with his toys. After a few moments when I turned to glance at him, he was unusually still. He flashed a wide grin, the kind he usually reserves for moments when he's been caught doing something he shouldn't be doing. I smiled and winked at him. A few seconds later when I turned to look at him, his mouth was open and his eyes were shut.

I tiptoed out of the room, shut the door and then fist-pumped like mad. This was a boy who kept us awake through the night for the first six months of his life. A boy who woke on an average of five times a night even until his first birthday. A boy who needed (and still needs) anywhere between 5 - 25 minutes of patting and singing and shushing to fall asleep. 

Here he was, emitting soft snuffles as he lay on his tummy, almost an hour before his scheduled naptime. No cot, no blanket, no favorite soft toys to cuddle, no blinds drawn. He had just put himself to sleep, with no fuss whatsoever. 

I knew it would be too much to expect him to continue the feat at every naptime. Still, watching a miracle unfold once gave me hope. 

Saturday, April 05, 2014

True Story

Two writers walked into a bar called Story. One ordered a Whisky Sour, the other called for club soda with lime slices. They sat at a table on the terrace, which overlooked low office buildings. A cool breeze blew, even as flashes of lightning lit up the sky every few minutes.

"Not to worry," said the steward, "it won't rain for another hour at least."

He was wrong. Fat drops of rain pelted the table within fifteen minutes. They barely managed to run into the bar with their drinks, the sweet potato fries and the quinoa salad. The bar was not as much fun on the inside. There were too many office goers who'd stopped off after work to have a drink. They were noisy, smoked inside the bar had that 'can't-wait-to-get-drunk-and-forget-work' look about them.

Also, the techno music, which was pleasantly muted while the writers were seated outside, seemed too loud and intrusive inside. It was difficult to resume the conversation they were having outside about Peruvian food, the rise of an independent cafes and the food habits of a 20-month-old boy.

They decided to call it a night and headed home. End of Story

Thursday, April 03, 2014


A trip to Adil Stores never fails to amaze me. Essentially, it's an Indian supermarket which has a wide selection of dry groceries and kitchen items, but what it really stocks is Indian nostalgia.

For instance, here's where you can find Milan Supari or Amul Shrikhand or Rasna or even 'Indian Maggi'. The larger supermarkets like Lulu or Choithram's may have Mother's Recipe or Priya Pickles. But at Adil, you can find Bedekar's brand of pickles. Again, at the larger supermarkets, you can find a wide range of Basmati rice, but at Adil, you can get the lesser known Ambe Mohar or Kolam varieties. You'll also find things you might have lost a taste for back in India, but may suddenly develop a yearning for like khari biscuits or boiled sweets shaped like orange segments or amla supari. 

Going beyond foodstuff, Adil recreates another old Indian tradition - of grinding grain in a stone mill and packing it right before your eyes. This used to be the norm in the India when I was growing up. I remember how my sister and I would heave a metal tin filled with wheat to the stone mill, and then lug home the hot tin with soft, golden flour. I remember how we giggled at the man in the stone mill whose hair, moustache and clothes were always covered in white flour. 'Ghost ghost', we'd whisper to each other.

I saw the stone mill in a sectioned off area in Adil, where flour was being ground, but there was no ghost. The man working the mill wore an apron and his head was covered with the mandatory hairnet. Everything was sanitised and neat, as per municipality rules. The freshly ground flour was packed in a brown paper bag. (I once worked with a multinational client who dealt in packaged flour, and he mentioned that his competition wasn't other packaged flour brands, but Adil Stores.)

I also saw a poster in the store which said, 'Gluten Free Atta'. Given my intolerance to gluten, I was intrigued. The flour featured a blend of rice, sorghum, garbanzo and other flours, and cost about Dhs. 20 for 1 kg. I was impressed that gluten intolerance was even acknowledged in an Indian supermarket, given that rotis and naans are such an important part of an Indian diet. I also spotted organic basmati rice and organic sugar and even organic jaggery.

Clearly, despite its stronghold on the nostalgia market, Adil believed in keeping with the times.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Yoga for beginners

I’ve been practicing yoga on and off in the last three years (admittedly, more off than on). I’ve been to 6 different studios and maybe a dozen or so instructors. I’ve done Hatha yoga, Bikram yoga, prenatal yoga, post-natal yoga and even a 10-day yoga seminar. 

With all this practise, one would have thought that I would be all lithe and limber by now. That's not the case though. Far from it. As I found out at class today, I don't even know how to breathe. I suck in air too fast and exhale too noisily, emitting the sound from my throat rather than my nose. While I do manage to get my fingertips and toes to meet without bending my knees, I huff and puff through the series of sun salutations. I shake like a reed during the shoulder stand. And when the instructor announces the child's pose, I crawl into the pose and weep like a baby. 

If there's one thing I'm moderately good at it's doing a lying down spinal twist. The pose requires you to intertwine your legs, raise them to your chest and then twist to one side, while the shoulders twist in the other direction. 

My spine sets off the loudest cracking sounds that echo around the studio. A feeling of indescribable bliss courses through my sore body after that crack. I endure the class for this moment. It's like a drug (not unlike that other less salubrious yet addictive 'crack').

Today, I discovered that I could intertwine my legs without assistance from the instructor. I turned to one side and CRACK! 

Aha, said the instructor. 

Aaaaaahhhh, I replied. 

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Yion Book

In the last 20 months that he's been around, Little A has amassed a modest collection of books. These books fall into three categories.

1. Books that can be thrown, torn, chewed and used as tantrum fodder. These are books that are either hand-me-downs or second hand books, with dull titles like Alphabet 123 and First 100 words and Shapes. These books occupy the lowermost shelf of our bookcase, and are easily accessible at all times.

2. A second category of books are those placed out of reach in a box on the window ledge. These are books that have been curated and bought after considerable research. Books like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, Peepo by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Bus Stop by Taro Gomi, Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle... and a selection of Dr. Seuss classics - Hop on Pop, Oh the Thinks you can Think, There's a Wocket in my Pocket... These are our much-loved reads and we dip into this selection through the day, and especially before dinner and at bedtime. Some of them show signs of use (and occasional misuse), but on the whole, they're well maintained.

3. There's a third selection of books that's neither found on the shelf nor in the box on the ledge. In fact, it's not easily found at all. This category consists of a single book that is tucked away under nightclothes in our wardrobe. It's titled The Happy Lion by Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin, and is better known in our household as the 'Yion Book'.

The reason for the odd storage place is that it is technically a Second Category book, but which is fast turning into a Category One book because of uncommonly heavy usage. There are mornings when we are jolted awake from sleep with shouts of 'Yion, YION!' And there are nights when we've had to pry 'Yion Book' from under a slumbering little form who had steadfastly refused to go to sleep without it. 'Yion Book' is the definitive remedy for all kinds of boo-boos and has been known to bring tantrums to an immediate standstill. Paradoxically, 'Yion Book' can be both a stimulant and a tranquilliser, and can stretch brief attention spans into long minutes.

I had no idea of the book's mystical powers when I picked it up at 'Woods in the Books', a charming bookstore in Singapore. I thought the book's bright orange dust jacket would look nice framed, and didn't even take a look at the contents. I didn't know then it was a vintage gem that was first printed in 1954 and only reprinted in 2004 to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The Happy Lion was the first collaboration by the husband-wife team of Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin who went on to write ten books in the Happy Lion series.

At the heart of the book is a sweet story of a friendship between an unusually content and well-mannered lion in a city zoo and the zoo keeper's son. The genial lion cannot comprehend why people who are otherwise so friendly and polite when they see him at the zoo, suddenly turn into frenzied creatures when he decides to walk out of his enclosure one morning.

Little A gets most excited when I dramatize the 'sound effects' in the book. Ratata boom BOOM!  The town band is in full form before the shrieks of the crowd drown them out. TootoooTOOOT goes the fire engine. When the suspense gets too much, Little A grabs the book from my hand and decides to 'read' on his own.

The last couple of days I've begun scanning the Internet for the entire Happy Lion series. "Are you sure he won't outgrow this book in the next few weeks?" asks pragmatic Mr. T.

Chances are, he might. But I'm not so sure about myself.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A trip to Positano, Dubai.

On Valentine's Day this year, Mr. T and I ended up going to a zoo. Granted, it's not quite the spot for a romantic rendezvous, but with an 18-month-old toddler calling the shots, and with 'Valentine frenzy' peaking at most hotels and restaurants, the zoo seemed like a serene option.

One of the unexpected outcomes of the long drive to the Al Ain Zoo, however, was winning a radio contest on the 87.9 Abu Dhabi Classic FM. The prize: dinner brunch for two at Positano, the Italian restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis.

The dinner brunch is only on a Sunday, and we finally ended up redeeming our prize yesterday. The staff was genial and friendly, the restaurant felt spacious and welcoming, the vibe was good. I'd sneaked a peek at a few reviews before we left and they all seemed glowing. I couldn't wait to find out for myself. 

The manager requested us to wait at the bar while they set up our table near the window. As we took in the views of the place, I sipped some fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon from Puglia. We didn't have to wait long before the manager appeared again, offering us a 'tour of the buffet' which turned out to be as extensive as the winding roads on the Amalfi coast. 

There was a table groaning with pretty appetisers, and a ham section, followed by a cheese section, which led to the pizza counter, which was next to the pasta counter, which was followed by the seafood and the meats... The dessert buffet involved another delightful trek.

Wanting to pace myself so as to enjoy the entire spread, I nibbled a bit of everything. The aubergine parmigiana that had to be scooped out of a tiny cup was spectacular as was the bruschetta made with black bread. The burrata simply melted and slid down my throat without much effort. Mr. T focussed on doing justice to the seafood and especially the Parma ham and Napoli sausage. The cheery staff at the pizza counter encouraged us to go for a split pizza - so we tried the Buffalota and Positano special. The crust was light and crisp and the buffalo mozzarella the best I've ever eaten. I tried the ricotta and spinach stuffed ravioli in a roasted tomato and basil sauce. I found the ravioli a bit too doughy and dry at the edges, but the sauce was incredibly flavorful.

The dessert counter was immorally large. There's no way that one could wade through all the above mentioned counters and still have space for the spread, but I did my best. The tiramisu was good but the superlatives belonged to the cheesecake. Another favorite was the airy lemon sponge cake. And the espresso mousse. And macarons. And did I mention the gelato?

We staggered out content with the experience. We're definitely going to be back for more. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Feel the lurrve

An avalanche hit me on my birthday this year. Over 200 emails from friends, cousins, acquaintances, old classmates, ex-boyfriends, people I haven’t spoken to in years, even people I’ve been avoiding.

Of course, anyone who has his or her birth date listed on Facebook will know what I’m talking about. The wishes just keep pouring in. Each time you empty out a batch of Facebook notifications, there’s another deluge within a few minutes.

Let’s get this straight, I enjoy attention as much as any other megalomaniac. And this torrent of wishes can be quite heady. As a kid, I always wanted the whole world to know it was my birthday and fawn over me. I loved it when people remembered the day without prompting and gave me cards and gifts, but equally thrilling was someone finding out and then making a big deal of it.

“Ohhh!! it’s your birthday!!! Hey everyone, it’s her birthday!!!! Haaaapppyyyy biiiiirthhhhdayyyy tooooo youuuuuuu……”

Over the years, the thrill of celebrating birthdays never diminished. But somehow people’s enthusiasm hasn’t quite kept up. Does anyone even send greeting cards with hand written messages anymore? I loved receiving them.  They used to be the harbinger of birthdays, arriving in the post with exotic stamps and with the scent of faraway places. I still have a collection of those cards, some of them over 30 years old.  

E-cards tried to replicate the same emotion, but they never caught on thankfully. With their annoying pop ups and tinny music, they just seemed like a soulless version of the real thing.

Then, of course, came sms wishes. HB 2 U. Throw in a smiley or two and you could even inject some emotion into an impersonal message. It always struck me as odd to receive sms wishes from friends in the same city. But this year, it turned out that most of the text messages I received were from banks and malls – faceless establishments that needed to prove their ‘human’ side.

It used to be that the older you grew, the fewer the people who remembered your birthday, and made the effort to wish you. But Facebook’s changed all that. Wishes start trickling in at the stroke of midnight, or earlier, depending on your time zone. The friends who usually needed prompts and warnings in the past, now have no problem remembering.  The ‘Wall’ is painted with enthusiastic outpourings, cheerful declarations and fervent wishes. Even people you’ve had minimal interaction with in years seem to feel for you somehow.

I’m not saying that there’s anything insincere about these wishes. It’s just that they seem a little too ‘easy’. The challenge used to be in making the effort to remember birthdays. Earlier, you had to make a note of it in a diary or embed it in memory. And you only reserved this privilege for the important few.
Now, people know it’s your birthday because Facebook tells them. You can write a wish without having to look at the date. Coz, hey, Facebook will prompt you next year as well. With minimal effort, you can hammer out a few words and then get on with checking someone’s vacation photos, or comment on someone’s status.

Some people find it ‘overwhelming’ and are ‘touched’ with this outpouring of love on their birthdays. Some others go to the extent of replying and thanking every single person who’s left a wish on their wall. I’m often embarrassed when someone thanks me. It feels like they’ve put in more effort than I have.

Maybe I’m just growing old and crotchety, and prone to ranting. Maybe it really is nice to be thought of, even if briefly, by over 200 people on your birthday. But there’s nothing to beat the few calls from family and close friends, who didn’t need to refer to Facebook to know it’s my birthday. 

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Reviews on the go

A quick round up of movies watched this weekend, reviewed in one line. 

Diarrhea happens.

Verdict: Excellent!!

The End, or is it?

Verdict: Snorrrrre

Spoiled rich kids meet their end.

Verdict: Unmissable!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Postcard from Eritrea

Mr. T was in Eritrea last week on a work-related trip. When people asked about his whereabouts, I would say, Ethiopia. Not that I was geographically challenged, but for some reason most people looked blank when I said, Eritrea.

Truth be told, I hadn’t given Eritrea a second thought until this trip came up. I only knew it was somewhere near Ethiopia. I did some cursory reading, mostly to figure out how safe it was, and discovered that it was a deemed a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ and was under ‘UN sanctions’. Of course, I found this out this while Mr. T was in Eritrea, and could do nothing more than ask him to ‘lock the doors and windows at night’.

What’s it like, I asked, the moment he got back. Cold, he said. Eritrea is about 7000 ft. above sea level and temperatures reached a maximum of 24 degrees even in summer.

What’s the place like, I wanted to know. It’s quite like Goa, he replied. That was a huge compliment as far as Eritrea was concerned. Mr. T, an eternal Goaphile, ranked most places he visited based on their semblance to Goa.

It had an easy charm, apparently. An Italian colony until the last century, it still featured graceful, Art Deco buildings, especially in the capital, Asmara. Like any place unused to tourists or travelers, credit cards were rarely accepted, and currency exchanges frequently ‘ran out of dollars’. The ritziest hotel in town was no more than a well-maintained lodge. And that’s where Mr. T and his colleague happened to be staying.

The rooms were squeaky clean but tiny. One could enter the room and fall into bed in the same motion, apparently. Mr. T also ended up sharing the room with scores of mosquitoes. And in the bathroom, apart from a single bar of soap, there were no other toiletries.

One morning, Mr. T and his colleague stopped at the Reception to check if they could get some moisturizer. Because of the cold weather, their skin had turned dry and cracked. The receptionist replied that the hotel had run out toiletries. However, before they could turn around, she opened a drawer and pulled out her handbag. She rummaged through it and came up with a tube of scented body butter. Before they could object, she squeezed out a big dollop on both their palms.

“Have a good day, sir,” she said, waving them off when they tried to thank her.

What Eritrea lacked as a country, it more than made up by its people.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Writing Desk

The Resident Chef (also known as the Husband, or Mr. T, for short) couldn’t understand my insistence on a writing desk.

“Can’t you use the new work desk we’ve just bought?” he asked, referring to the functional black table with grey legs. Just a few days old and yet every inch of it was covered with an assortment of papers, visiting cards, post-its, laptop wires, extension cords and more. If that was a work desk, there wasn’t space to get any work done.

But it wasn’t just the clutter that was the issue. I’d set my heart on owning a writing desk for a long time. And not just any old table, but a nice solid wood, antique desk, with little shelves and cubbyholes, and maybe an inkwell or two. The kind that would be at home in an English study, replete with a fireplace, a cozy armchair and tall shelves filled with leather bound books.

In anticipation of the desk, I’d christened the smaller bedroom in our new home, the Study. I’d even picked the spot where the desk would be placed – at a corner in the room with a window on the left, a window in front, and an almost uninterrupted view of the gorgeous sky. If you lived in a city teeming with high-rises, you’d know how priceless a view that can be.

It took a lot of cajoling on the part of Mr. T to convince me that a solid wood desk wouldn’t quite fit into our modern minimalist d├ęcor. Also he pointed that the ‘study’ would be doubling up as the guest bedroom, and so the ‘chintz armchair with footstool’ would have to make way for a more practical sofa-cum-bed.

Many sulks later, I found myself staring at a somewhat workable solution to our marital conflict. It was an unbelievably compact, tidy white desk from IKEA. It had one shelf under the desk, presumably to tuck away the laptop when one wanted to indulge in good, old-fashioned, long-hand writing. It also featured a tiny little drawer to squirrel away pens, bookmarks and other essential stationery. But its best feature was further below. A thoughtfully provided broad footrest, something that’s absolutely vital when you’re blessed with a petite frame and your lower limbs can’t find the floor. At work, I would thrust my feet over the CPU, and in some cases, the dustbin even, in an attempt to be comfortable.

Mr. T, the indulgent husband that he is, sighed deeply and wrestled the flat packed desk onto the trolley. He even assembled it when I wasn’t home, no mean feat when you see the impossible illustrations in the IKEA assembly manual.

“I hope you’re going to write after all this,” he mumbled, as I gushed about his handiwork.

“Of course, I will,” I declared. “It’s just the inspiration I’ve needed.”

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A day in my life

My post for the incredible 3six5 project is up! It was worth the couple of hours I spent sweating it out in front of the laptop on my birthday. 

Great effort, Daniel & Len!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Things I have wondered about lately…

… how do Arab men ensure their dishdashas are so spotlessly white?

… how do cafes get away with charging 18 dirhams for a cappuccino which is half filled with foam anyway?

… why do cupboards creak ominously at night?

… why don’t they have restaurants and cafes on Jumeirah beach?

… where are the really interesting people in Dubai?

… when will Etisalat lower their rates?

… what do I want my obituary to say about me?

… what do I really want to write about?

... when will Al Barsha get a decent coffee shop which is NOT part of a gas station?

… what’s the big deal about Kentucky Fried Chicken?

... why do weekends take their time coming and end so swiftly

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Absolute Lee on TV

The interview I had done earlier this month for the show 'Twenty Something' on Dubai One was on air two nights ago. Here's a link to the same:

Dubai One TV 'Twenty Something': The Digital Age

The faux pas doesn't feature. Praise be to God. I have to admit it feels odd looking at yourself on the screen.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Middle Path in Macleodganj


This heart belongs to:
1. Girls
2. Momos
3. Money

I found this curiously brazen list of priorities scribbled on a napkin and tucked under a glass table top at Momo Cafe. I was in Macleodganj, a small town nestled amid the hills in north India, which had been home to the exiled Dalai Lama, for the last fifty years. I had come expecting to find a solemn, spiritual kind of place, exuding an old world, simple charm.

I wasn’t prepared for the rampant, colourful, commercial tourist town that it turned out to be. The narrow roads leading out from the tiny town square were filled with souvenir stores hawking everything from singing bowls to ‘100% Tibetan silver jewellery’. Outside the temple, near the town square, the fragrance of incense mingled with the aroma of steamed momos, or dumplings, coming from the tiny stalls which ringed the temple. On every available wall space, there were posters promoting courses in Buddhism, massage techniques, Reiki, vegetarian cooking or even on ‘how to find yourself’. You could sample authentic cuisine from Italian cafes and German bakeries. Or even try some fusion fare such as Chocolate Momos or Momo Pizza.

But Macleodganj had its austere side too. Away from the clamorous town centre and higher up in the hills, was Dhamma Sikhara, a Vipassana meditation centre. Vipassana is one of the oldest meditation techniques, used by the Buddha himself, a process of self transformation through self-observation. It’s not for the faint of heart. A Vipassana course consists of 10 days of meditation in absolute silence, avoiding even eye contact with others. The abject stillness at Dhamma Sikhara provided a stunning contrast to the raucous materialism of the town just a kilometre away. Each felt extreme and uneasy.

And then I met Norphal, whose name means ‘jewels’. He had a small trinket store on Bazaar Road and sold Tibetan silver jewellery which he admitted was ‘bought from Bangkok’. Norphal had been born in Macleodganj, and had only seen Tibet in pictures. His grandmother and father had fled from Tibet and walked for 29 days in order to reach India. His grandfather had stayed behind, and they never heard from him again. Norphal was a practising Buddhist, but he said he sometimes closed his shop early and went to St. John’s Church, a 19th century looming Gothic structure, just to experience ‘peace of mind’.

Norphal invited me to his home one morning to meet his grandmother. I had been asking him questions about Tibet and what it meant to be a refugee, when he invited me over. We walked on Tipa Road, past Thangka artists and internet cafes, Kashmiri shawl sellers and women with momo carts. Climbing a small dirt road, we reached a cluster of tiny dilapidated houses. The soulful chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ was playing on a tinny music system in one of the houses. A few hens pecked at the dirt in the garbage-strewn yard.

Norphal’s grandmother was sitting in one corner of an almost bare room, and rocking herself. Her eyes were buried deep in the generous creases on her face, and she stared at me in an unabashed, frank manner. When she stood up to go to the kitchen, she was almost bent double. She came back with a bowl of tsampha or porridge, and salty butter tea. Until then, the only Tibetan fare I’d only sampled were momos and a vegetable broth called thukpa, and they were easy on the palate. The salty tea took a bit of getting used to.

Norphal’s grandmother sat close and watched as I ate. Sometimes she spoke in Tibetan and Norphal translated. He told me of her arduous trek to India, escaping Chinese soldiers and losing family members to exhaustion and starvation. She spoke about meeting the Dalai Lama, and her belief that he would lead them all back to their homeland. If not in her lifetime, then at least in Norphal’s. They had a rapid exchange in Tibetan after she said this. Perhaps, Norphal didn’t approve of her pessimism.

Norphal told me he loved India, and felt Indian most of the times, except when he had to renew his Registration Certificate every year. That’s when he felt like a homeless refugee. “I always ask my grandmother to talk about our home in Tibet, the people the land. And then I feel less... less lost.”

I asked him what his grandmother missed most about the home they’d left behind. She said something and pointed to my face. Norphal turned to look at me, and then both burst out laughing. I asked what they found so funny, and both laughed harder. His grandmother fell on the floor, cackling. The somber mood in the room as we talked about a lost land had vanished. And I couldn’t wait to find out how I had contributed to the merriment.

“She says she misses her cows the most,” said Norphal. “She says, they used to have a ring in their nose, just like you.”

I looked at her as she continued heaving with laughter. Her eyes had slid into one of the crevices on her face, and her near toothless gums quivered with delight. I touched the thin silver hoop on my nose which had caused so much nostalgic merriment. And I began to feel that between there was more to Macleodganj than the tourists and the Dalai Lama.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Art Dubai 2010: A sneak peak

Fresh from the tidal wave that was the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature, I’ve been swept away by another surge, this time to a world not as familiar as books and writing. But it’s a world that has held a steady fascination for me, and more so in the last two months, when I was writing a commissioned article for a leading publication in India.

I’ve met the most knowledgeable, passionate and visionary artists, curators, gallery owners and art lovers, who’ve not only added to my understanding but have also kindled a passion to further explore the fascinating world of art.

At the Art Dubai press preview today, there were over two hundred members of the Press from over the world, and after the usual round of introductions by John Martin and Savita Apte, directors of the art fair, we were led into the area where the three winners of the prestigious (not to mention, lucrative) Abraaj Capital Prize had displayed their work. Each of them had a distinctive medium of expression.

(Apologies in advance for the less-than-brilliant photography. They don’t do enough justice to the art. Moreover it is a bit challenging to balance a camera and an armful of magazines, programmes and other literature.)

Hala Elkoussy’s was a mural titled, ‘Myths and Legends’ a collage of contemporary myths and legends in modern-day Cairo.

Marwan Sahramani's Feast of the Damned covered every wall of the room, including the ceiling. It was, as one visitor described it, ‘a darker rendition of the Sistine Chapel’. The artist explained that it was his dialogue with painters that he admired like Rubens and Michaelangelo.

Kadir Attia, had a fashioned a rough replica of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem using an ordinary bolt, and projected it on a wide screen so that it was magnified to almost a thousand times its size. He said it was a commentary on several levels - social, religious, metaphysical and so on. He had a few profound comments to make like, "The smaller you are, the bigger you are." And "It's not what you see, but what happens in between." The installation was accompanied by eerie sound of wind that he'd recorded in a ravine. (p.s to get an idea of scale, the light on the right is the bolt/dome which was being projected.)

Post-lunch, the doors to the galleries were opened, and I have to say, it was nothing short of a visual feast. There are 72 galleries, and it didn't make sense to take it all in at one go. I definitely plan to go again with more time on hand, and with more sensible shoes.

A quick round up of some of the work that caught my eye:

 I loved the title of this installation - Not Everything Is Made In China.

Mirrorwork which read Resist Resisting God

I found a little bit of myself in this piece ;)

The Athr Gallery from Saudi Arabia had some striking work. The Metamorphosis of a Chair series by Saddek Wasil was particularly evocative.

My favourite in the series. Of all the chairs, it seemed the least 'angsty' until the curator shared that it connoted escapism. Oh well.

Pious women by Noha Al-Sharif. Also from the Athr Gallery.

The entrance to a cemetary, perhaps?

Cherry blossoms from afar, buttons up close.

MF Hussein's Women in Yemen

Stunning work by Jorge Mayet, a Cuban artist based in Spain. A very visual sense of being uprooted. 

And another by the same artist

 You can't escape the bling in Dubai

If there was one artist's work that stood out in my frenzied dash, it would have to be James Clar, a Dubai-based American artist over at the Traffic Gallery. Wild, imaginative and a touch of dark humour

Titled Pop Culture, it's a gun that's been fired once and then cast in candy! A commentary on how violence is glorified in the media.

You know if you're a true 'acid house junkie' if you can see the yellow smiley face amid these switches and dials. I couldn't. It's only jazz and blues for me :-/

From a series called Moment Defined by a Point and Line, it's a trace of the bullets that killed  
Amadou Diallo, a commentary on murder and media portrayal of it. 

You cannot be living in Dubai for 5 years and not instantly notice that it represents a 'building under construction'. The second of a 3-series installation, it's supposedly a stalled project because of funding issues. Hah.

I'd just finished the tour and was thinking longingly of a hot water bath for my feet, when I almost got trampled on by a horde of photographers. "Looks like a dignitary has arrived," my German friend remarked. And then His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, came around the corner. Not a bad ending to the afternoon, I say.

Art Dubai is on from 17 - 20 March. For the timetable and venues, pls. refer here

Sunday, March 14, 2010

EAIFL Day 4 : Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

At every session I’ve attended the authors are inevitably asked why they write. But if someone were to ask me why I’ve been writing page after page in my notebook at each session I’ve attended, I’d say, ‘to hang on to every word’. They’ve been that interesting, entertaining and informative. The sessions I attended today were wonderfully diverse, from food writing to music, and travel adventures to India lauding/bashing. A snapshot of them:

* The food writers’ panel was a kedgeree of sorts with a Palestinian-Canadian (Suzanne Husseini), an Indian-Brit (Anjum Anand) and a British-Arab (Mike Harrison). While Suzanne and Anjum had written books about their native cuisines, Mike had written a Yemeni cookbook and another which spanned the Maghreb countries. One interesting point made – culture is handed down and preserved through food. Hmm, never thought I was going against my Mangalorean seafood-loving culture by turning my nose up at fish curry!

* Travel writing might seem like a dream profession for most wannabe writers and travellers (including yours truly). But a session with Tim Butcher can disabuse you of any romantic notions about the same. To be fair, his trips have been fairly gruelling - a journey across Congo, tracing the route taken by the famous Henry Morton Stanley over 100 years ago. And a 400 km trek on foot through Sierra Leone, a journey done by Graham Greene in 1935.

It was an enlightening talk not just about the hardships he underwent to write his book Blood River, but also about the Congo itself. “1500 people die every single day in the Congo. And yet it doesn’t make world news,” he said. There were other more gruesome facts accompanied by pictures. Like unburied bodies from conflicts where no one could recollect the aggressors since there were so many groups of them. Or the bizarre choice that people taken by the rebels in Sierra Leone were offered – half sleeve or full sleeve – meaning the extent to which their arm would be chopped off.
“Congo is a country that’s undeveloping,” shared Butcher, “Like most of Africa there is a will to survive, but not thrive.”

For him, travel writing wasn’t just about the place, but about the journey of the place. So when asked about his next adventure, he shared - a camel ride from Jerusalem to Baghdad! And his advice to adventurous travel writers – travel light, take local advice, have a satellite phone and keep getting lucky.

* You can usually tell how well respected a writer is when other literary heavyweights attend his or her session. Raja Shehadeh’s talk was graced by most of the well known Arabic writers. A much respected writer and human rights activist, Raja seems like a benign sort, until he warms up to his favourite subject – Palestine. He displays a fiery activism which is tempered by a pragmatic understanding of the situation. His love and yearning for the land of his ancestors shone through the excerpt he read from his book Palestinian Walks.

* Alexander McCall Smith admitted that he had another spectacular talent – he played the bassoon badly. And not just that, he got together with other execrable performers and formed The Really Terrible Orchestra. They even had the effrontery to go on tour to London and New York and had house full audiences. “They weren’t all related to the people in the orchestra,” he clarified.

It was a session titled ‘Words and Music’, and McCall Smith was joined by Amit Chaudhri, a bestselling, award-winning novelist and also a classical musician. (Unfair how some have it all.)

The session started out with promise, but seemed to get too dense and technical with commentaries on the ‘narrative quality of Western classical music’ and ‘music being rooted in humanism.’ It meandered into an academic discourse, and I couldn’t help wishing for McCall Smith to break into an aria.

* At the session on India featuring five luminaries –Shobha De, Vikas Swarup, William Dalrymple, Amit Chaudhri and Venu Rajamoney (Indian Consul General) – I saw the highest number of Indian/Subcontinent attendees than I’d seen in the last four days. It was an interesting choice of panellists. Two bureaucrats, one honorary Indian, one armchair critic and one bumbling poet. (I leave you to guess who’s who!)

There was the usual range of issues – India shining vs fading, China, Pakistan, poverty, neglect of women, Maoist uprising and so on. Standard daily news stuff. But the debate somehow seemed out of place at a literary festival,despite the fact that they all wrote about India. Shobha De of course lapped the limelight with her strident populist views. But the best retort of the session I thought came from the mild-seeming Vikas Swarup who when buttonholed by Ms De about the lack of government progress in most crucial areas, said, “Perhaps, but then you wouldn’t be having a debate of this sort in China.”

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher
EAIFL - Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith 
EAIFL - Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

Saturday, March 13, 2010

EAIFL Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

My head’s buzzing from the literary overload. And there’s still another day to go. But I’m hardly complaining. The four sessions I attended on Day 3 were brilliant and supremely entertaining . My perception of authors as taciturn, unsocial sorts has changed quite considerably. They’re full of anecdotes and sizzling one liners, and the hour long session passes by way too quickly for everyone’s liking.

William Dalrymple

* The session was about him as a travel writer. He shared about his ‘unusually cloistered’ and stable childhood in Edinburgh, and the subsequent explosive effect that India had on him when he visited the country at age 18. “My life can be neatly divided into 2, before India and after,” he said.

* Speaking of his latest book, Nine Lives, he said, “Indians feel that Western authors only want to write about 3 things – poverty, maharajas and sadhus. Considering Nine Lives is about the latter, I was afraid it wouldn’t do too well.” But it’s turned out to be the highest selling non-fiction book of all time, selling 50,000 copies in India alone. (I had to buy my copy after I heard the excerpts that he read out.)

* About travel writing: “I make the effort not to write about the same book twice. I thought I’d covered all grounds with my previous travel books. And I wasn’t sure I was going to write another travel book. But when I found a new form for Nine Lives, I decided to write it. It’s a book on modern India and about how traditional sacred practises find no place in this modern milieu.”

* When asked about the changes he saw in India today as compared to when he first arrived almost 20 years ago, he said, “India today is unrecognisable from my early days here. There are parts which have remained unchanged. For instance, you’ll still find old army generals walking around Lodhi Gardens in tweed coats. But the country has moved on.”

* Crossing borders – Leila Aboulela, Ahda Soueif & Raja Shehadeh

I wasn’t quite sure what the session was going to be about, but I was keen to listen to the thoughts and opinions of writers from the Arab world. All three were best selling writers – from Sudan, Egypt and Palestine respectively - and interestingly they didn’t write solely in Arabic. Ahda’s novel Map of Love had in fact been shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999,  It was an intriguing glimpse into words like identity and conflict and what it meant to be Muslim in today’s world.

* When asked by Kate Mosse, the moderator, if they saw their role as being storytellers or representatives of their country, who had to set the record straight, they had interesting responses:
Leila: “My novels are my truth. But having said that, I found that I didn’t recognise the Islam that was being portrayed in the media. I wanted to write back but couldn’t. I was a trained statistician. I started writing fiction as a way of finding release for my feelings. And that’s how I found my voice.”
Ahdaf: “I started out with innocence. I just wanted to be a story teller. I didn’t think of the politics of reception or duties of representation. Fiction shouldn’t have to bear this burden. So for a while, I stopped writing fiction and concentrated on political commentary.”
Raja: “My experience in the West Bank was not as extreme as some of the others who lived there. So I would question myself, ‘Am I distorting reality by writing about my experience that’s not so extreme?’”

* About whether their audience is the West or people from the Arab world, Leila shared, “Since I get published in the West, my readers are Western people. But I find the type of reader of my book has changed since I’ve begun writing. So many of my readers are from Nigeria or Pakistan or other parts of Africa, so I don’t feel the need to explain everything in my books.

* Raja distinguished between getting printed and published. “While a lot of books by Palestinian authors were getting printed, it’s not the same as getting published. The book isn’t well designed or well translated. And so it suffers.”

* Ahda said that translation was an art which few could master. “Just knowing English and Arabic
doesn’t mean you can become a translator. You have to understand the background, the rhythm of speech. Otherwise the translation is a travesty.

* Leila mentioned that she couldn’t have been a writer if she was in Sudan. “My family and friends don’t yet understand what I do. They keep asking me to get a real job.” But she said that even though she only wrote in English, it was like she wasn’t just translating her native language, but also the culture. “There are words in Arabic that just don’t work in English, like pious, for which the thesaurus throws up ‘bigot’. I’ve to find a language in English to express my Arabic self.”

* All three agreed that there was an extraordinary sense of physical place in their writing whether it was historical in the case of Ahda, or a fragmented land in the case of Raja. “I cannot start without rooting people in a place,” shared Ahda, “I’m attached to places. When I’m unhappy or dislocated, I start imagining a place where I was happy.”

* Marjane Satrapi

Marjane in person is just like the Marjane in her best-selling book, Persepolis – feisty, outspoken and funny. Even though her life is well drawn out throughout the book, and by the end of it, one feels that one knows her intimately, it’s still a wonderful experience seeing and hearing her on the stage.

* She wrote Persepolis six years after she left Iran for the second and final time. “It was good that I wrote it after an interval because by then my anger against the regime had cooled down a bit, and I could write more objectively. Otherwise I would have used the same logic as the people I was angry with.”

* About the use of humour in her books, she felt that it was the highest form of entertainment. She once had a woman come up to her in America and say to her, “I read your book and now, I’m not afraid of the Axis of Evil, because I know you'll do laugh.”

* Marjane shared that she found it odd that she often had to justify why she drew her first book. “No one asks a filmmaker why they make a film instead of singing a song, but I always have to say why I draw. Drawing is the most universal language. I like to draw and I like to write. Why do I have to choose between the two and not do both instead?”

* About her book being called a ‘graphic novel’, she said, “I prefer it being called a comic book in fact. It’s just a medium, not a genre.”

* She shared her experience of doing the film which she loathed for the most part because it involved working with so many people. “I’m used to working in solitude, and suddenly I now have 100 people waiting on my every move. I hated it.” But she mentioned enjoying the last few months. And of course, winning the Cannes Jury Prize for it.
* About her experience of writing children’s books, she lamented that publishers viewed children as pure, innocent sorts and wanted stories that portrayed happy rabbits. “Children are mean and horrible human beings,” she said quite unabashedly.

* The highlight of the session was at the end when she shared her experience of giving a talk at West Point Academy, which she described as a place where poor American families sent their children so that they could get a free education. “The American soldier is just a boy with no money,” she said.

A voice from the crowd yelled, “How would you know? I went to West Point. The senators' sons study there. Joe Biden’s son is there.” It seemed that Marjane lost her verve for a fraction, but she recovered enough to retort that the American policies were nothing to be proud of. “If you want our oil, our wealth, come and take it. But you cannot say you are making a war to fight terrorism. That’s like putting a person with fever in alcohol. The fever goes down, but the infection remains.” The crowd cheered her but the air hung thick in the room.

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher

EAIFL - Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

EAIFL - Day 4: Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!

Friday, March 12, 2010

EAIFL Day 2: In Conversation with Alexander McCall Smith

Despatches from the second day of the Emirates International Festival of Literature

There was not a single empty chair in the room for the session with Alexander McCall Smith. And as he was being introduced, I could see why. The moderator had to only announce the name of one of his (60 and counting!) books, and there would be a nodding of heads and enthusiastic applause. When Blezzard asked if there was anyone who hadn’t read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, a lone hand went up. McCall Smith was among the most ardent of fans indeed.

Highlights of the entertaining session:

* McCall Smith shared that this was his second visit to Dubai. He’d first come here 10 years ago on the invitation of two of his students who happened to be in the police force. “I was touched by their hospitality,” he said, “They not only came right onto the plane to get me, but also had police cars with sirens accompanying our limousine. I thought it was a nice way to visit a place.”

* He started his writing career with the memorably titled No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, set in Botswana. When asked how he came up with the idea, he shared that he’d visited a friend in Botswana one weekend, when he lived in Swaziland, and saw this ‘traditionally built woman chasing a chicken around the yard’. He thought it would be interesting to write about such a woman.

* The detective agency was also a serendipitous choice. “I could have written about her starting a dry-cleaning agency, I guess, since there aren’t too many novels based around dry-cleaning. But there just seemed to be a lot more takers for the ‘detective agency’.”

* Despite the ‘detective’ in the title, nothing untoward happens in his books. (Incidentally, the preceding session happened to be one on crime fiction!) “I write about the positive and make no attempts to hide it. You won't find a single post mortem in my books,” he said

* He wrote the subsequent books in the series because his publisher told him that he couldn’t end the first book with the lead characters only engaged. You have to get them married, he was told. He took his time though, and with much prodding from the publisher, got them to tie the knot in the 4th book. He’s currently writing the 12th book in the series.

* Speaking of his readers’ involvement with his characters, he shared several funny anecdotes. One of the popular characters in the detective series, Ms. Makutsi, never fails to mention that she’s graduated from the Botswana Secretarial College with 97%. He once toyed with the idea of introducing a character who’d secured 98%. “I was steered away from that attempt by my readers,” he shared, even as the lady seated next to me, presumably an avid fan, nodded vigorously.

Another time, when he spoke to an audience of formidable Texan women, and said that he considered bringing back the character of Mma Ramotswe’s abusive husband, they rose in uproar. “You can bring him back,” one of them said, “but only to punish him.”

 “I give all my readers' suggestions serious consideration, before rejecting them completely,” he said, laughing.

* More fascinating instances of his readers identifying with characters – two elderly women in Santa Barbara bought a white van, changed the number plates and drove around pretending they were Mma Ramotswe and Ms Makutsi. Another couple in New Zealand pretended they were Mma Ramotswe and her husband, JB Matekoni, drank red bush tea and called each other Mma and Rra.

* McCall Smith is much loved in Botswana and regarded as their favourite son. The moderator shared that he’d recently been invited to inaugurate their opera house. “That’s a rather grand name for what’s essentially a converted garage that can seat 60 people,” Smith pointed out.  However, it was at that ‘opera house’ that the people of Botswana performed an opera titled, Okavengo Delta, written by none other than McCall Smith. He describes it as a story of a female baboon having ‘Lady Macbeth issues’.

* Unsurprisingly, the film industry didn’t waste time in bringing Mma Ramotswe to life on celluloid. He describes being ‘absolutely happy’ with the way it was produced by Anthony Minghella. And that he even had the privilege of calling out ‘Action’ on the sets one day. Except that the ‘actor’ happened to be a donkey. “I still hoped that on seeing the film, the critics would say, ‘that donkey scene was brilliant, just the right length’, except that it wasn’t even included in the final cut”.

* The search for the ‘traditionally built’ woman to play Mma Ramotswe on film, spanned several continents, but the production team just couldn’t seem to find the right character. Finally the part went to a woman from Philadelphia who had never even been to Africa. She had to learn the body language and the accent, and from all accounts did a great job.

* The talk veered towards the other book series he’d written – Sunday Philosopher’s Club and 44 Scotland St. He stood up to read an excerpt from the latest book in the Scotland St. series, which involved a character called Bertie, ‘who’s remained 6 years old for the last 5 years’. He has an excessively pushy mother who makes him learn Italian, go for yoga classes, and also, go for psychotherapy. As an aside he mentioned, “97% of mother's in Edinburgh are excessively pushy." 

* He’s cast well known authors JK Rowling and Ian Rankin in his novels. In one of his books, he has Ian Rankin shot with an arrow and passing by a bookshop where a kid points to a book and says, ‘Hey Ian, there’s one of your books and it’s only 50 pence’.  

“Ian’s promised to have his revenge. I might turn up as a body in one of Ian books,” says McCall Smith, relishing the prospect.

* Finally about writing, he said that it wasn't a conscious process. "I don’t think about what I’m writing. I go to the place in my subconscious where fiction is created. I don’t deliberately make it up. I just write it as it comes up."

The endless queue for McCall Smith's autograph

EAIFL - Day 1 - Why we write: Yann Martel, Imtiaz Dharker & Bahaa Taher

EAIFL - Day 3: William Dalrymple, Marjane Satrapi, PEN writers, Social Media

EAIFL - Day 4: Food, Travel, Music, Palestine, India!