Monday, June 14, 2010

Hanging by a word

I'm a little worried about my reading habits these days. Gone is the time when I would, very wisely, pepper my gourmet (albeit eclectic) diet of the printed word with just the right amount of junk food: moving from the Hardy Boys, to sneaking in the odd Victoria Holt from the senior school library, right on to smuggled Irving Wallace, Ken Follett, Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz and a late but very brief brush with Mills and Boon (in my defense I read my first 'MB' at the age of 21 and continue to doggedly resist that sappy Danielle Steel woman).

All this, unthreateningly tucked into the middle of some serious heavy-duty reading of whatever on the bookshelves caught my fleeting fancy.

All the authors I mention, however, had a very important role to play in our sequestered all-girls' boarding school life. Special mention must go out to a few:

  1. The Hardy Boys got me comfortable with the idea of male chemistry, and taught me that not all "buddy boys" are necessarily gay. It's different, of course, for women. After all, we own the word 'girly', and are often expected to hold hands and giggle.
  2. Victoria Holt. Hmmm...That lady taught me that when you try to dramatically read aloud a love scene -- from a book you were not supposed to have checked out from the library in the first place -- in front of your entire 7th grade, duly emphasising the rrrrippping of shirts and the thudddding of hearts coming together as one, do look over your shoulder after a minute or two to check if the very propah English teacher is not watching with a practised glare (and barely concealed amusement)
  3. Then, beyond the near-Victorian love scenes of the Holtian world, had it not been for Ms. Collins and her authentic Hollywood fare, we might never have known what lay beyond the sanitised menu of school-level sex education (or the clumsy stories of the class's legendary half-a-boyfriend-old slut) 
  4. But for Ms. Krantz, I might never have hit upon that ultimate flu-fighting remedy: vodka and orange juice. And it works, though not by the jugful as I might have imagined in those heady days. In fact, now, after some headache days following that bit of advice, I'd definitely advise a little caution.  
  5. Irving Wallace? That man showed me the power of the double role, leading to a lifelong love affair with hammy Govinda/ Suniel Shetty movies. 
  6. My first brush with Ken Follett taught me to improvise on everyday household items to fight off cold-blooded international spies. Not sure when that might come in handy though, but then we learn and live, my friends.   
  7. Mills and Boon... Honesty now. Every girl deserves a foolish dream. And the even more foolish ideal of the (im?)perfect man. Sigh.

Now this brings me to my current obsession with fly-by-night thrillers. That old fascination with the treacherous world of Frederick Forsyth, John Le Carre, Wilbur Smith and the rest has now metamorphosed into a love for the criminally insane. Criminal Minds, Castle and Law and Order apart, I am now a proud fan of the likes of that grand dame of crime thrillers -- Mary Higgins Clark -- having tracked down every one of her books with the dogged determination of a crime-fighting forensics expert à la CSI; of the mostly hammy and sometimes brilliant Tess Gerritsen; and of those Scandinavian crusaders against crime -- like Inspector Wallander of Henning Mankell, VanVeeteren of Håkan Nesser, along with that strange and addictive duo: the delinquent Lisbeth Salander and that lucky sod (according to men who might wonder why he gets all the babes), Mikael (Kalle) Blomkvist, both creations of the man who died too young (and unsung): Stieg Larsson.

So, as I feverishly move from page to page and from one murder mystery to another, I feel I'm spinning out of control, being flung into a parallel universe in which I must stay high on some kind of adrenaline, periodically injected into my system by espresso shots of suspense. Gone are the days when I read all that stuff of 'substance'. Now its more like a whole lot of substance abuse, what with this gnawing need to pick up yet another crime thriller. Just one more ride and I'll be done...I swear. One more...

Well, that surely can't be too good in the long run, what with all the wise men and women at work lapping up the latest climate change caper or those monotonous political monologues. Back home, the ignored bookshelf is sagging with sagacity and silently crying out to be relieved of its burden of the seriously written word: tomes that have been foisted upon it by guilt trips to the bookshop, every time a new thriller winked on the horizon.

Hang in there fella. I'll get to you. Just after this one chapter, I promise...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bhangra in the Bible belt

Years ago, on a beach in Langkawi, I heard a Malaysian boy-girl band butcher Sade and her smoky rendition of this song. Not that it is a favourite or anything, but I can still hear them in my head, as clearly as if they were here with me, whispering feverishly into my new Sony headphones: "He's a Smooth Operaaator; Smooooooooth Operaaaaatorrrr...Coast to coast, LA to Cheee-caaago/ Across the north and south to Keeee Laaago..."

Yes, Cheee-caaago, which is where I was this past weekend, for a Sardaron ki Shaadi no less. My cousin brother got married, amid the following near life-altering experiences/ realisations:
  • a long, long...long flight, during which I thought I was dying of tetanus; 
  • the treachery of having my travel agent set me up for a "Hindoo Meal" on all legs of the journey (still, a small price to pay for all those aisle seats, I guess);
  • two aborted landings before the one that worked out (which seems to be par for the course for me in American airspace, if previous experiences are taken into account);
  • my first stretch limousine ride ever (with the Panjoos in their Hummer/ Pajeros wondering why the blasted "Limmo" driver was so slow);
  • the scribbling of ugly henna on my hand by a sleep-deprived laborious Gujju aunty, undeterred by my jet-lagged nod-offs in between;
  • posing for photographs with the most well-decorated albeit stinkiest mare known to man -- fussed over  by a cool-shades sporting firang couple in ill-fitting traditional Indian finery; 
  • being treated like a minor overseas celebrity: "Oh, you've come aaaallll the way from India for this... wah!"
  • brushing up on my rusty, pseudo-accented, Bend-it-Like Beckham-ish Punjabi;
  • breaking a fairly high pair of heels during the bhangra blast that followed the beautiful Gurudwara ceremony, and dancing along with the rest of the mob to my favourite kind of music nevertheless;
  • the heart-sinking awareness that all the cute men (correction: boys) worth flirting with (as is compulsory at weddings) were at least 10 (to15!!) years younger;
  • learning that Starbucks can never replace the good, old fashioned, non-branded cold-coffee sold in unmarked milk bottles, despite serving up an awfully good latte;
  • the cosy realisation that I can feel comfortably at home in any old corner of the civilised world armed with a backpack and some greenbacks;
  • re-discovering that grand old temple of consumerism, where retail therapy definitely has lots going for it. In fact, there's a very real chance that a coalition of the billing, headed by Wal-mart may yet take over the world;
  • hearing my friend's four year old cite New Delhi weather updates from his dad's iPhone after every few hours and gleefully basking in the knowledge that three/four-year-olds find me amusing (yay!); and 
  • cautiously discovering that a fresh flower can actually taste pretty good in champagne, especially when you're trading old war stories over the rim.
and then some more...
    So, well-fed, well-travelled and much pampered by overseas relatives and a special, special friend (my very own personal genie), I'm back, freshly armed with the knowledge that ----

    • you can take the Indian out of Punjab but never take the Punjabi out of any true-blue "Kanedda" or "New Yark" expat; 
    • that despite his preference for turkey sandwiches and parrot green silk shirts, he'll still shake a leg (or two left ones) to "Apna Punjab" while wearing that eternally wistful look on his smoothly shaven face; 
    • that elasticised petticoats apart, the glitter of "gota" and gold is only bound to increase as you move Westwards; 
    • that no limousine, no matter how swanky or big, can hold the rustic Punjabi spirit in check for longer than it takes the driver to maneuver it past the next curb; 
    • that there's a strange serenity in watching freshly scrubbed children sincerely reciting the 'Hanuman Chalisa' in a Yankee accent before going to bed; 
    • that a strange new city can smell your fear, so the trick is to feel none, even if you get evicted from a shopping mall following a bomb scare, without a cell phone to call for a pick up; no, not even then.
    • that you have to ask for those different dips with your buffalo wings takeaway and that it is no longer all that plebeian to ask for some Dunkin' Donuts coffee; and 
    • that some women are genetically programmed to hate all other women who might get into an interesting discussion with their husbands, even if the said interaction is limited to a genuinely sanguine debate on the oil spill in the Gulf of M.


    So, all this is what I finally pushed past the green channel at customs clearance back home, besides sundry other memories from a holiday that wasn't supposed to be. I didn't carry a camera and made no other travel  arrangements, yet I landed up sleeping under six different roofs in a week-and-a-half long visit. Such is the power of spontaneity... and good friends. Especially those who live in the 'nap-towns' of the great American mid-west and are genuinely excited about your humble presence in their palatial suburban homes, even if all you do is sit on the patio and giggle over old school photographs.

    I love you guys, but the next time I'm going to Vegas.