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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
Pages 310
April 2007
Publisher Fig Tree - A Penguin Books Imprint

It's a bad idea to read reviews of books before actually reading them. I'd read two. Both not entirely flattering. The Economist pared it down to the part about the chickens. And I do take the magazine's or should it be newspaper's word seriously.

So I left Marina Lewycka's second book Two Caravans on my book shelf for the longest time.

The only reason it ended in my bag was thanks to a rather unplanned vacation and because everything else on the shelf at that moment looked way too serious. There were promises of a strawberry field - what better way to sit back and relax? Add to that the idyll of the English countryside, beautiful summer days, fields far far away and caravans of course.

Oh, I could definitely survive this, even if I didn't end up loving it. But love it was the minute I was introduced to Irina, hot off the coach from Kiev straight into the hands of the sinister Mister Vulk:

"Life in vest is too much expensive, little flovver. Who do you think vill be pay for all such luxury?

Although his English was appalling , those words came rolling out like a prepared speech. 'You think this vill be providing all for free?'

So Mother had been right. 'Anybody can see this agency is run by crooks. Anybody but you, Irina.' (See how Mother has this annoying habit of putting me down?)"

With that Irina tries to convince herself that her plans of improving her English and finding true love with a romantic Englishman will bear fruit. Never mind that Vulk has ensured 'little flovver' is stripped of her passport.

Here comes Andriy Palenko, the miner's son from the other Ukraine, who acknowledges her nice features but also her attitude:

"She thinks she's a high-culture type with a superior mentality, and you're a low culture type. (And so what if you are? Is that something to be ashamed of?)"

I love the way Lewycka gets into the skin of her characters to bring alive the Bob Dylan fan - Tomasz, Yola the uncrowned strawberry plucking chief, the two Chinese girls, Emanuel from Malawi who has made the journey in search of his sister. The stories of these characters and several more take you to different lands without the intricate weave of the story losing its appeal.

Song Ying's journey begins in Guangdong where her dreams began and ended. Soo Lai Bee is the victim of a broken heart and has to flee Malaysia.

They all come together to share stories of their lives, their dreams - some shattered, some still there, they watch the sun rise and set as they pick strawberries together.

Life isn't all that rosy, there is more to the world revolving around the strawberry fields. Gang masters, exploitative employers, government regulations, life and love -all of these threads somehow weave themselves together through Lewycka's deft pen.

Long after I was through with the last page, Irina's words came back to me:
".....In the silence, I started to feel the closeness of all the other people who had stood and lain in this place over thousands of years, staring at these same rocks and this sky. I imagined I could hear their footsteps and their voices in my head, not hurrying or shouting, but just the gentle chatter-patter of human life, as it has been lived on this earth since time was first counted.

It reminded me of my childhood, when my bed had been in the living room of our little two-roomed flat, and each night I fell asleep to the sound of my parents' voices and their quiet movement tiptoeing around so as not to wake me - chatter-patter."

It may not have worked for the rest, but it certainly worked for me. I think comparisons are futile. Two Caravans stands on its own and holds its ground.

It won't be a word of mouth hit like the author's debut A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - too much ink has already been spilt on Two Caravans. But it will definitely be read by people across the world. At last count, Tractors has been translated into 29 languages and had won the 2005 Saga Award for Wit, the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and was shortlisted for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. It's a tough act to follow, though Lewycka is definitely up to it.

No surprise that the 61 year old Ukranian has been tipped to be a "literary lion of the future," according to this report in The Times.

Well, she may be a bestselling author now, but her literary journey started with a rejection slip. Yes, we live in times of hope.

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And how...


To be fair to other superstars....And other brands, here's more fizz for your day...

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It's a Friday night.

There are several competing events. A book launch at the Istana, the opening night of the Singapore Arts Festival and the opening of the Muse Bar at the National Museum. I've only listed three of the biggies of the night. Not to mention, yet again, Friday night - the interlude between the end of one work week, the beginning of yet another.

There is also an evening of poetry, music and lyrics at the Arts House, Play Den. It's internationally renowned poet and musician Ray McNeice in action. I've missed several of Chris Mooney's events recently and I have made a silent vow to make it for this one. Never mind, the packed sked. Some things never change.

I'm running late, I attempt buzzing Chris. No response. Superb. It can only mean the party is still on. I land right smack in the middle of the baseball game being recreated superbly by the sporting audience.

But it is the narrator who is in control. The den is packed. At least 100 people listening to poetry. Really? "Is this what poetry has become?" my pal who has accompanied me questions in sheer disbelief. "It's so cool."

You bet. Cool it undeniably is and that is manifested by the audience that Ray has drawn. School kids rubbing shoulders with oldie goldies, mums with kids, dads with kids, artists, writers, playwrights, actors - you've got them all.

Ray's worked the crowd superbly to show how poetry can spin a game and a whole lot more. Then he's got the guitar out, a ballad is in the works followed by some funky beats. If it weren't for the seats, the venue would have definitely looked like a dance floor. I can feel the feet behind me tapping away. It's a perfect start for a Friday night. No one wants it to be over, there's that look on every one's faces. Broad smiles, relaxed body lingo - the work week forgotten.

And all it took was superb lyrics like these:

" there is
nothing between
breath and truth
set free..."

Poetry's back - slowly but surely.

Time to dust off those poetry jackets and catch Ray in action. It's The Head to Head Haiku Death Slam from Monday 11th June-Thursday 14th June at the Esplanade Concourse. It all starts at 7.30pm. For more head to Word Forward and say Hi to Chris and Savinder along the way.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007


Not that I'm a fan of fizz...
But this one deserves a click...


Love it even more...


There are two Indias....
One India....
The Other India...

Who better to say it than the superstar with the richest baritone....


The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani
Publisher : Headline
Pages : 369
Published : May 2007
Genre : Fiction

An unnamed protagonist, Iran in the 1620s, the art of knotting carpets, transition of a young girl's life as she journeys from the village to the city.

All of these combine to make Anita Amirrezvani's debut novel a stunning read. It follows the Iranian story telling tradition where the narrator is not given a name. The experience is a bit unsettling at first. After all, you want a name to associate with, but the story pulls you way beyond the fixation of naming the central character.

The author skilfully draws you into her character's life. Things seem perfect, then come undone when she loses her father. Survival means she and her mother have to give up the life they have known in the village. Left with no option, they move to exotic Isfahan.

It is a beautiful city, though living with the grudging charity of relatives makes things difficult. As do some of the friendships that are forged. The narrator's mother hopes marriage can change their fortunes:
"Marrying you is the only way we can hope to live on our own again,' said my mother. She turned away and fell asleep almost immediately. I wished there were a way to make her life sweeter."

Things get a tad sweeter when she is allowed to work on what she liked to do as a child. Knotting carpets. If you like the intricacies of the weaves that beautifully adorn floors and walls then this book will definitely work for you. Making carpets is a fine art - that much we all know. Before you can even get to the rendition though, there are colours, designs, patterns, wool and the materials. Apart from the skill needed for all of this is the need to delight the eye with patterns, to make them refreshing, they ensure they surprise the eye, yet don't overwhelm it.

I loved how Amirrezvani brought all of these elements together while talking about a life that often seemed like it would fall apart. Though just like any great book, when you think you've got a hang of the plot, there's the twist. The carpets, the foiled sale, the sigheh - which is a temporary marriage contract and the last resort for the protagonist - all combine to make 'The Blood of Flowers' a great page turner.

It saw me burn my midnight oil. No regrets though, it was well worth the panda eyes the next morning.

This book took nine long years to write and the labour of love clearly shows in the sparkling prose backed by the extensive research that went into its writing.

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Monday, May 28, 2007


I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you ever get a chance to watch The Candlestickmaker, Krishnan's Dairy or Pickle King, don't miss it.

After all, it's not everyday that ideas are born with a "serious laugh". That's pretty much how the story of New Zealand's Indian Ink Theatre Company began. They wanted to use humour to help people lighten up and then slip in something serious.

And the seriousness comes masked with a lot of fun and adventure thanks to the superb acting skills of Jacob Rajan.

The multi-faceted, multi-talented actor combines Western theatrical traditions with Indian flavours narrating stories that pan across cultures touching everyone in the audience.

I'd met Jacob when he'd staged Krishnan's Dairy as part of The New Zealand - New Thinking Festival. He appeared on the show again with Pickle King, he spoke about the Dairy. After watching the play, I'd sort of visualised it. On our recent visit to Middle Earth, we frequented several dairies. We met Indian families, including one from Amritsar. It was almost like being transported to Jacob's play. Mom, Dad, son (younger and older) were all there. A mix of people walked in and out of the dairies, culturally diverse, conversationally different, the stuff they bought reflecting their personality type.

Thinking of them I was trying to recall what Jacob had said about the essence of the Dairy experience, I found one of his notes tucked away as research for the interview. After a crazy news day, it had brought the smile back on my face, it's had the same effect again. So here it is, in Jacob's words:

"Being Indian carries with it certain responsibilities. Everyone expects you to be able to cook a curry, spin bowl and have a natural ability at yoga. As an Indian, you have the power to make an Indian restaurant authentic just by walking into it. And if you put three guys in a room with a snake you'd expect the Indian to have some kind of advantage.

Of course, we can't always live up to these responsibilities. I myself have been found wanting on more than one occasion. I have a woefully inadequate knowledge of Indian's geography, average rainfall and chief exports. Most of my understanding of its religions and politics was gleaned from a project I did in 3rd Form Social Studies.

I guess what I'm saying patient reader, is take everything you see in Krishnan's Dairy with a pinch of salt (and possibly a generous dollop of garlic and ginger paste). It's certainly not my intention to recreate an authentic day in the life of an Indian Dairy owner. My allegiance lies with telling a good story and I've taken liberties with "my culture" to try and achieve this.

To my countrymen and women who take offence, I apologize. To those of you who crave authenticity - I guess you've got the wrong shop. Of course if you leave the show with better understanding of what it is to be an Indian in New Zealand I'm quite prepared to take credit for it; but I'd far rather you left forgetting where you'd parked your car."

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I've been seeing green all weekend. Not only has my good pal Janet de Neefe soaked in the sights and sounds of the Auckland Writers Festival, she's also met up with one half of the Indian Ink Theatre Company. That's only the beginning. She's attended several sessions, expectedly charmed people and here the green gets greener - she's been hanging out with Vikram Chandra - who gets her full stamp of approval.

Having missed all the action, I was hoping to catch all the post morts through the media reports, but the bloggers have been at it. And how.

Janet sent me the link to Beattie's Book Blog and what a superb read it's turned out to be. I've been going through the wonderful posts and wishing yet again that I were there.....

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007


There's always that sense of trepidation when you are about to come face to face with an author you read in college.

And this isn't any author. She's gone from the catwalk to journalism to bestselling author to a screenplay writer and a whole lot more. If I were to roll out the long list - it'll go anything from - Novelist, Screenplay Writer, Columnist, Editor, Socialite, Fashion Designer, Consultant Editor, Wife, Mother - stuff most of us can only dream of achieving in a lifetime.

If someone didn't tell you, there's no way of even telling her age.

When she walks the walk at the upscale designer store Mumbai Se in Singapore, I hear a guarded whisper:

"Is she really 50?"
I whisper back.

There's no time to catch the expression.

Shobhaa De is on stage. Her collection of cocktail sarees modelled by some real women has already taken the breath of the 200 strong crowd away. This is on a Monday at 4pm. Speak of star power!

She has presented her re-invention of the whole six yards, now the crusader is ready to spell out her mission....

".... I say it often and its worth repeating that I'm a great saree crusader or a great saree champion. When I see the younger generation of Indians, I love them for wearing their little black cocktail dresses but I want them to see that there is an alternative and a cocktail saree fits the bill perfectly. It's versatile enough. You can wear it to a polo event in London to an art opening in New York to a sit-down dinner in Singapore.

I want the saree to be accessible to young Indians, to people all over the world. It was a bit of a panic attack that got me into this. I hope the saree never ever goes the way of the kimono. I hope it's never ever seen as a costume. I hope people accept it as very much part of our identity. As something that's over 5,000 years old and hopefully will continue for another 5,000 years.

It's a classic and a classic is really forever.

I have sarees going back over 30 years and I wear them even today.

A saree necessarily demands a pro-active attitude. Because you can wear the way you choose to wear it. You can accessorise it differently. You can give it a very personal, individual twist. It's so versatile that each time you wear it, it can look like a new ensemble.

I know the big statement out of India is the kurti. It's taken the fashion world by storm, everybody from Liz Hurley to Posh Beckham is wearing it today.

I am almost sure, I am saying it here and now, the big other statement out of India has got to be the saree. As someone who believes in it so strongly, I'd like to see more people around the world wearing it.

It's the kind of garment anyone can wear. If I may use a teenage expression, it's hip, hot and happening. It's not just for Auntyji's, I hope this cocktail collection proved that."

Phew! That's enough to get me seriously studying my mum-in-law's saree collection the next time.

The thought has to be shelved for the moment at least. Just when I'm getting ready to pack my camera, Shobhaa is back at the counter. Her book 'Spouse' is selling as fast as her sarees. Her fans are lining up with their copies. And this is the moment I always like to study carefully. Beyond the book, it's often the connection an author makes with the reader that counts. I love to watch these moments carefully.

Shobhaa is patient. No scribbled signatures for her. She takes her time to chat up with everyone, take pictures and even exchange cards. One lady in question wants something signed for her Mum and she obliges.

It's a packed house. I've got the shots I want. And when things settle down, I finally get to talk to her.

I tell her about the show, about the sarees we'd like to put on set, I feel terrible about getting her out of bed early. If there was ever a thought of her behaving like the Page Three type, I've perished it in its entirety.

The next morning, Shobhaa is on the show. She puts the 'Jackie Collins' label to rest - splendid. She talks about her sarees, her books, the state of women today. You know a superb interview when you see one and this is it!

She's stolen the day, she's shown what makes the ordinary extra-ordinary and she's done it with that amazingly charming smile.

I almost feel like I've bumped into someone I've sort of known forever. You know that feeling....

So here's looking at you, Shobhaa......

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To think I was there a fortnight ago.

To think one of the writers I've been so wanting to hear happens to be there.

To think one of my best pals is perhaps sipping her wine, even as I pen this.

To think of the literary conversations that are about to begin in the City of Sails.

It's the Auckland Writers Festival which kicks off tomorrow with some splendid discussions all the way till Sunday. I've missed it by that proverbial whisker. Darn!

They've got Vikram Chandra and that's only the beginning. There's Pico Iyer, Will Hutton, Lionel Shriver, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville among a host of others.

The session titles are sorely tempting. 'How to Drink a Glass of Wine', 'Buy Champagne, Pour Tea, Cook Rice, Write Bestseller', 'Treading the Boards with the Bards', 'Haven't they got Anything Better to do?' Oh the seriousness of it all makes me long for a jet plane.

If wishes were horses, you know who'd be riding them. For now though, I'll have to rest content with the stuff that's made it to the news.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007


"...I did join Time Magazine. I was in the curious state of writing world affairs for them. Curious because, as perhaps you know, Time and Newsweek have this peculiar system whereby half the people actually go around the world covering the news and the other half just sit in New York in little cubicles writing on it. So I was in that second category. Every week I would write palpitating, breathless accounts of foraging my way through Philippine jungles or ascending the Andes to find the Sendero Luminoso gorillas or seeing an uprising in South Africa without ever having been to those places and without knowing what they look like."

"....Well, that is what decided me to become a travel writer. I made the fatal and unforgivable mistake of beginning to take holidays and I took them in some of the places I was writing about. I quickly came to the conclusion you just enunciated, which is, "Why on earth am I sitting in a cubicle writing about these places at one remove when I could actually be there." That is when I started writing my books and moving away from Time Magazine. But writing world affairs for them was a very good discipline in writing clearly and concretely. It was also a good crash course in world affairs because, literally, every week I would come in on Tuesday and be told, "You are going to be writing this week on Paraguay," or "Haiti," or "Ciskei." I wouldn't have even heard of them before, so I would desperately learn everything I could about them so as to be able to turn out a seemingly authoritative article two days later."

"....I think the main reason I travel, if I were to sum it up in one word, is for ambiguity. The reason I love travel is not just because it transports you in every sense, but because it confronts you with emotional and moral challenges that you would never have to confront at home. So I like going out in search of moral and emotional adventure which throws me back upon myself and forces me to reconsider my assumptions and the things I took for granted. It sends me back a different person."

Sounds familiar? Sounds like someone you know? Sounds like you?

Or all of the above?

Well, well, if you haven't already got it, it's one of the best travel writers of our time.

Read Pico Iyer's insightful conversation on PostModern Tourism with Scott London here.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007


This is as good a time as any to journey on with my good pals Misha and Andy.

We met, no prizes for guessing, thanks to the first 'New Zealand, New Thinking Festival.' It was an amazing connect, Misha was superbly organised, we worked together on a couple of interviews. I messed up a 'thank you for your support' lunch by showing up in jeans, but she was totally chilled out about the walk in the sun.

"No, you are not getting into that skirt," she told me, almost sensing my disdain for short skirts.

Needless to say, we've been friends since. Misha has hosted some of the most memorable parties - BBQ's, Oscar guessing champagne party, sit down dinners or just one of those come on let's head out for a cuppa coffee - she's made me feel perfectly at home even when we're meeting outside.

In the time we've had together, we've journeyed through some of her and her husband Andy's spirited plans. It all started with a card. I still have it on my book shelf.

Then we got a first peek of a branding exercise. Several designs pulled out over one of her lovely dinner parties and you had your pick your favourites. Things didn't quite stop at "I like this one." You had to explain why.

It was a split house but the discussion was important because it would define whether or not you would be able to spot the tipple when it finally hit the shelves.

Splitting their time between Singapore and New Zealand, Andy and Misha have been busy with their vineyard. It all started with an idea. Having seen the first pictures of the land on their hands, it was hard to imagine it would evolve into the beauty it is today.

It sits near Lake Dunstan, offering superb views and depending on the time of the day reflections in the lake too.

They have just finished their first trial harvest. Misha tells me a lot more work lies ahead. By October, 65 acres will be under vine. I wait, like so many others, to uncork my first bottle of Misha's to sip the heady taste of success.

I'm sure soon enough Misha will unravel more fantastic plans for the vineyard. I can already visualise several things though if I may, I'm going to suggest a 'Wine Stay.' I can already find myself drinking to that thought as I step into another world with these cheery pictures......

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007


Has this happened to you before?

You see something on the net. You get the price. You believe it is right. You travel several miles expecting to see your paradise. You get there. You are shocked.

Well, if it hasn't happened to you, what can I say..... lucky you.

I've been short changed in the past. It's happened with tour packages, which we swore off, after the lousy hotel we landed in almost eight years ago in Langkawi. It happened to me again when I got my Dad and sis to join me in Amritsar. Dad had been attempting to convince me to stay in the Army mess, but I thought something we paid for would be much better. I couldn't have been more wrong.

That's why when I see fantastic pictures advertising a particular property, I book it with almost a sense of disbelief. I wait till I get there to see everything for myself before pronouncing judgment on it. Yes, pictures sometimes lie.

Which is why when I saw these, I was holding my breath. Could it really be that beautiful?

After a visit to Gill and Barry's amazing Tudor style home nestled quietly on Mountain Road in Rotorua the verdict is - YES, YES, YES....

This is the view from the slopes of Mount Ngongotaha where the picturesque beauty is housed......

This is exactly how the cottage looks......

These are the interiors. I loved every bit of it but what truly stole my heart were the bed-side lamps. I reckon they are common enough in New Zealand, but its the first time we'd seen the one touch wonders. Gently touch it and they light up. Touch them again they go from a soft to a warm to a bright glow. Touch them once more they switch off. No more meddling with annoying switches when you the book you are reading is sending you to slumberland. So if any of you are headed my way from Middle Earth, you know what to get me. Wanted to pick these beauties up but never got to a mall on time. As always so much to do, so little time.

And if you have money to spare, this property also happens to be on sale. I do hope, whoever buys it next will make this labour of love live on. Everyone who has stayed there has had a story to tell. The visitors book in the cottage a testament to that. And that is what travel should be - a story, an adventure, another page flipped, another one still to be written.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007


What's travel without food? And what better way to savour it than by following local tips. Our best meal quite the best views having survived the treacherous drive was at Admirals Arms in Coromandel.

Even if it's only for a meal here, the drive from Thames makes a trip to this historic 1872 property well worth it. Brian, our wonderful host at 'The Little Farm' showed us where it stood from his home. With the view of the coastline, it looked spectacular.

"Leave early," he told us, "if it isn't too cold, you can even sit outside and take in the sunset."

We took his word for that. Arrived just as the restaurant was set to open its doors for dinner. The special was being written and we were the first in. It was the warmest of welcomes. Soon the place was filling up with several regulars and some visitors like us. Almost everyone seemed to know everyone. The familiarity of a small town rubbing us right. I realised we were heading to the end of our Kiwi adventure and I hadn't gone through a cheese spread. Yes, its supposed to end the meal but I decided to start things with it. Ummmmm, it was perfect, exactly like the food which arrived well in time. Fresh salad, melt in your mouth meats, crunchy nuggets - none of us was complaining. All of it was easy on the wallet too. Closing at a tad over $100 with wine thrown in, we sure had reason to smile after bidding our wonderful hostess adieu.

It was a similar story in Rotorua which packed amazing sights, sounds and food. Our hosts at Westminster Lodge gave us the perfect start by setting us in the direction of the Fat Dog Cafe on Day One. If this isn't temptation enough.....

then this might work....

Or for the strict foodie at heart, only the menu longlist will do. I tucked into the most delectable lamb korma, awesome wine followed by just a bite of their sinful dessert. Trust them when they say it's "enough for two hounds." Breakfast at Fat Dog can take you through the day, dinner is enough to get you skipping breakfast the next morning.

Didn't make it to the other highly recommended place - Pig & Whistle. We got a little side-tracked by a couple of other local recommendations. But once you've gone through Fat Dog, it's a tough match.

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Long before slow travel evolved into the current fad, Bala and I became pros at it. Not for us the 10 day, 10 city adventure. We like to take it slow, we like to avoid hotel rooms, we like to meet the people, eat with them, drink with them. That possibly explains why Ketut and Janet's abode in Ubud has such enduring charm for us. But this is about New Zealand.

A missed flight, no perfect connections, amazing help from Singapore Airlines, right from the ground, customer service to the ticketing staff, Aneesha, Dhruv and I are finally on our way to the City of Sails - Auckland. It's a beautiful flight. The kids are so exhausted, they refuse to budge even when the plane lands. Much nudging later, we are on terra firma.

First stop, the first of many to be checked at counters. I'm expecting the usual hostile response. So imagine my state when an immensely warm smile followed by:
"How are you doing this morning? What about the children? Had a great flight?"

Before I can even mumble anything appropriate.
"You are a journalist?"
"Yes, Mam."
"Do you meet Bollywood stars?
"Sort of, if filming them from a distance counts."
"You know I'm a big Bollywood fan.
"Really? Who do you like the best?"
"I don't understand all of them, but I like that beautiful Miss World, was it, her name's with A."

No escaping Aish-Abhi trail, even if you sorely wanted.

"I'm not surprised they chose to fly through Auckland," I tell the lovely lady behind the counter.

The tables are quickly reversed.

"Did they?"
"You bet, all the way to Bora Bora, if the media reports are right this time round?"
"Awww, I wish I could have seen them."

Are the multiple Bollywood award organisers listening? Another market waiting to be tapped.
On a springing Bollywood note, we line up for the next round of clearance.

A sniffer dog and a cop seem to be heading my way.

"Sir, I have food in my bag. I need to declare it."
"Mam, are you travelling alone with children?"
"Yes, I am."
"Follow me."

The next thing I know I'm past the next lane, sniffer dog in tow.
The immensely kind cop points me in the direction of the food clearance lane.

"Have you declared everything in your form?" the official asks.

There is an immediate affinity here. The official is from India, within a minute he has switched to Hindi, he tells me he moved here from Haryana, the first couple of years were tough (aren't they always) but now he and has family love it here. He is thrilled to learn that I'm from Chandigarh. We may have been strangers a minute ago but our lingo, our shared capital, our movies are an immediate connect. I'm quizzed yet again about Bollywood. It's almost turning out to be an emotional homecoming. I've got to pinch myself to believe this is my first visit to New Zealand and that too to only one part of it.
With that we are finally in Bala's safe arms. Several maps, bags and GPS in tow. Before we can get out, we've lost our parking ticket. Murphy's law? $30 poorer but blessed with a whole new set of verbal directions, map blind Bala and I are on our way to explore just one part of North Island. Often when I look back at our journeys and our spirit to drive on with our directional blindness, I'm surprised. Luckily for us, apart from sending us in circles, the GPS hasn't died on us. It doesn't fail us as we start the absolutely stunning drive from Auckland to Rotorua.


Every where you look, it is a picture of loveliness. It almost feels like you are driving through a post card, you've got to keep pinching yourself to believe this is for real. This much beauty, the well travelled hubby tells me is only to be found in Scotland. For now, I'm not blinking, I want to take in all I can. We make it to Rotorua in time to find Mountain Road, just off Clayton Road, head into our lovely cottage. The only thing missing here is Goldlilocks I tell our hostess Gill. It's drop dead gorgeous. She helps us settle in, with much needed tips on ways to use the fire and the the big saviour thermal blankets. She also makes one of the finest recommendations for dinner. For a change, my meal tastes better than Bala's. If you aren't blessed with a sweet tooth, avoid anything that says caramelized. That's how the lamb shanks arrived. Expectedly, none of us wanted to bite into it.

With sights like these, we expectedly fall in love with Rotorua and would have stayed here for the rest of the days. But the cottage is taken, Gill tells us. Leaving us with no choice but to vacate.

If move we must, then it's got to be to Coromandel. Take a look to see why......

We've sort of studied the map. We imagine the drive to be as smooth as the ones we've embarked on so far. What we have factored in is the fact that when we enter Coromandel on the GPS, it reads it as the tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. Once we touch the tip, it calls for reprogramming to Coromandel Town. We arrive at Thames expecting straight roads, only to realise the journey has only just begun.

For someone who hasn't ever taken on hill roads - the drive upto Hillside doesn't count, mind you - this is a good 50-60 kilometres of circuit training. This is precisely what my pal Jen Ding had warned me about.

"You look down and you feel you'll drive into the ocean."

Yes, that is the sinking feeling.

Things aren't made any better when Aneesha decides to revisit her Social Studies lesson.

She is the front seat navigator.

"Daddy, is that the Pacific Ocean?"
"It is the deepest ocean in the world. It's in my book."
"So if we slip we'll be in the deepest ocean."

Perish the thought, I tell myself. It's hard. The undulating landscape continues. We take several breaks to give everyone a way ahead of us. We want to relax when we feel like the mountains are kissing the sky, when the sea seems to stretch into infinity. It's hard.

A good two hours, slowly, steadily we make it to Coromandel.

I spot a little farm stay though we decide to take a quick round of town to decide where it is we want to stay. 10 minutes later, I'm chatting with Brian, getting a quick tour of his charming home and settling for his cottage with unmatched views of the coast and the mountain. I couldn't have asked for more.
Anshy and Dhruv are delighted.

They've got bulls to feed. A fisherman to chat upto and what else - but sheep.

Yes, they outnumber the residents of New Zealand. And yes, you've read it right.

These beauties are everywhere. Grazing away through rain and shine. They are temptation enough to make 'woolly volunteers' of our eager beaver children, who made it to stage to feed them through a bottle.

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Friday, May 04, 2007


I leave with a heavy heart. One of my colleagues Chua Chin Chye passed away. He sat opposite me. Each morning after our work was done, we'd relax, catch up on the news of the day or the way the property market was doing. Of late though, he was getting increasingly tired, sleeping a lot more and often missing his medication. He'd been battling diabetes and we'd all remind him to eat right and take his medicines on time. He'd brush it off saying, "aiyah! it's only a curry puff."

Who knew things would change so drastically.

After going in and out of hospital, he was warded for almost four weeks. We thought he was on the mend. Unfortunately, it was not to be.

I did a search to find a picture of him and came across this piece. It was penned when we were all asked to remember our most memorable moment on the show.

Ironically, here's what Chin Chye wrote:
"But torture can be mollified, after half a year, and even lead to a source of delight -- when you get first-hand accounts of what has just happened in the world...while others slumber. The most poignant moment, perhaps, was during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict... where after relentless attacks, that killed thousands of men, women and children.... the carnage led Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to cry out loud, "Are we children of a lesser God?"

Cause and effect. Producing the news is constant reminder that what goes around, comes around -- pretty fast, too. Each morning, scrolling through the news wires and videos, you see pictures and sounds, of the crises and chaos, big and small, that grip our world.

In any case, not everything gets on air. The happenings of the world, trials and triumphs, sometimes reduced to a few paragraphs on a morning bulletin. Or nothing, at all."

Revisiting this piece, I wonder, if he had a premonition?

It's hard to look at the chair he's left behind. The void can never be filled.

We can do nothing to bring him back, but we can treasure his memory. Email me at if you have a thought to share.

Post Script, 23 May, 2007: Thank you all for your emails. For taking that moment to pause and reflect. For reminding me once again how words often fail in times of grief. And for bringing your pen to paper....

"It was not easy to see Chin Chye wasting away, but he always kept up a brave front.
I will always remember him for his strong spirit.

If he's listening in now from way up there, he must be sighing in relief to finally be rid of our nagging to stop eating out; to get a caterer; to take up tai-chi... it was a long list. His seat may be empty, but he is still very much a part of us."



After two years of producing the 'New Zealand, New Thinking Festival', I'm finally getting a chance to visit Middle Earth thanks to Bala.

The excitement in our home has been palpable. The kids are already dreaming of snow, meeting mini moo, getting the feel of a Quad bike.

I'm as excited as them. I've loved one of the Festival's line 'Beyond Sheep and Spaces' and have waited my time to discover it. Hard to believe it's finally here. Adding to the sheer joy is the fact that the Indian driving license works in New Zealand.

So we'll be heading to Auckland (no, we aren't on the Aish-Abhi trail - thanks for asking) before hitting the road to get to some of these fabulous places. A special thanks to Anna who has been instrumental in helping me plan this trip. I wouldn't have known where to start if you hadn't painstakingly provided those notes on all the post-its.

To read more about these places in Rotorua and Matarangi, Coromandel respectively, head here and here.

I would have also loved to stay at some of these places....
as always so much to do, so little time.

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It isn't as if I can't walk to Little India to pick up some of the bigger magazine titles. In fact Outlook India, at least its current issue is available online. There are no annoying passwords that you need to first key in, then remember to access articles from their latest issue.

Despite the convenience of that, I love it when Bala visits India and heads back with a bag load of books, magazines and newspaper. I put this on my 'to read' shelf, then lovingly go through a copy of The Sunday Express, a month after it was released. This week, I read Time Out, Mumbai, with its fabulous cover on wine, followed by Mint and yesterday it was time for the March 26th issue of Outlook.

As always, Outlook didn't disappoint. Lots of readable stuff, starting with the cover 'Why We Hate Politicians' to Amitabh Bachchan's defence of his role in the (in)famous UP is safe ads to a review of Amitava Kumar's Home Products.

I spent all evening going through it lovingly page by page, word by word, till I reached this enormously entertaining side-bar in Bibliofile. Since it's hard to capture it's essence, I'm quoting it verbatim:

Of Writerly Perk
When writers complain of measly advances and royalties, they don't tell you about the fringe benefits. Publish a book, and even if it's a decade old, it entitles you to a lifetime of freebies:
1) invitation to the dime-a-dozen litfairs across the country, including free air tickets (for two), stay in best hotel, free food and booze;
2) foreign jaunts (surf the net and find out which country is hosting a book fair with India as guest of honour)
3) writing residencies in exotic residencies in exotic locales (same perks as 1 only for longer)
4) a job abroad teaching suckers how to pen a book

As proof of it, its followed by a write-up on the Paris Book Fair that's selected 30 Indian authors for an all expenses paid trip. As Outlook would tell you Go figure!


Thursday, May 03, 2007


It all starts with disbelief.

How do you make books work on air? Who is reading anyway? It'll never work.....

Hearing talk show queen Oprah Winfrey speak on Larry King Live, it all comes back. The memories of getting it all together, to getting it off the ground, to making it work.

For Oprah it started with a chat with her Producer Alice. They'd been exchanging books for a long time and Alice mentioned it was time to start talking about the books that had touched them. And what better way to do it, than to give them air time.

Oprah's first reaction was no, though after her initial apprehension, she took on books and soon the Oprah Book Club was doing what even the best reviewers couldn't - making and breaking books.

Her barometer for picking a good book and that explains why her books connect in the way they do is simple enough:
"I have to read every book I talk about.....just like everybody else I'll talk about it if I love that book."

Over the years, she has loved several books. Ranging from memoirs to a story of surviving a holocaust to the story of a father and son's journey towards the sea and an uncertain salvation. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is clearly one of her favourites at the moment.

"Have you read it?" she asks Larry King, for a minute switching roles.
"No, I haven't," Larry responds....
You can almost feel Oprah kicking herself under the table for not having picked that up as a present for Larry's 50 years in broadcasting special before urging him "you must read it." The sheer power of her words is enough to have you rushing to the closest bookstore. I wouldn't have to do that though, as Zafar picked it up as a gift for us last weekend.

Back to Oprah, though...
From The Road, she takes you on an amazing journey with the The Colour Purple. "I was obsessed with this story," she unabashedly confesses before launching into an enormously gripping narration of her audition, her stint in the fat farm, the painful wait, the singing of 'I surrender....' while fighting to keep the pounds off her body, that phone call, the meeting with Steven Spielberg and finally landing the role she'd dreamt of playing - that of Sofia. Books eventually are about belief as Oprah clearly demonstrates before moving on to the next book The Secret , its journey and the phenomenal transformations in people's lives thanks to the book.

"The way you think creates reality for you," she points out. I couldn't agree more.

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Penguin's Loi Zhi Wei breaks this to me almost matter of factly....
"Penguin has just been crowned Publisher of the Year at the British Book Industry Awards, also known as The Nibbles. These are the Oscars of the British publishing business - and the verdict of the judges was unanimous and resounding. It was a collective triumph for all our UK publishers - Penguin, DK and Travel - and caps a remarkable year. Simon Prosser and Hamish Hamilton jointly won Editor and Imprint of the Year and, to round off a great night, we were voted the Marketing Campaign of the Year for Freakonomics."

I'm delighted and certainly not surprised. Penguin has a solid team backing its books in this part of the world. And so many of their books are simply great. Their logo may have gone from fat to slim, but that hasn't hit the quality of the product which simply keeps getting better.

Though it's one thing to represent great books, great authors, outstanding publishers quite another to generate interest in the titles. Take a look at the number of books that get released everyday. They grapple for shelf space, blog space, print space and air time. Having spent a couple of months in the book trade, I know for a fact that dealing with the sheer range of titles is mind-blogging as well as challenging. A great book store manager, quite like a good editor, has the knack for picking the lead, the best titles, the one's with the maximum content. They are the ones who scour through the pages of the Publishers Weekly, Guardian, The New York Times and everything else that has a credible reputation when it comes to all things literary.

That's pretty much what great publicists do as well. And I've the fortune of working with so many of them in the past two and a half years. Zhi Wei, in fact, was one of my first contacts when I was sending out random emails on the proposed launch of Off The Shelf. She responded, we met for coffee, she brought a whole lot of brochures and some titles. I thought I'd get snowed, but I wasn't. Over the course of the afternoon, we were engaging in discussions about books that had moved, books we were looking forward to, authors whose work we'd come to love. And it was amazing to see someone in the trade driven by so much passion for the written word. We've covered and strengthened that middle ground over the years.

I've had similar experiences with Sadie-Jane of Pansing, Pamela Fahey (who has now branched out on her own), Aria Ting of Marshall-Cavendish and Yani, formerly of MPH.

Each of them know their product. They have their pulse on the market. They know exactly how much to push. Too much and you risk losing it, too little and chances are the title might go unnoticed.

They do their reading. Their releases are a treasure trove of information and invariably give you something more than the standard google search. More than all of that, they feel for their books and they always like to go unnoticed. Not anymore....

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


It was supposed to have been The Last Nizam, but that had to wait. All thanks to the arrival of Sudhir and Katharina Kakar's impressive new book simply titled The Indians - Portrait of a People.

They say pictures speak a thousand words and this one had me gripped right from the cover.

The amazing black and white shot by Vidyut Kulkarni spoke to me even before I'd flipped over to read the jacket in a bid to figure out what this book is about.

There is the domineering father, the uncertain mother, the coy daughter-in-law, the unsure of where to look little boys, the mock flowers, the floral table cloth, the stage curtain - all captured to perfection I'm sure with that black umbrella caressing the camera, the flash popping and the don't say cheese look. Full marks to Puja Ahuja for the brilliant cover design that is bound to stop you in your tracks, even if you don't end up buying the book.

And it isn't just the cover, that makes this book such a compelling read. Yes, it is a look at the Indian identity, our Indian-ness, as it is. Once I'd got over the initial excitement about the cover, I was half-expecting an academic discourse into issues of identity, yet another explanation of our caste-system, our divides and our inherent differences as a people.

The book has gone beyond all of that to provide an immensely fascinating insight into not just our lives but our minds as well. If the Indian male is analysed, so is the Indian female. And if its Kakar, sexuality can't be far behind. Yes, the Kamasutra weaves its way though the bigger story is beyond that.

I loved every bit of it. My pink post its, which often determine how much I really like a book, make an appearance after almost every 10th page. I can spend a whole evening talking about it, but this one which was almost a bane of my childhood (being the darkest in the family!) resonated the most:

".....Whereas in the West anti-wrinkle creams and other products against ageing are a gold mine for pharmaceuticals companies, in India, especially among the middle class, products that promise a whitening of the skin chalk up record profits. Television commercials for 'Fair and Lovely' cream for women, and, more recently 'Fair and Handsome' for men; the natural equation of light skin with nobility, beauty and high birth in proverbs, tales and legends; matrimonials in newspapers and in Internet websites specifying 'fair' brides- all these are accepted as being in the natural order of things. 'Black is beautiful!' is not a slogan that will catch on in India anytime in the near future."

I'm heartened to note, some things haven't changed.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


The first time I saw her picture, I was taken aback by her disarming smile.

She looked so familiar. I spent a couple of days trying to place her after reading this post.

Then Mehadi, a friend and former India Today colleague emailed to say Sheela Bhatt had lost her daughter. We had both worked briefly with Sheela. We had both heard about her daughter. That was when it all sunk in.

Shakti had Sheela's smile. Something about that radiance spoke of her energy. I hadn't met Shakti, whose life was unfortunately cut short. Life doesn't reason, does it?

I lost my Mum in 1981. I have heard the remembrances, I have lived through the sympathy, I have fought my tears, I still feel my world coming apart every February the 8th, my heart still knots up. Nothing in the world can change that.....

I know words are never enough, but at least they are a bridge to comfort those who survive.

So for everyone who put this together for Shakti, my heart felt thank you.

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He's landed in Sydney, completing a record-breaking journey that's taken him halfway round the world. That too in a microlight aircraft! He started his flight of faith on March 7th and since then he's covered 21,000 kilometres or 13,500 miles.

Why am I telling you this?

It's because 58-year-old British adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber is nothing like what you've seen or heard before.

He started losing his sight at the age of 21, but that didn't stop him from dreaming about his flight of fancy.

"Don't let anybody tell you, if you can live your dreams or not," he said with the spirit of conviction that marks every word he utters and every move he makes.

Listening to him talk about his passion for speed and challenge, it's hard not to start questioning yourself about the limits we often end up setting for ourselves. "All of us need to realise we can do more than we think," he told me, making this one of my most memorable lines. "The bigger you dream, the higher you achieve."

Not that everything came easily to him. He recalls being inspired by his blind brother, who sailed solo from South Africa to Australia eight years ago. "That's what made me realise the problem in my life wasn't my blindness, it was my attitude to my blindness."

I met him for all of five minutes and he was quickly packing in all his quote-worthy quips. They flow so naturally, they almost seem like the whole purpose of his being.

After that short meeting, I went back to read more about him and have been following every step of his journey. Among his many other credits - he is the first blind man to have completed the lap circuit at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

He became a pilot when everyone told him blind men can't fly. Today, he flies with a sighted co-pilot but relies on speech output from his navigation instruments to steer his course, directing the plane from a wireless keyboard.

When he's not flying, he's scaling new heights - conquering Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain or Mont Blanc, Europe's highest peak. If you think the credit roll stops right there, hold your breath.

In 1999, Hilton-Barber completed the 'Toughest Foot-race on Earth' that took him 250
kilometres across the Sahara Desert, before embarking on the 'Coldest Marathon
on Earth' - the Siberian Ice Marathon.

Attitude, he rightly says, determines altitude.

And he's helping changing attitudes and raising funds wherever he goes. He's supporting the Seeing is Believing campaign.

Hilton-Barber's campaign hopes to raise over a million dollars through his microlight adventure. If you can't take on the skies, you can still make a difference by clicking online.

I can't think of a more appropriate quote to end this post, than one from the man himself:
"The only limits in your life are those you accept yourself!"

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Blogger rock. Didn't we always know that?

What about rocking the media and the United Nations?

One blogger has been there and done that. As a report in The New York Times tells us, 43 year old Matthew Lee asked "as many questions in 20 minutes as the other correspondents combined." And this was at a daily press briefing.

No, he wasn't always asking the tough questions or the ones that would detract us from the real issues of our times. He was asking questions that put issues in perspective. Perhaps his blogging credentials helped. Lee runs the blog and is the only blogger with full UN media credentials.

It comes as no surprise because Lee clearly states:
"I know my place; it’s a supplement, it’s a sidebar on issues that everyone else cares about."

While that may be the case, this is one story that holds the enormous promise of hope for all you bloggers out there.

Never give up as they say. Sometimes it may be tough, but times they are always a-changing. Your words matter and like Lee you too can choose to devote your time and space to "issues often overlooked by larger media."

A brilliant story, if ever there was one, read it all here.

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