Dec 2, 2014

The Japanese and The Art of Using Chopsticks


Rachna of Rachna Says fame is one of the finest bloggers I know. Her content is thought provoking and responsible and her writing always impeccable. 

Over the years I have come to admire her for not only her writing prowess but also the very principled and ethical manner in which she conducts herself in the blog world. She is also an extremely helpful and generous soul who will go out of her way to share her knowledge about blogging and blogs with her friends and even people she hardly knows. She is a genuine person, straight forward and honest.

So I was in a quandary when she asked me to write a guest post for her. I wanted it to be something special, something that would appeal to her discerning taste. Then I remembered how much Rachna enjoys my posts on Japan and so I decided to do a ‘Japan and I’ post for her.

I do hope my post has done justice to her fine blog!







In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners. One of the most interesting and peculiar things about Japan is that while the rest of the world uses spoons and forks, the Japanese insist on eating their food with two pieces of wood!


Please click on the following link to read the rest of the post on Rachna's Blog !

Nov 10, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Splendor that is Yosemite !

And today we go back to my travelogues on the United States to talk about a place that is very very close to my nature loving heart.

Ever since I planned my U.S trip I knew I wanted to go to Yosemite National Park. I had read a lot about it, heard a lot about it and right from its bear infested wilderness and imposing rocks, to its grassy meadows I wanted to see it all! 

But things were not going as I wanted. I couldn’t get reservations, I couldn’t figure out transportation and since the park is huge I was not sure which area I should see in the limited time I had. Just as I was at my wits end, I happened to mention all this to Shachi Thakkar, a very dear friend and fellow travel enthusiast. And like a genie she stepped in, soothed my stressed nerves, took things in her own hands and offered to take me to Yosemite. 

Before we started out from her home in Folsom she asked me if I would prefer to take the freeway or the slightly longer but more scenic rural roads. Naturally I chose the scenic route and what a fantastic drive it turned out to be. Endless stretches of land with long stalks of grass baked brown in the sun, massive farm buildings scattered here and there, horses grazing placidly in pastures. It somehow gave me a feeling of endless space. Even the smallish towns we passed on our way seemed remote and the houses placed really far apart.

We could sense the fall in temperature as we neared Yosemite.Yosemite is known for its wide diversity in vegetation and I could clearly see the change in vegetation every few miles. We were driving through alpine country now and the horizon was dotted with asymmetrical, jagged cliffs.


The biggest advantage of going with a person who not only loves Yosemite but knows it like her own backyard is that you end up getting a local’s perspective of it rather than a tourist’s. Shachi showed me a side of Yosemite that I would have never got to see otherwise. 


 We entered the park from the lesser used Tioga pass and our first stop was Olmstead point. We decided to step off the road and do our own bit of hiking. The trees thinned out after a while till all we could see was granite rocks and cliffs. 
As compared to the more placid and green Yosemite Valley that we would see later, this was hard, unyielding rock. It was all brute strength. It was here that I had my first look of the famed Half Dome. Even from the distance it looked mighty and imposing and very powerful. Like some age old chieftain watching over the park.

The Half Dome as seen from Olmsted Point


 Our next stop was lake Tenaya. Tenaya was totally different from the sheer brutality of the cliffs we had just seen. Ringed by a pine forest, Lake Tenaya was so beautiful, so pristine, so serene that all I wanted to do was sit there and gaze at the splendor around me. The water was crystal clear and a rich dark blue, as if it had pulled in even the blue of the sky reflected in it. 



In a span of few hours I had seen sheer granite cliffs. Walked over hard unyielding ground where not even the sturdiest of trees could take root and followed it up with Lake Tenaya, that was a peaceful sanctuary of crystal clear water and alpine trees and greenery. 

But nothing had prepared me for Tuolumne meadows.

The picturesque Tuolumne meadows is surrounded by a lush pine forest and the ever present cliffs guard it like sentinels. Brownish- green grass, knee high at places waved gently in the wind with a river of crystal clear water meandering through it all. Trees grew here and there, as if to break the monotony of the meadow and I could glimpse the early wildflowers peeping through the grass. We were a month or so early for the wildflowers but I could imagine how utterly beautiful the meadows would be with the wildflowers in bloom.



We drove on. The drive through Yosemite that day was one of the most mesmerizing I have ever taken because never in one place I had seen such diversity of nature. From roaring waterfalls to pristine lakes to scenic meadows and gigantic granite cliffs, Yosemite has it all.


The mighty Bulk of El Capitan looms over us. 

We ended our day with a spectacular sunset over the Half Dome.





I was delighted to see our campsite. According to me this was exactly how a camp should be. Tents, bonfires and even communal baths. What I found a total childish delight in was that we also had to put all our food, trash and even toiletries in ‘Bear Lockers'. These were huge lockers made of metal and this was to prevent the bears from breaking into the tents or vandalizing the cars if they smell food.

This really got my hopes up. I was sure there would be bears roaming about at night and was very hopeful about spotting a few. Exhausted,we fell into our sleeping bags and feel asleep instantly. In my half dream state I thought I did hear fire crackers being fired to scare away the bears to my disappointment none came near our tent.

We did a bit of hiking the next day. Actually ‘bit of hiking’ was how Shachi the super fit adventure enthusiast had put it. But honestly it had me huffing and puffing up an arduous uphill stretch, while Shachi strolled through the same stretchas if it was a plain road !

But the view from the top of the trail was so worth it.




The trip to Yosemite was long yearned for.The two meager days that I spent therer were totally insufficient to take in its grandeur and have just left me thirsting to come back again and again for more.

Sep 29, 2014

Open to Interpretation!


Prime Minister Modi’s Japan visit made me think of a something very close to my heart. Something I have been associated with for over 10 years.

In Today’s Japan and I post, I talk about the Art of Interpretation.

I wonder if any of you noticed a prim bespectacled man sitting behind Prime Minister Modi or following him like a shadow during his japan visit. The man was Modi’s official interpreter and without him most of our PM’s passionate and voluble speeches in Japan would have had little effect!

For a lot of people Interpretation or translation is simply ‘converting’ what the speaker is saying from one language to another.  Frankly 'Converting” is a term that would make all self-respecting language professionals seethe with anger.

Converting is a frivolous word, something what google translate or some other internet tool would do. A human bilingual, if he is true to his profession, not only conveys the meaning of the words but the actual intent and the emotions behind them. Interpretation or translation is simply not conveying sentences; it is conveying understanding in two different cultures. Along with language acumen, it also requires a whole lot of socio- cultural awareness about the country and its people.

Another misconception is that there is not much difference between Translation and Interpretation.  Infact no Interpreter worth his salt will ever be like to be called just a translator. A translator deals with written text. Interpretation is oral. You are verbally communicating what the speaker is saying into another language. Translation of course is infinitely easier than interpretation. When you translate a text you have ample time to think of the appropriate words, to refer to dictionaries or the internet.

Interpretation is immediate and in Real Time. There is no time and no scope for referring to a dictionary or asking someone else. A true worth of a bilingual only comes out when he is interpreting. An Interpreter not only needs to be good in the language, he also needs to be super quick in grasping, managing and conveying information.

My first brush with interpretation was when I was studying Japanese in JNU. We had what was known as ‘Language Lab” classes then.
The classes were held in sound proof rooms lined with a cork like material. Each one of us had a headphone and a separate cubicle and it made us feel all important and special. Our professor, though an eminent name in the Japanese fraternity was a dour faced unsmiling man who rarely saw humour in anything. The only time I have seen him smile was when he ribbed a student mercilessly about not being able to answer his questions as the poor fellow stood there squirming and wishing the earth would swallow him.

 But in all honesty I owe a lot of my Interpretation skills to that professor and his intensive (and almost Boot Camp like) training. He used to play tapes that were usually from the NHK (the BBC of Japan) and a commentary on a current political or economic situation. The tape ran for 10 minutes and during those 10 minutes we all made notes frantically not even daring to breathe too loudly in case we miss what is being said.

It was in these interpretation classes that I learnt how to write in short hand and use key words instead of writing full sentences. If you try writing full sentences while interpreting, the speaker would be miles ahead by the time you finish with one sentence. I also learnt to listen to not only the words but the tone and underlying emotion of the speaker and interpret appropriately. For the interpreter also somehow needs to reflect the emotion of the speaker with his words and intonation while remaining detached enough not to feel the same emotion himself.

A translator deals with text. The worst problem he might face is bad font size in a hard copy or content that is difficult to understand.

An interpreter however deals with human beings and not a piece of paper. Humans unfortunately come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and personality and attitudes.  


Some speakers whisper or mumble making it difficult for the interpreter to understand what they are saying. Some on the other hand will speak faster than a bullet train. Some confused souls will keep contradicting their own statements leaving the interpreter thoroughly bewildered.

The usual norm is to take a logical break after every few minutes and allow the interpreter to do his job. But some speakers go on and on without a break and as a result the interpreter will have almost 15-20 minutes of data to interpret in one go. 
That is what happened during one of Modi’s speeches in Japan. He got carried away while speaking. In a span of 10 minutes he cracked jokes and then turned again to serious matters without giving his interpreter any chance to interpret. As a result the Japanese in the room were totally baffled by the laughter and his Interpreter was faced with the daunting task of not only interpreting a lot of content but also witticisms and serious topics in one go. And jokes when not interpreted immediately lose a lot of their charm!

Some people like to pretend that interpreters are blessed with a photographic memory. I have had speakers change the slide of the ppt before I have finished explaining it or rub off drawings from the board before I could explain them.

And I used to absolutely hate lunch or dinner meetings. Most of them used to be in very good restaurants but since I was busy interpreting all the time, I couldn't taste a morsel unless I wanted to speak with my mouth full of food.

I remember one dinner in a very famous North Indian restaurant where I spent 10 minutes interpreting from English into Japanese what a culinary delight Butter Chicken is without getting to taste even a morsel of the damn bird!

There is no greater woe for an Interpreter than confusing pronunciations and different dialects.  I remember one interpreter who got thoroughly confused between Maruti and Multi – because of the simple reason that the Japanese pronounce ‘Ti’  as “Chi”  and ‘L’ as ‘R’. So Multi when spoken in a sort of anglicized Japanese – becomes Maruchi. Unfortunately Maruti of the Maruti Suzuki fame is also pronounced as Maruchi.

The poor fellow, a novice to the world of Automobile interpretation was totally befuddled between the two terms and used them indiscriminately till the Indians in the meeting thought that Multi companies were making cars like Maruti instead of Maruti making multiple cars. I was torn between an overwhelming desire to laugh and to correct to poor chap !

Of course such incidents are fun as long as you are not in the eye of the storm.  
I have spent some time in a scenic Japanese city called Kobe where a particular dialect of Japanese called Kansai Ben is spoken. The Japanese team members would automatically assume that because I know Japanese I would understand all dialects and slang. They would speak something rapidly in the dialect and then look at me expectantly where I would sit there with a totally confused expression on my face.

One of the worst situations I have faced is when I was required to interpret to a bristling, angry mob of union workers in an automobile Company. The Japanese MD chose to address them in Japanese and I was faced with a daunting task of interpreting in chaste Hindi. The worst was yet to come. The union leaders, all belonging to the dusty badlands of U.P were in no mood to listen to pacifying speeches and their response was richly peppered with the choicest invectives that even I with my extensive Japanese vocabulary found a tad difficult to Interpret!

I haven’t interpreted for years now but honestly if I ever feel a need to check my language acumen, the best thing would be to try another hand at interpreting! 


In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.

Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read here.


Sep 4, 2014

U.S Chronicles - A Bite out of the Big Apple

New York City failed to impress me at first. I had my first view of it at night, when it is supposed to be at its dazzling best. We came out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city lay in front of me sparkling and twinkling against the backdrop of a velvety dark night.

I felt as if I was entering into the bowels of an Urban Jungle.

My first day in the city found me sitting on top of an open tourist bus, broiling in the heat as the bus slowly moved through Manhattan and all of its touristy spots. It was hot and it was crowded and the traffic was horrendous. I don’t think I enjoyed the sights too much either. The Empire state Building didn't look as majestic close up as it did from a distance. I refused to climb up.



 The 9/11 memorial had none of the sobriety I associated with it because of the hordes of noisy tourists there.


But the worst was Times Square. I am not fond of big crowds at any given point and Times Square was nothing but a huge over flowing river of humanity. The huge skyscrapers with adverts running on them simply hurt my eye. I found them rather garish. 


The only thing I enjoyed to some extent was the boat ride to the statue of liberty. The imposing statue in front with the Manhattan skyline behind us was rather nice.


New York in summer is perhaps the best and the worst time to visit. The weather is perfect but thanks to the selfsame good weather, tourists descend on the city in droves, forcing even the hardened New Yorkers to hide inside their homes and only venture out to places less crowded.

Fed up of the tourists I encountered everywhere (and conveniently forgetting that I was one myself) I decided to explore the city as a city should really be explored - on foot and with no particular destination or time schedule in mind. I decided to pick a neighborhood a day, any neighborhood, and just wander.

The next couple of days were a revelation, for I realized I was looking at New York all wrong. The city is not about tourist sites or sky scrapers. Frankly, after a while its physical and geographical aspects simply ceased to matter. For New York City is a way of life. It’s an experience. You need to live it, explore it, let the spirit of the place seep into you, feel its pulsating, vibrant heart.

The few days that I spent wandering in the city, left me with a kaleidoscope of impressions, vivid and colorful.

To discover New York you must walk. Walk in the shadow of the great glass and steel skyscrapers, with people rushing, jostling past you in their hurry to get to work. Heels clicking, briefcases dangling, smartly dressed. So much like Tokyo, with even the weather hot and humid one day and incessant rains the next.

New York to me is Guggenheim with its intriguing structure and fabulous paintings. 





New York is the Metropolitan Museum of art where I wandered happily for hours and hours and hours and felt that no amount of time I spend in it is ever going to be enough.




New York is standing in front of Tiffany’s and feeling a little like Audrey Hepburn did in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

New York City is also wandering the cobbled streets of SoHo, peering into quaint boutiques. Then walking a few blocks down to encounter rows after rows of glittering shops housing the best brands in the world. 


New York is also the Wall Street. The architecture here is different, old, historic. There is something shiny and brash about high-rises that doesn't appeal to me as much as dignified, staid beauty of old architecture.




New York is the Bohemia of Greenwich Village, with cafes warm and inviting.
Simply sit with a coffee in your hand and watch the world go by, or aimlessly stroll through old, tree shaded neighborhoods, turn a corner and discover that under the shadow of the high rises buildings like this still exist.




It’s about cutting through central park to reach your destination so that you can revel in the peace and greenery that you never thought could exist in the chaos and madness of New York. 




New York is also The Strand - the book shop that is the mecca for every self-respecting Book Lover. 


It’s about sitting on the wide sweeping steps of the New York Public Library, marveling at that magnificent building. This is how a library should be – majestic, solemn and filled with the best books ever. 


New York is Bryant Park, just behind the library with the little French Bakery nearby. I bought some delicious sandwiches there and sat eating them at one of the little tables set under the trees while I watched people battle out chess games at the next table.

New York is jogging along the river, or skating or cycling or simply sitting in a river side café as you watch the sun set over the Hudson River. 


New York is the World’s finest restaurants and the happy knowledge that every conceivable cuisine is available to you within a few miles of where ever you are. Ethiopian to Japanese to Italian.

It is also about eating hot dogs from vendors on the road and eating the very famous New York Cheesecake and Bagels to see if they indeed are the best in the world as the New Yorkers claim. It’s biting into that slice of New York style Pizza bought at a shop that is just a garret like hole in the wall but sells the “Best pizza ever”.

New York is stopping to listen to street musicians. It’s also about Broadway and musicals and summer night Jazz concerts. Nowhere except perhaps London have I ever seen a place so vibrant with art and music and culture.

New York is also about its canary yellow cabs. As I discovered, catching a cab in Manhattan, especially on a rainy day is an art. No cab stops if you stand by the side of the road and wave demurely at it. You have to literally stand in the middle of the road and wave as if your life depends on it. And somehow my fondest memory of NYC is of a cab driver who instead of cursing the horrendous traffic would take out a book and read a page or two while he waited for the light to turn green. 

New York is the police and ambulance sirens that jolted me awake even on the 23rd floor of my cousin’s apartment. Stepping out in the tiny balcony in the dead of the night to look down at a city humming with activity. For this is truly a city that never sleeps. 

New York City is fast and manic and brash and competitive and unabashedly unapologetic about it. There is an undercurrent of energy here that compels you to move faster, think quickly, to be on your toes always.

It’s a perfect place for people who want to do their own thing. This is a place that lets you be. It doesn't question, doesn't meddle and accepts you with all your idiosyncrasies and quirks.


New York is one place where you can dream anything,do anything, become anything, if the city doesn't get to you first!

Aug 6, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Land Across The Ocean

Have you ever had a feeling of Déjà vu? A dim but persistent sensation of already been there, done that? An uncanny feeling that what you are experiencing is something you have gone through before?

When I was in California, my friends had taken me to Muir Woods that are famous for their towering Redwoods. The Muir woods are near San Francisco, they almost touch the coast line, the trees sloping down to the Ocean. The route we took was the famous Highway One.It was a breathtakingly beautiful drive with the road curving through the green hills and the Ocean glittering in the distance.

On our way back we drove up a steep hill to a viewpoint overlooking the Ocean. A steep trail led us to the top of the hill and there clinging to the rocks by the very tip of its fingernails was a small lookout, hanging almost precariously over the Ocean.
We stood there looking out at the Pacific Ocean, vast and seemingly infinite, merging into nothingness.



The sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds that day; the wide expanse of the sea was beautiful but desolately so.  The sea was an iron grey and it matched the dull sky overhead. The waves pounded the surrounding cliffs almost savagely. The Ocean here was rugged and raw.


Suddenly I had a strange feeling that I have been here before.That the wind whipping through my hair and the salty tang of the sea on my lips is something I have experienced before. Even the cries of the birds wheeling overhead seemed familiar. 


I remember thinking that I was standing on the west coast of the United States and it was Japan that probably lay on the other side of this seemingly endless span of water.
Then with a jolt I realized why I had the feeling of Déjà vu.

On the very tip of the eastern coast of Japan, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo, Lies the Island of Enoshima.
Enoshima is connected to the mainland by an ancient bridge. Centuries ago thanks to a major earthquake the island had almost broken into two pieces.

The island almost broken into two
I always liked going to the Island because it had some beautiful shrines and a monument to Basho, who according to me is one the greatest Haiku poets ever. 
Enoshima is rather small and one day I decided to walk to the very end of it. Once I had reached the Ocean, I perched myself on a huge rock half submerged in water. 


It was not a bright day, it had been raining intermittently and the sea was very choppy and speckled with grey foam where the waves hit the rocks. Even the birds flying overhead seemed to cry forlornly as if protesting against the unfairness of the weather. 

I remember thinking If these birds could cross the entire ocean that curved around the earth what piece of land would they reach? 

Then on the way back I saw a small board facing the sea that said in Japanese, “Next stop San Francisco”.


And almost 8 years to the day I had sat at the tip of Enoshima looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I found myself at the other end of the same Ocean, almost facing that same piece of land.

It is absolutely amazing the experiences travel can bring!

Aug 1, 2014

U.S Chronicles - The Grand Canyon

Starting today, I chronicle my Journey through the United States. In the one month that I was there, I tried to see and experience as much of its urban sprawl as well as wilderness as I could. 

We start with what to me was the High point of the trip. 

There are some things that can never be fully explained in words. They have to be seen, felt and experienced and then stored in memory as an experience that is inspiring as well as curiously humbling. The Grand Canyon is one of them.

This was a trip I almost gave up on. It was difficult to plan thanks to the fact that the United States is not kind to visitors who don’t want to drive. The connections from San Francisco to Flagstaff – the closest airport to Grand Canyon, were erratic and even more tedious was the three hour wait at the airport for the bus that took me to the Canyon. But in the end it was worth it. It was so worth it.

The last leg of the journey, the two hour bus ride seemed as if it would never end. The afternoon sun beat down cruelly on the empty road stretching in front of me. The desert like scenery outside complimented the heat. Miles and miles of dry land interspersed with rocks rising like humps on some giant animal. The roof of a distant farm shimmering in the heat or the occasional car on the highway was the only sign that the place was inhabited.

Finally we entered the Grand Canyon National Park and I was dropped off somewhere near the visitors center. Then began the long walk in the unrelenting heat to my lodge. By the time I reached the lodge, checked in and then walked down to my wooden cabin I was so hot and worn out that I barely spared a glance at the Canyon I could see dimly out of my window.

But by evening it was pleasant and a cool breeze had sprung up. The canyon beckoned tantalizingly. I walked out of my cabin, turned a corner and then stood utterly transfixed. The Grand Canyon lay in front of me, staggering in its sheer size and magnitude.



The Grand Canyon is 446 km long and about 29 kms wide. Over centuries the Colorado river has cut through layer and layers of rock to form such a deep gorge that the current depth of the canyon is an astonishing 6,000 feet. Seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon, the river is nothing but a slim silver ribbon.



Most of the Canyon is nothing but rock with a few trees jutting out here and there. The different colors and hues of the rocks make the canyon seem like a gigantic palette over which rust, grey, red and black colors have been strewn indiscriminately with just a dab of green here and there. The layers upon layers of rock that the river has cut through have survived almost perfectly over the centuries. The exposed layers look like pages of an open book, in this case each page preserving a million years of history in it.




Mighty and magnificent, imperious in all its grandeur, the Grand Canyon is undoubtedly one of Nature’s greatest creations. But in no way is the beauty of the canyon gentle and soothing, rather its mute power is almost palpable.

The evening sky was dotted with clouds. I was disappointed. I had hoped for a clear sky because I had heard so much about the spectacular sunset at the canyon. But the clouds added their own magic to the sunset.

The clouds seemed to be in a turmoil, but beneath them the sunset was peaceful ! 





To experience the canyon fully you have to walk down one of its numerous trails. The trails cling precariously to the edge of the canyon, coiling and
curling down to the river as sinuously as snakes. 


I chose The Bright Angle Trail – one of the easiest and most frequented.
I started my trek at 4 am. The light was still dim and the air still held the coolness of the night in it.

Although standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon offers you a panoramic view, its walking the trails that give you the smaller delights.

Like this curiously shaped rock.



Finally when pale peach and pink streaks had started spreading through the horizon like tendrils, I sat down on a massive rock jutting out over the canyon and waited for the sun to rise.


 It began with the sun touching just the tip of the canyon with gold, like a fussy painter testing his colors. 

Slowly the color spread over the entire canyon as though it’s on fire.




 The entire canyon was a brilliant shimmering gold. The surroundings were so hushed and peaceful, I could actually hear the leaves on the lone tree nearby fluttering in the slight wind.
It was almost ethereal.


For me, God is not to be found in temples and idols. For me he exists in the magnificence of nature, and sitting on that rock, watching the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, I somehow felt more closer to him than I ever have. 

Jul 28, 2014

Four Japanese and a Conversation

Waiting at airports, especially for late night International flights is not one of my favorite activities. The wait always seems interminate, there is nothing to do and I can never fall asleep in the waiting lounge as most people tend to do.

But sometimes things happen that not only liven up the wait but give you something to chuckle about for a long time. And also provide very good material for a blog post !

So, I was sitting at the Indira Gandhi International Airport waiting for my flight to Tokyo. I was bored and listless and couldn’t concentrate on my book.

Then four Japanese trooped in and sat down in the empty chairs opposite me. From the cameras slung around their necks and the travel guides in their hands it was evident that they were tourists.
 Once they were settled in their chairs and had arranged their hand luggage neatly around them, two of them did what all Japanese do when they have time to kill. They fell asleep. I have always marveled at the ability of the Japanese to instantly fall asleep where ever they are. They sleep in airport lounges, in buses, in planes and I have even caught a few napping while standing in the very crowded Japanese trains.

The third one promptly opened his backpack and started searching for something inside it.

The fourth, living up to the true name of all Japanese tourists pranced about the lounge taking random photographs. The Japanese take their trips very very seriously and believe in documenting every single thing. So you will see a Japanese tourist clicking pics of everything from the picturesque Taj Mahal to a dog irrigating the flowers in a public garden.

Our friend started off by clicking the pics of the washroom entrances. A portly Punjabi aunty came out of the ladies just as he was about to click and she glared at him ferociously. Our friend however was not to be deterred and he continued to go clickety click. I was totally bewildered by what he was doing till I realized that he was fascinated by the huge cutouts of men and women in traditional Indian attire at the entrances of the washroom. Once he had finished capturing almost all the loos in the vicinity he turned his attention to the planes outside and started clicking them.

Eventually our camera crazy friend settled down. Inspite of the lounge being air-conditioned, he took out a Japanese fan from his bag and started fanning himself vigorously with it. Now please remember that no self-respecting Japanese will ever venture out of his home without a fan. It’s unthinkable, almost an insult to the nation.

He shifted in his chair and complained loudly of the heat. The remaining two Japanese continued to nod over their chests and the third one continued to burrow inside his backpack. No one paid him any attention. Bored, he looked around him moodily. Suddenly his eyes fell on me sitting quietly in my corner, reading.

He looked at me and looked away. Then looked at me again. I glanced at him and embarrassed, he quickly turned away. But he continued to cast furtive glances towards me from behind his fan. He must have been very curious about me because unlike the majority of their Indian counterparts, staring at women is not something Japanese men usually do.

Finally he turned to his friend and said “I say, Abe San, There is this girl sitting across you. Do you think she is an Indian”

Abe San, for that was presumably the name of the backpack burrowing Japanese simply grunted and kept searching in his Backpack for only he knew what. The other two Japanese continued to doze.

After a few more sidelong glances at me, he nudged the backpack- burrower again. “Well what do you think?” Abe San grunted and finally looked over at me. “I don’t know” he said and resumed his burrowing.

By this time one of the sleeping Japanese had woken up. So our curious friend leaned over to him and asked “What do you think Yamamoto San, that lady .. is she Indian?” Yamamoto San turned his bleary eyes towards me and took me in for a moment. “I don’t think so. Look how tall she is and Indian women never keep their hair so short”.

This observation made the backpack burrower stop rummaging in his backpack and he joined his friends in their speculation.

“She might be European” he declared. Then ensued a very interesting discussion that encompassed everything from my eyes, to my height, my skin color and a few other things in between.

What the Japanese of course didn’t know was that since I have spent five years of my life studying their national language I could understand each and every word of what they were saying. I sat there torn between indignation and fighting an irresistible urge to laugh.


The conversation went on and on. Our camera toting friend was sure that with my black hair and eyes I was not European but I definitely didn’t look Indian. He was now wondering aloud if I might be from Russia.

The Bleary eyed Japanese scratched at his day old beard meditatively and said, ”She might be Russian. I had a Russian colleague once. Very tall those people.”

All this while I was sitting there biting the insides of the cheeks to prevent myself from laughing out loud.

The fourth Japanese, who had also woken up and had been listening avidly to the discussion but not participating, suddenly piped up and said “I think she must be from Afghanistan”.

That did it. I knew if I waited for even a few minutes more I would be rolling on the floor laughing. I had to put an end to this.

So I casually turned to them and said in Japanese “You know all of you are wrong, I am from India”. And then I gave them an angelic smile and asked, “And how did you find my country?”

The effect this had on the Japanese was priceless. Our friend, who was vigorously fanning himself, literally jumped and dropped his fan on the floor with a loud clatter. The others just froze. Their surprise was so genuine that for a full minute they continued to stare at me pop eyed. They had all turned a beet red and their mouths kept opening and shutting comically like fish out of water.
“But, but, how do you know Japanese?” one of them spluttered.

I told them.

If it had been anyone else they would have laughed uproariously at their own stupidity. But not so the prim and proper Japanese. They were mortified. It was as if they had been caught snooping into the women’s changing room. Oh the shame of it! Why doesn't a typhoon come and sweep us all away!

Finally I put them at ease by asking them what all they had seen in India. What followed was a very animated discussion about India and Japan.

All in all, this incident made an excellent start to what turned out to be one of the best holidays I've ever had!

Jun 25, 2014

Book Review - The Thugs and a Courtesan


I very rarely accept books for review, but when I was asked to review “The Thugs and a Courtesan” by Mukta Singh Zocchi, I agreed because of two reasons. I loved the name of the book and second, the plot seemed very intriguing to me. 
The book is set in the India of the 1800s and talks of thugs and caravan of traders and courtesans with the Freedom struggle as a backdrop. With my love for stories set in British India, There was no way I was going to let go of a possibility of reading this Historic Fiction.

The best thing about this book is the storyline. Most writers stick to the beaten path of love stories or stories about the corporate life in their debut book but this is where Mukta has dared to be different. Her book talks about thugs, that group of people about whom I have read often in many of the historic tales set in British India, but never as main protagonists in a book.This small but very fascinating section of the society was a very integral part of British India and they played their own small but important role in the freedom struggle. Stories about them have always fascinated me.

Based on the lives of travelling Caravan of traders (or thugs!) who meander over dusty roads and through winding tracks, the book is a tale of bravery and petty schemes, of love and deceit and ambitions and duty.
 It’s mainly about the tumulus relationship between Firangia and Chanda Bai – One a thug and the other a warrior fighting for the Independence of her country. But there are many other subplots weaving their way in and out of the main story. Some related to the main plot some totally independent but doing their own bit by adding spice to the storyline. For me it was a sheer delight to re live that era through the various characters and stories.

As far as I am concerned, the book has all the material to make it a best seller – but sadly what it lacked was a good writing style. The subject chosen is fantastic but I wish it was treated in a better fashion. The story tends to meander and goes off track at times. The sub plots on their own make for interesting stories but I do wish they were woven in the book in a more creative and subtle manner. Sometimes the hordes of characters seems too cluttering and confusing.
It is obvious that the author is making an effort write in a proper and literary manner. There are a whole lot of books where the language is totally colloquial and flippant and I am no fan of that writing style. The Thug and courtesan however, goes to the other extreme and in the process of trying too hard to be proper, the writing style seems too verbose and stilted.

The video of the book can be seen here. 

May 20, 2014

The Lament of a Light Sleeper !


I am sleep deprived and bleary eyed as I write this. My brain as soggy as soaked bread. I would do anything, anything for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Eight hours of restful sleep, we are repeatedly told, is optimal for health. Well I honestly don’t remember when I last got those 8 hrs. I am perpetually moving round like a zombie, in a state of a permanent Jet Lag.

You see, I am what is called a “Light Sleeper”. This means that even a pin falling in a room miles away will wake me up. That for me the sound of water being poured in a glass four rooms away will be like the roar of the Niagara and will jolt me out of sweet slumber. That for me the tick tock of a clock or the gentle whirring of a fan are unbearable noises.

I so envy people who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. I need to set-up a proper environment to fall asleep . First, I will push and pummel my pillow into a comfortable shape and then toss and turn till I find the perfect position to lie in. Then I need silence. ‘Silence’ you see is the most important thing here. And silence is something I never get. It seems my whole neighborhood has an uncanny way of knowing when I am about to sleep. 

As soon as I hit my head on the pillow, they swing into action with the precision of an army band – a badly tuned army band. The people living upstairs will chose that precise time to move about their furniture and close their doors with a bang. There will a pressure cooker whistling merrily somewhere a few houses away. Not to be outdone, Chopra Uncle from next door will chose that opportune time to hawk and spit and generally gargle away to glory in his bathroom. Every sound of his ablutions crystal clear to me.

Even if I do manage to fall asleep in this cacophony of sounds, most of the nights I am jostled rudely out of my slumber by late-nighters who will bang their car doors loudly, climb the stairs noisily or generally hold loud conversations right under my window about how difficult it is to find parking at night.
And of course once you are up, you can’t go back to sleep. You will count innumerable sheep in all the languages you know, you will pick up the most boring book on your book shelf hoping it will lull you gently back into la la land; but no, sleep will continue to elude you.

Light sleepers like me meet their own private hell when they are travelling.

Invariably, always without fail on long flights I will end up next to a fellow who snores. I will sit there after the lights have been dimmed, wide awake in my cramped airline seat, while next to me the guy will continue his near perfect impersonation of a chainsaw.

I have lost count of the number of hours I have spent in flights and trains trying to amuse myself with the different kinds of snores that I can hear. There is of course the chainsaw impersonation, then there is the continuous gurgling noise deep in the throat that will suddenly morph into something like a huge nasal snort before subsiding down to gurgles again. Then there are some people who lie there with their mouths half open - like fish gasping for water- who will make a continuous gentle soothing sound, which will almost lull you to sleep and suddenly without warning it will morph into an ugly sound like a generator starting. These are the ones that give you a nervous breakdown.

Sometimes it's people whom you least expect to snore that surprise you the most. There was a very delicate, very small Japanese lady next to me on a flight once. She didn’t seem capable of producing even a peep, leave alone snores. But once she fell asleep and started snoring it was like hearing Mt. Fuji rumble just before it erupts into an volcano.

And there really should be a special place in hell reserved for people who will snooze their alarms every 10 minutes but will not get up.

I have shaken out of deep slumber innumerable times in hotels by alarms that are not my own. I sit there, wide wake, my heart thudding violently as the alarm goes on and on. Once the alarm is switched off I try to get back to sleep just to be woken up again by the same alarm every ten minutes. Eventually the damn alarm will rouse the whole hotel and half the city but not the man who snoozes it is supposed to wake.

The one thing, I would kill for, gladly sell my soul for is a sound proof room. And till I get that, I continue to stumble through life in a state of permanent sleep deprivation!

Apr 30, 2014

The Japanese and the Art of Packing Lunch !


In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising Sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue and surprise all foreigners.
Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced! Previous posts on the series can be read Here. 

Today I talk about Japanese and the art of packing the lunch Box.

What is so special about packing lunch you say. It’s simply dumping the food in different containers or wrapping it up in foil. Try telling this to a Japanese housewife and she will look at you as if you are a rodent that has entered her immaculate kitchen by mistake!

The Japanese, as they tend to do with everything that the rest of the world considers mundane, take even packing lunches very very seriously. Infact they have elevated packing the humble lunch box into an art form.

I have a sneaky feeling that most of the Japanese moms wake up early in the morning with just one mission in life – to make their kids’/Husband’s lunch box as artistic as possible.

There is a saying in Japan “We first eat with our eyes and then with our mouths”. They firmly believe that not only should the food be nutritious but also visually appealing. This also applies to packed lunches or "Bento" as they are called in Japanese.



 There are all sorts of  Bento boxes available. The most common ones are of course the simple plastic boxes, some are specifically targeted at kids with with catchy designs and shapes and then there are the very dignified,  aesthetically designed wooden boxes.

 With their fetish for rules and structures, the Japanese also have specifications laid down for making a Bento – the most popular is the 4:3:2:1 ratio (4 parts rice, 3 parts side dish, 2 parts vegetables, and 1 part pickled vegetables or a dessert). 


Special care is taken while placing the food in the box.Different colored and differently textured food is used together - this not only ensures that all the food groups are covered but also makes it very pleasing to the eye. 



Care is also taken to see that different foods don’t touch each other and flavors don’t mix - That would simply make the food unappetizing and unappealing. Plastic dividers are used to separate different types of food or slices of cucumber or lettuce or something similar is used to create sections in one big box. A Bento will also usually have chopsticks and a beautiful cloth napkin accompanying it. 


The most popular type of Bento are called  'Kyara-Ben' or Character Bento. These have food cut and decorated in the shape of a famous cartoon/TV character and are usually given to young school going kids. 
vegetables and meat is cut into pretty patterns and the rice molded into different shapes using special molds and cutters that come just for this purpose.

Most of the Japanese mothers don’t always make complicated kyara- Ben for their kids but they do try to make the food as appetizing and attractive to look at as possible so that the kids feel like eating the food.


www. e-obento.com
Kyara Ben has now evolved into an art form and there are annual kyaraben competitions and festivals all over Japan.



Then there is the very famous Ai – Bento. Ai means love in Japanese and these are the bentos lovingly prepared by new wives for their husbands. The love for the husband is declared in the form of heart shaped food or love notes written with sauce or even with seaweeds ! 



But bento is not only for people who have loving wives or mothers to prepare it for them. Bento is also sold on train stations and these are known as Eki Bento. (Eki – Station)


 Eki- Ben forms a very integral part of train travel in Japan.
 I have had so many of them while travelling through the country and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Eki- Bens are not simply some boxed food for a traveler to eat. 
The way the food is prepared, decorated and the type of box that is used usually gives you a very good insight into the regional cuisine and culture of the place. 

A shop at a station selling Bentos
Some stations are famous for the Bentos sold there than anything else. Most of the Japanese passing through the Tokyo Station make it a point to buy the marunouchi ekiben sold there. The bento is inspired by the snacks that were eaten during the intermission of kabuki performances in the area.

There are usually a lot of Bento shops near commercial districts. The busy office goer can simply pop out at lunch time to buy a bento and come back and eat at his desk. Or he can pick up a Bento on his way home and just heat up his dinner. My dinner in Japan usually comprised of Bento boxes that I bought near my office. 

Very few countries herald the change of seasons as vividly as Japan. And this gets reflected in their lunch boxes as well.

This is a special Bento for the cherry blossom season. 



And the Girls' Doll festival has its own special Bento as well. 


 

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