Sunday, August 29, 2010


If you've never felt the need to cut circles out of a sheet of paper, you should stop reading this blog-post right now. If, however, you have spent the greater part of your life wondering if -- uh, no: feeling CERTAIN that -- somewhere in the Universe there's a gadget that cuts circles out of an ordinary sheet paper easily and without mess, then what I'm about to describe may be of use to you.

Perhaps it's something that graphic designers and artists are taught on their first day at art school -- but I didn't go to art school and also I didn't hang out with the kinds of people who ever showed the slightest interest in cutting circles out of paper, so I missed out on this little trick and had to wait 57 years to wake up one day and work it out for myself.

You'll need a couple of pieces of equipment: one, a compass with a bow-attachment and two, a box-cutter or Exacto knife. And of course a sheet of paper, a drawing board and a cup of water.

A bow attachment is something that is bundled along with most good compass sets and is used for drawing circles in ink rather than with a pencil-point. It resembles the beak of a slightly peevish hornbill -- and is definitely an instrument that looks as if it was designed in the nineteenth century (and probably was). But the point is, it works rather well, so long as one is reasonably un-clumsy with open bottles of ink.

Anyway. For the purpose of cutting circles out of paper, you don't use ink with your bow attachment. Instead, you fit the attachment to the arm of the compass that usually holds a pencil point and you dip the beak of the bow in the cup of water. This causes a very small amount of water to be taken up at the tip of the bow. Then you use the compass in the usual way, depositing a circle in plain water onto your sheet of paper. Put the compass down, wipe the tip of the bow (so that it doesn't rust) and then, using the box-cutter and/or Exacto knife, gently separate the circle from the rest of the sheet -- the water will weaken the paper just enough to allow you to do this without ripping the paper sideways. Ta-daaaaa! A neat and graceful circle-shaped aperture appears where before there was none.

It works best with thin paper of course -- but I cut a large number of circles out 150 gsm card the other day, slicing along the water track left by the bow attachment, with very little difficulty. The results were definitely neater and more circular than if I'd just used the cutter on its own.

All through my life, I have tried cutting circles out using scissors (hopeless!) and tiny knife-blades with circle-templates but the results have not been good because (a) tiny knife-blades seem to get blunt very easily so they require a great deal of pressure and (b) when the blades are NOT blunt, they slice through the plastic of the template. I have also tried attaching blades of various kinds to my compasses but it is too much of a struggle, and anyway, the blades bend and wiggle in a most uncooperative manner. Google searches reveal that Rotring and Staedtler make blade attachments for compasses -- but then these are NOT standard add-ons with compass sets and I have never got around to buying one.

No doubt there are laser-cutters out there, made exclusively for the professional and non-garden-variety of circle-cutter. But for me, this late-life discovery of the uses of a bow-attachment is very pleasant and I am very grateful to the Muse of Circles, whoever she is, for whispering this secret in my ear.

Monday, August 23, 2010


This is an idea I had this morning for what will undoubtedly become a major snack item. My suggested name is:


The main (only!) ingredient is POPCORN.

Using freshly popped corn, squeeze the popped kernels into small molds about the size of fish fingers, plus something to keep the forms from breaking apart, like some kind of light batter (but not enough to seriously flavour the corn). Then these can be arranged on a plate around different kinds of dips -- such as hot caramel sauce, or chocolate for a sweet and sticky snack -- and Mughlai gravy, or BBQ sauce for savoury treats!


Many people make popcorn "balls" using honey or golden syrup to bind em up -- but there's no reason that something else can't be used -- I mean something savoury -- and at the same time, it's okay in my book to dip something with a sweet under-carriage into a savoury sauce.

Friday, August 20, 2010



[This has appeared in the current issue of BIBLIO]

Like an experienced angler landing a difficult catch, Usha KR keeps her line taut all the way through this elegantly plotted novel. Not till the end do we get to see the whole thing as it lies panting and struggling, revealed at last in all its oddity, neither a mystery nor a romance but a story of people caught in the embrace of a complex and hairy otherness.

The tale begins in Bangalore, as a fictional account of the real-life events that took place in New Delhi, circa May 2001. Reports began circulating of a mysterious, humanoid creature that attacked innocent citizens during the hours of darkness, causing a fear-psychosis to grip the city. The panic lasted for perhaps six months, resulting in injuries ranging from deep scratches to severe trauma and even death: at least two people were reported to have died as a result of falling down a flight of stairs while trying to escape from the monster. But the creature, such as it was, was never caught either in person or on film. The police released sketches based on eye-wtiness accounts, but ultimately, according to Wikipedia, "the entire incident has been described as an example of mass hysteria".

Usha's retelling of this half-forgotten news story is set in January 2000. A teacher called Shrinivas Moorty forms the heart of the book. Despite a sterile marriage and dead-end career, he has entered his middle-years with a few shreds of his youthful dreams still clinging to him. Next is Neela Mary Gopalrao, the woman bureaucrat at the Centre for Socio-Economic Studies who rules over her private fiefdom of clerks and peons with a rod of petty cruelties: cheques that will be needlessly delayed, inter-departmental letters that will never be delivered, cutting remarks that can never be countered for fear of dismissal. Finally there is Pushpa Rani, the young woman who has powered her way out of the slums and into a call-centre with the tenacity of a peepul-tree seedling growing out of a brick wall.

We are told at the outset that these three lives will be braided together and held in place by that monkey-shaped filament whose name adorns the cover of the book. And we look for the creature, as we enter the opening chapters, wondering from which corner of Ammanaguddi Street, dug up and traffic-clogged as it is, the shadowy being will spring. But the lives of the three characters soon dominate the stage and we are diverted by the unspooling of their histories until suddenly, with a twitch and a stifled scream, yes – there's the creature! Or … wait: what exactly are we looking for, again? Is this a novel about three fictional characters or a documentary about the changing soul of Bangalore? About a city or a country? About you or I? By the time we end the book, we know a little more about what we might have believed when we began it, but we also look reflexively over our own shoulders, wondering about the monkey-shaped spectres that haunt the hidden corridors of all our lives.

Usha K.R.'s gift as a writer is her ability to convince us that even the slighteset of stories is worth caring about. Her characters are so unremarkable that if not for the precision with which she describes them, we would not pay them a second's attention. Moorty, for instance: he has a slight paunch, his hair is thinning, he rides a scooter. Even the elements that make up his tiny inner spark, the love of western rock music, the fondness for good cinema and the Nehruvian socialism that still animates his deepest memories, are hardly very original. The songs and the bands are only too familiar, the socialism has grown so stale and the movies are all a bit passĂ© now. But it is this very ordinariness that makes the portrait so convincing. Like a frog that has been expertly dissected for us by our biology teacher, the fact that it is commonplace is precisely why we value it – because it reveals what is commonplace about all frogs.

Pushpa Rani by contrast, is a character whose real-life counterparts are so recently evolved from the primordial slime of India's social inequalities that her feet as still a little webbed, a little unknowable. None of us has enough data about what lies in the future of all the Pushpa Ranis rising up from the slums and shanty towns of Indian cities and in that sense a literary character created from her clay can be molded to fit almost any role. Neela is more familiar, the petty bureaucrat in the starched cotton sari, but she has some unexpected flourishes too. She is of mixed Hindu-Christian parentage and for that reason is neither wholly respectable nor wholly pariah. She is that stock figure-of-fun, a card-carrying member of the Spinster Party who will nevertheless permit one single pulse-beat of indiscretion to rattle around her veins for the rest of her natural life.

The secondary characters are as well-realized as the principals. They include Neela's underlings such as the brash, good-hearted peon Sukhiya Ram and her single overlord in the official pantheon, the lofty Dr Subramanyam; 'Bali Brums', short for Balaji Brahmendra, the "charismatic and hugely popular radio jockey of the city's brand new and only FM channel, Voices from Heaven"; and Moorty's fragile wife Lily, with her beauty and her childlessness, and Moorty's colleague at work Jairam, with his America-returned born-again capitalism. Pushpa Rani's co-workers and family have a faintly filmi quality to them, as if we have either seen them in BBC documentaries about Call Centres or in commercials about the near-magical properties of skin-fairness creams.

Holding all the characters together is the personality of the street along which so much of the action takes place. "The Ammanagudi Street of [Moorty's] boyhood was a nice mix of cows and men, and of course, the goddess after whom the street was named. Of the old shops, only two remained – a cycle-repair shop and a flour mill, going about their business for more than thirty years – before they were shown up by a fast food "palace" selling hot tomato soup at five rupees per cup and a cyber cafĂ© with twenty-four-hour Internet access … now that he had to go past the temple every day for the past two years, past the potholes filled with the over-runs from the manholes and the plastic bags that floated on the scum and got caught in the foot rests of his scooter every now and then, he had seen for himself how the Mother lived and even become familiar with Her routine. Every morning he did what every other passerby did – turn right to have a glimpse of her face – black stone, freshly annointed with oil, her nose, eyes and mouth outlined in silver, calmy accepting of all that her devotees did to her. A trishula was planted in front of her, lemons impaled fresh every morning on each of the three prongs – marking the bounds of direct access. No one could venture beyond except her priest – an unsmiling young man with a crew cut, the razor-trimmed arc of hair clean and precise against the skin of his neck. Late one morning Shrinivas Moorty had been witness to the priest lighting up a beedi and having a quiet smoke after closing the temple, and then making his way to the self-service joint up Ammanagudi street, presumbaly for an idli-vada … [The Mother] reminded him of his wife – the same mysterious rituals with the unguents and the stoic acceptance of worship. He remembered his mother and sister, who were easier than Lily and the Mother, and whose ablutions too were not as complicated, rubbing on their faces something called Afghan Snow, that came in an icy white glass jar and had a picture melting snow-covered peaks on the outside." (pgs 13 & 17)

Just as the street succumbs to the indignities of being dug up and built over, slowly strangulated with underground cables and wholly choked with a combination of garbage and over-sized cars, so too the human inhabitants succumb to the changes that have stampeded over them. In this twilight of the senses, where all that was once so familiar has been replaced by cement and plastic, the emergence of a "half-man half-beast" that briefly held several Indian cities in the grip of a fear psychosis is perhaps not surprising. As an interesting speculation about a phenomenon that was never properly explained the novel is refreshing and provocative. I look forward to whatever next Usha KR has in store for her readers.


Here's a link to a feature article that appeared in last week's issue of OUTLOOK (i.e., the Aug 15th issue for this year) about FOUR FAMILIES -- North, South, East, West -- each one having travelled a great distance from its origins. Inspirational.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Catching Up





The past few weeks have passed in a blur of activity. I'm not even going to try to present a clear record of all that happened. But these pictures may provide a few clues -- starting with the ENORMOUS Belgian waffle at the very top and ending with the wedding photograph of my niece Divya and nephew-in-law Deke at the event in Boston, 17th July.

The three days in Belgium were pure pleasure, spent in the company of Paul and Bea, exceptional hosts. The two pictures following the waffle are both from Belgium. One is of the shower-cum-sunken bath of the Ah-MAAAAZING hotel at which P&B accommodated me as their guest -- it was a small manor which had been renovated maintaining its authentic turn-of-the-century opulence, complete with constantly playing classical music in the foyer and courtesy wine in the little garden at the back. The second is of a beer-fuelled wagon -- the seated beer-drinkers cycle in unison, which is what powers the small wagon they're sitting in!

We did a lightning tour of Ghent and Bruges with a brief follow-through in Brussels including a visit to the newly opened RENE MAGRITTEmuseum, on the day before my departure, on Sunday 11th.

I arrived in NYC on the 12th, discovered to my great delight that there's a shuttle bus service direct from the airport to Port Authority Bus Station -- it's called NYAS, stands forNew York Airport Service and is REALLY convenient. At Port Authority I got onto the bus to Binghamton, arrived on schedule at 6 pm and there was my sister Su waiting to collect me and drive us both back to Sayre.

I was two nights in Sayre, then Su and I left for Boston, by car, on Wednesday. We checked into the Marriott in the evening, and on Thursday guests began to arrive for the wedding. Paul and Bea flew in from Belgium and I went to the airport to meet them, while Su and Divya came by in their car to collect all three of us and return us to the hotel. In between, I also had a most enjoyable lunch and business meeting with the publishers of the American edtion of I AM DIFFERENT, in Boston, that same afternoon.

Friday was spent with P&B, doing a "DUCK TOUR" of Boston and generally having a good time. The first formal wedding event took place at the hotel in the afternoon -- a mehendi ceremony plus cocktail and dinner -- it turned into an extremely lively affair as Deke's large family had begun to arrive and everyone was in Party Mode!

On Saturday, the wedding was scheduled at 4 pm, began on time and continued with dinner and dancing late into the night -- but not the wee hours. By the time we wrapped it, it was only 11.30 at night and we had cleared all our stuff out of the venue, which was Deke's Golf Club ball room. The next day, Sunday, was a general wrap up for all the guests at the hotel, since many of them left that day. Everyone was very relaxed, there was an enormous breakfast buffet, also attended by Deke and Divya. On Monday, Su and I drove back to Sayre.

I spent another three nights with her, then took the bus to New York on Friday. Spent a night with Visa & Chandru, then on Saturday left for Vermont, by train. It was a very pleasant ride -- I LOVE trains -- arriving exactly on time at 8.03 pm. Suzanna was there to collect me and in another hour we were in East Hardwick.

So THAT was great -- a huge change of pace -- there were three hives of bees, new goat babies (yes, I KNOW I can call them kids ...), turkey chicks in one enclosure, ordinary chicks in another enclosure, a steer whose head was soon to be on the chopping block, the haying was in full swing ... and much, much more. Including of course the mandatory fantastic meal at RAINBOW SWEETS of Marshfield, VT.

My final five days were especially hectic: by bus to White River Junction where I was met by Daisy, my friend in Lebanon (NH), and was whisked off to a lunch date with her new friend David, owner of the amazing MAIN STREET MUSEUM -- a museum of droll and unusual objects, chosen for "the stories" that are attached to them. The next day, Friday, I left for Newport via Boston's South Station, on the Dartmouth Coach.

I mention this because I managed to drop my little waist-pouch on the bus while getting off. Yes, OF COURSE my passport was in it! By the time I realized it was gone, so was the bus. But I was VERY lucky: the bus does an airport loop and returns to South Station. Meanwhile I had the help and reassurance of a very kind South Station control-booth officer called Keith, who called the driver of the Dartmouth Coach and confirmed that he had indeed discovered the pouch. An hour later, it was back in my hands, contents intact. PHEW. Only another Indian citizen will know what kind of nightmare it would be to lose travel documents just prior to an international flight.

ANYWAY. So I went on to Newport, spent two very happy nights with Steve, Marion and the girls, then returned to Lebanon for two very pleasant nights. On Tuesday morning at 6.15 a.m. Aaron, Daisy's husband, very kindly dropped me off at the bus terminal, where I boarded a nonstop coach all the way to New York. It stops very close to Grand Central Station, but I was able to catch the same convenient NYAS shuttle service back to JFK. My flight left on schedule at 6 pm. arrived an hour early in Brussels at 7 a.m., left again for Delhi and 10 a.m. and we landed once more at exactly 9.40 pm.

And that's my story for the past few weeks!