Shades Of Words


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On the road again…

Being from a tropical country, it takes a little time to getting used to 6 month winters. In India, weather was rarely a determinant on when I wanted to take a trip, but, here in the US its totally different. You need to know how cold or warm or rainy its going to be. Well, it was almost March and I had had it with sitting at home and staring at the cold,forlon streets. I really needed to get out. As the weather turned to be slightly warmer last weekend, K. & I decided, very suddenly to take a road trip.Just the thought of hitting the road again, had my pulse racing a little higher !

Since we only had the weekend and we wanted to drive and go south, we did not have that many options – a little research on Google Maps and Bing travel and we decided that a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas with a stop in at Memphis should be comfortable.

The best way to get to Arkansas from St. Louis is to take the I-55 which takes you till Memphis from where you get on to the I-40 to Little Rock. The drive was pleasant and uneventful most of the way – the trees still bare from the winter. Everytime we go on a road trip I am constantly amazed by the vastness of the American continent – very often on the road you are going to be the only car with just huge expanses of land on both sides of the road. Where are all the people, you wonder often. Coming from a country of over 1 billion people , this emptiness can be a little unnerving ! What is even more intriguing is along the road you will see old abandoned grain mills, farms, shop – your mind wondering what happened to the people who worked here and lived here?

On Friday evening we drove straight to Arkansas. The captial of the state of Arkansas, Little Rock is a mid-sized town. One of the more important southern cities it has seen some pretty significant moments of American history. The city is built on the banks of River Arkansas, and you are generally never far from the river.

As we drove through the town, I was quite impressed by the sub-urban tranquility of the city. The landscape is moderately hilly and people’s houses are quite scenicly perched on the hills. The trees though mostly bare still had a leftover fiery tinge from fhe fall. I can imagine how beautiful LR must look in the fall season.

There really is not much to do in Little Rock, which is why its an ideal weekend getaway – just drive and walk and eat. Our first stop was at the Big Dam Bridge – a pedastrian/joggers bridge build over the Arkansas river connecting the towns of Little Rock and well, North Little Rock. As we walked on to the bridge with our camera, we felt distinctly out of place amongst all the people jogging and excercising ! At the center of the bridge you get a bird’s eye view of the Arkansas river and a quite scary top view of the whirling river water near the dam. Kapil commented – “This must be popular for suicides” . Morbid.

From the bridge we drove to LR downtown which was just a few miles away. The LR State Convention house had a “Flower and Garden Show” going on which made the area quite crowded. Like all downtown areas, free parking is not easy to find but there are lot of paid parking spaces. LR also appeared to have regular bus services, tourist bus services and the tram – so if you can figure out their schedules you may not need to drive around that much. The tram is an electric trolley and more of a tourist attraction in itself !

We visited the Old State Capitol House – which is now a museum ( what else!). The museum showcases the history of the building – which , it appears to be one of the most flawed state buildings of all times. It has been renovated several times ever since its original construction.

We decided to drive by the new state Capitol so that I could take a few photos – but as we approached it we realized that there was a small political meeting going on outside. So we just literally passed it by. Lunc was at this absolutely unassuming Indian Restaurant,Amruth, which had the most delicious food buffet ever.

Our next stop was the Little Rock Central High School – yes, that is correct a public high school. If you are not an American you probably won’t know the significance of this place. A national historic site, this school was the stage for one of the key turning points in the American Civil Rights Movement. Fresh from the victory of Workd War II, US was dealing with its own system of prejudice. Even though the Constitution granted equal rights to each citizen , people of color still had to deal with discrimination at work, in public places and in education. Although blacks were entitled to have schools that were of the same quality as the white, more often than not, those schools and other educational institutions were of worse quality. Several districts only had one public school, which meant that the colored kids could not go to school at all. Frustrated at being treated as second class citizen, the African-American community was beginning to stand up for its rights and a series of incidents across the nations, helped reach this movement’s tipping point. In 1954, the US Court, in the case of Brown V. Board of Education laid out that placing black children in separate public schools from their white counterparts was unconstitutional and promoted the idea that the Negro race was inferior. The court mandated segregated to be phased out over time. Southern states protested strongly saying that the centre had no right to intervene with education which is state responsibility. They believed that by implementing this ruling they will lose the white votes and would face violent public opposition.

In 1957, Arkansas, considered to be one of the more progressive southern state, was chosen to be the first to “integrate” Little Rock High. 9 students, who later came to be referred to as the Little Rock Nine (LRN) were chosen to attend the white only public school. As the day of the integration came closer, dissent among the “socially forward whites” in Arkansas became clearer. Rumours of mob and public disruption became common. In a bid to please his people and to highlight the folly of this move by President Dwight Eisenhower, Governer Faubus of Arkansas, went on national television to state that he has called the National Guard to protect the school as he anticipates mob violence and requests the LRN to stay at home till the situation resolved. The 9 went to school anyway. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Visitor Center at Central High, has videos, interview and photos of that historic day and the month that followed. The image of Elizabeth Eckford walking upright with her books with a mob crowd behind her jeering and shouting is imprinted in the psyche of the American history.

As I read about the events that led to Little Rock and what transpired in this high school I was fascinated, disgusted and moved all at the same time. What seems so obvious now was so hard for people to comprehened back then – I mean, why would anyone think that another human being doesnt deserve the same respect as yourself? I literally watched wide eyed ( and not in a good way) when I saw mobs of people – woman, children, men – everyone protesting against these kids entering a school. Change is hard , yes, but this was ridiculous. I mean, in a state of democracy, it took the power of the 1100 men of the US 101st Airborne Division, to come and stand guard outside a high school, so that these kids could get their constitiutional rights. Seriously. I mean what values were being taught at school and at people’s homes when teenagers could walk out of their classrooms when a black student walked in? Were they all the victim of the times?

I am from India, making me a person of color ( which I think is weird – what does being of color mean – arent we all people of color?) and I know that history of our country is very similar – we too had to fight very hard to gain our freedom and rights back. We of this generation are very lucky to have the freedom that we do – but there are still people out there who dont. Do check out the CNN Freedom Project – http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/

Anyway back to the road…on to Memphis – the city of blues. I still have very vivid memories of our visit to Graceland last year around the same time. I was excited to go back and see some more of Memphis. On my list of top things to do was to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe at Beale street.

Oh what a place! If you are ever in Memphis, you must visit Beale Street. Ablaze with neon signs, this cobbled 2 mile lane is one of the most vibrant streets that I have ever seen in the US. Music is blaring from every restaurant, people are jiving on the streets, artists selling their art and general merriment. Almost all the restaurants in Beale street feature live performances over the weekend and you may want to check who is playing where. We also saw bands performing on the on the sidewalk, and there music was just wonderful. That had quite a bit of a crowd which was dancing and sort of singing along with them.

We ate our dinenr at Hard Rock Cafe – which for some reason was hosting a childrens party – so the only show that we saw were kids jumping up and down with guitars on the stage and pretending to be rockstars! Sigh ! After dinner we just strolled through Beale street, enjoying the sights. By the way, if you want to feel like Cinderalla under the starry sky, there are horse carriages lighted up like pumpkins for you to ride around in town.

Next day was pretty cloudy and a tornado storm was expected at late evening. We were planning to leave by late afternoon next day but as there was tornado warning, we left around lunch. The only thing that we did in the morning was visit the Gibson Guitar Factory in Beale Street ( which was still buzzing with activity). The tour though informative was not quite impressive. That could also be due to the fact that I know nothing about guitars and dont care. Kapil was swayed to buy one for quite some time till he decided not to !

The weather was just getting chillier as we headed back to St. Louis. Now American highways are pretty standardized – you have your standard motels and places to heat – McDs, Subs, Dennys and so on. But we always like to look out for something interesting or unique on the way! Lambert’s Cafe has heavily advertisied there “Throwed Rolls” on the billboards on the highway – how can you not be curious abt this?
We decided to lunch at Lambert’s Cafe – the concept is really simple. Its traditional American Food ( huge quantities) along with which you are served hot buns fresh from the oven. And the fun part – these hot buns are thrown by servers to the patrons. Every 15 minutes hot trays of fresh buns will come out and the server will start throwing it at the customers who have to literally catch it. The buns are so hot and soft and yummy. Along with the food, and the buns you also get “pass-arounds” – hot snacks that are served continuously through the meal. We had the choice of fried okra, fried potatoes, mac and chees and beans. Food was yum..but there was a lot of it. I would recommend this for the experience of it.


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The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher


Call me stupid but I had no clue that this was non-fiction. I had sort of browsed through its review on Danielle’s blog and it seemed intriguing enough. It was only when I was some 20 odd pages into the books I realized that it was based on true events. Written by Kate Summerscale of the Daily Telegraph, this is the second book to chronicle, analyze and report the events that led to and followed the gruesome murder of Saville Kent, a four year old at Road Hill House in England. Written in a way that is comparable to murder mysteries, this book presents the evidence and sequence of events as they took place so that you are pushed to wear a detective’s hat and figure out for yourself what really happened.
Really the ingredients are all there – an old victorian house, pointless and motiveless murder of an innocent boy on the premises, appearances of an inside job, conflicting witness accounts, incompetent local police and the detective from Scotland Yard. Almost sounds like a British mystery novel, right? That brings me to the second key aspect of the book – the growth of detective literature and the influences of the Road Hill Murder on it. Who would have thought that a chronicle of an English murder would also be about literature ? I should have gotten the hint when the opening page states a quotation from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Summerscale, very knowledgably, ties the themes of the murder to what made the first of mystery/murder novels in England. Dickens, Collins, Braddon – the pioneers of the first detective novels were very active commentators in the Kent case and their stories and characters were heavily inspired from this one incident.
Summerscale often talks about how this murder forces one to look at the dark undercurrents of a “gentlemen’s” home. Victorian households by demands of society and etiquette could be repressive where gender inequality existed, social circle was strictly restricted to maintain class distinction and servants played an important part in the dynamics of the household. Take the scenario of the Kent house, Samuel Kent, re-married his governmess, soon after the death of his first wife, who was deemed mentally ill. Samuel and the new Mrs. Kent then proceeded to have children of their own to which they showed increasing partiality. All the four children of the first marriage felt the discrimination – but was it enough to incite them to murder their step-brother?
Now to Mr. Whicher – who is he?  He was one of the first and finest detective of Scotland Yard. He was called to solve the murder at Road Hill. Summerscale points out that a “detective” was a new concept then and people did not appreciate anyone invading the privacey of an Englishman’s home to ask vulgar questions. By the role of their job, they were disliked. Though Whicher was no doubt a brilliant man, and proceeded in a systematic way, his solution to the case did not hold its weight in court. Whicher was disreputed and did not take up another case for quite some time till he was proven right.
As Summerscale chronicles the murder, she also talks about how “detecting” came into being, and its effect on popular culture. Whicher was apparently used as an inspiration for many a fictional detective.
As I read this book, at times reminded of Arther and George by Julian Barnes – there is no particular reason for it except that both these books are about true, apparently unsolvable cases and dealt with crimes of insanity. I was mostly impressed with Summerscale’s research and her ability to tie in the themes of those times. However, there was something about the writing or maybe the editing that wasn’t quite right. The flow of the chapters and even the flow of the paras on a page was not smooth – Summerscale jumped time, characters and locations and sometimes it would just break your train of thought as you read along.

I have intentionally avoided all details to the  mystery with suspects and theories because I dont want to take the intrigue of the book if you chose to read. Which I would recommened highly.