Shades Of Words


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Just around the Corner

I step out from under the dirty brown awning of my three story apartment building. The grey cracked concrete walkway to the street is littered with a soggy, muddy old copy of LA Times, pages falling out of the flimsy string holding it together. An empty Starbucks plastic cup (tall) rolls over brightly printed car wash coupons, charred cigarette butts sneak from under the sun baked yellow grass, dead bougainvillea flowers sit degenerating into pulp in the crevices on the sidewalk where the rain water has collected and a faint odor of dog poop hangs in the air. A steel sprinkler half-heartedly sprays intermittent jets of water over the small yet lush green garden next door. The low lying jasmine hedges that line the street are in full bloom creating an illusion of white and green lace. Yellow and purple wild flowers spring out of gaps in the tiled sidewalk.

I turn right on to Keystone Avenue and walk north.  A battered IKEA loveseat, once navy blue, but now an unknown color, lies abandoned on the pavement. A dark spot stains the seat covers, the arms are worn out to the frame and the foam filling has sprung out from the bottom is falling out to the pavement.

Up ahead, a young Asian couple walks out of the Keystone University Apartment building. The girl’s dark hair is streaked with neon blue, further accented by the matching pashmina scarf she has thrown around her neck. She wears no make-up and Aviator sun glasses hide her eyes.  Her mauve paisley print dress flutters in the slight breeze blowing through the street. The boy’s tumbled dry hair and unshaven beard hints that he may have just fallen out of bed. His blue and yellow UCLA t-shirt is paired with khaki shorts. His loafers are untied and the strap drags behind his heels as he walks down the street.

I pause to let two teenage boys on skateboards rush past me on the sidewalk.  Headphones in ears, caps pulled low over the ears – both are dressed alike with front open shirts and shorts sitting low on the waist. An old balding man hunched over the steering wheel, turns his shiny red and white Volkswagen Beetle into a covered driveway.

On the intersection of Keystone Ave and Venice Boulevard, small wooden cargo boxes are stacked up to four feet and placed on the payment. “On Sale” sign is stenciled on alternating sides in charcoal black paint.  On top of the stack is a white cardboard placard with a hand drawn arrow pointing to the auto repair shop at the corner of Keystone Avenue.

Outside the shop is a public payphone that hasn’t seen much use in a while. A tattered LA directory hangs from a metal chain scraping the ground. The phone is off the hook and the receiver dangles in mid-air. The booth itself is covered in fluorescent graffiti with no hint of the original paint. “You suck!”, “peace y’all” and other important messages are scratched on the metal frame.

I take a deep breath and smell the familiar salty tang of the evening sea breeze that has just begun to flow inwards from Venice beach, which is three miles down the road. The sky darkens and stretches of pink, violet and orange paint the horizon. It’s time for sunset and the crimson red sun, barely visible behind towering city buildings, disappears slowly from the view.


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Istanbul : Travelling in buses, getting lost and eating bakalavas

Getting around in Istanbul is seriously easy. One can take the train, the funicular, hop into the buses, the dolmus which are shared taxis, or the ferries. While knowing Turkish would help in navigating through the city, it’s not required. Just pointing and remembering the names of the destination works.

Istanbul 2012-432On our third day we had to get across town to the Chora Museum, one the last standing churches of the Byzantium Empire famous its largest collection of gold mosaic work. As we boarded a packed bus at Galata Bridge, I was a little nervous because crowds and new places do that to me.  A small LCD screen placed in the front spelled out upcoming stops and I sighed in relief – well we were not definitely getting lost with that. Yes, you can see I have quite the pioneer spirit  J !

A ride through the city was just what we needed to get away from the tourist district and into its heart.  It was nice to watch people drive to work, drink chai and eat donurs in small eateries on the roadside, or walk leisurely on the cobbled streets without the accompanying maniacally clicking of pictures. One place that made an impression was Fevzi Paşa Caddesi which apparently is in the bridal shopping district because we were soon passing by rows and rows of shops with extensive displays of bridal dresses. It was one of the most exquisite collections of lace, chiffon and satin I had ever seen.

Once we got off at our stop, a good ten minute walk through an ancient neighbourhood led us to the Chora Museum.  The air was filled with the smell of burning charcoal and barbecued meat. The cobbled streets that winded up and down the hill reminded of San Francisco.

Istanbul 2012-435The Chora Museum is at the edge of the hill and if you stand on tip-toes near the boundary walls you get a fantastic view of the city.  Unless one is an art student, it shouldn’t take more than an hour to walk through the place. Longer than that, your neck is mostly going to hurt by all the staring at the ceiling.  Most of the beauty lies in the interiors, where larger than life mosaics have been preserved on the walls and domes of the erstwhile monastery.  I am no artist myself but I found it easy to appreciate the beauty and complexity of design made from these fragments of painted stones and gold. The exteriors structure is similar to Aya Sofiya, only much smaller in scale. The gardens are over grown and unkempt and cats weave in and out of the grass.

Istanbul 2012-510

Back at Galata Bridge, the chaos of the Spice Bazaar beckoned us. As we walked towards the Spice Bazaar, a van careened right in front of us and dumped sacks of pistachios on to open cane baskets.   Before I knew what was happening, a dozen people materialized from nowhere and engaged in a haggling match with the vendor. Pushing our way through the crowd, we made it under the arched complex of the Bazaar. A heady mix of spices was in the air and my eyes took time to adjust to the colors on display. This is the place buy every day to exotic spices, un-imaginable variety of tea, Turkish delights and baklavas. It’s like a giant candy store.  Coming from India, I found the spice variety and prices to be just okay but I think loading up on dry fruits made a lot of sense. Figs, pistachios, almonds, raisins – just buy as much as you can.  The other thing that you must stock up on is Turkish Delights which is nothing like the packed stuff that you find in the US. The variety, the taste and the richness of flavor of each piece is heavenly. We ended up buying almost 5 pounds and I still think it was not enough.

Day 3

Green tea is also a steal, especially since you can get unusual varieties and mix and match your own combinations.  I bought myself a combination of green and tea and citrus with some lavender thrown in. It’s got the loveliest scent and tastes nice too. The only way to drink Turkish tea is of course in those adorable curvy Turkish tea cups. Available in literally every tourist shop, getting the perfect design and perfect price can be bit of a pain.

Istanbul 2012-530

From the Spice Bazaar, we climbed up hill to Sulemaniya Mosque. After having been to so many mosques in the last few days, I was a little underwhelmed by the grandeur of this one. The steep uphill walk did nothing to endear the experience and was a bad reminder to how unfit I was. The one thing that I did like was the view of the sea.

Our next stop was at Grand bazaar. I had a general idea of direction and a sketchy map. Obviously, we were soon lost in the winding streets of the bazaar which was fun for a while. It’s always nice to walk the markets where the locals come to shop. We passed streets that only sold scarves, another that just sold cotton bedsheets and bath towels. Then there were the street vendors selling dirt cheap clothes. Had I any space in my luggage, I would have definitely bought a dozen scarves, but alas it was just window shopping for me.

Soon our legs gave way and we managed to ask our way out of the maze. Grand Bazaar is much larger and you can spend several days here just browsing through the merchandise. To be honest, I found it too touristy and sometimes tacky. Considering the fact that ever since I landed in Istanbul, I had seen all women carrying Louis Vutton or Burberry purse, it should not have been a surprise to see knock-offs being sold off by dozens in Grand Bazaar. We bought ourselves at tea-set but realized that we had atleast overpaid by 30%. Bargaining is the norm and lowball as much as you can. These guys are experts and there is no way winning the deal.

Eating Baklava was high on my list of things to do, especially since I had been passing sweet stores with dazzling display. One store that really caught my attention was Hafiz Mustafa – not only it was always crowded, but it’s display window had the most interesting variety of Baklava as well as rows and rows of multi-colored rice puddings. They looked so pretty and yummy. We rounded her day off with a meal of perfect tasting Baklavas at Mustafa’s. For dessert we ate the prettiest looking Pistachio Rice pudding with most delicious pastel green color of pistachio.

I swear there are days when I still think of that pudding.


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Istanbul: Glimpses of royal life at Topkapi Palace

Istanbul 2012-178Hotel breakfasts in Istanbul are a fry cry from the dry toast, boiled egg and stale Danish pastries affairs that I have often had in the US. The morning buffet had bread, croissants, cookies, salads, marmalades of orange, lemons and cherries, fresh strawberries, cranberries, figs, olives, dates, prunes, sweetened yogurt with muesli, egg and sausage rolls, omelets, cold cuts, cheese, cakes and a glorious view of the Bosporus.  I had breakfast there for 5 days and not once was I short of something new to try. We were staying at Rast Hotel, a small not-too-fancy-boutique hotel, like hundreds of them in Sultanahmet. Seriously, if you were to stand in Sultanahmet and throw a stone in any direction, you will either hit a hotel or a tourist!

Our walk to Topkapi Palace was short and pleasant. Being a sunny day, the staff of the little cafes that lined the streets was busy putting the finishing touches to the outdoor arrangements. Tiny tables for two decorated with fresh flowers, covered with Anatolian tablecloths, silk cushions on the chairs, and odd man or two sipping Turkish Chai in those lovely curved glasses, completed the movie-like “oriental” image. And no matters how clichéd it looked, I could not wait to be a part of the picture!

The Topkapi Palace museum is a “must see” for very valid reason. One cannot imagine the wealth and power that the Ottoman’s commanded without a walk through their residence’s gilded chambers. As we entered the grounds, we noticed two fresh faced armed personnel totting machine guns manning the gates. A little worrying for a museum, don’t you think?

In the front courtyard, there appeared to be a miniature Aya Sofiya. Named after St. Irene, this church is apparently this was the only one in the whole of Istanbul that was allowed to remain a church and not converted into mosque.

The Harem quarters are considered to be the ‘highlight’ of the palace and I think it’s not only because of architectural reasons but also for the inevitable mystique around them. The first thing that strikes you as you enter the Antechamber of the Harem Palace is the tile work. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered in Iznik tiles, ceramic tiles with intricate hand painted work. Each segment of the wall has a different pattern. As we walked further into the palace complex, each room was grander and I could sense that we were moving towards the power center. The grand finale was of course the Sultan’s chambers that had the most expansive tile work, tinted windows, comfortable living arrangements, artistic décor and views of the sea.

Istanbul 2012-313 Istanbul 2012-255The Ottomans were very wealthy and its not just once that I found myself sighing at the opulence and wishing I owned something so lavish. Kapil was quick to point out that being female, I would have had access to this luxury only if I was in the running for the Sultan’s affections and the favour of Valide Sultan, competing with hundreds of women. Even if the Sultan noticed me, I would have to be really lucky to give birth to a crown prince to get myself an independent sea –view room. Clearly, ambition, luck and reward of a room-with-a-view have gone hand in hand for  a long time. The idea of being part of a harem is detestable to me but I wonder what young girls of those time felt. Separated from their families, lives dependent on the mood swings of royalty. Stories are rife of harem girls being drowned in the Bosporus on moonless nights.

The other place in the Topkapi Palace that left quite an impression on me was the view of the Bosporus and Asia from Seraglio Point near Konyali café. Always crowded with tourists trying to get a perfect shot, it’s also an ideal place to sit down and drink chai as you watch the ships go by. Lunch at the adjoining Konyali restaurant is highly recommended, though it can be quite heavy on your pocket.

Istanbul 2012-350While we had been oohing and aahing appropriately at the wonders of Topkapi, we were yet to be dazzled into speechlessness. That’s when we stumbled into the Treasury Room. Thrones made of solid gold, turbans lined with diamonds, water jugs embedded with rubies, gilded-covers for Koran and the famous emerald studded Topkapi dagger! I suddenly felt very, very poor and unsatisfied with my life. The grand display also explained the armed guards spotted across the museum property.

After the intricate and lavish work of TopKapi Palace, I must say we were a little disappointed with the Blue Mosque. While it is probably the most picturesque part of the Istanbul skyline, the interiors do not match the beauty of Aya Sofiya with which it was made to compete with. This Ottoman structure is lined with blue Iznik tiles, hence the name Blue Mosque. Impressive and beautiful, there is however a sense of antiquity which is missing from the design.

Istanbul 2012-396As we waited for the mosque to re-open after the afternoon prayers, we strolled around the Hippodrome where the Romans had held chariot race over a thousand years ago. Nothing except three pillars remain and it requires much more than an active imagination to visualize a medieval racecourse.

Next to the Hippodrome is the famous Basilica Cistern. This was one of the places that I was looking forward to most.  An underground watery chamber supported with hundreds of ancient pillars, mysterious Medusa heads – just like the Secret Chamber in Hogwarts! Obviously, I was excited. The chamber is exactly how it should be – grand, dark, pillars reaching into nothingness, damp and eerie…well almost. What takes away from the actual experience is the presence of a café, bright lights in places and really noisy tourists who are not entirely sure what they are doing in an underground water tank! Yes I know, I am a tourist too but large hordes of people can be annoying.

Istanbul 2012-362Downhill from the At Meydani is the slightly posh Arsata Bazaar. Lined with carpet sellers, tea cafes, restaurants and ceramic shops this market is great for browsing. It is supposed to be more expensive than Grand Bazaar but with such inflated prices across the city it’s hard to judge. I was tempted to enter some of the fancy carpet shops, but the hawkish gaze and the overtly friendly smiles of the storekeepers kept me away. With the evening came the extreme chill and Kapil and I found ourselves grabbing a delicious doner sandwich from a deli and heading to our cozy hotel room for an early night in.

Other hopefully helpful notes:

  • Aya Sofiya, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, At Meydani, Cistern are  all around plaza in Sultanahmet. On a short trip you can probably visit all of them in one day.
  • Tickets for Harem and the Topkapi palace are separate and so are the audio guides. A good thorough visit can take 4-5 hrs. If you have only a few hours, do not miss the Treasury Room and the Harem
  • Topkapi an interesting and comical jewel heist movie with the talented Greek actress Melina Mercouri – it’s a fun especially watch once you have been to the palace
  • Blue Mosque, is a functioning mosque, and visitors are allowed only at specific times

Istanbul 2012-405


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Walking Tour of South Mumbai: From Churchgate to Gateway of India

Once you get over the shock of crowds, the humidity and the tangy sea breeze mixed with the smell of dead fish and sewage that permeates this megapolis, it is easier to open your mind to what Mumbai offers. To make sense of this vast throbbing mass of life you have to get to know it from the ground up and like all great cities of the world, the best way to discover Mumbai’s neighborhoods is by foot.

South Mumbai or “downtown” has traditionally been the drinking hole of the rich, the famous and the artistic. The newer districts around Bandra raised the bar in the recent years, but this area retains its sense of old world charm with style. A great place to start your downtown exploration is at Churchgate station, the terminus for the city’s western line. Try not to be overwhelmed by the numbers of commuters as you observe the chaos around the station where vendors sell everything from sandwiches to flowers to discarded flight headphones.  If you can stomach it, I highly recommend having a cup of piping hot masala chai and dosa from a vendor.  For something more fashionable, step into Gaylord Bakery across the road. I have never had their coffee, but their breads and pastries are the best in town.

From Churchgate, the Veer Nariman Road will take you to the Marine Drive promenade. Meeting ground for joggers, college kids skipping classes, lovers and retired old men, this is the place for quiet contemplation as you gaze at the vast Arabian Sea and the curving skyline of Mumbai. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts here.

After some soul searching head back on Veer Nariman Road towards Flora Fountain. This detailed sculpted fountain was designed and built by the Britishers pre-independence and in recent decades been the heart of a sprawling secondhand books market that lines the nearby pavements. More recently, the municipal corporation, in it’s over enthusiastic bid to keep the city clean, has been waging a war against street hawkers. As a weak sign of protest, few vendors can be spotted selling college textbooks and pirated books. But gone are the days where crossing two blocks would take you as many hours because with every step your eyes would fall on a book that you must own.

At the Fountain, take Mahatma Gandhi Road towards Colaba, but first spare a few minutes to admire the gothic architecture of the Mumbai High Court buildings and Mumbai University. The university clock tower is Mumbai’s own Big Ben and is one its most photographed sites.

MG Road ends in the Kala Ghoda arts district. Lined with galleries, restaurants and theatre this is the venue for the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival where hundreds of thousands of people turn up to attend free movie screenings and open air concerts.  On other days, it’s pretty quiet and the only two people that I always see posted outside the historic Jehangir Art Gallery are a palm reader and a guy who will write your name on a rice grain (why would anyone want that?).

Next door is the Prince of Wales Museum, which is now known by its much longer Indian name. I know museums are not for everybody, but I have always enjoyed ogling at the exquisite ceramic and pottery collection on the third floor.  Sometimes I wish the glass casings would magically disappear and I could claim some oriental jade pieces.

The Shivaji road from the museum will take you straight to the most important landmark monuments of Mumbai – The Gateway of India and The Taj Mahal Hotel. Both sites have seen devastating terror attacks in the past decade and while there are no apparent scars, it’s impossible to stand here and not think of those tragedies. I see hundreds of people milling about as if nothing has ever happened and I wonder if this is resilience or apathy.

At the docks, you are bound to be accosted for ferry rides. My advice, don’t take them. They are only fun if it’s a party on the boat and you are getting drunk.

By now you are probably tired of the heat and have just had enough of Victorian architecture. Gulp down a few cold beers at Café Mondegar, kickback, relax and watch a game of cricket.


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Goodbye St. Louis

Note: Kapil and I moved out of STL after having lived there for almost 3 years. Since I had been clamoring for the big city life for so long I had not anticipated the wave of loss to hit me as I got ready to “leave on a jet plane”. Putting my thoughts to paper, I had planned to publish this post sometime ago, but the craziness of the shifting, packing and unpacking got in the way.  Now I am glad for the delay because living in different place has given me more perspective and makes my goodbye even more meaningful

As I turned my car into the parking spot in front of my house one last time, I could not help getting a little misty eyed. Today is my last day in St. Louis before we shift to Los Angeles, and it seemed not so long ago that I moved here from India and made this city my home. Even though I had traveled to the US before, St. Louis will always remain my first American experience. And out in here in the Midwest, it’s as authentic as it can get.

Sitting in the parking lot, staring at my cozy suburban apartment, my mind wandered to the things that I will remember the most.

I know that when I will face the infamous LA traffic, I will dearly miss the five-minute drive to work at the lovely campus of Maritz, from where hubby and I would often take a detour to the Krispy Kreme nearby and indulge in “Hot Now” donuts. And I will miss heading out to the smaller parks that surrounded our neighbourhood in Ballwin for long walks or bird-watching. My particular favourite is Queenie Park which has nice trails into the wilderness where the sounds of the traffic are all but muffled and it is easy to spot owls, robins, yellow finches, mountain jays and blue birds. Sometimes the longer drive to Lake Creve Couer were rewarding simply for the shimmering view of the lake in the sunset.

I will miss waiting for the weekly Riverfront Times edition that kept me updated about the small but active theatre scene in St. Louis. I remember catching some excellent performances in UMSL. I will miss watching really good productions of Shakespeare in the Park. There is something very gratifying to watch these dramas the way they were meant to be performed, in the open for the general population. Sitting in the green grass of Forest Park, sipping wine in the twilight, as fireflies circled above you – these memories already seem like a different time.

I will also miss the cute little town of Kirkwood and the many, many weekends that we spent there. I know that the Loop is the more popular hangout area in St. Louis but I personally prefer Kirkwood – it’s just so quaint and pretty. During the daytime there is the little farmer’s market to browse through and in the evenings you can just walk around, or walk into the dozens of restaurant that line its streets. I have eaten some great food here, including Mediterranean at Ranoush, gourmet pizza at Dewey’s and fancy Italian at Amicis. A great place to drink down a few beers is Bar Louie. If you ever drop in at Bar Louie’s you must sample their loaded fries. Speaking of fries, I am going to miss dirt cheap booze and spicy fries at our neighbourhood bar, Fandango’s, where we went when we had nothing else to do and getting drunk was fun enough. Aah those aimless summer evenings!

I will miss lusting after the European styled lavish houses in Kirkwood and Clayton. I love the apartment life, but it’s hard to resist the beauty of a French Villa.

I will also miss the change of seasons. I may not miss the freak thunderstorms, tornadoes and six-inch snowfall, but I will miss the glorious colors of autumn and the new born beauty of spring which is made more meaningful after months of grey.

So dear St. Louis, I might have sulked and complained about your small town life, about never having anything to do, but for what it’s worth, I am never going to forget the time I spent there and I am going to miss you.

Goodbye.


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Cirque du Soleil : Zarkana

It’s nice to know that the circus is not dead. “Circus of the Sun” retains the traditional aspects of the ageless crowd puller with a juggler, acrobat, dancer, trapeze artists and tight rope walkers. It does however take it up a notch with fabulous choreography, music and art direction. The use of projectors and laser lighting brings a mystic and ethereal quality to the performance.

It’s pure entertainment for 90 minutes where you can shut off your mind and open your eyes. There are enough jaw dropping acts to keep you “wowed” for the duration and at times there appears to be too much going on at the same time. The clowns are adorable and get the most laughs out of the audience. I am not sure I would say it’s a must watch but I can guarantee that if you watch it you will not regret it


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India May 2012 – General Observations

Things have changed over the last decade or so in India. There has been development, albeit a little skewed. The situation for people like me has gotten better. Unfortunately, people like me make a very small part of this very large country.

Anyway, I saw better roads, better airports and better malls. I don’t know how important it is to have better malls for the general well-being of the population, but there seems to be a lot of them. They do prove to be a popular tourist destination in most cases. I would like to say that they contribute to the economy but they more likely seem to contribute to traffic congestion in cities. Arguments could be made that they create jobs for people who work in them, but job creation is such a slippery statistic. What about the jobs that could have been created if the money had gone in development of let’s public transport or city parks? What about the jobs taken from people whose land was taken away to create the mall?  Anyway, that’s a different discussion altogether. Malls currently have become the “hang-out” spots for school kids and the unemployed.  As the divide between the haves and have-nots increases in India, I see these as major contentment disrupters.

The countrywide GMR revamping of the airports has been quite impressive. When we landed in Delhi’s T3 at IG International Airport we were quite impressed with the general look and feel. The immigration process was smooth and we were out of the airport fairly quickly.  I really feel that tourism in India can be an inclusive growth industry that boosts the economy at the grass-roots level and making India accessible to the world abroad is a step in that direction.

The roads are better. Travelling in North India, I spent quite some time on NH1 and I was happy to see our driver average at 100 KM/H for most of the way. Also known as the Grand Trunk Road, NH1 is going through major renovation, so we did unfortunately spent some time on the side of the road rather on it, but even then we made good time. To avoid the traffic and the dust on NH1, our driver, opted us to take us through the state highways.  State highways in India typically don’t have road dividers so overtaking is quite life threatening as one always has the chance of being hit by an oncoming truck. Of course, millions of people drive and survive every day so it’s a question of practice.  Even then, when our driver took the detour, I sent up a little prayer. I was again impressed by the condition of the inner roads and the average 80-90KM/H that  our car maintained on the  roads.

Getting “Sarkari” work done is still a pain in India. Ever since I was a kid, I have had this urge to take a mop and broom and sweep the government offices clean. Allegorically and literally. I don’t know why they are so dirty.  It does not matter if it’s a post office, or a registrar’s office or the RTO, the office space is covered in dust, grime, brown files and filled with cheap but durable steel furniture that has been greased and re-greased over the years.  Kapil and I had to register our Hindu wedding and even though we are way over 18 years old (the legal age for getting married in India), the law requires that our parents be present for the registration! Seriously! The entire registration took 2 to 3 hrs in which we filled multiple forms and it got over “so soon” because we knew someone.  The whole attitude of the officers in the Government of India is as if they are doing us a favor and not their jobs. Why is it that way? Why does such little power go to their heads so soon? Don’t they want to get rid of the clutter on their desk and move work efficiently and smoothly?  Why would you want to do a job badly on purpose? Why would you want to be incompetent?  For years, people have argued that these jobs are not well paid and the motivation to do well is not inbred. I say bullshit. These jobs are more secure and better paid then some. There is no excuse for the inefficient.  I am sure if the government employees were to get double the paychecks the attitude towards work would not change. I do hate making these generalist statements but you step into a govt. office and the sense of lethargy hits you and even if there is one hard-working guy he is not going to get noticed in all the rot.

So some things change, and some remain the same. I was afraid that India was going to disappoint me. That I was going to all go “NRI” on it and hop around drinking mineral water and act shocked on how horrible everything is – as if I am seeing it for the first time. I am glad to discover that I had not forgotten anything. I was neither more or less forgiving of the situation in India. It is what it is.

I can either live with it or run from it or change it.