Shades Of Words


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Good Evening, Mrs. Craven

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I often find that great stories are not just about the writing, the plot or the characters, but what they tell us of the human condition.  That is what really pulls me into the pages and makes me think about what I have read long after I finished the book.  Stories about ordinary women in extraordinary situations are my personal favorite, which is why I am in love with Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

The author, Mollie Panter-Downes was a columnist for The New Yorker during the Second World War. Over the years she contributed war reports in the form of Letters from London and several short stories. Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is the compilation of these stories. The focus on these stories is not on the battlefields, the soldiers or the war machine itself, but the effect of war on the home front in England.  These are the stories of women who may not be sitting in trenches in the line of fire, but are still acutely aware of the danger the war brings – both emotional and physical.

The collection is a mix of the comical and the tragic, of the optimistic and the hopeless. These short, sharp stories give us a window into what would have been the condition of hundreds of civilians as the years of the war swept by. The stories are arranged in a chronological order, with each story being darker than the ones before.  And all the stories are very, very English. There is not a touch of histrionic to be found anywhere; an entire nation is facing Armageddon but the stiff upper lip only just quivers.

With the declaration of war so many people in small villages across England found themselves playing hosts to families, friends and strangers escaping the air-raids of London. Outwardly a sense of righteousness prevails with the noble act of providing help to those who need. In the hearts there is the natural apprehension of strangers as portrayed in In Clover where a lower class poor mother and her children find refuge at the fancy Manor House in the village. All attempts at gentrification fail and the gentle folk are confused when the ‘lucky’ family gives up on the better life and decides to go back. All the good intentions cannot make up for the loss of privacy and the annoyance of guests as in Mrs. Ramsay’s War who finds her cottage and life taken over by kin of her friends. Mrs. Dudley, In Danger cannot believe her state of happiness when her evacuees leave.

‘But happiness was beginning to steal over her. She gave up trying to do anything, and went out into the hall and started drifting aimlessly from room to room, luxuriously listening to their emptiness. She couldn’t remember when she had last felt so happy”

For some the war is a much needed respite from the dullness of their existence. The war has opened up opportunity to be useful, to be wanted. Meeting at the Pringles focuses on the petty politics of the village committees set up to help with war efforts. Issues of leadership and organization are discussed with firm politeness and only the English genteelness kept the rivalries and jealousies at bay.

Even as other’s find purpose, there is still a lot of loneliness to go around.  The Waste of it All finds Frances desperately holding on to the memories of her husband before the war – a man she was briefly married to and now only knows through long letters. She has learned to live her life without him and replaces with a borrowed family. Only when the illusion breaks, does the revelation of wasted years bite her. My personal favorite is Goodbye, My love in which Ruth prepares for her husband’s imminent departure for military service.  Nothing and no one can comfort her or prepare for the moment of farewell. It takes all of her strength to put on a brave face.

Not all stories are about women. For men war is time for serving the country, fighting for freedom, for glory and even getting shot is better than being left behind. In It’s a real thing this time a retired Major Marriot keeps hoping for being called in for duty. He keeps hoping that the war gets worse and it gets ‘real’ and his country needs him. In the last pages of the story, his neighbor finds him keeping vigil at the night sky waiting for enemy paratroopers.

‘He shifted the gun from one arm to the other and looked  up again at the sky. Mrs. Trent could see in the half-light that he was smiling sweetly ….The Major looked up for the falling body of a German soldier like a lover watching for a sign from a stubbornly closed window”.

In Year of Decision, Mark Goring who has spent most of the war at a desk job,  can’t help feeling happy at the chance of going to an overseas appointment  and seeing some action.

The beauty of the stories is in the subtlety, in the thoughts between the lines and the haunting presence of war. The only way to understand is to read them.


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Midnight Riot: London’s Wizarding Cops

10327417Ben Aaronovitch’s Midnight Riot ( Rivers of London UK Edition) suffers a bit from an identity crisis. It tries to be a fantasy-fiction story, a police procedural, a London guide, a commentary on race and a murder novel all wrapped in one and it fails. There is so much going on in every single page, that I would often not remember how I arrived a particular point in the story and whether it was significant.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Peter Grant, our hero, the wizard in making (don’t get your hopes high people, this is NOT anything like Harry Potter) is a newly graduated Police Constable in the Met (the police force, not the NY museum). His main function includes standing in the cold London air guarding scenes of crime. The story starts at the death of a William Skirmish who is bludgeoned to death by a wealthy British producer for no apparent reason. On the scene of crime, Peter Grant is accosted by a ghost (yup, you read that right) who gives him a tip on the crime. This tip brings Grant firmly into the center of the magical world of London, with Chief Inspector Nightingale (The Wizard) as his guide. This murder embroils them in similar crimes and a hunt begins for the entity causing them all.
While trying to stay on top of the case, our wizarding coppers are also dragged in a property dispute between Mother and Father Thames.The Gods of the rivers of London are mythical creatures personified in people who drowned in them. Magic exists but is a more ambiguous concept and it’s hard to know how much power anyone really possesses. A lot of time is spent referencing the history of London rivers, old magic articles and theories, but instead of being entertaining, these snippets of information appear like wiki entries. I learned more about the underground rivers of London than I  would ever want to know.
The plot is generally all over the place. Nightingale and Grant are called on to investigate several other crimes and these diversions take away from the central storyline. All characters are very two-dimensional and because there is so much happening on the page that it’s hard to spend time with anyone character long enough.
Lot of emphasis is laid on explaining magic through science – you see the fallacy, right? If magic could be explained through science, it wouldn’t be magic anymore – it would just be ‘how things work’. The intention is great and they do ride the ‘energy in the universe is constant’ wave for some time before hitting a roadblock and hitting unexplainable phenomena. Why do rivers have spirits? Why some people can feel vestigia and others can’t? When Peter asks those questions, Nightingale (his mentor and teacher) basically shrugs his shoulders and says “dunno”. As a reader, that is extremely disappointing.
Also, there is much ado about everything – Nightingales’ age , impact of magic on technology, the magical effect of vampires – there is a lot of build up to all these questions but the reveal is extremely underwhelming.
There is only one thing going for this book – humour. The dialogs are sharp, the wit dry – very similar to watching a sitcom. The humour is literally what endured me through the 250 odd pages. But I doubt I will pick the second book in the series.


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Pride & Prejudice

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The 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice surprised me greatly. Having been an ardent fan of the faithful BBC adaptation starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, I strongly believed that no other interpretations were required. I avoided watching Keria Knightley’s Miss Bennet for years until the movie showed up on my Netflix recommendation. I am so glad I gave in.
As an adaptation Debora Moggach’s screenplay remains true to the novel. Key turning points and interactions are verbatim from the book. In other places, extensions and improvisation on text adds immense value to the original plot. For instance, Lizzy’s reaction to Charlotte’s engagement is more frank rather than the contained polite one in the book. The first exhchange of dialogs between Lizzy and Mr. Darcy more pointed and sharp – as Austen had intended if not so much written in words.
More than the screenplay, I believe Joe wright brings out the darkness that lies repressed in the pages of the novel. The desperation of the Bennet’s middle class is apparent in the sweaty flutterings of the mother running around an unkempt middle class establishment. The girls are all pretty but they are definitely lacking in urban sophistication – the gap between them and the Bingleys/Darcys painfully apparent. And has Mr. Bingley not always appeared a little dimwitted – so easily persuaded by his friend and sister to abandon his love. In the movie there is no pretentsion – he is decidedly a simple, bumbling good looking idiot. There is some caricturization of all main characters – as if the layer of Victorian proprietary protecting them has been stripped away. The country dance halls are loud and noisy, the village streets muddy and the dresses of the Bennet not always starched clean.
The English countryside is used to its complete picturesque advantages with the camera often sweeping across meadows and hills. The weather is used to accentuate the mood of the storyline.I love the fact that Darcy’s first proposal is in the rain instead inside the Collins’s cottage. The cloudy foggy day adds to the tormented exchange which again does the job of bringing out the undercurrents of passion only implicit in the novels. Lady Catherine De Bourg’s interview with Elizabeth in the middle of the night is truly outrageous and slightly improbable but it adds beautifully to the urgency leading to the ending.
As in the book and in the 1995 adaptation, Elizabeth of this version also goes through a change of heart when her eyes first fall on the grand facade of the Pemberly estate. Future financial security weighs big on the Bennet girls.  It’s also interesting to note that a similar observation is made when Jane confesses her feelings for Mr. Bingley. “Handsome and conveniently rich”, Elizabeth quips to her sister.
In matter of perfmonaces Keira Knightley shines. It is truly her movie – there isn’t much for anyone else to do. Macfayden’s Darcy is more wooden than repressed. I really did not see him as a ‘hero’. All the other big names of British cinema do well to bring the story together.
I highly recommend watching this version. The tone of the movie might bother you a bit but this is a beautiful retelling of a classic with all the focus on the subtext.


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2012 – Moving on

As long as I can remember I have been restless. I have had this urge to move on, to discover and to explore relentlessly. When I was a child my father’s job kept us on the go. Every three years a different city, a new home, new neighborhood, new school and new friends. Just as I was putting out roots, it was time to move again.

The physical process of moving is exhausting and to do it every three years requires determination and stamina. As a child, I was sheltered from the actual hassle of it all. For me, it was an adventure ride – not knowing what was around the corner. Setting up a new house with mom meant unpacking dozens of crates and boxes.  It was like a month of Christmas for my sister and me. I don’t remember the pain of losing friends, for were there not letters and phone calls to help keep the oaths of eternal friendship?  Also, I had learnt very early in life, that both friends and reasons for friendships are transient. New relationships always question the relevance of old ones and very few survive.

Over the years, my mother grew weary of the constant movement, of turning every company allocated flat into a home. She always made plans of how things will be like in “my home” – an elusive dream place where she could invest time and effort to make it comfortable and not abandon it to strangers just when she was getting settled. As I grew older and went way to college, I inherited this longing for stability; I started talking about “my place”.  One of the first things on my agenda after being independent was to buy my own place, which I did, but which I never lived in.

It’s been exactly 10 years since I graduated from college, and I have learned that those were just notions in my head, that old habits are hard to break and in my heart I will always be itching for change.

In 2012, I had a choice for the first time in my life to create that stability. Kapil and I had been in St. Louis for almost 3 years, and we could have lived there for another 30. It is a perfect little town to raise a family, to spend quite weekends in the backyard, to chat with your friends under the star and live for the rest of your life. I could not wait to get away from it all.

So I orchestrated a change. At work I told everyone “anywhere but here”. Several months later, Kapil and I find ourselves in the City of Angels living a hectic, expensive and far from the peaceful life that we were used to.  We truly did shake the hornet’s nest on this one.

Am I happy? Sure, happier than before.  Is this where I want to make a life? I am not entirely sure. I don’t know if such a place exists for me.

Once I changed where I lived, I focused on what I did and that it was time to let go. So I resigned from my job and was unemployed for the first time in 7 years.

Kapil often asks me “What are you looking for?”. I don’t  have an answer but I am working very hard to find out.

Let’s see where 2013 takes us.


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Eating Pizza in St. Louis

This post does not intend to be an all exhaustive guide to the best pizza’s found in St. Louis. I don’t even know enough about pizzas to write knowledgeably, but I sure do love them.  As pizza chains had not made in roads to India till the late 90s, my first slice of pizza was as very late in life, as a 9 year old in a Pizza Hut, in Bahrain. This outing was a very special treat promised to my sister and me. I still remember the flavor of the cheese, the crust and the toppings and it was as if a whole new world of possibilities had opened before me. I have never found that flavor again though I have eaten in Pizza Huts across the world by now.

Coming back to St.Louis, Pizza Hut still remains my favorite go to fast food pizza place. I know IMO’s is pretty popular locally, I personally find it very dry. For a more authentic experience two places that I have tried and I highly recommend are Pi Pizzeria and Dewey’s Pizza.

Pi Pizzeria is a slightly high end, sophisticated restaurant. Their starters as well as their pizzas are really good. I was very impressed by the freshness of the ingredients of their pizza toppings. The ambiance is very quiet and on weekends there is an average 15-20 minutes waiting. Their Manchester Road branch is more upmarket then the one on the Loop.

Deweys Pizza  – Large glass windows let you see how the pizzas are being prepared in this insanely popular eatery. Dewey’s is often considered the “best pizza” in town, however, the opinion is fairly divided between Pi and Dewey’s and one should really try both. I personally though the bases and the sauces were much better here as compared to Pi but the toppings left me underwhelmed. Dewey’s has also more kid friendly and easy-going attitude which can the make the place a little noisy and crowded. Dewey’s is located in Kirkwood which is a great place to hangout at any given day!


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On the top of my mind

There is no absolutely no doubt in my mind to where my active genes come from – my mother’s side. I have inherited her taste for good food, clothes, travelling and photography. Though I don’t do any of these as well as she does, I am always trying. For a change, she is dabbling in something that I do – blogging. My mom has finally gotten over her fear of technology and opened her blog – do check it out – http://onthetopofmymind.blogspot.com/