Friday, December 30, 2011

Sunshine Nonsense

Preserve us from Thy Wrath, O Ye Mighty, we prayed to the Celtic Gods of Thunder and Rain, as we booked our train tickets for Edinburgh. ’Tis fated that in December the Northerly and Tempestuous Land of Alba shalt be Cold and Blustery, but spare us from the Rain, for verily doth it Interfere with Sightseeing.

And the rain gods must have heard us, for indeed we had very little rain in our three days in Edinburgh.

But our quota of fair weather ran out on the bus trip to Loch Ness. Scarcely had we crossed Dunblane, when the clouds blotted out the sun and the rain came down in sheets. “Aye, that’s more like proper Scottish weather, that is,” cried our bus driver. “None o’yer silly sunshine nonsense.” And he pressed down on the accelerator and swerved to avoid a minivan.

Initially the rain seemed like a bit of a dampener. But I came round to the view that the Highlands are at their most awe-inspiring

under brooding skies

in falling rain

when the trees are bare

and the waters of the loch are storm-tossed and steely black.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Brush with Vaishnavism

A Hare Krishna devotee waylaid me on Oxford Street the other day.
He had a stack of books with the title Bhagavad Gita. I was looking at these in passing and wondering how come they were so thick (the Bhagavad Gita is a slim volume), and this proved to be my undoing. Because he caught me eyeing the books, and before I knew it, I was in his power.
The conversation was a short one, for I prefer to give religious recruiters a wide berth.
Hare Krishna devotee: Can I ask you one question?
Me: Please excuse me. I am in a bit of a rush.
And I melted away into the crowd of shoppers.
I need not have said, “I am in a bit of a rush,” and in fact I wasn’t in any rush at all. Nevertheless, I thought if I’m rebuffing him out of hand, the least I should do is give him a reason to feel superior.
But for three days now I’ve been wondering what his one question was. The revenge of the Hare Krishna is truly insidious.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Three Languages

Thai

It was my supervisor who told me about a Thai tongue-twister which, when transliterated, reads mai mai mai mai mai, but which in fact consists of five distinct words pronounced in different tones. Apparently it means ‘New wood doesn’t burn, does it?’

And this naturally led us to consider the possibility of an entire language consisting of a single syllable spoken in an infinitude of tones and registers.

I think our conclusion was that whatever other attractions such a language may have, we wouldn’t fancy using it to draft an intercreditor agreement.

Finnish

I read a novel recently, with the improbable title of A New Finnish Grammar. I will now proceed to quote from it liberally, because it is not everyday that you find an author who writes so passionately about language.

On the noun:

In the Finnish language the noun is hard to lay hands on, hidden as it is behind the endless declensions of its fifteen cases and only rarely caught unawares in the nominative.
On memorising words:
With some difficulty, one by one, I was taking in Koskela’s words. In the pauses between them, I heard them die away. I watched them floating down into the landscape of the city around us, so as to note where they fell, so that I could go and collect them later: a belltower would remind me of a verb, I wasted a whole ship on an adjective and entrusted the all-important subject to a tram. The pastor’s thought was scattered throughout Helsinki, and I could reread it every time I pleased.
On obsessive practice:
I would shut myself in the sacristy and study every word I’d put down in the notebook, declining it in all possible cases, conjugating each verb in every voice I knew, down to the most tortuous forms of the passive, the conditional, even the past potential. [...] Those syntactical digests were my defence against an enemy who was attacking me from behind. I had no tanks, no bombardiers, and each day surprised me on a different front, drawing me into the open, far from reason’s hiding-places, towards a chasm of gloomy, giddy thoughts. It was then that I needed all fifteen Finnish grammatical cases, the four forms of the infinitive, not to mention the negative pluperfect to keep my mind engaged, to drag it clear of that carpet bombing.

Beautiful, no?

Japanese

I learnt the word naruhodo on a snorkelling trip in Japan.

I had taken an underwater photo of a senior colleague, and I was quite pleased with the result. Back on the beach I showed her the photo. She said, “Naruhodo.”

Now at the time I did not know what the expression meant, and I was too proud to ask her. But I assumed it meant, “This photograph overwhelms me. Your talent makes me go weak in the knees, and I love you with a passion that is inextinguishable.” For it really was a pretty good photo.

When I went home, I checked. Naruhodo means ‘I see.’

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Windowsill

A long time ago, I had resolved that when I had my own flat, I would name the furniture.

For the last 16 months, I have had my own flat – or, to be more accurate, a shared flat, my own flat and a shared house, in that order – but I haven’t put my plan into action.

I could start with the windowsill, which I am rather fond of.

Will the Sill sounds somewhat uninspiring; considering the windowsill is my little corner of Japan, maybe I should call it Yūdai the Madodai.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

v3.0

Thanks for all the makeover suggestions and sorry for having disappeared without warning – I briefly went private while I was tweaking the new look. “Like a changing room, curtains drawn,” as a friend put it. And what with one thing and another, this took longer than I anticipated.

v3.0 is not as minimalist as initially planned: I figured there were some page elements I like too much to get rid of. Moving some of it to a static page was an option, but that is just hiding clutter, not getting rid of it. And mysteriously, I can’t get the dice (a random post generator link) to work on v3.0, but I will try my best to fix this.

Hopefully you will like the new look. But if you don’t, feel free to stare wistfully at this.



Edit, 8 January 2012: The dice are now back.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Makeover

Next week I plan to give this blog a makeover. The idea is to make it more minimalist. For instance it now has text in three colours (not counting black); I intend to get this down to one. We want to move away from purple prose and other youthful follies, and towards a layout more befitting of lists, aphorisms and proofs of Euclidean geometry. (Is there such a thing as an excess of minimalism? We may be about to find out.)

There is much to be said for minimalism, though for obvious reasons its greatest adherents – like Master Yun-Men (A.D. 949) – tend not to say much. Among other things, it imparts an aura of profundity – an effect I have been aiming for since early infancy.

Take for instance what is reportedly the first coherent sentence I ever spoke (to a visitor who called for my father): বাবা বাজার গেছে (Father has gone to the market.) Simple, beautiful, direct. And untrue (my father had not in fact gone to the market).

So in the meantime, if you have any suggestions – features that should go, features that should stay, new features, font suggestions – please do let me know. Minimalism has its place, but it should never extend to the comments section.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Notes from a Concert

Email
It all started about two months back, with an email from Nirmalya: Dylan and Knopfler are playing in London in November. Interested?
And what a piece of news and I said yes of course I am yes book it now yes and dream come true and loved them since I was little yes like crazy and yes I said yes I will Yes.
...Well, you get the idea.

Photo
Dylan at 70
But first, Dylan at 24, and six minutes that changed rock ’n’ roll.
Forty-six years on. Naturally, nothing this revolutionary was expected on Saturday, and nothing revolutionary occurred.

Dylan’s voice
Has changed beyond recognition
The three-note growl, they call it
And his band were too loud for my liking

Why we still bother with Bob Dylan live
I wasn’t expecting musical perfection, or to witness a seminal moment in rock history. I went for a reason as unworthy, and as simple, as this: to see Bob Dylan in the flesh.
But it was more than that. The last song of the evening was Like a Rolling Stone (for Mr. Dylan has no truck with encores). “How does it feel? How does it feel?” a thousand people shouted back at him, and for that one song alone, it was worth it.

My first Dire Straits album
was Making Movies, which I borrowed from a friend. It seems odd now to reflect that even fifteen years ago, original tapes of older music were hard to come by, at least in Calcutta, and were passed from hand to hand like rare and precious objects. In trying to record it, I accidentally erased most of Side A, including Romeo and Juliet. It would be months before we could locate another copy.

My first Dylan album
was a greatest hits compilation, also borrowed from a friend. I was listening to it late at night, louder than was strictly necessary. At first I didn’t know what to make of it.
My father walked into the room just as Dylan was launching into the chorus of Mr. Tambourine Man, and politely asked me to turn down the caterwauling. I wasn’t your typical rebellious teen – far from it – but I made up my mind, then and there, to like Bob Dylan.

Ayan on the tube
On the way home, Ayan remarked, “I’ve just been to a concert featuring two legends of rock, and you know which song is stuck in my head?”
It was this one, of course.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Asian Fail

This quote on OHinNY instantly reminded me of Pratiti – I was her Statistics tutor for a year, and each time she left more than four marks unanswered in an exam, she would moan that she would fail (I have written elsewhere about her nerdy habits, so I will not elaborate).

I have been blogging infrequently of late because I spend most of my spare time studying for my upcoming Japanese exam. In August, just before I left Tokyo, my Japanese teacher persuaded me to sign up for an exam one level higher than my actual level. This seemed like a fun challenge at the time, but there are several factors I did not take into account:

  • In London I only read Japanese when I open my textbooks, whereas in Japan it was all around me.
  • Here there are only two people with whom I can converse in Japanese – a Japanese lawyer (the only one in our London office) and a Buddhist priest whom I have befriended.
  • I don’t have a teacher, and self-study requires a lot of discipline.
  • For the level I was foolhardy enough to sign up for, they recommend 300 class hours; as of September, I had about 80.

It doesn’t help that my attitude towards the exam fluctuates every day, sometimes every minute. Some examples:

  • I’ll give it my best. That way, even if I fail, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I tried.
  • This is hopeless. Let’s go on Facebook.
  • I left office after 11 pm every day this week; I can cut myself some slack.
  • That is an excuse. We don’t do excuses.
  • Let me take out my textbook. I’ll show them!
  • Effing kanji.
  • Do I really need to memorise the characters for 航空書簡 (Kōkūshokan = aerogram)?
  • This is so awesome! I love studying!
  • I’ll study tomorrow.
  • I can’t fail. The humiliation!
  • Effing kanji.

The upshot of all this is that I rarely blog, I don’t make fun weekend plans, and still I study much less than I could.

So now you know. In three weeks’ time, an Asian will take an Asian exam, and he will fail. Only, it won’t be an Asian fail. It will be a fail fail.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Want My MTV

While revising old chapters in my Japanese textbook, I came across a comprehension passage in the chapter on Expressing Wishes and Desires. I scanned it, just in case you like looking at foreign languages like I do, but my rough-and-ready translation is below.

Things I Want

We asked various people what they want most of all.

1. I wish I had time. I go to office, work, come back home, and the day is over. The day is too short. I wish there were 36 hours in a day. (Woman, 25)

2. I wish I had my own bank. If I had a bank, I could take out money whenever I wanted and buy things I like. (Boy, 10)

3. I wish I had a potion which would make me young. When I was young, I did not study much. If I could be young again, I would study hard and get a good job. (Woman, 60)

4. I wish I had ‘humour’. If I make conversation, my wife says, “You will be busy tomorrow, won’t you? Go to sleep early.” The children tell me, “Father, we’ve heard this story about three times already.” I wish I could be more interesting. (Man, 43)

5. I wish there were another one of me. I have to go to school every day. If there were two of me, while one ‘me’ was studying, the other ‘me’ could do things I like. I wish there were two of me. (Girl, 14)

I remember learning this chapter back in July. My Japanese teacher had me frame sentences of the form “[noun] ga hoshii desu,” which means “I wish I had [noun].” This form is only used for things. It should not, for instance, be used to say, “I want to go to Iceland,” which in fact I do want.

And the funny thing is, I could not readily think of anything that I want, and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing.

So, what do you want?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Gift Wrap Wrap

The souvenir shop for this exhibition had gift wrap with prints of prize-winning photos. My friend thought they would make for good posters, and bought one as a gift. I suggested that she buy another gift wrap to gift wrap the gift wrap. But she ignored my suggestion completely.

It is my fate not to be appreciated in my lifetime.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lotus

I like water-bodies, and I like dim-sum. No reason, then, not to like Lotus – this Chinese restaurant in the Docklands.

So you think a floating restaurant is gimmicky? Well, I like gimmicks too!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

For Poor People

I was filing emails at work yesterday when I found this:

At first I thought it was just another email to cheer up people who are working late. But 11 March 2011 was the day of the Tōhoku earthquake. Many people, that is, even more than usual, were stuck in office because the trains were down.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Truck on Lake Road, Kolkata

Are you a struggling mathematician? Do you find you are unable to prove theorems? Or worse still, when you do prove them, do you find that your proofs are unsound?

If so, help is at hand.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

British Humour

Sign on perimeter wall, Westferry Road, London:

I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, but I thought the whole point of British humour is that you don’t talk about it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Life in General

The weekends pass really quickly, but then the weekdays pass quickly too, so I don’t complain. Look, it’s almost Friday!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Recycling of False Tooth

A Guidebook for Sorting Recyclables and Waste of Minato-ku, the ward where I used to live, somehow found its way into my luggage and travelled with me to London. I was reading it yesterday – such is the exciting nature of my weekends – and while a garbage disposal booklet is not exactly a page-turner, I found it strangely fascinating.

There are precise guidelines for disposing of every conceivable household item, and then some. For instance:

  • foamed nets for fruits (wash first if it is dirty, put in a transparent or semi-transparent bag when disposing)
  • hangers made of plastics (you can dispose of them as recyclables even if the hooks are metallic)
  • lighters (put out after using up the content, putting it in a separate bag from other incombustible waste and writing “Danger” on it)
  • motorcycle (find a store showing “Motorcycle Recycling” logo or its designated collection agent)
  • corrugated cardboard (paste one ticket of 10 liters to 2 mandarin orange box sized cardboard, bind with string and take out)
There are also separate sections such as Please, join the group collection and Why not check the furniture recycling display?

My favourite, though, is Recycling of false tooth.

False tooth can be recycled and utilized for social welfare. After cleaning and sterilizing in boiled water, etc., wrap it in rather thick paper and put it in false tooth collection box installed at each Regional City Office. Metal part of the collected false tooth will be donated to Minato City Social Welfare Association and UNICEF.

Friday, September 9, 2011

London, 8:20 pm

Working late is seldom fun, but I am sometimes thankful for the nice view from my window.

Or to paraphrase an earlier post: he doesn’t have a very exciting life, but he does have an office with a view.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Londonising

This week I relocated from Tokyo to London. I had lived in London for six months before the Tokyo stint, but it seems six months in Tokyo has reconditioned me in subtle ways.

On the plane, a Japanese flight attendant woke me up to ask, “Would you like a drink?” From my vacant look and incoherent stammering – this always happens if I am awakened suddenly – it was obvious that I hadn’t comprehended. She repeated the question in Japanese, by which time intelligent functions had kicked in. So I replied in Japanese that I would like a Coke, please. And she looked slightly perplexed that someone – evidently a foreigner – could speak Japanese but not English. For the rest of the flight, she solicitously spoke to me in Japanese only.

Unlike the Tokyo Metro, the London Underground, for the most part, has no mobile coverage. But coming from Heathrow on the Piccadilly Line, there is a 23-minute overground section between Hounslow Central and Barons Court. In this span, someone’s phone rang. I wheeled round in shock because in Tokyo this would be a gross breach of etiquette; then I realised no one else had raised an eyebrow.

On the tube-station escalators, I was standing on the left, as they do in Tokyo. I saw some people standing on the right, and said to myself, “Hah, tourists.” It took me a few seconds to realise that of course it was I who was standing on the wrong side. In London, for historical reasons, the convention is to stand on the right.

And most recently, when leaving office last night, I pressed 1 on the lift and got off one storey above ground, because Japan follows the American convention of floor numbering.

The reconditioning process will probably be complete in a week or so, whereupon life will become smoother, but I feel I will have lost a tiny whit of my coolness. Thankfully, I have vast reserves to fall back on.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ranking Japan

Ranked lists and shopping are both popular in Japan, so I suppose it was inevitable that something like ranKing ranQueen would come to pass.

The philosophy behind this Tokyo chain store is simple and compelling. Let us say you wanted to buy nose-hair trimmers. Now why would you settle for just any nose-hair trimmers? You would want to take your pick from the three best-selling nose-hair trimmers in Tokyo. So, analysing sales data from various department stores and research companies, ranKing ranQueen sells only the 3, 5 or 10 best-selling items in a mind-boggling range of products. And not just the usual stuff like best-selling DVDs or mobile phones: think tooth picks, pasta sauce, party masks, bottled tea, hula hoops.

The Japanese fascination with ranked lists extends to tourism, as evidenced by the array of Top 3 lists. There is even a tongue-in-cheek list of Japan’s top 3 disappointments (sandai gakkari), which includes the Sapporo Clock Tower.

I was in Sapporo recently, and of course I had to go and see the tower. I must say that while it wasn’t the greatest thing I have ever seen in my life, I wasn’t disappointed either. The building is quite fetching in an understated way, the chimes are melodious, and the compound has shady trees. Which brings me to the question: If you expect, indeed hope, to be disappointed but are not, have you or have you not been disappointed?

Today is my last day in Japan; I fly back to London tomorrow. I have loved my six months here.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ito-ya, Ginza

No one does stationery quite like the Japanese. And here, at Ito-ya’s flagship store in Ginza, there are nine floors of it!

I was tempted to quote Firdausi (If there is a heaven on earth / It is here, it is here, it is here). But in truth, my feelings about Ito-ya are more akin to those of the haiku poet Bashō on beholding Matsushima:
Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Notes from Okinawa

Some anecdotes from a diving and snorkelling holiday in Akajima in the Okinawa prefecture, with friends from work.


We saw flying fish from our dive-boat, and this excited me as much as anything we saw underwater. There are no two ways about it: animals that can both swim and fly are cool.
Our diving guide spoke only Japanese. Before each dive, she would brief us about the dive plan, attractions and dangers. I could follow most things she said, but I wouldn’t be able to understand something like “establish neutral buoyancy,” or “the sting of the blue-ringed octopus is potentially fatal.” My friends, who are Japanese, were happy to translate, but it hurt my pride to ask them for help.

After each day’s diving, we gathered in the dining hall of the dive shop to fill our dive logs. It had an extensive library on local fish, coral, shells and reptiles. Everything was in Japanese, but fortunately the encyclopaedias had taxonomic names in the Latin alphabet. So the exercise went like this: each plant or animal we had seen would be identified (occasionally after some debate) by reference to an observer’s guide, then someone would look it up for me in the relevant encyclopaedia, then I would google the taxonomic name to find the common English name and copy it in my dive log. This was almost as much fun as the actual diving.

When cycling to Nishihama beach, the most famous beach on the island, we came to a fork in the road. Shun said “Go right.” I asked him how he knew, and he said “Just feel the beach.” It was undeniably a Quote, but I am not sure whether he could in fact “feel the beach,” or had looked at a map beforehand. His credibility took a hit the previous day after he claimed that he fought an octopus underwater.


We dived about ten days after a typhoon, which is when the water is apparently clearest. On top of that, we enjoyed cloudless skies and an upwelling, which make for excellent diving conditions. Underwater visibility was an incredible 40 metres. Experienced divers were shaking their heads in disbelief, saying they had rarely seen anything like it. Shun, who knows how sad I am to be leaving Japan, said it was Japan’s farewell gift to me.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shinkansen

I love the Japan Railways Shinkansen (bullet train) network as much as I love the Indian Railways, but the two could not be more different. Indian trains may be late or may make up time. The average annual delay for the Tōkaidō Shinkansen – including all delays due to human error, earthquakes, typhoons and snow – is thirty seconds.

Shinkansen leaving Kyōto station

Shinkansen simply means ‘new main line’ but it is a poetic word. It just sounds... fast.

There are three types of trains on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen line. The slowest (only in relative terms, for it has a top speed of 285 km/h) is called Kodama, the Japanese word for echo. The next faster is called Hikari, meaning light. And fastest of all is the Nozomi, which means wish or hope.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Got Milk?

Let’s say you went to a store and wanted to find out if they have milk. Most people would ask, Do you have milk? In English, framing a negative question (Do you not have milk?) is generally considered impolite.

Japanese is the opposite. You would ask, Gyūnyū ga arimasen ka? (literally, Do you not have milk?) Using the negative form is more indirect and polite, showing that you are prepared for a negative answer.

Singlish takes yet another approach. As Wikitravel notes:

[T]he local dialect with its heavy Chinese influences may appear brusque or even rude, but saying "You want beer or not?" is in fact more polite in Chinese than asking if you want beer, after all, the person asking you the question is offering you a choice, not making a demand.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Tokyo, 4:25 am

I am in Japan only for another 48 days. I will be sorry to leave.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chiyoda-ku Area Street Map

There is something oddly touching about the translation.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This is Language Log

The folks at Language Log use an amusing phrasal template in some of their posts:
This is Language Log, not X Log.

where X is a seemingly unrelated and often obscure topic.

This is usually employed when, after briefly discussing X, they introduce a linguistic angle. It is used often enough to be familiar to regular readers, but not so often as to be annoying.

As far as I can tell, it was coined by Mark Liberman way back in July 2005, with the innocuous This is Language Log, not Cycling Log. But then Geoff Pullum took the ball and ran with it as only he can.

Here are some examples.

This is not an exhaustive list; just a few of my favourites. But this is The World According to Sroyon, not the Let’s All Obsess Over Language Log Blog.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

In the last class, my Japanese teacher reviewed my performance so far, and defined future goals. Her ‘strengths and weaknesses review’ was particularly entertaining. My weaknesses, according to her, are: (a) I am weak in kanji and (b) I have too many hobbies.

(b) of course is something neither she nor I can do anything about, but (a) can be remedied. So my targets, as set by my teacher, are to learn 300 kanji by November 2011, 500 by June 2012 and 1,000 by November 2012.

The Japanese writing system is a combination of three scripts; sometimes all three are used in the same sentence. Hiragana and katakana are phonetic systems with about 50 characters each; kanji is a logographic system with over 2,000 characters in common use. To make matters worse, a single kanji may, depending on context, mean different things; some common kanji have ten or more possible readings.

So far I have got by, knowing only hiragana and katakana. This enables me to read station names, signs written for children, my Japanese textbooks, foreign words written in Japanese, and most things on a restaurant menu.

Kanji is fiendishly difficult, and I am in Japan for only two more months after which I will probably never need to use Japanese. In view of this, a less harsh critic may have forgiven my kanji deficiencies. But my Japanese teacher is not a less harsh critic. Hence, the targets.

Kanji, to me, are like trees. I cherish their existence and I think the world would be a poorer place without them. I appreciate their beauty and their wealth of secret meaning. But apart from a few, very common ones, I cannot recognise them. When I see a kanji, I appreciatively say to myself, “Ah, a kanji,” and I leave it at that.

But last week, we started on a systematic programme of learning kanji. And pleasingly, the first one she taught me was 木, pronounced ki or moku, and meaning – perhaps you have guessed it already – ‘tree’ or ‘wood’.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hokkaido

The Himalayan town of Leh sits at an elevation of 3,500 metres above sea level. The extreme conditions and the rarefied air can pose a health risk, so all over Leh there are warnings and advisories. We saw one such warning sign at the 257 Army Transit Camp, where we stayed when we went trekking in Ladakh last year.

“Do not try to be Gama in the place of lama,” by unspoken agreement, instantly became our motto for the trek.

Of course, we had no clue what Gama means. We wondered if it was a Ladakhi word for blasé, or a person who drinks very little water, or a foolhardy person, or just a plain idiot. Internet searches produced tantalising leads but no real answers. And throughout the trek, we repeated the phrase at every opportunity and it cracked us up every time. (The mystery was solved months later, when someone read Kaushik’s blog post and emailed him with the answer.)

A serendipitous slogan like that can make a trip even more fun. It is almost impossible to pin down what makes a good trip-slogan, but there are some general principles. The trip-slogan has to be brief. It must of course be about the journey or the destination. You have to encounter or come up with it during, or while planning the trip. Rhyme and humour work well, as does a certain quality of mystical inscrutability. Note, however, that the trip-slogan is not to be confused with the trip-quote. The trip-quote can be equally memorable, but it is more common; instances include Tewary’s azad panchhi quote, and Saha’s famous musings (in Puruliya) on Man’s Purpose on Earth. The trip-slogan is rarer, so not every trip will have one, but that is part of the appeal.

A friend and I are planning a trip to Hokkaido in August. We haven’t yet booked tickets, and it is not even certain whether the plan will eventually work out, but I emailed a Japanese colleague to ask about Hokkaido, and he wrote:

You should remember the famous key word "Hokkaido ha Dekkaido" which means Hokkaido has very big size.
If Hokkaido ha Dekkaido is not a trip-slogan, I don’t know what is.

Monday, June 13, 2011

11 Nights

While 11 does not quite have the zing of 1001, it is at least of the form 10n+1.

Saha once did a (discontinued) series called The Craziest Places I Have Slept In. Some day, I will do a similar series of posts myself. But meanwhile:

None of the places where I spent the last 11 nights were particularly crazy, but each is interesting in its own way.

1.An economy-class seat on a Boeing 767-300 (Tokyo-Bangkok and 9 days later, Bangkok-Tokyo): 2 nights
2.Friend’s room (Singapore): 1 night
3.Friend’s couch (Singapore): 1 night
4.Friend’s flat, futon on window-ledge (Hong Kong): 3 nights
5.New Road Guest House (Bangkok): 1 night
6.The Peninsula (Bangkok): 2 nights
7.My flat (Tokyo): 1 night

[1] was not cool. I sleep soundly on all moving vehicles, except airplanes. On my flight back to Tokyo, I got an inkling why. We ran into some turbulence over the East China Sea, and oddly enough, I slept well while it lasted. Planes are too smooth; to really sleep well I need the sensation of motion.

[2] and [3] are actually in the same flat. My friend was away for a day, so I commandeered his room. Then he came back and I was relegated to the couch.

Even aside from the innate coolness of a futon on a window-ledge, [4] was incredibly nice. The flat is on the 22nd floor. When I woke up, I could see skyscrapers and mountains. Or, if I was facing the other way, a slightly messy living room.

[5] and [6] are an interesting contrast. Our firm had an event in Bangkok, and they booked [6] for 2 nights. I wanted to spend an extra day in the city, so I made my own arrangements. [5] and [6] are only a few hundred metres apart, but the difference in room rates is many thousand baht. New Road Guest House’s page on hostelworld says:

We have listened to our customers and are beginning an integrated pest management program. Bed bugs be gone!

At the Peninsula, bed bugs are not an issue.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Temple Street

Long-time readers of this blog may recall a post about street chess at Gariahat. Now the median strip of a busy thoroughfare may be an interesting place to play chess, even a very good place, but according to Time magazine, it is not the best place. For that, you must go to Temple Street, Hong Kong.

The author of the piece did a singularly good job of conjuring up the sleaziness and disrepute of Temple Street:

Toward dusk, stall holders lay out their counterfeit wares, fortune-tellers set up their tables, and—in the square outside the street's eponymous temple—the xiangqi players unfold their boards and take on all comers.

Who could fail to be moved by that? So, when I visited Hong Kong nearly seven years after reading the piece, Temple Street was high on my list of places to see.

And it was a fascinating place indeed. The Time correspondent did not exaggerate the allure of Temple Street (OK maybe just a bit, but a little exoticism never did any harm). It is the kind of place that makes you cast sharp backward glances and check that your wallet is still there.

But I will say one thing about the honest merchants of Temple Street: whatever minor shortcomings they may have in other respects, no one can accuse them of beating around the bush.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Friendship

“I must say, you have the coolest friends ever!”

“Really? I actually think your friends are cooler.”

“Wait, I have an idea.”

I saw this sign on Hollywood Road in Hong Kong. The dialogue, of course, is fictitious.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Subway Phonaesthetics

Out of all the subway systems I have travelled on (Calcutta, Delhi, London, Istanbul, Tokyo, Kyoto), I think Tokyo Metro has by far the nicest sounding announcements. My favourite is the announcement for Aoyama-itchōme. I love the gliding vowels of Aoyama flowing into the geminate ch of itchōme, the ‘long vowelō and the gentle, abbreviated me.

I made a recording today, and if it doesn’t sound as nice as I just made it out to be, you can blame it on the audio recording on my camera.

video

This is the romaji text of the announcement:
Tsugi wa Aoyama-itchōme. Aoyama-itchōme desu. Norikae no go annai desu. Hanzōmon-sen, Toei Ōedo-sen wa onorikae kudasai.
A literal translation would be as follows:
The next one is Aoyama-itchōme. It’s Aoyama-itchōme. Transfer information: please change here for the Hanzōmon line and the Toei Ōedo line.
Of course, the translation fails to convey some information, especially the level of politeness and formality expressed in the Japanese announcement. Politeness can translate in interesting ways. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story about a Japanese maths professor who used to tell his students, “Please let n be an integer.”

A ploy to encourage reader participation: What is your favourite subway announcement? And do you like it for the sound, the associations, or something else?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Books Kinokuniya, Shinjuku

Well, in Japan, so is everything else.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

There are more things in Shinjuku than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Fascinating things can be found in the unlikeliest of places, like in the TOEFL and spoken-English learning materials section on the seventh floor of Books Kinokuniya.

Besides the usual books and DVDs, the shelves also have speakers simultaneously playing various audio CDs for learning English – some for beginners and some for advanced learners, some for tourists and some for businesspeople. So while one speaker blurts out random words and phrases – ‘sidewalk’, ‘square’, ‘as always’ – others play disconnected sentences. I stood there and jotted down a few.

  • The fitness industry has seen rapid growth in recent years.
  • She was puzzled by the strange message on her answering machine.
  • Is there a post office nearby?
  • Although the economy is improving, the exchange rate continues to fluctuate.
  • Stan was happy to hear some pleasant news for a change.
  • This ice-cream has a strawberry flavour.
Each one of these could potentially be Famous Last Words, or the Central Creed of a Modern-Day Religion, or any number of profound and quotidian things. But – and this is the beauty of it – before you can meditate on the infinite possibilities of any one sentence, the speaker has moved on to the next, and three other speakers have played other sentences in the meantime.

After a while, the speakers began to exercise a hypnotic effect on me, and the spell was broken only when a shop assistant politely informed me that closing time was in five minutes.

* * *

Last Friday my Japanese teacher told me, Sroyon-san wa conjugation ga jouzu desu ne. (You’re good at conjugation.)

Seldom have I received an odder compliment, but it cheered me up like anything. I should get a T-shirt saying, Don’t mess with me. I can conjugate.

* * *

When learning Japanese, I first memorised a number of useful phrases by rote; more general vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax only came later. So it would often happen – and it still happens, though less frequently – that I would say something in Japanese and the other person, thinking I am a fluent speaker, would reply with a long, fast and complex string of Japanese which left me totally baffled.

Of course, children don’t learn languages like that. They don’t speak well-formed sentences with adult inflection before they form at least a basic idea of what the words mean and how they fit together. Or at least, most children don’t.

My friend Arjun’s childhood is rife with entertaining incidents. One evening, his mother’s colleague came to visit. Arjun was watching an American soap in another room. At one point on the show, one of the actors said something that created quite a stir. The sentence somehow stuck in Arjun’s head, and the dramatic effect it produced in the soap impressed him favourably.

So Arjun Sarkar, four years and six months old, walked into the living room, looked his mum’s colleague in the eye, and told her, “Your husband is sleeping with another woman.”

It did indeed create a sensation. His mother dragged him away and gave him a spanking he would never forget.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Backpackers Hostel K’s House, Kyoto

I could not have asked for more amusing roommates at my Kyōto hostel – one is a programmer and the other is a physicist. And last night we were all in an exceptionally philosophical mood. I don’t know whether it was the large quantities of beverage we imbibed after dinner (coffee for me, tea for the physicist, beer for the programmer), or the fact that we had spent much of our day strolling down Philosopher’s Path. But for whatever reason, we were waxing philosophical on everything from manga to plasma turbulence.


And after touching lightly on such topics as fish-eye lenses, tea-cosies and Eurobonds, we moved on to singing the praises of our hostel. It is cheap, friendly, conveniently located and immaculately clean. The staff understand the needs and aspirations of backpackers. They organise free movie nights and walking tours. The information board at the reception has all kinds of useful information – not just the usual maps and time-tables, but also Calendar for this month’s shrine flea markets, Legends and folklore of Kyoto and It’s Raining! Where Should I Go?

But what endeared us most to Backpackers Hostel K’s House, Kyoto is that they provide lots of things for free, which are as follows:
• Tea
• Coffee
• Wi-Fi
• Alarm clock
• Books, maps and DVDs
• Padlocks
• Board games

When we had drawn up the list, the programmer remarked, “What more do you need as a traveller?”
“In fact,” said I, going further, “what more do you need in life?”
We all nodded in solemn agreement, but it was well past midnight, and – as I mentioned earlier – we had all drunk more than was good for us.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bookshelf

The mountains, islands, beaches and historic towns around Tokyo provide many weekend travel options for the careworn city-dweller. Every weekend for the past few weeks I have been darting off somewhere, so I thought it would be prudent to temporarily limit these excesses.

With these motives I decided to spend all of yesterday, which was a public holiday, indoors.

The experiment, I was swiftly convinced, does not bear repetition. To such depths of boredom did I descend that I thought of taking a photo of my bookshelf, and blogging about it. Why any reader would wish to see a photo of my bookshelf, much less read about it, is more than I can say. But others have done it before, so why not me? And if I cannot ramble in the mountains, I can at least ramble on my blog.


When I left Calcutta in August 2010, I took only four books with me.

I would have taken two more – the two volumes of Rabindra Rachanavali that contain Lipika and Kshanika. But that would have left an incomplete set at home, which is unacceptable.

The first book I did take was Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel (3) – a parting gift from Myshkin’s friends. They believed – and rightly so – that in the new career on which I was about to embark, in the unforgiving world of commercial law, this philosophical tome would stand me in good stead. The philosophy, such as it is, is summed up in a blurb on the back cover: To err is human. To cover it up is weasel. The Weasel Zone is where your co-workers, bosses, salespeople, CEOs, human resource executives, family and loved ones reside – “the giant grey area between good moral behaviour and outright criminality.”

The second, Ghostwritten (13), is the book I was reading at the time. It is by David Mitchell, but more about him anon.

The other two were books I had read already. I took Europe (15) because it is my favourite travel book in the world. And I took The World of Psmith (28). If I could take only one book with me, I would have chosen The World of Psmith.

The other books have been acquired since then. Some I purchased, some (1, 7 and 11) were gifts and some (17, 19 and 20) were freebies. You can tell that 17 is a freebie because I would never willingly buy a book with a title like that. The sheets of paper sticking out of the book are my Hiragana and Katakana practice sheets.

Many of these books were purchased from Foyles, Charing Cross Road, which narrowly edges out Daunt, Marylebone as my favourite bookstore in London. What Am I Doing Here (6) was bought at a second-hand bookstore in Bath.

Three books (9, 23 and 26) were purchased online. Saha bought them for me, because I did not have a UK bank account at the time. The books were delivered to Saha’s office; his boss saw Species of Spaces and Other Places (26) on his desk, and thought (wrongly) that Saha is an intellectual.

Two of these books have Footnotes: Searching for Order (25) – a history of plant taxonomy from 370 BC to AD 1705, and Modern Legal Drafting (20), which is an altogether more amusing book than the title would suggest.

I could go on to systematically write anecdotes about every book on the shelf, but there is a limit to the reader’s patience (and mine). Not all the books deserve a special mention anyway, but there are two which certainly do.

Last Chance to See (2) made me seriously think about becoming an environmental lawyer. If one day I chuck everything up and take to spending most of my waking moments hugging trees and engaging in similar pursuits, you will know that Douglas Adams is to blame.

And The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (14) by David Mitchell is the reason I am in Japan. Our firm gives us the option to work for six months in one of their international offices, and when I indicated my preferences, I was reading this book.

The preferences I gave were Tokyo, Prague, Amsterdam and New York – in that order. When I showed her my list, a Czech trainee told me, “If you get Prague, and if you go there and tell them it was above New York in your list, they will put up your statue in Wenceslas Square.” Had she told me this before, and had I not been reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I may now have been in Prague.

Funny things, books.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kyoto

What does Kyoto mean to you? When you think of Kyoto, perhaps you think of Zen gardens, moss gardens and tea-houses? Or maybe it calls to mind temples and carp pools? Geishas and cherry blossom? Nintendo?

Here is a conversation I had with a lawyer friend of mine, and this (though I have mentioned it before) is why I love lawyers:
Me: I have a six-day holiday next week.
Friend: Nice! Are you going somewhere?
Me: Probably Kyoto.
Friend: Ah. The protocol place.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Beekeeper and a Song

Takao san, less than an hour by train from Shinjuku, makes for a pleasant day hike away from the madness of Tokyo. If you are looking for a challenging climb, Takao San, at 599 m, is not the mountain for you. But it has ancient cedars, wildflowers, waterfalls, secluded shrines, a variety of wildlife and – legend has it – resident tengu (goblins from Japanese mythology).

Climbing always makes me think of a beekeeper and a song.

We met the beekeeper in Wales. Four of us – friends from university – were mountain-biking near the town of Machynlleth when we went off the trail and got lost. After going miles without seeing another human soul, we came upon a bee farm and next to it, a cottage.

The cottage was inhabited by a ginger-haired young man who ran the farm, commercially producing honey and at the same time studying bee biology and behaviour. Saha and I told him we were lost, and he explained how to find the bike trail. But before that, in a five-minute conversation, we told each other the story of our lives.

Saha and I are from similar backgrounds – we went to school and university in Calcutta, and joined law firms in London. The beekeeper grew up in Machynlleth, which has a population of just over 2,000. He went to university in Cardiff and now, in a beautiful and remote valley, he observes bees and harvests honey. And helps lost bikers find their way.

We told the beekeeper we were planning to climb Cadair Idris. It is not far from Machynlleth and quite a popular climb, so we were surprised when he said he had never climbed it himself. We asked him why, and he said, “I like being at the farm.”

And it made me think of a Kimya Dawson song, and that is why I will forever associate climbing, beekeepers, and these lines from Hadlock Padlock: I wonder if this climbing that you city people do / Ever leads you to a place with such a pretty view.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Karaoke

Thirteen finance lawyers – seven of them Japanese, two English guys, two Singaporeans, a Chinese girl and me – after work on a Friday night (or more accurately, Saturday morning), in a Karaoke Box in downtown Tokyo. And which is the one song that everyone knows?

Hey Jude? Knocking on Heaven’s Door? Smells Like Teen Spirit? A seminal moment in musical history, an evergreen classic?

The answer is simpler and funnier: Backstreet Boys. I Want It That Way.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Politeness

Omikuji instructions at Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple in Asakusa:

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that Buddhist temples and I go back a long way.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hasselblad

When I went to Ueno Kōen this weekend to see cherry blossoms, I wasn’t expecting to see something even more beautiful – for, truth be told, few things are more beautiful than cherry blossoms. But as I stood on the shore of Shinobazu-Ike trying to take photos of tree branches silhouetted against the setting sun (not with much success), I noticed a girl trying to shoot the same scene with a medium-format camera. Curious, I decided to take a closer look (at the camera, not the girl). And then I saw it was a Hasselblad. With a Carl Zeiss lens.

I had never seen a Hasselblad before, but I knew about the marque. It was my father who first told me about Hasselblad, before I was even old enough to use a camera, and he spoke of it in hushed, reverential tones. Not everyone is a fan of the waist-level finder which is a standard feature of the Hasselblad medium-format (the inimitable Cartier-Bresson, a lifelong Leica devotee, once said, “If the good Lord had wanted us to take photographs with a 6 by 6, he would have put eyes in our belly.”) But for many photographers, Hasselblad is the Rolls-Royce, the Moët & Chandon of medium-format cameras.

So I asked her if I could look through the viewfinder. She agreed immediately, and extended the camera towards me.

Now my Japanese, while good for asking for directions and ordering at restaurants, is not yet good enough to convey what, to me, the Hasselblad stands for. Still, what I saw at first did not impress me much – the image looked blurred, and the contrast wasn’t great. But then she adjusted the focus ring. The branches which I had been trying to photograph, dark and crisp against the orange sky, swam into focus. The world became a more beautiful place. And at that point, words became unnecessary.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Shunbun no Hi

Today is a public holiday in Japan – Shunbun no Hi or Spring Equinox Day, a day for the admiration of nature and living things. It is not yet time for Hanami, but in the parks and cemeteries of Tokyo, the first cherry blossoms have started to bloom. To celebrate Spring Equinox, here is a photo I took last Sunday at Hama-rikyū Onshi Teien, a surrealistically beautiful garden in the heart of Tokyo.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bicycle Parking (OR Why I love the Japanese)

The Japanese have a reputation for being exceedingly particular. I appreciate this quality immensely; maybe I am a bit like that myself. But sometimes, they surpass themselves.

I keep my bicycle in our hotel’s bicycle parking lot, and they assigned me a number and a stand. I found this amusing, not least because there are few bicycles and plenty of empty stands. A few days back I got a letter from the front desk saying that my stand was broken, and requesting me to move my bike to another stand. I could see nothing wrong with my old stand, but I complied.

A few days later, I got another letter.


They also attached a copy of the previous letter “for my reference”.


And lastly, they attached a diagram.


Now perhaps you have been following the news for the last week (or perhaps, like me, you have been watching MTV), but Japan has not been going through the best of times. Thousands of lives were lost in the Tōhoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami, thousands more were left homeless. There are power shortages and fuel shortages. Fears of nuclear radiation are spreading across the nation. But Japanese hotel staff still find time to write detailed instructions – incredibly detailed instructions – for parking a bicycle.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shibuya, Ginza


Oh. For a second I thought they were real.

These cats, however, were definitely real. Wearing frilly collars, they perched on a street sign while scores of people milled around taking photos. In Tokyo I see more inexplicable things every day than I have seen anywhere else.


Which is why I wander the streets quite a lot. Maybe one day I’ll run into the girl who loves to levitate.

Friday, March 11, 2011

8.9

OK, no more flippancy about earthquakes.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eventful Days

There has seldom been a dull moment since I touched down in Tokyo. On Monday it snowed, taking everyone by surprise. Tuesday was my first day at work in the Tokyo office. Around lunchtime on Wednesday there was an earthquake. This occasioned much less surprise than the snow. And today, on the walls of Tameike-Sannō underground station, I saw what could only be a depiction of – of all things – the Taj Mahal.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sunday: Extract 7

Sorry, no Extract 7. I missed the midnight deadline, plus I am getting bored of this game now. Before you jump in and point out that Extracts 2 to 4 also appear to have been published a day late, allow me to explain.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday: Extract 6

Extract 6 is from Conversation:
OK, enjoy Tokyo.
—Random stranger in Aoyama, Tokyo
This is the sixth of seven posts in the Extracts series. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday: Extract 5

Extract 5 is from the internets:
“Everyone,” she repeated through slightly clenched teeth, “has to be counted.”
Globe and Mail, Census in India
This is the fifth of seven posts in the Extracts series. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thursday: Extract 4

Extract 4 is from Packaging:
With a great breakfast inside us, we feel we can do just about anything: change the nation’s eating habits, revolutionise farming, and look sexy while line dancing.
—Rude Health Daily Oats Porridge package
This is the fourth of seven posts in the Extracts series. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wednesday: Extract 3

Extract 3 is from Work Document:
Although financial markets have shown some degree of stabilization and economic recovery has continued in 2010, the recovery has been fragile and uncertainty about future developments of the market remains.
—Base Prospectus for a €30bn EMTN Programme
This is the third of seven posts in the Extracts series. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tuesday: Extract 2

Extract 2 is from Public Sign:
Please refrain from smoking in this area as the children can see and smell you.
—The Little Unicorn Childcare Centre, Canary Wharf
This is the second of seven posts in the Extracts series. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Monday: Extract 1

This is the first of seven posts in the Extracts series. Every day, I will post a one-sentence extract from something I have read or heard in the course of that day.

The extracts will be from different sources. I will choose them at random, so they will not necessarily be intelligent, memorable, informative or funny. Even by the consistently puerile standards of this blog, this is an exercise in puerility. In the comments section you can, if you want, post extracts from what you have read/heard today.

Extract 1 is from Book (Fiction):

The municipal stadium was deserted—not a single living dead to be seen.
—Nicolas Dickner, Apocalypse for Beginners

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Work Visa

Tourist visas are fundamentally cooler than work visas. A work visa declares that you are a wage-slave, while a tourist visa says that you are – not to put too fine a point on it – a tourist.

Having said that, descriptions on work visas are generally quite flattering. Mine, for instance, is a UK Tier 2 work visa, which means that I am “a skilled worker who fills a gap in the workforce that cannot be filled by a settled worker.”

But I got a Japan work visa yesterday, and it is so inconceivably cool that it makes gap-filling skilled workers look pedestrian. It says that I am a – wait for it – Specialist in Humanities/International Services. That’s right! A Specialist in Humanities-slash-International frikkin’ Services. And if that were not enough, I am authorised to “engage in service, which requires knowledge pertinent to jurisprudence, economics, sociology or other human science fields or to engage in service which requires specific ways of thought or sensitivity based on the experience with foreign culture.”

What I will in fact be doing in Tokyo is securitising the hell out of everything and helping rich companies get richer. But the visa makes me sound like a paragon of rectitude and goodness, reforming economies and defending human rights and generally spreading light and joy. It almost makes me want to live up to that ideal, but somehow I suspect I may not have it in me.

The least I could do is to dedicate my blog, such as it is, to the service of mankind. And here I am, writing a post where I essentially do nothing else but gloat about a visa.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Excess Baggage

I am moving to Tokyo for six months, and the law firm arranged for some of my belongings to be shipped in a big metal trunk. The trunk was shipped yesterday while I leave two weeks later.

Packing the trunk was an interesting exercise – I had to sort my stuff into Things I Need in the Next Two Weeks, and Things I Don’t Need in the Next Two Weeks.

So what went in the trunk?

  • Books
  • Things I’ll need only in Japan (like a plug adapter)
  • Things I use infrequently, but which are important nonetheless (like my sleeping bag)
  • Things for seasonal use (like my sandals – not my footwear of choice in London in February)
  • Some things which (I realised) I don’t really need at all.
I was pleased to see that there wasn’t too much of that last category. This is not because I am exceptionally austere; I just don’t like superfluity.

I did not have a lot of luggage when I moved from Calcutta to London, and in the six months I have spent here, my worldly possessions have not increased by much – I’ve bought a t-shirt, a casserole, a pair of walking boots, an overcoat, a backpack and several books. And a plant, which I am leaving behind.

The trunk they sent was huge. I had guessed it would be, when HR very apologetically told us that it will hold ‘only about 82 kilos’ (everything I own taken together weighs about half that). But when it arrived, it surpassed all my expectations. I could ship myself in that trunk, if I wanted. I would even have room for a book to read on the way.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Istanbul Top 10 (with 9 missing entries)

Over a month has elapsed since my Istanbul trip, and much water has flown under the Galata Bridge. But I thought the trip called for more than one throwaway post. And perhaps the delay is not such a big deal after all: Istanbul has never been a city in a hurry.

The plan was to do an Istanbul Top 10 post. Over the incredible period of one entire month, I made a list, added and deleted bits, reordered it, wrote and rewrote the entries, to the point where I was sick of looking at it. This morning, I decided to take drastic steps. I struck out all the bits I didn’t like, an exercise which left me with an Istanbul Top 10 with 9 missing entries. This, at least, can see the light of day.

2. The Bosphorus

If you stroll aimlessly around Istanbul, you gravitate involuntarily towards the Bosphorus or the Golden Horn – just as in south Bombay your wanderings lead you inevitably towards Marine Drive. As Lonely Planet puts it, “Divan Yolu and İstiklal Caddesi are always awash with people, but neither is the major thoroughfare in İstanbul. That honour goes to the mighty Bosphorus Strait.”

We spent many hours here – I suspect you could spend a lifetime and still not tire of it. We watched the anglers dangling their lines from the Galata bridge, ate grilled fish sandwiches on the waterfront, marvelled at Constantine’s sea walls and at the elegance of the yalıs – the old wooden mansions on the water’s edge. At Beşiktaş, we spotted jellyfish and bioluminescent life forms in the water (Phosphorus in the Bosphorus, I called it, and the Quaker winced).

But my most memorable Bosphorus experience was on the ferry ride which goes all the way up the strait – from the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Black Sea in the north, zigzagging between the European and Asian shores. There are short stretches where no houses, boats or other modern constructions meet the eye – all you see are waves and hills and seagulls and fog, and the view cannot be all that different from that which greeted Byzas and his men when they arrived in 667 B.C. to found a tiny trading colony called Byzantium. Or, if you believe in the old stories, from what Jason and the Argonauts saw on their quest for the Golden Fleece.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Nested Lists

My critics have on occasion accused me of obsessively making lists. Much as I would like to deny it, there are times when I am forced to acknowledge that the allegation is not wholly without basis.

Of late I have been making more lists than usual because I am going on a long holiday and there are twenty million things I need to take care of before I leave. On Sunday I was running through a list I had made last week: Things to do over the weekend. And two of the items were:
• Make a list of things to take to India
• Make a list of transactions to be handed over

I had made a list of what lists I had to make!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Comfort Food

Scarborough Fair potatoes, seasoned with (what else?) parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.

The parsley is from Morocco, the rosemary is from Israel, the sage and thyme are from Spain, but they were all bought at Waitrose Canary Wharf. I love the food section of Waitrose.

I must admit the recipe is not an original one; I found it online. (Without the internet I am nothing.) My only improvisations were adding caramelised onions and grated cheddar.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hometown

I now know enough Japanese to make smalltalk (on limited topics) with my teacher. The other day we were talking about our hometowns (Kōbe and Calcutta) and she asked me, “Karukatta wa kireina machi desu ka?” (Is Calcutta a kireina city?)

What do you say to that? The Japanese word kireina means both ‘beautiful’ and ‘clean’. Calcutta is a beautiful city, but even its greatest admirers would not call it clean.

It is not uncommon to hear negative comments about Calcutta and Bombay, often from people who have never visited these cities or bothered to look under the surface. Calcutta is my favourite city in the world, but when people speak ill of it, I usually adopt a superior, condescending attitude, rarely bothering to contradict them, much less launch a passionate defence. Perhaps this is because Calcutta is my hometown; perhaps it is because I am cool like that. But sometime back a classmate from college said negative things about Bombay, and I got uncharacteristically worked up and made some rather caustic remarks. I must have been in a bad mood that day because usually, when someone criticises Bombay, I tell them my favourite Bombay story.

When Sarbajeet was interning at a law firm in the summer of 2007, he had to go to a company’s office for a due diligence. The firm gave him the taxi fare, but in those days we were poor and a taxi ride was a lot of money. Sarbajeet naturally opted to keep the fare and take the local train.

Sarbajeet was carrying a laptop which belonged to the firm. When he was boarding the train at VT, in the crush of people trying to get on the train, the laptop bag slipped from his shoulder and fell on the platform. Sarbajeet himself was swept into the compartment by the crowds, and with throngs of people behind him fighting their way into the train, it was impossible for him to get off. He watched helplessly as the laptop lay where it had fallen and the train started to move.

At this point, someone picked up the laptop and started to run alongside the train, shouting, “Yeh kiska laptop hai?” Sarbajeet frantically shouted that it was his, and this man, this complete stranger, running full tilt to keep up with the train, threw the laptop into the compartment where it was passed over people’s heads to a shaken but deeply grateful Sarbajeet.

Ask anyone who has stayed in Bombay for an appreciable period of time, and they will always have a story to tell. Because Bombay is like that – an unpredictable city, a crazy city... I’ll say it then: a great city.