Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Having it all

I met this lovely woman, mother of three at my son's pre-school. With a beautiful face, body to kill for, sweetheart kids and a charming, unassuming manner, she seemed to have it all. I said hello since she always smiled at me when we'd drop off our kids. Eventually, we got talking. She asked me what I did. I mentioned my dreaded book. And her reserve just melted. She was so thrilled that I was doing this book writing thing...how lovely. Fantastic, good for you, she said. I tried to look like I had actually achieved something although I fessed up that there was no publisher in sight yet. She waved that detail away as insignificant. I asked her what she did and she said she used to be a teacher but now felt so utterly useless some days since she was staying home with her kids.

I'm no stranger to the 'useless' feeling. Stay at home mothers and faux-employed mothers such as myself, maybe even some full time working mums feel this way. It's a woman thing isn't it? No matter how much we may try and do, there's always someone who does more, has more, achieves more. That wall street investment banker with three extremely well-brought up kids and looks and a bod like Cindy Crawford is enough for us to take bites of frustration out of our pillows in the middle of sleepless nights.

I tried having it all. And I realized that, that Cindy Crawford Investment banker might have 36 hours in her day or is on steroids or speed. I only have 24 and I like to sleep at least 8 hours out of that. I like having fun, I like to just chillax at times. I'm inherently a lazy person. If it's at all possible to be a motivated and yet lazy person, that's me. I have friends with more energy in their little fingers than I can muster in my entire self. They do it all. And so they have it all.

So I decided in my mid-thirties with an active toddler that I cannot have it all. No siree. Having it all means getting up at 5, getting child to day care at 7, going to work at 8, getting back at 6, picking up child/ren and cooking and collapsing in front of TV. I tried it very briefly when my son was a baby with my business. Couldn't keep it up.

Even now, especially the days when he drives me crrrazy, I think, okay girl this is it. He is going to full time school or something and I'm getting the heck out of here, mummyhood be damned. Then he sees my tear streaked face, comes up to me, puts his arms around me and says, 'Don't worry, it will be all right. I'm here. Now come play with me.' And for that second all is right with the world, my decisions correct, my time away from worldly achievement sound judgment.

Then at 2.00 pm in the afternoon with my husband in his office next door talking business, I lie by my son reading to him before his nap and we collapse into giggles at the sounds farm animals make when they're trying to be someone else. I kiss him happy nap and get ready to leave but he begs me to stay just for a while more.

And lying there with an arm around this sweet, warm creature who very soon won't need either a nap or me I think--at this very minute, maybe I have it all too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bombay meri jaan

How ironic. I follow up a post about the joy of being Muslim in Bombay with shock and sadness as militant Islamics wreak havoc on the city I grew up in.

The images of the burning Taj Mahal hotel, the myriad places strewn with blood and personal affects, the army running around with guns, people fleeing have been playing over and over and over in the media and it has been chilling.

Leave them alone, leave us alone. I want to scream at the terrorists. What harm has this great city done to you?

All Mumbai or Bombay as I still refer to it does is survive, no thrive, despite everything--despite the crowds, the dirt, the hardships of living day to day. People find ways to smile there in the worst of conditions. They celebrate every small happiness.

It's the nerve center of the country. It never sleeps. It's where everyone flocks to.

It's where life happens.

How dare they! How dare they try and bring it down.

That India manages to stay a thriving democracy, stumbling but making strides forward is a miracle given the troubled region it is situated in. The country has to take action now, sweep with a blow the ones responsible for this.

All that will take time, planning, calm heads. Hopefully the Indian politicians (who my friend on Facebook colorfully remarked should be exchanged for the hostages) will show some good sense. Hopefully riots won't break out between Hindus and Muslims in the city.

Many hostages have been released the news reports now say.

I pray that no more lives are taken.

But one thing I have faith in is that the people of Bombay will get up and go back to work just as soon as they can. They'll go back and claim their lives, their normalcy. They'll give so much blood to the blood banks that like in the troubled early nineties, the banks will ask people to please stop coming in--the need has been fulfilled.

Bombay will rise above, overcome this tragedy and move on.

For that's what Mumbai-kars do best.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Of the joy it means to be Muslim

I watched a charming bonbon of a movie last night--a Palestinian Israeli collaboration called 'The Band's Visit.' It was about an Egyptian Police band who had landed in small town Israel. There was no talk of war in the movie, no Gaza strip, no politics, no bloodshed, just conversations and humanity.

I also finished 'The Kite Runner,' recently, a much more somber affair but was thrilled to read the Farsi words and find most of them sounded a lot like the Urdu-Hindi I had heard growing up with Hindi movies.

And I began thinking about Muslims. Especially the Muslims I grew up hearing about, seeing, encountering. In Bombay anyway, they were always the cool folk. Or they appeared so very cool to me because we South Indians were the most uncool. I mean compare the mere name Chuppamani Iyengar to Jehangir Khan and you have it all there in a nutshell. Sure there was a ghetto Muslim area--Muhammed Ali Road--and it was like any other ghetto.

But the mainstream middle class and upper class Bombay Muslims always stood for the city's most fashionable, attractive, well spoken, polite.

The word Muslim conjured up for me and still does--Biryani (the queen of all rice dishes), A. R Rehman (of the lilting, pulsating music that resonates from rickshaws all over India), Luxurious garments covered with Zardosi, lavish fourteen day long weddings.

The word Muslim brings to mind stalwarts of my beloved music--Hindustani music--the velvet voice of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the skilled rhythms of the adorable Zakir Hussain, the melodious strings of Amjad Ali Khan.

The word Muslim conjures up for me to this day--life lived and enjoyed to its fullest.

Utter luxury, as a well known Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri said is something, no one can beat India in. And few do it better than the Indian Muslims--starting with the Mughals and kept up today by the well to do South Bombay Boris :-).

As a young girl, I wished I'd be able to marry someone whose last name was Khan. I still don't know a cooler last name.

India houses the second largest population of Muslims in the world (after Indonesia) and despite the occasional bloody skirmish, the occasional political campaign against one faction or the other, even despite the myriad terrorist bomb blasts and attacks, we manage to live together.

We manage to rock back and forth yet stand as one nation.

How about that glut of Khans in the Hindi film industry. How cool is it that in one of the largest film industries in the world, in a majority Hindu country, the major movie stars are all named Khan, all of whom are married to Hindu women (at last count anyway). Also how many times have they played Muslim men in their movies?

A major world democracy bordered by troubled or controversial lands on all sides-Pakistan, China, Afghanistan is close by enough, the Middle east but a hop away (some parts of the middle east are more or less run by the south Indians but that's another story) and India manages to sail through these troubled seas. The Hindus manage to live with the Muslims.

But only just.

The day twenty years ago when we truly, truly didn't see much difference between the last names Ali, Fernandez and Joshi is gone. They were all merely classmates who brought to class--if we were lucky--the right sweets to share during their respective Id or Christmas or Diwali festivals.

I'd like to think that even in this turmoil ridden world, an Egyptian band going to a small Israeli village only draws attention because the band is full of somberly dressed men carrying odd sized instruments walking along the street unable to find their destination. I hope there are times when an Indian Hindu stops in remote Pakistan and says he had come by to try their legendary kabobs and is served without anyone blinking an eye.

I do know how my cousin's in-laws were received when they paid a visit to Lahore some time ago. They had left Pakistan during the partition and were visiting for the first time and guess what? The streets rang out with "We have guests from Hindostan (India), we must treat them well." Bewildered by the hospitality that poured from strangers, they spent time in Pakistan being treated with the graciousness their Muslim brethren are known for.

Maybe all we need is more movie collaborations, music crossovers (any Indian reading this must recall the furore Khaled, an Algerian created in India decades ago with his Didi!), food collaborations and more.

And Inshallah (God willing), things will change.

The word Muslim won't conjure up fear but joy, utter joy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes we can!!!

Okay, this can't be avoided. Everyone is talking about it and it's historic.

As Chris Rock so eloquently put it, "THERE'S A BROTHER IN THE WHITE HOUSE!"


Seldom have I stood taller with my brown skin and foreign name as a newly minted American citizen than on Tuesday night. In India my coloring was too dark to be considered beautiful. Especially among my in-laws, I was often made to feel lesser than the paler women around. Never did a compliment escape their lips, often eyes washed over my ever too brown face and I could see bewilderment that I had made it into the clan. Here's me thumbing my nose at them.


The sun is shining and all is right with the world.

I really wouldn't have minded a stodgy older, white (sensible for the most part) man for a president either but his running mate, attractive though she maybe blinding all the beer guzzling crowd with her smug good looks. But the idea of a VP with a pregnant teenage daughter and belief that dinosaurs are a figment of one's imagination was downright scary.

Instead we have OBAMA. America is cool again (an American woman was in France or Spain and someone came up to her and hugged her thanking her for voting for Obama. She said this.) So true. This cool country that has been way too uncool is now cool again.

And history has been made.

I just ran to my local 7/11 this morning and bought a newspaper from Wednesday. I've saved this for my son to look at when twenty years from now he'll (hopefully) be shocked that this was such a big deal when he was a kid.

Yes it will be the day when this isn't historic news, when this is newsworthy but for other reasons besides color and race.

This victory meant so much to me especially because as I was watching the numbers trickling in and CNN making their predictions, I was finishing a biography of one of my favorite writers--Oscar Wilde. Wilde spent two years doing hard labor for committing what was then a vile lewd act. He had an affair with a man--Lord Alfred Douglas. His father then took Wilde to court and got him convicted. Wilde wasn't able to enjoy the success of his brilliant play, my favorite piece of all time--The importance of being earnest' or celebrate its first printing. Both the play and the printed version came out without his name on it. I cannot imagine greater pain for a writer.

After his release, he couldn't write anymore. The time in jail and the ostracism he suffered as a result had stifled the creative life out of him. He died at the age of 46. How much more could have come from the man who penned 'the picture of dorian gray' and the 'happy prince.' and numerous plays beyond compare.

How far we have come now (even though California voted to uphold the ban on gay marriage). Their fight continues but at least they won't suffer as Wilde did. Race relations aren't smoothened just because of this new elected President. No sir.

We have come far and yet how much further we have to go.

But our new President is proof indeed that what the American people made happen on Tuesday is a leap forward. All may not be right yet. But surely, in the future, taking the right steps forward, there is hope.

I cannot end without saying this about the educated, graceful, role model for all girls everywhere--Michelle Obama. She's all black, she's the first lady and she's the sister in the white house.

You go girrrrl.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Little old ladies and dirty old men

I always used to think the best of little old ladies and most little old men. They just look so harmless and adorable.

Now many old men I have had a problem in the past with in India where they sometimes grabbed my chest and derriere, even while walking alongside their wives. Horrid fellows. Here I find them staring at said body parts but at least they don't touch.

But little old ladies I had faith in as the milk of human adorable-ness and innocence. All that fluffy hair you know, and soft pink cheeks.

All that changed when I was on Devon street in Chicago with my in-laws. We were in an electronics shop deciding what brand of VCD player to get them when I tired of their discussions and stepped out. There a foot or so away by a bus stop stood the stereotypical little old lady, cherubic, rosy cheeked, dressed in fluffy clothes etc etc. She saw me and waved. I went up to her and said hello. She told me she was going somewhere to take a class and that she went everywhere she wanted without a care. How sweet, I thought. My in-laws stepped out of the store and I started to take my leave but she was just getting started. My sons live here, my daughters live there, she said.

My in-laws and husband started to walk towards us and just as soon as they were within earshot, my little old lady started talking about her late husband--he was the nicest man and then she switched gears and told me in some graphic terms how her husband and she used to ahem ahem...between the sheets and how fantastic her orgasms were. I was never more grateful for my in-laws' less than perfect English. My mother in law started to furrow her brows but seemed not fully aware of what was being said. The old woman then touched my arm and started to launch into more raunchiness when I had to throw politeness to the wind and leave her in mid-sentence. "Sorry, she was so chatty..." I said to my family and rushed them away.

I always cringed thinking about this woman, but now I wonder how prejudiced of me that was. That the conversation was totally inappropriate for a stranger aside, I was being judgmental because she was supposed to be an adorable old woman, not capable of such thought. I mean who likes to think of their parents ahem ahem. And we don't find polar bears so adorable if we see them shagging, do we?

I don't know if it's the "No sex please, we're Indian," type of thinking in me or just my preconceived notions of how someone is supposed to act and appear at a certain age that blurred my thinking.

This is one relatively harmless prejudice, if you will, but the same could be said of those prejudiced against gays for instance. The picture of two men or women having a carnal relationship is abhorrent to some. Do prejudices start this way as a distaste and slowly morph into closing your mind against that which is uncomfortable and then change even into hate.

Will such a foolish misplaced discomfort about skin prevent a good man from taking on one of the most powerful positions on the planet next week?

I thought of myself as an extremely open minded person but I do find myself cringing when I hear certain things discussed too openly, very crude jokes disturb me. Or maybe all I am is a bit of a prude. Is that just part of being civilized or should it all be out there in the open to be talked about? What is it that makes one truly liberal, uninhibited?

Maybe if I could just streak across Grant Park, I'd lose all inhibitions. My writing wouldn't be called quiet anymore since I'd be able to do more than scratch the surface of human emotion and draw blood for the editors to relish. I'd be able to bare it all in a manner of speaking.

Alas. I'll have to do it only figuratively for my (post baby) stomach sags too much and holding my breath (in order to look good while doing this) for that long would be way too hard!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My latest sanity (life) line

I've found my Bhagawad Gita of the moment. It's a book I look at whenever I'm down. I find in it wisdom, hope and joy.

No it isn't the Bible. It's a book called Rotten Reviews and Rejections. And it's just awesome!!

It is, as one might expect, a compilation of reviews and rejections received by the likes of Jane Austen and G.B Shaw before they became the legends they are. It's just so reassuring that these demi-Gods were once victims of rejection too :-)

For example, a rejection letter (that touches close to home for me) sent to one of my all time favorite authors is:

"It (the manuscript) is very interesting and has several good points. But is isn't quite right for our list."

How bland and non committal right? I love this one for many of my own rejections sound like this. Here's one of my own from a major publishing house:

"Thank you so much for giving me the chance to read Ranjini Iyer's novel. I think Ms. Iyer is a lovely writer, and I felt very attached to Swami as I read this. That said, I felt that the story overall was a bit quiet, and not quite as vivid as I hoped it would be. Ultimately I'm afraid it's not right for my list."

Now for the best part. The rejection I cited first was received by drum roll, drum roll.....Agatha Christie for...drum roll, drum roll..., "The Mysterious Affair at Styles." the first Hercule Poirot mystery. History making series as it turned out. Legendary detective as it turned out, and one of her rejections sound so much like mine. I am thrilled beyond words.

Now my whining and spewing on about rejections might seem repetitive, tiresome and boring, even to my three loyal followers. But this note isn't a selfish one at all. Oh no. It is for everyone who has received rejections. And that would be everyone who has a pulse. For rejections come from all corners don't they--potential employers, potential dates, possible lover leads, sales leads and perchance, publishers too.

My examples are indeed skewed and taken from literature but just a look at the luminaries cited here should give us all cause for hope.

G. B Shaw wrote, "I finished my first book 76 years ago. I offered it to every publisher on the English speaking earth I had ever heard of. Their refusals were unanimous: and it did not get into print until, 50 years later, publishers would publish anything that had my name on it."

Here's a delicious one received for "The Bridge over the River Kwai,"A very bad book."

Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" got this one "You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous..."

Rudyard Kipling got this one, "I'm sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."

John Le Carre got this for "The Spy who came in from the cold." "You're welcome to le carre'. he hasn't got any future." This editor must be eating his or her words even today decades after this was written.

I close with this. More than a dozen publishers rejected a book by the poet e e Cummings. So when it was finally published, it had this dedication. "No Thanks to: Farrar & Rinehart, Simon and Schuster, Coward-McCann, Limited Editions, Harcourt, Brace, Random House, Equinox press" Several other publishers are mentioned.

Finally published by whom? By e e's mother.

Ammah!!! Are you reading this?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The compost heap and other environmentally friendly acts!

I never thought I'd be so thrilled to see my kitchen waste transform into gardener's gold...i.e. compost.

I started a compost pile in my backyard some months ago and nothing happened. Nada.

I was doing it wrong, not moisturizing it (yes they need moisturizing too), turning the pile, all that sort of thing. And so all I had was a growing pile of garbage in a big black plastic (its recycled, thank you very much) box in our backyard. Visions of raccoons and badgers raiding the garage and wreaking havoc on our convertible began to make all efforts to go green seem like a bad idea.

Then wisdom struck. I thought of the Internet, the solution for all acts of idiocy. And I found a video-- composting 101. I turned the pile, added water, compost accelerator (it contains bone meal and smells a bit like the back of a butcher shop but its all good) and suddenly in the middle of all the veggie waste there it was, brown dirt like compost is supposed to look!

I have never been more thrilled. You see, I can recycle all I want but creating greenery just isn't my thing. I cannot grow a plant to save my life. If a plant (like my herbs do) survives my care, it's purely because of its own will power and ability to make it against all odds.

And now having (semi) created this wonderful gardener's gold, I feel like a demi-god of all things green. Of course that high lasted not too long since whenever it rains and the pile gets soggy, it looks and smells like garbage all over again. My brother says it is a hazardous thing I have growing in my backyard. I am going to have to consult someone who knows. Time to go back to that all encompassing ocean of knowledge: Wikipedia. (just kidding)

Now if only I could figure out how to stop buying cereal in boxes and milk in cartons so I can reduce that (albeit recyclable) waste, I'd rule.

Speaking of my drop in the ocean, the other day, I met the dynamic owner of a Chicago boutique, Pivot. Jessa Brinkmeyer. This is Chicago's first eco boutique and is trendy, fashionable and (kinda) affordable depending on what you pick. But what struck me was the owner. All of 24, the young woman is so admirable. At 24, I was a complete idiot, as blind and unaware as can possibly be. And worse, I thought I knew all the answers. And here I saw this person who also recently conducted an exhibition for sustainable goods for the home and more and made it look like such a big event. She isn't my friend or anything but given that my other goal besides being published by the year 2300, is to do my bit to make the world more earth friendly by influencing people to use less plastic and paper and so on, I was glad to find a hero even though she is young enough to be my offspring (almost). Get off the soap box, you say? In a minute.

So here's my list of easy things to do (besides, the stuff everyone knows like compact florescent bulbs) to be earth friendly even if one can't be on a higher plane and compost ;-)

1. No styrofoam please! I beg you.
2. Cloth napkins, cleaning cloths etc or barring that recycled bounty type paper.
3. Less dryer time. Only people in the US use the dryer so much, I was surprised to learn. Londoners don't even own them.
4. If you must use these, use biodegradable utensils
5. Turn off water more often. Don't keep the water running while brushing. Duh.

Ok, ok, I'll save power now by stopping this lame (but useful :-) list here and switch off my machine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Complexion (non) sense

Indians do not like dark skin.

Funny isn't it since we are dark skinned. Duh. Actually, no, it isn't funny. We discriminate against people with dark skin. We discriminate against ourselves and every race that's darker. Why? Because we consider it ugly. Dark skinned woman still find it hard to find a man (in an arranged marriage scenario) and if your skin is truly dark, as in chocolate brown, forget it. Might as well be branded un-salable in the marriage meat market.

The issue of skin color (not as a race issue but as a cosmetic thing) was something I had forgotten about after being in the US for so many years. Many a time when I meet a new person of Indian origin for the first time, they always find a way to say something that makes me cringe. It might be something utterly personal and none of their business which is irritating but harmless like "Why is your stomach sticking out? Getting fat, are you?" But often it's something discriminatory about dark skin either something utterly rude such as "Oh your son is fair like your husband and not taken after your father. Good thing." Or worse, something racist about people whose skins are a shade darker than ours. I hate being an Indian then. Am ashamed of it. Just HATE it. It's unbearable that instead of standing up for people of another minority, we discriminate. Based on what? Pigment? That we have an abundance of too.

I recall being criticized by a relative on the eve of my wedding for becoming too dark after going to America since America was the place people went to and became "fair". I like my color, love it, I wanted to yell at her but my brother kept my mouth sealed since that would've been rude. It makes me cringe when people (Indians) say, "Oh she is nice looking, but so dark." Men can get away with the color bar unless of course they're too dark. then all bets are off for them too.

The whole issue of color only returned to mind because my dad mentioned an Indian TV debate on which a prominent journalist was discussing this whole color controversy in India. I cannot think of anything less significant to discuss. I am glad they're talking about it and dealing with it but disgusted at the same time that this inane rubbish warrants a discussion of debatable proportions.

There was an Indian ad on You tube I found that left me speechless. A prominent Bollywood actor Saif Khan is rejecting a girl based on her color and hooks up with a fairer gal. Now this is a series of ads where the next ad or two show how this dark girl starts using the infamous 'fair and lovely' cream and becomes fair enough for him to notice her and thus go back to her. I wanted to throw up. What the hell! This is what the youth in India believes, thinks about, does? Then there was another ad where yet another Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan (who is dark himself so go figure) advises a man who is dark to use "fair and handsome" (I am gagging as I write this) and thus win the girl since he's otherwise the laughing stock of the town.

My father grew up suffering massive insecurity for his dark complexion compared to his brothers. It makes me cry sometimes that even today, at 72 he says he is too dark to be good looking. He is one of the handsomest men I have seen. Where do you think my looks come from ;-)

But here's an eye opener. I mentioned this whole color obsession to my friend (who's white) and how my in-laws thought I was too dark for their son. And she said, "Sorry Ranjini but to me your colors are exactly the same." Gives one pause, doesn't it? This subtle difference in shades of brown that all the Indians make such a hoo haa about is all just, well, brown to a Caucasian.

Then here's the biggest eye opener, one that I experienced several years ago as a teenager. I had a patch on my forehead that had lost pigment (vitiligo was the condition). The doctor (who had studied this, at the time, revolutionary treatment from the Swiss) took some skin from my forearm and added a solvent to it. The solvent dissolved the skin and all that remained in the test tube was pigment which he would inject into my forehead.

And what do you think the color of the pigment was?

Black. Pitch black.

I was surprised and asked him, "Why isn't it brown like my skin? He said everyone's pigment is black. All that differs is its concentration on one's skin. How far apart each cell of pigment is, is what determines one's "final" color, if you will.

There you have it. Underneath it all, everyone is as black as the night. Everyone's color is exactly the same.

Try rubbing some fairness cream on that Shahrukh.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

In search of the perfect pastry

I am a pastry connoisseur. I repeat myself but I shall say it again. Ah lohve pastries. And since I pretty much live to eat (my brother and I agree on this one thing), you can imagine that a good pastry, for me, is to die for. And an exquisite one...oh the lengths I will go for that :-)

In my opinion, a good pastry mustn't overwhelm. If it serves as part of tea, it must accompany and allow for the tea drinker and pastry sampler to enjoy other treats too, not selfishly make the eater so full that another piece would kill them! And if it serves as dessert, it must sweeten the palate and provide a perfect end to a meal, not be a second meal. This is why I object most vehemently to what passes these days for pastries/dessert in most restaurants. First of all what's with the abundance of whipped cream? And that too the kind that comes out of a can. Sacrilege!

No if it must be there, the cream (whipped by a human being) must accompany a pastry, enhance it, sit by its side, or on top, but never smother it to oblivion.

In my quest for the perfect pastry, I have sampled wares from many a bakery and pattisserie. In Chicago, my favorites are Rolf's (who supplies Whole foods and whose petit fours are light and heavenly), The Austrian Bakery on Clark street (whose marzipan torte is a must try and try again) and the ever so chic Julius Meinl (too many delights to name but the Esterhazy comes to mind as I write this).

I have sampled the wares of Bittersweet whose cookies one must put on their "things to eat before I die" list. In my quest to eat and yet keep it light (or so I tell myself), I try to stick to petit fours as much as possible. And in the quest of the perfect petit fout, I have ordered what the web proclaimed the best petit fours (and although I think Rolf's are lighter, these are less pedestrian and delightful) from Dragonfly--a bakery in San Francisco, I believe. And now dangerously close to home is a place that makes among other delicacies, the best cupcakes on earth. And I should know 'cause I have tried most of them out there. Honey is the name of the place.

If I am walking down a street and see the words bakery, the store front merits a visit at least. Most are too low brow with giant cookies and things too enormous for my snobbish tastes but to use one of my favorite literary characters, Archy McNally's phrase, "One never knows, do one?"

I hadn't discovered the queen of all pastry shops until I chanced to be in Paris and crossed the threshold of Laduree. The maker of the French macaron (no, not the coconut macaroon which can also be yummy) but the version that Marie Antionette favored. She may or may not have said, 'let them eat cake', but she sure knew her cakes. Or at least Sophia Coppola made her seem such in her movie. Laduree supplied their scrumptious spread for the film. Oh to have been an intern on that set!

Anyhoo, Laduree, another word for eden is the maker of heaven in the form of pastry. I have tried a few of their offerings and my favorite of them all is the Blackcurrant-Violet "Religieuse"--Choux pastry, blackcurrant & violet flavoured confectioner’s custard (the picture on the left doesn't begin to do it justice). It is, to use their own words, a religious experience. Light, flavorful, delightful, the unusual flavor of lavender and sadly, absolutely unavailable outside Paris!

How many bakers have I approached asking them if they know how to make this confection and how many times have I been looked at as a mad woman. Little do they know what they are missing by not making the effort.

I should make the effort myself, I know. But I am not lazy, I am just not able to find a recipe for it.

Except when I found out (prior to our recent trip to London) that they have a branch there at Harrods. I found myself looking forward not to Buckingham palace or the Kohinoor (which I shall be attempting to steal and give back to my people, the rightful owners of said stone). Oh no, what beckoned me to London were two things: Laduree and afternoon tea at Orangerie.

We returned from London a day ago and alas the Violet, I was informed by Ms. Snobbish herself (wo)manning the pastry country at Laduree, is a seasonal item. But the Rose Framboise was equally delectable--rose flavored icing covered choux pastry with raspberries and cream accompanying. The experience was marred only by our son jumping up and down on silken cushions with a waiter frowning nearby willing us to leave. Still, afternoon tea at the Orangerie overlooking Kensignton palace was a dream--warm English scones with jam and clotted cream, orange cake, almond cake, walnut white chocolate slices and more to savor while sipping teas (that I later found out the thieves were selling at $20 a pound). Overall, pastry bliss.

My quest for perfection in the pastry has ended at Laduree.

Oh but I mustn't forget the wonderful world of the Indian sweet. The variety of it, the sheer plethora of choices and tastes and flavors. The--but now, now don't get me started.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Toilet humor

Everyone who has a child knows this: you just cannot enjoy a restaurant meal again the way you used to as a couple, looking into each other's eyes, sipping wine or a martini, sharing bites and commenting on how the food is simple yet complex or just plan bad and therefore beneath you. It even worked (for us on some fortunate days) when the baby was an infant sleeping rapturously in his car seat while we made intelligent conversation.

Now, of course, all that has to be left in the past.

These days dinners are all about trying to make it through the evening without a tantrum, without spoiling everyone's outfits with a sloppy mess, and by deftly negotiating with the child over his angry demands for that one toy that he just has to have that very minute. All of this I can deal with, with elan. There is just one thing I try and make sure doesn't interfere with dinner and that is the toilet. The rule is: the boy has to make a trip there before we sit at the table to avoid any unforeseen consequences.

All had been going well, according to plan (or close) until this one night.

Picture this: We're at a lovely Italian place. Dim lights, soft music, the smell of garlicky dishes being delivered here and there fills the air. It's crowded and loud which is great since it keeps our boy amused. He happily makes squiggles and patterns with his crayons until his pasta arrives. It's steaming hot so I ask him if he wants to make a quick pit stop before he starts eating. "Yes," he says and so we go to the bathroom and are back right in time for the pasta is now just right. He begins eating. I sip happily on my Peach Bellini able to, if not stare into my love's eyes, at least chat with him looking at him sideways.

Then it happens. Hubby has to take a "quick" phone call and our son suddenly stops eating.
"What's the matter? Don't you like it?" My calamari arrives, hot, spicy and steaming. I take a bite when he answers, "My stomach hurts."
I put down my fork and ask the dreaded question, "Do you have to go potty?"
"Yes," he says eagerly and begins to slide down our booth. I sigh and look towards the door where hubby is still talking on the phone. Fine. I dutifully start to pull our boy out of our booth.

Our 'too close for comfort' neighboring booth has an older couple seated talking animatedly. They're super well dressed and sipping wine. "Sorry," I say as we scootch past. "I am going potty," my son announces to them. Luckily the woman starts to giggle and dismisses my mortified apologies. On our way to the bathroom I tell him never to do that again.

I take the boy to the toilet and settle him down. And there we are for ten minutes.
"Nothing," he says and we step out.
As soon as we reach our table, he settles down and eats a few more bites. I eat my calamari and watch for hubby to return so we can have a semblance of a civilized dinner. Minutes later, baby clutches his stomach again and says, "My stomach hurts, lets try again."
We slide out once more.
"So soon?" The chic lady asks.
"False alarm, last time," I offer.
I try to be motherly and patient and lead my son back to the ladies. He settles down again and I stand by the door, clenching my teeth, losing my appetite by the second (now I know you're shaking your head saying what a bad mother I am but hear me out. I have had to consult psychiatrists about my aversion to public bathrooms so bear with me).
"Are you angry with me?" the poor thing asks.
"Of course not darling, are you able to...?"
Another ten minutes pass and we're nowhere close to putting an end to this saga.
"Nothing, lets go," he says.
We wash hands etc etc and go back to the table. The calamari is cold. Hubby is back from his phone call looking perturbed but luckily the boy is digging into his dinner. I attack my cold calamari and warm peach bellini and wait.
It's always third time lucky.
"I want to try again," he says at last.
"Your turn," I say to hubby, and take a swig of my drink. Then I look at the waiter and ask him to pack our tortellinis to go.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Race relations

My son goes to this nursery where he's one of two Asian kids or to be more specific, one of two South Asian kids. The other's also a boy. I have never had a problem with race relations in the U.S if I exclude the one time a disgruntled car wash manager called me an Indian b!@#h because I left the car wash without getting a wash. And I only did that since he was so rude from the start. Anyhow, the car wash closed in a week.

Revenge is sweet.

But I digress. This school. I've been taking my son there for over two years now. The other mum I speak of wears a hijab. A charming woman but we aren't even friends. And I mention that for a reason--why is it then that everyone mistakes me for her and my son for hers, asking after my son naming the other boy.

Even after their kid's been in the same class as mine for months. Then they ask me inane questions such as, so you speak Urdu at home? No we don't. Its a beautiful language, but not ours. It's appalling how little people seem to know, or even notice. The headscarf should be a dead giveaway. No?

To top it all, she's all American, born and raised. Close your eyes and Tiffany or Heather might be speaking. I on the other hand am the one with the accent. I wonder if she has similar problems. Probably, this is why she avoids me. Still, I suppose it's the best we can get for living in a sterilized suburb.

Now, for all that ranting I do above perched on my high horse, here's the shoe on the other foot.

Every teenage Caucasian girl with straight hair of no matter what color, looks the same to me. It's my shame.

I once had to go like two feet close to a girl playing soccer to make sure she wasn't my son's baby sitter. I mean I had been waving to her frantically for over the course of an hour and she had ignored me. It then occurred to me that perhaps she wasn't being rude. That it probably just wasn't her. And lo and behold, it wasn't. I needed to be within kissing distance to be sure. Skinny girl, straight brown hair with blonde highlights, heavy eye make up, playing soccer. Must be her.

So I guess, its all the same folks. The confusion, the "exotic" faces that blend into one other. It all depends on what one's used to. What one has grown up seeing. Its my only excuse, and a bad one too, since I have been in this country for twelve years.

In my defense, I seldom confuse the adults. And then too, only if they have blondish, brown hair and similar names.

But hey, I am a member of an ethnic minority. That gives me the right to be indignant, doesn't it?

"Sure it does Mrs. Rafiq," they say to me in placating voices. "Sure it does."


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My tryst with the movie business: "Beyond the crap"

I was cleaning out my CD drawer and what should I find but a dusty DVD, a copy of a film I'd like to forget, but which is also kinda memorable in many ways.

It was a copy of my first film. The first film I produced. Sounds grand, doesn't it? This film, which no one shall ever get to watch unless they're under my close supervision and even then they will be allowed to watch only the opening title sequence where it says in capital letters, "Produced by Ranjini Iyer and friend".

This labor of love and irritation took about a year and a half of my life and taught me a great deal. The first lesson: don't go about producing films with nary a care as to who is directing/controlling them. Second: this is bloody hard work and Third: I LOVE doing this. Next time, just make sure the people I work for are human and, Fourth: try and get paid for it.

Oh yes, we weren't paid. Or rather we're still waiting for our share of the profits. 5%, I think. It was the cherry on top of this sundae--the two people who walked away from the picture with the most injuries were my producing partner and I and we were the only two not to get paid for our efforts in this masterpiece.

This film (I won't give its name) is so bad, so very bad that Roger Ebert would be rendered too speechless to even give it three, four, six, infinite thumbs down. His thumb would be paralyzed by its badness (I don't mean badness in that hip way which means rad). His hands would be unable to move, his eyes would be blooodshot and unfocused. His lips frozen. His mind numb.

The sad, sad irony is...the book I've written which I think is a competent, strong effort (not genius of course but dashed good) is being rejected left, right and center while this vile piece of @#$%, I mean work, has won awards. Not razzies, but true awards--best picture (har har), best screenplay (which we co-wrote and therefore even more har har).

Despite the crappiness of the end result, I still wouldn't have minded so much the whole process because really, it is most interesting being a Producer. It's like being the COO of an operation. You get to hire people, location scout (since it was a low budget affair, we didn't have a location manager), conduct casting calls, manage the budgets. All this would be wonderful if only we weren't 'Producing' with one and often both arms tied above our heads. I.e no check signing power, no say in the final decision and so on and so forth.

What we were given full power of and left completely alone to deal with were the myriad complaints. Complaints from crew members who weren't paid on time (we didn't have the power to sign checks remember), complaints from actors who were called on set (and who'd taken days off from work) but who weren't on the shooting schedule because someone goofed up, complaints from people receiving rubber checks, complaints from the people who owned various shooting locations regarding insolent behavior on the part of the big guns. Complaints about...you get the idea.

To be honest, there were some flattering moments as well. To the average person on set, we were the top guns. Every so often I'd have some random crew person assume I was an extra and ask me not to stand in his light when I'd very coolly tell him who I was and watch as the gruffness melted into an almost feudal sensibility.

Then there were the overeager ones handing us scripts. We were the Producers right? The ones putting in the money. This is a common misconception. The Producer doesn't necessarily put in any money into a project. We're the hired underlings who're usually paid a lot of money. Executive Producer. Co-Producer and many creative Producer titles are reserved for money givers. Next time while watching a movie, especially an Indie film, see how many producers are listed. Several is the usual answer. The people who did the donkey work and got salaries and the well heeled ones who funded the film and got a title in return.

So much for the industry info. Where was I? Oh yes, the flattering moments. People, usually actors, would walk over to me and tell me about their true ambitions (to direct of course) and that they had a sizzling script that I just had to read. I'd open my mouth to tell them my husband and I were having trouble paying the mortgage (at that time, I was working with three clients on consulting jobs and working nights at an online teaching job. We were undergoing a rather troublesome financial crisis which is a story for a different post :-). But saying that would've sent them packing so all I'd do was nod. And they'd give me their ten second pitch. Now ideally, this should be what the script is about. But usually it would be an opening or very dramatic scene from the film. And of course they always know who they wanted to cast.

"So, what's your script about?" I'd say and glance at my watch as if I had places to go and they'd clear their breath and say, "Picture this. Jim Belushi..he'd be perfect for this part...is standing at an empty corridor. And suddenly, a pack of pit-bulls run up to him and leap towards him. Cut to title sequence." "Yes," I'd say patiently, but what's the rest of the film about. "Oh right," she or he'd say and launch into some detail.

There'd then be a loud call, an irate crew person striding towards me. Some complaint, of course. "Excuse me, important producing business," I'd then say and make my escape before my cover is blown.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Do kids not climb trees and get dirty anymore

I thought this when my son and I were taking a walk. I was walking, he was on his scooter along the sidewalks of deserted, climate controlled suburbia. He attempted to climb a tree but at 3'3" wasn't able to make much progress when I thought, how sad it is that kids don't do much kids stuff anymore. Play dates, soccer games, ballet class are what kids' lives are made of. How unnatural.

I remember how games were so different when we were little. We made up stuff, TVs seldom worked and anyway in India while I was growing up we had all of one channel that was specially programmed to be especially boring.

And so thinking of all such things, I decided to be different. My son said our car was dirty so I said lets wash it. Lets get our hands dirty too. We got out a couple buckets and began scrubbing. He with a nice soft cloth, I with my scotch brite (I know you're wincing, I know). I wanted to get rid of all the hardened muck you see, efficient housewife that I am and I did. We soaped, rinsed, my son got nice and dirty. Very organic. The car was wiped clean and suddenly the result of my organic activity was apparent. I had ruined the paint on the car. The muck was all gone and so was much of the sheen on the paint. It looks like someone had angrily scraped against the side of the vehicle again and again and again.

So folks, I am all for soccer classes and organized childhood now. And yes, car washes too. Even if have to wait for an hour to get it done.

No more unplanned activities, for this mum anyway. The paint job on the car (if it cannot be buffed) will cost as much as the old car is worth. They say going organic is expensive, don't they? Why didn't I listen?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Aging happily ever after

I turned 36 today and I am happy to be growing older. No, no I am not lying...I haven't looked better (I wish I could be as slim as I was when I was 17 but I LOVE food too much so that's a pipe dream...:-).

But I am wiser, more aware, less diffident, less hot headed, more understanding of others than ever before. A lot has to do with having had my son but also growing older has been good. I no longer wish to explain my choices to people. Being able to wear my heart on my sleeve here and bearing all (to a point of course) is very freeing.

The less there is to hide, the less issues one has accepting oneself.

Best of all I got my "Sex in the City" moment or rather couple of hours today. Sweet husband of mine presents me with a pair of Manolos. Of course I am quickly stung by sticker shock but once (again quickly) it wears off, I am thinking, the shoes could fit better. It's a size too big.

We should visit Neiman Marcus where he got them and exchange them or better still look for a different pair should a nicer one present itself. There we go then and enter this shoe paradise with a sales assistant who could well be a cast member of that popular show I am now feeling like I am part of myself. Prada to my left, Manolo to my right, Stewart Wetizman glistens in front, Gucci and the latest kid on the block according to hubby's research, Christian Louboutin in the middle. I try on several pairs of the highest heels I've ever worn and feel prettier by the minute. Now, I am a DSW girl who sometimes ventures to Nordstrom but encouraged by my better half, I manage to try shoes without even so much as a glance at the price tag.

We settle on a Prada. Fabulous! And now that I feel right at home, I try on a Stewart Weitzman pair of jeweled sandals Marie Antoinette would have approved of. Hubby says get one more, early Christmas, what the heck. And I ask the comely assistant to order me the pair in my size. At $450, it seems like a bargain compared to the Prada we have just bought.

Those of you who had once sympathized with me as a "starving' writer and are now shaking their heads. Well, smarty pants, I keep my laptop and Pradas in separate closets. That should count for something.

Besides, I plan to lose a lot of sleep over this birthday gift. Does that make me a worthier person??

I wonder.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The philosophy and $$$ of being a first time novelist

My friend sent me a note when I emailed people about my blog. His observation was (and it's a sound one) to write not with a commercial bent but for oneself. This is very commendable and I am happy and also on days proud of having written a novel that is actually readable (according to 60 odd people anyway).

Now here are some realities of this business in case you wondered why I and so many of us clamor to be published. The money you say!! Truth? The advances for first time authors (average) is about $25000 if you're lucky to be taken on by a big house. That works out to an hourly rate for me of about oh let me see...$ 0.00001 or so. You may say some get hundreds of thousands of $$$. Names that end in King, Grisham and Hilton get those numbers. Lets say I knock the socks off an editor and get--hold your breath now--six figures!!! That works out to about $ 0.00005 an hour for my labor, not counting the uncertainty, tears and so on. So its not the money. The fame then! Yes, the wonderful fame (which I truly think is vastly, vastly overrated) I am sure to garner as the writer of a obscure niche book on an ordinary Indian family.

What is it then?

Not yet self-actualized as I am, I want the validation no matter how small. I don't care if its Penguin or Jack and Jill Press who publishes me. It's just a notch on the belt, trying to reach for something out there, no matter how difficult and unattainable and no matter how unreasonable the establishment might be.

And I have started a new book so I don't have all my eggs in one baskets. I have started weaving a new basket to put the eggs in :-)

In addition I am one of the lucky ones. The "real" writers work two, sometimes three jobs then go home and write. I on the other hand have a husband who supports my writing habit and has even made the gross error(?) of encouraging it.

I truly admire the ones that do get published, especially unknown, unconnected ones like yours truly, for it isn't easy.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

India beckons

I use my local library a lot. A LOT. I mean my taxes and fines are being used to construct a new self-help wing. They are even considering naming it after me.

Seriously, what's bittersweet about my library books these days are the due dates on them. March 12th has turned into September 12th as if in a blink. I read books now and turn to the page with the card that has the due date on it and I feel my heart sink. Soon the books I borrow will have due dates of October, then December, and then January. And as January rolls to an end, so will my relationship with my library, for that's around when I will stop using it, at least as a regular member. After that if all goes well, I will use it during the summers I am here, being nostalgic about these very times.

Our time to return to India draws near and so do my fears about adjusting, making good there. It is the right thing to do, no question--parents miss us and need us, our son should know his heritage and be close to family as he grows up etc etc. But spoilt brats as we've become, coddled by an efficient, no nonsense nation of haves, it isn't going to be easy going back to a country where toughness is taught at the crib. My parents though, left my brother and me too soft, too protected, too sheltered and yes, way too privileged to be well-adjusted Indians. So perhaps its poetic justice that I must do the adjusting now and be an adult about it.

Its not going to be all bad of course. With money, India can be the perfect place. Maids, cooks, afternoon tea. But my library I will miss. Sorely. Besides my friends. But truly, the library is one of my closest friends too. So it will be one of the many lovely friends I have made here that I will miss. Sigh, sigh, sigh.

Come on, you say, no real tragedy here. Its not as if I am leaving a burning house, a platoon of blood thirsty gunmen and all my possessions to go to an unknown banana republic. It's my motherland for Pete's sake right?

Sigh, sigh. I am building nostalgic memories even as I write this on this humid Sunday night, listening to my three year old talk to his cars in bed, trying hard to squeeze more into the final moments of a long, fun, almost end of summer day in Chicago.

The countdown has begun...

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hot off the press: the latest pain

So many of us take pleasure (I know I often do) in other people's pain. "At least my life isn't as bad /crazy/pathetic as theirs," is a good feeling to have when hearing about others' miseries . Thus in the interest of the world at large, I write this post.

And what pray, you ask, prompted that sentiment? Rejection number five. Some hours ago, as a matter of fact. This editor, I'll call him Jaikishen Batra to protect his identity, likes the novel (called it an ambitious effort). But he wasn't blown away by the writing. In this difficult market, my writing though adequate and nice isn't enough to make a splash. So some editors think I can write but think the novel too quiet. Then there are these new ones who don't think I can write well enough. I need to find that one person who thinks I can do both and the real danger is that the rejections I start getting from now on may well be from people who don't think I can do either i.e. the novel and my writing stinks. Must brace myself for this eventuality...

I just started reading Sideways (remember the movie with Paul Giamatti). This man is a kindred with his wall covered by rejection slips and hanging by a thread with an agent slowly losing interest in what will never be a big deal maker. It's nice to be able to say you truly understand how the protagonist of the novel you're reading feels. Except of course I am a bit spoiled in that I don't have to worry about paying the rent (thank goodness!).

Now I know many would think, and so do I, trust me, that maybe my work truly isn't that good. It doesn't stink perchance, but more than likely, although good enough for friends and family, the book just doesn't have what it takes to make the cut for commercial publishing.

There is probably a lot of truth in that but I have shed too much blood, sweat and tears to not at least try, give this my best shot and only then hang up my laptop. Besides, in the midst of this already tumultuous submission process, that sort of thinking won't get me anywhere. So, even if I am one of very few, for now, I continue to believe in myself and my work.

Aaargh, I hear soft footsteps...my son hasn't napped for his second afternoon in a row. Must try and not panic, for I got the horrid mommy memo that kids start to wean off naps at around age three. I never thought it would happen to me given the strict, efficient disciplinarian mum I think I am. Obviously whatever I am doing isn't cutting it on this front either...this just isn't my day, my week, my year.

C'est la vie...but now that I have vented...I mean shared this latest development, I shall go for a run and mull over yet another business venture or book to fail at and following that I shall try and get drunk on Pinot Noir which I don't even like.

Thank you all for listening.

Elvis has left the building...

Monday, August 25, 2008

The wonderful quiet, troubled world of the unpublished writer

I never imagined I'd have anything to blog about. But there's things I care about that many others care about too (world peace, composting :-), biking to the grocery store then wondering how to bike back laden with groceries, losing five pounds, keeping sane while around an overactive three year old etc etc) and maybe those are reasons enough to sit here hammering away...

Then there's another reason. My book.
Its called...well, I was advised not to use the real title else I influence more powers that be. I am not maverick enough to tell them to go to hell yet so I have succumbed and removed the title...suffice to say that the title is catchy and everyone except my agent--I'll call him Jacques Chirac--hates it. Many ask me about it--what's happening with your book, what's the progress?? The progress, if indeed one can call it that, makes a snail seem like Lightening McQueen but that's just how this business is and I have decided to make this bed so I better sit on it. Anyway a blog suddenly seemed like a good way to vent err share the happenings on this front because I am deluded enough to believe that it's actually interesting to the people who ask. Or maybe they're like my brother-in-law who used to, since the turn of the century, (when I started toying with the idea of a book), ask me "How's the bu--ugh." And I thought, hey, I haven't really mentioned the book to anyone yet so I am flattered he knows. Turns out he means my VW bug. And now it's years later, my bug's old, my book's old also and all he can still ask me is "How's the bu--ugh," and I just say they're both fine thanks and we move on to easier topics such as Barack Obama and the oil crisis.

But I am not going to talk about oil or Obama here so if I am here to share, might as well start sharing.

The news is that a month ago, my agent Jacques sent me a list of 28 possible publishers whom he was going to approach. Now this is our second round of submissions. The first round went to thirteen or so top guns and they all uniformly said lovely writing but not for us. Too quiet, not enough drama, My protagonist is too good to be true (I agreed with this assessment) and too many characters to keep track of (fine I agreed with that too). So I re-plotted, re-wrote, re-edited, got rid of a bunch of characters, made him a bit of a player, added elements of drama to make the manuscript more exciting, all without resorting to gratuitous sex and violence and sudden landings of Russians in fighter jets on the shores of south India. Armed thus with a new and improved version, I handed it confidently to my agent last month. "Much more commercially viable," was his admiring (if deadpan) response. Hey at least he didn't cut me loose. Try finding an agent in this business. That needle in the haystack is a cake walk in comparison.

I walked on air for a week.

Ok, so new version, new submission. Of the 28 on his list, he has so far sent it to 15, also top guns. And the responses trickle in like a trail of blood. Its funny how the responses trickle back to me yet I feel like I am losing blood. Excuse that poor yet graphic analogy. But it's how I feel. So far four have gotten back to me. Again all glowing. Some even say they were engrossed in the book, finished it over the weekend, felt for Swami BUT...there's that dreaded word again...too quiet. Now will someone please explain this word to me?? Because I no longer know what it means. Short of making my protagonist a Bond like womanizing double agent living on a farm and working out of his mother's kitchen, I am out of ideas. But as my fourth rejection has rolled in ruining yet another summer weekend, I think, well, this editor has even said he wants to read more of my work and hey, how many times in my life will I have the honor to be rejected by a top editor at a top publishing house? Ruined weekend but we won't ruin the week. Hope this feeling lasts 'cause the next editor's email is right round the corner....

At 3:00 a.m--that dreaded hour--on so many nights, I sit up and go, "Damn (or stronger cuss word), I have two failed/stalled businesses behind me and now a book that just isn't sexy enough to print, so really, just STOP. Stop this nonsense of trying to trod the unbeaten path and find a career, any career before it is too late.

Stop the useless dreaming! For living the dream--which people at cocktail parties think I am doing--just isn't what it is cut out to be.