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.