Tuesday 31 May 2011

Reading ramble: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife


Tea Obreht
On the one hand, I am left with the feeling that this author can write, and that she can tell a good tale, as she does here with the tales of the Deathless Man, of the Tiger’s Wife of the title, Luka's story, the bear man. On the other I am left feeling that as a story the book as a whole is missing something, that the totality is less than the sum of its parts, that what Obrecht may have been attempting just doesn’t quite come off.

I’d like to do a close read and see if I could make sense of how the history of what is clearly the former Yugoslavia can be found in this books characters and sub stories. Sorobor is clearly Mostrar with its famous old bridge, sadly no more, and the unnamed City must be Belgrade, but I wished it  had been clear. The former Yugoslavia’s factions – Serb, Croat, Moslem, Christian, are also all there. Perhaps how it all fits together is not apparent to me because I don’t know enough about the small details of its disintegration, else its because the ambitious analogy doesn’t work because the thread holding all the individual stories together is not strong enough. Which ever it is, I found myself slogging through the last third of the book, slightly bored by proceedings.

As I said, the author can clearly  write, her potential as a story teller is in no doubt and this is after all her first novel. So whilst I think that in parts it is much better than the other Orange Prize short and long list contenders I have read so far, It is not my favourite read so far (which sadly didn't get shortlisted), although I would not be at all surprised if the judges disagreed with me :)  However, I will make a special note to keep an eye open for next novel and look forward to seeing how she develops her style in the future.

Verdict: author with potential

Monday 30 May 2011

What % of your income do you spend on food?

Take a moment and work it out, roughly will do.
Here in India, on just living allowance and excluding clothes, toiletries, telephone, electricity etc I probably am spending about 60 % of my money on food and I'm not skimping! I do buy nice teas, I do buy chicken, fish, mushrooms (which here are just as expensive as chicken), I do buy treats like  the occasional bar of chocolate, packet of crisps, branded fizzy drinks etc But I don't buy alcohol unless on vacation :) Since this is meant to be a living allowance then a high percentage is not unrealistic. And I still have leeway.
Back home on a salary this percentage would be much lower. If you are retired or out of work and on a fixed income you will have had to make some adjustment to your spending compared to when you had a salary, but still you will have some room for manoeuvre. What % did you come up with : 5, 10, 15%? The better off you are the smaller this % becomes. The greater % you have to spend on things of choice - your health, your children's education, your car, your house, entertainment, holidays whatever you choose. It would be interesting to see the range of % readers have.
Now check out Food Price Rollercoaster to see how the ever increasing prices of food stuffs impacts this. 
Even in the year and half I have been here in India  I have seen food prices rise and fall as they always do with seasonal availability, but behind this is a real rise. I reckon I am spending about 50% more this year than last  - vegetables that were 10 Rupees a kg are now 20 or 30 Rupees. Now my haggling should have go better, the sabzi wallas know I am here on equivalent of a local wage,albeit a good one.  So now imagine having to keep a family of 4 on this income, and pay for accommodation etc. Ok people do it. Now what happens when food prices rise – you have to eat, you cannot go to school, to the doctor if you have not eaten, everything else you can do without, food no one can do without, you have to buy it. of course the first thing that goes are any luxuries, then the quality and range of food narrows, and finally the volume. So from this it is easy to see why hunger continues to be a problem, why health issues are secondary to eating in peoples priorities, why health problems then take hold virulently as poor nutrition weakens peoples immune system, why almost every woman in rural India is anaemic with consequences for mother and child health and child development.
So next time you do your weekly/monthly supermarket run consider the others of this world you live on $1 a day and do something about it.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Chivalry is alive and well!

Today has been the hottest this year. Temperatures exceeded my first aid kit thermometer’s capabilities, so is over 43 and meoweather had us at 45C It being a Sunday I’d got up early to do my washing and had everything out drying nicely in the heat, the sabzi walla had been and the fridge was stocked with nice cucumbers for a cold soup, so I had had a satisfying first part to the morning, when I received a call from work. The electrician had arrived, could I please come in. We are about to get a revamp to our computer systems and next weekend will see me and a colleague install our new LAN. So this was the electrician to do the wiring. I said Ok I’ll be there in 20 minutes. Time to grab a shower, get out of house dress, put on some more appropriate attire for the office and walk in. I’m not 5 minutes out of our gate when I get a call, don’t come in he’s only here to check the room layout, he’s coming tomorrow. At the same point in time I have decided that I really should have taken the umbrella as a sunshade, it was 10:30 AM and the temperature was soaring ! I was glad to turn back and head home for another dip under the shower and another change of clothes.
P5290016That was this morning. Now it is late afternoon, I’ve had my siesta nap and wondering when there will  be a power cut  and if we shall have any rain. It definitely needs to cool off! I sit down to finalise another blog post when the heavens open, the thunder is unbelievably loud, so much so it physically makes you jump! I unplug my PC just in case. I go to the door and look outside. Can’t see much at all. Inside the power has gone, outside it is grey and teaming down.   Pre monsoon afternoon storm. 
P5290017That’s when I see them. At first only him. He is struggling to push his cycle of the lane up under our neighbour’s house’s veranda for shelter. Its loaded with sacks of something and must be pretty heavy anyway never mind now its sodden wet. Finally he gives up on the cycle, and just goes for cover himself.
Next thing I know he’s off running across along the side my house and over to the other lane. Then back he comes with another sack. At first I think he must have been carrying it and put it down to bring the cycle to shelter, but no its bearer now appears, a slight lady, in sari of course, and she is trying to walk over to the veranda too. 
They must have been walking along the other lane when the storm hit (probably either coming back from market or from some rice distribution and collection) their nearest cover being good 3-400 meter dash across the waste ground. No way could she have carried that on her head in this rain. By now the storm was in full swing, she was incapable of even walking against the wind, and was in fact holding on to one of the bushes, conveniently called a “gotcha“ in Oriya! And there she stood for what must have seemed like and eternity.
I couldn’t catch what he shouted or she replied, but then  - drum roll please - he was off again, on another mad dash through the storm to her rescue! And guided her across to their shelter trying to keep her under a makeshift tarpaulin. Chivalry is not dead! What a hero!
P5290020 P5290021
I only caught part of it on camera with poor quality photos and video and from the safety and dry of my doorway…… a day of contrasts, a life of contrasts….but 5*s to the unknown hero!

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Ants – storm troupers extraordinary!

The bug of my life!  5AM this morning hosing down the bathroom without a hose!
The storms last night must have disturbed an ant nest outside and in their search for a new abode they had come in through the slatted glass which constitutes a bathroom window and run riot over3 walls, two corners worth and a couple of feet of ceiling, all  the floor, finding heaven in the squat toilet and my two basins of clothes and floor cloths soaking in detergent!
So the best way to clear up is just to hose it all down! Simples! Well yes if you have a hose, and yes if you have water.
The water tap, of course, is the other side of the bathroom to the door, so one has to cross the ant covered floor to get to it. How far can ant ant get up your body in the time it takes for two steps? Answer – annoyingly far! especially when one reacts quite badly to ant bites.
This morning the water taps runs dry almost instantly!  I go outside and switch the pump on. Nothing! Curses abound, as I realise no one filled the water tank last night. My landlady and her daughter are away , so there is only “uncle” who is house sitting and me. So we shouldn’t need to fill it every day, except that the workmen are building the second storey to the house. This means the water tank has been moved to a temporary position and the plastic pipe filing it is loose, not fixed down, and is most often to be found up on the new roof being used to provide water for mixing with sand and cement to prepare the mortar for the brick work, or to hose down the new works to “cure” the plaster work on the walls. No one tends to go  on to the roof after dark as it can be a bit of an obstacle course up through the bamboo pole  scaffolding, over the piles of sand, piles of sticks, which are used to provide temporary support when constructing  shelves, roofs etc, and piles of general builders rumble, broken bricks and tools. Also there is no retaining wall edging the roof. Not a tidy site! Certainly not one which would pass a Safety inspection in the UK!
Up on the roof I locate the hose and start to fling it over the side of the house to get it down one flight to where the water tank is. Curses abound again! There is a three foot high, six feet wide pile of sand astride the piping!  Pulling with all my weight I cannot shift the pipe. Thinking only one line of pipe is below the sand I try and move some with my foot. The pipe is well and truly stuck. I have visions of me pulling so hard, it suddenly coming free, me stumbling backwards over the edge!  mmmm, better get some tool to move the sand, me thinks.
By now its about 5:30AM so luckily still not too hot for my spot of manual labour. I can’t imagine what the man  on the bike thinks as he passes and sees me  shovelling sand. Its the first time I’ve used one of those ubiquitous very short handled, large inverted headed hoe I see every building site worker with. Excellent tool for the job. It takes me probably a good 10 minutes to remove enough of the sand to free the trapped pipe. No snakes found hiding away anywhere. Phew!
I fling the pipe over, go down one flight, fix it back into the water tank, Go back down to house level and switch on the pump. Ten minutes later I can switch it off and have lots of water.
My clean on only this weekend set of pyjamas are now, sweaty, sandy and anty!
So back to the original problem, the ants . Having done this part before I know the only way to to do it is a la Gok, to strip off else the blighters get into the weave of your clothes and you can’t get then out. Also you are going to get soaking wet anyways as you water fight the invasion. So I spend the next 20 minutes or so with water tap constantly running onto the floor, with small jug in hand, endlessly refilling in and flinging it against the windows, the ceiling, the walls, whilst ducking in and out of the shower in an attempt not to get too many bites.
I also have to rinse my washing that was soaking, to free the ants stuck in the basins and the masses of dead soldiers sacrificed in a vane effort to cross the water. After several rinses I am sure none remain.
Its approaching 6:30 AM when finally I decide I have won and the ants have retreated! Yes! Time for a proper shower. 
As I write this blog before breakfast I think I have managed to get away a with only a few bites on my feet and legs but I know that all day I shall be feeling  the ghostly itch of ants passed , a bit like lost limb syndrome! What a way to start the day!

Sunday 15 May 2011

Games people play

When I was a kid one of the things I really enjoyed was playing games  - snakes and ladders, draughts, cards, etc . These I was allowed to play along side adults, on an equal footing. It was my dad who was the great game player in our family. He loved playing cards, went regularly to whist drives in the village and taught me loads of different games. My mum came from a stricter family and couldn’t play any card game beyond Snap! Even today I adore playing games, especially cards  - whether its a game of bridge, or a round of rummy, canasta, or learning new games, I’m just in my element, I  just love it. Or indeed any game with a similar type of approach, I learnt the basics of Mai Jong at university , then never had anyone to play with.
One of the best cross cultural cross language card games is UNO, I play it all the time in Algeria – A can get quite competitive over a game of cards!  whilst the younger family members play less strict rules and still have great fun. Once you know the rules no common language is needed to play.  They also play a variant on draughts on a 8 x 8 chequered grid, but where the pieces can move in all directions – I got introduced to this on my last visit by our cook and need to play more to master  the rules and the strategy elements of the game. Marking the grid out in the sand, grabbing a few dung pellets and your away!
In Mali I also came across kids playing with dung droplets for men. This time it was a game I know as Mancala, a backgammon type game I have seen it played with shells, with nuts, with beans. A game for two players , the aim of which is to move your shells around the two lengths of the board one pocket at a time, capturing up shells as you go. The winner is the one with the most shells. I saw this throughout Mali, especially in the Dogon and even saw Mancala pockets scooped out of the rock face, unfortunately I never got a chance to test out my Mancala skills against the locals.
Carrom board
Coming to India I wanted to find out about local games. Of course the favourite outdoor game is naturally cricket, which one sees being played everywhere. But one  indoor game which is popular here is Karrom. There is no equivalent that I know of in the UK . There is even an Indian National Federation! The residents of our Old Age Home have a board and I have been angling for them to teach me how to play. As it turns out, my landlady also has a board and a few weeks ago her daughter and our newish neighbours kids were playing one day on the front porch.
The board itself is wooden, about 1 metre square with pockets are each corner. There seems to be a number of different games you can play with the board and the draught like pieces. Some of which are clearly meant to be gambling games. R taught me one which the kids play. They pieces all start off round the circle in the middle of the board. Up to 4 people can play, each taking a side of the  board as their base. One piece is used, in an almost puck like fashion and the finger is used to skim it across the board. The idea  being to knock pieces off the board into the corner pockets. The winner is  the one with the most pieces. It is a  sort of cross between curling, bowls and snooker, but played with draughts men type pieces! Then there are the rules about how you can make a flick, the direction of the flick, where the puck can end up etc . Sounds simple. I suspect this is a children’s version, and the adult variants could become quite interesting especially when wagers are placed. Clearly a winner in the games stacks where all ages can play.

I recently set my friend’s kids a question in our latest exchange of letters – yes properly written letters from A, B, C and E!  C had asked me what games children played here in India. So my question in return was “Do you know what game we play at home in the UK which originated in India?” Well the answer is Ludo. I played this almost every weekend with my mum and dad when I was a youngster I think it was the lovely bright colours of the board that did it for me.  Ludo and its USA variant Parcheesi, both grew out of the Indian game Pachisi The quest for a local Parcheesi player and for local card games continues!

Thursday 12 May 2011

Reading ramble: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

My rating:  4 of 5 stars

I can’t remember the last time he opening paragraphs of a book grabbed me so. I read the English translation by John Cullen so if anyone reads the French language original I'd love to know how true this English translation is. I always say the best written book I have ever read is Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, well this comes a very close second. His (yes, Yasmina was a nom de plume) writing is lovely, packed full to the brim, every word significant, no wastage, yet not dense and impenetrable, unwieldy, but a luscious, rich, enveloping text. I love it!

As it may be a less well known book in some circles, I'm sharing this opening to encourage you to read it….
"In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even this hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms. Several hours ago, the night, routed by the dawn and fleeing in disorder left behind a few of its feeble breezes, but the heat has scorched and smothered them. Since midday not a single raptor has risen to hover above its prey. The shepherds in the hills have disappeared. For miles around, apart from a few sentries crouched inside their rudimentary watchtowers, there is not a living soul. A deathly silence pervades the dereliction as far as the eye can see.

The Afghan countryside is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries. Artillery exchanges shatter prayers, wolves howl at the moon every night, and the wind, when it breathes, mingles beggars' laments with the croaking of crows"
The story centres around two couples:  Atiq, the jailer and his sick wife Mussara. Atig is  part of the Taliban regime, endorses their ideology, but is much trouble by his wife’s illness but won’t divorce her as his friends suggest because she rescued and took care of him in his hour of need and he is alive because of her nursing. But he is at a loss as to how to help his dying wife as she retreats more and more from him and he from her.
The other couple, Mohsen and Zunaira, are well educated  ex-middle class, but who have lost their family and home in the war. Theirs is a love marriage and they are both in their own way struggling to survive emotionally in the new order. They are handling their new circumstances and the restrictions and expectation placed on them in different ways : she is now reduced to a home based existence which she accepts as better than the out of doors that now exists - “here at home, as least, when I see my reflection in the mirror, I don’t have to hide my face”. But for Mohsen where they are living is  a refuge, after their home was blown up, and a refuge he doesn’t want  to die in, so he wants to be outside. As Mohsen mental state deteriorates under the strain, much to his real self’s disgust he participates in a stoning. When he confesses this to his wife, she is shocked and withdraws from him. Their happy relationship comes under more and more stress.
The lives of these people become intertwined by an accident which catapults everyone to confront head on the morals of a justice system which permits an innocent person can be condemned to the horrific punishments delivered by the Taliban.
The men collapse in this story, mentally and emotionally, they go to pieces. The analogy with the disintegration of values of societal structures, the destruction and decay of physical buildings and the unravelling of the men’s minds is not lost. In contrast, it is the women who are strongest emotionally, are capable of carving out a continued albeit constrained existence, and even playing the system at its own game such that at the end of the book it is the women who have taken control, grabbed the opportunities, and are in command of their destiny and become the Swallows of the title, surviving and escaping Kabul.
As the story of this group evolves, there are some great insights into human nature and the human condition scattered throughout the novel  like sixpences in a Christmas pudding. Take for example Nazeesh, the ex mufti who is “not comfortable at home'” because of the presence of his aging father.
“My hundred –year-old father won’t let up. He’s lost most of his sight, he’s lost the use of his legs, but his capacity for endless grousing remains intact. He’s always bitching about something. Before, we could give him something to eat to shut him up. These days, we don’t have very much food to sink our teeth into, and since he’s lost his, there’s nothing in the way of his tongue. Sometimes he starts be demanding silence, and then he’s the one who can’t stop talking. Two days ago, he wouldn’t wake up. My daughters shook him  and sprinkled water on him; he didn’t move. I felt his wrist – no pulse. I put my ear against his chest – no breathing. I said, Okay, he’s dead; we’ll notify the family and give him a fine funeral. i left the house to tell the neighbours the news; then I went around to cousins, nephews, other relatives and friends and announced the passing of the eldest member of the tribe. I spent the whole morning receiving condolences and demonstrations of sympathy. Around noon, I go back home, and who do I find in the courtyard, bitching at everybody? My father, in flesh and blood, very much alive and kicking. his mouth was open so wide I could see his gums – they're kind of a sickly white. I think he’s lost his mind. It’s impossible to sit down to eat or even to go to bed with him in the house. As soon as he sees someone passing, he pounces and starts growling out insults and reproaches. Sometimes I lose my head, too, and I star telling back at him. The neighbours join in, and they all believe that I’m sinning in the face of God by not being patient with my venerable sire. So in order to avoid upsetting God, I spend most of my time outside. I even take my meals in the street.”
And some great quotes e.g “You don’t need a crystal ball to predict what the beggars are going to do tomorrow……In Kabul, we ‘re all beggars”
A powerful story given a truly human perspective to the disintegration of a society at war with itself and others. Well told. A recommended read.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Cold Soups for Hot Days!

This year so far the hot season has been less hot than last year! Quite a relief! Currently, we are hovering around the 43C mark, albeit that the evening humidities are getting quite high. We’ve also had a number of magnificent thunder and lightning storms in the evenings. I am told this is more normal than last year which was very dry in the  hot season. These storms have resulted in some pleasantly cool nights – very nice for sleeping. Only on a couple of occasions has the nighttime temperatures not dropped below 30C.

We are also into the seasons for water melon (tåråbhujå) and mango (ambå) so inevitably milk shakes are the order for refreshment.   Now a watermelon is a bit daunting for one person, so it becomes a challenge to think of new ways to eat it  before it goes off.  So in addition to simple water melon, there is the aforementioned water melon milk shakes, and water melon juice, and spritzers, sadly non alcoholic – if I had rum there would be rum daiquiris!

Additionally, since I have a fridge with a small freezer compartment inside I have been making watermelon granita, and water melon ice sticks ( ice poles as we called them when I was a kid, or as the kids here call them szutsi or something that sounds like that). Actually freezing water melon chunks/slabs works quite well too and they are delightful to munch away on, very very cooling!

Then there is watermelon soup: yes, cold soups, they do exist! A great way to stay cool , keep up my fluid intake and satisfy my cravings for raw food. No one eats much in the way of raw vegetables here in India except with dåhi/curd and then it is usually just carrot (gajårå) and cucumber. Make sure all the ingredients are super fresh, and well washed, especially if you have a susceptible stomach. Here’s 2 wonderful cold soups to keep you cool on hot days!

Watermelon Soup

Ingredients: As usual with my recipes you will need to experiment with amounts to get it  to your own taste

watermelon (about twice as much as you have mangoes)


I onion chopped

I green pepper chopped (actually I suspect a red pepper would work even better but I can’t get those here)

about 1 in ginger root chopped

several garlic cloves, crushed

salt to taste


Blend all ingredients together.

If you wish you can keep a small amount of the chopped ingredients to add in to the rest after they have been in the blender to give a bit more texture, but I don’t think this is really necessary.

Set aside in the fridge to chill. Serve cold.


For those of you who like the taste of mint and can get it, a few leaves can be added to the mix.


Chilled Cucumber Soup


1 cucumber about the length of your hand, chopped

1 green pepper chopped

1 green chilli chopped

I onion chopped

several garlic cloves, crushed

I cup of chicken stock (Tip:  if you are using stock cubes about half a cube should do it – you don’t want the chicken flavour to overpower the cucumber. You’ll need less stock if your cucumber produces a lot of liquid when blended))

juice of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

salt to taste


Add stock, lemon juice and olive oil. Set aside.

Blend the rest of the ingredients.

Add stock mix, re-blend. (The thickness/chunkiness of the soup really is your choice – I like mine fairly liquid but still retaining a bit of crunch)

Set aside in the fridge to chill. Serve cold.


Again if you have access to green herbs 1 or 3 leaves can be added to the mix eg lemon verbena, lemon mint would be nice