Tuesday 13 December 2011

Revelling in diversity

Another insightful returners moment…..I am out shopping with my friend Helen. First there is this amazing array of bread, covering about 30 feet of wall space and a central table stand. Wow, bread is a basic and yet here I am bemused by the multitude of forms, shapes, flavourings it is to be found in. Even compared to my local supermarket at home this is a wide range, compared to what was available in Rayagada it is incredible. Next, the vegetable aisle and I smile to myself when I see Mooli and Lau on display. I’d never see those at home. Here in London, with its mix of cultures and peoples even the supermarket aisles are labelled African, West Indian, Asian etc. Standing at the checkout I survey the people, the usual baskets piled high with produce, patiently waiting on the next available checkout operator. but such a range of peoples, a real mix of races, ethnicities, creeds, and cultures. I am conscious that I am trying to place where everyone’s or their forebearers has come from. A trip down Holloway Road and it is like entering a forgotten world of small shops and helpful shopkeepers – the fishmongers, the fruit and veg shop etc - the market looking more like something one sees elsewhere in the world as people try to buy and sell to make a living. I love it!

Coincidently my online book group has just been reading a short story by Leila Aboulela entitled “Missing out” which gave rise to a discussion of the cultural hybridisation which occurs when people migrate, either through choice or not, as they inevitably begin to feel homesick on the one hand, home making on the other; as they begin to feel less part of one place and yet not fully part of the other place. It made me aware of how I am increasingly feeling, being a part of that every growing body of people with a sense of reduced belonging to one place and never a full sense of belonging to another, but with this comes a sense also that the whole is greater than the some of the parts and in a world where fear of other is on the increase I can but wish for more cultural hybridisation.  The scientist in me is reminded of the phrase “hybrid vigour” :) That aside diversity rocks!

Monday 28 November 2011

3 for 2 does not equal 1 for 2/3

Am I the only person to find the “3 for 2”, “2 for 1”, “buy one get one free” offers pointless because all I want is 1?

I  read an article yesterday which states that 50% of US households are single, so I think I can’t be the only one out there who wonders about the markets continual preoccupation with multi-buy offers.

I remember, in the days before the internet, needing to buy a single rail ticket between Sheffield and London and ending up being told by the booking clerk that what I needed was a return. No I politely said what I had asked for was a single. He quietly explained I should buy a return because it was cheaper. More recently, a friend also told me of cases where buying 2 return air tickets, and only using one half of each, has worked out cheaper than buying one return. Result = empty seats.

Then there are those supermarkets offers of the buy one mango get one free type. But if you are not going to eat the second mango then why buy it, even for zero cost? Result = gluttony or waste. Instead, why not have singles supermarkets, where buying one pork chop instead of a pack of 3 is possible? Or why can’t supermarkets let you sign over your second mango to someone else in return for their second pack of oranges say? Or credit your card with a free mango on your next visit? Or let 2 people share a “2 for 1” offer between them? Or where the zero cost mango could be given to a food charity as your donation?

Next there are the Vouchers for Schools Schemes. Not knocking it, its a great idea. A tiny amount for each transaction translates into real Computers for Schools across the huge volume turnover at supermarkets. But here too there is a singleton factor to the equation. When supermarkets first started giving vouchers for schools, I asked my till server if she wanted them for her kids school. No she replied she was not allowed to take them. OK fair enough, but as a consequence I’m always on the hunt for someone with kids of school age or someone who looks like a grandparent to hand my vouchers off to. I remember once, having done a huge shop one day and then buying a whole load of wine, I had this enormous pile of vouchers, and would you believe it a supermarket devoid of obvious parents! After several attempts to find a person with kids I’m on my way out of the shop when I spot a women at the other end of the car park. It turns out she was a teacher who happily took my very large pile. Why can’t supermarkets have a drop box for each local school?

Then there are 2 for 1 meal offers – what good are these when you are eating on your own? They are in effect a surcharge of being a singleton. No different than single supplement room charges.

Today another of these silly offers. I needed to get my eyes tested and the Optician has a “buy one get one free” offer. But I have perfectly good frames for my glasses, I just need new lenses. On the other hand I only have one pair of prescription sunglasses at the moment and that is never enough, especially when living in sunny tropical climes, and so really needed to buy a second pair.

First the optician costed out my lenses. When I sad I wanted my sun glasses changed as well out came the buy one get one free offer. So here’s how it works out

Glasses : Lens £102.50 x 2 + Frame £144.50 = £349.00

Sunglasses :  Lenses £66.00 x 2 + Frame £29.00 = £161.00

Eye test - £20.00

Total £530.00 (Extortionate!)

Discount £161.00

Paid £369.00 (Still expensive! With a need to change my lenses every 18 months to 2 years that is £15.00 - £20.00 per month cost)

I am buying exactly the same frames as I have already for my ordinary glasses. This means I now have 3 frames the same!

Can someone please tell me why I should be buying an unwanted frame, that someone has spent time making, that materials have been used to make, that energy has been used to make and which in effect is surplus, it is waste?  result – unrequired production, waste.

Why not say that instead I could have £144.50 off my sunglasses? With this, I might have even spent more money and chosen a more expensive frame as the choice for sunglasses within this offer is somewhat limited. As it was, I’d spent time looking at their range of frames and was well and truly non plused by the pitiful choice. Lots of all too similar frames, almost all rectangular in shape, black, blue, pink, violet in colour but little in the way of my rich autumnal browns, greens, and reds to choose from. This wasn’t a cultural acclimatisation moment of too much choice, they were just a boring selection. So I ended up with quite ordinary stayed chocolate brown frame. I want to be more adventurous in my sunglasses, but nothing individual, nothing distinctive, nothing very colourful. However, for what amounts to £161.00-144.50 = £16.50 for my sunglasses I am not complaining money wise, it just seems warped logic and wasteful over production to me. 

I just hate these offers! Rant over!

Sunday 27 November 2011

I guarantee you will never look at pink shoes the same again!

The Consequences of Love


Sulaiman Addonia


A beautifully told story, touchingly read by Christopher Simpson.

After his reading of Q&A/ Slumdog Millionaire I wondered if Christopher Simpson could become one of my favourite narrators. With listening to this reading the answer is undoubtedly Yes.

The book is also a little marvel. It vastly surpasses the chic lit Girls Of Riyadh which lies in the same space – that of sexual repression under the strict Saudi regime. Here we follow the fortunes of Eritrean refugee Nasar, now living in Jeddah.

Nasar’s life could not be more different to that of the gossiping Girls of the upper echelons of Saudi society found in Rajaa Alsanea’s book. His world is full of folks doing menial work, scraping a living, sniffing glue; amidst sexual abuse and  male prostitution, surrounded by opulence on the one hand and state sanctioned barbarism on the other. In a society full of extortion, corruption and  double standards a lone, young and attractive, foreign boy like Naser is at the bottom of the pecking order.

Remembering his mother’s sacrifice to get him and his younger brother out of the war zone their country had become, he spends his time dreaming of women in a world of men. The Jeddah he sees is black and white – the black abayas of the women and the white robes of the men. He never sees a woman, only their black. They are  hidden and separate. They, and the love he seeks, are inaccessible, unavailable until, in streets patrolled by the religious police, a love letter drops at his feet and brings pink shoed Fiore into his life. We are swept along by their courtship, deepening love into the Consequences of their illicit love.

The harsh realities of life hit home and test the young lovers resolve and commitment. Without giving anyway the ending of this book it is hard to make further comment, except to say this was a politically and emotionally charged, memorable read. As a first book I thought it tremendous achievement.

ashramblings verdict 5* if you read any of Rajaa Alsanea’s Girls of Riyadh, Yasmina Khadra’s Swallows of Kabul and / or Khaled Hossein’s A Thousand Splendid Suns  then you must read this. Highly recommended.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair….

…of all the things to have missed! I took a walk into Cambridge today to get my hair cut. Over 12 inches chopped off and it  is still below my shoulders. Walking back, on a late autumnal day, with a slight chill in the air, the wind picks up and whoosh, hair flies! A great “cultural reacclimatisation” moment as Springsteen rings through my  head and after almost 2 years of wearing my hair tied up and back it is free to move and my scalp feels cool. Priceless :)

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Driving normalities

As I am being driven back into Cambridge this morning to stay with friends there for a couple of weeks I am pondering the differences in traffic. There are of course the obvious lane discipline, traffic jams and lack of horns, but I was struck by one particular one as I watched a learner driver run out of slip land space as he tried to merge into nose to tail traffic heading into town. It was a brightly coloured, newish looking , all signed  up motoring school car complete with bright obvious L learner plates. The contrast to Rayagada could not have been more apparent. In my nagar there was one driving instructor who also had a small car. But his looked  anything but new with typical bumps and bruises and balding tyres. Every morning as I walked into work I would pass a collection of young men, all I suspect students at the local Engineering College, who had gathered together with their cycles to wait for their turn in the car. No book and pay for an hour plus here, their lessons consisted of 5-10 minutes of driving round and round the sandy lanes of the nagar. They probably did not get out of 2nd gear. And of course a vital part of their training was to learn to hoot their horn at each junction, even when there was no other traffic, car, bike or cycle, and no pedestrians in sight. It got to be very normal. Now it seems I am living two normalities and happily adjusting between the two :)

Friday 11 November 2011

Farewells … mu samaste Rayagada-ru kebe bhuli jibani

PB110080(Ravi, Mr Panda, Ramesh, Katy, Sanghamitra, me, Suresh, Kishore, TP, Dilip, Sanjay, Jagdish)

This has been a week for taking leave of people here. Signing off with my local shop keepers  - very strange, when what I want to do is shake Kiran’s hand and say thanks so  much for being a friendly face every morning and having to make do with a very formal When are you coming back? How long is your flight? dialog. Muna, my local tiffin walla isn’t here just now so it looks like I have missed him. Then I’m sending off my favourite sabzi walla with a small puja thank you tip plus a plastic waste basket and a plastic food container :)

Next it was over to Sanghamitra’s parents house for the usual chai, chat, biscuits and cold drinks. Her mother’s Oriya is very clear and I can hear more and more of it. She has always made me welcome in their house. My poor attempt at an appropriate thank you for this gets smiles but the message gets correctly translated by Sanghamitra. Next we head off to the market to buy a petticoat for my sari – gosh when was the last time I wore or even owned a petticoat! We collect my sari’s blouse from the tailor but oh dear it is far too big round the under bust line and rides up  over my boobs when I move so it has had to go back for re-stitching on the eve of my last day. Will  it be ready? Of course, this is not the last minute, this is India :)

Last night was spent with Sushila my landlady and daughter Rinky drinking her chai. Everybody's chai is different – hers is made ginger and cardamom, Sanghamitra’s is made with black pepper and bay. Mine adds a touch of cinnamon to the ginger and cardamom. All are different and all are very nice. The tea connoisseur has turned  into a chai connoisseur!

Rinky is receiving the remnants of my nail oil, cream and polish along with my chair. Ok I am spoiling  her I know. Her mother is going to get the pestle and mortar I inherited from Hilary as a thank you for all her chai and Oriya lessons. Everything is either being flung out as rubbish or packed up and stored by my NGO for subsequent volunteers along with the fridge. Unused food is going to the Old Age Home, and old but perfectly acceptable clothing is being found an appropriate home.

Amidst all of this I have had to try and get my Exit Permit arranged. This was complicated because I queried their wording, which seemed to me to indicate that I had been granted my visa extension, whereas I really have only applied for it. Then there was much confusion as the Superintendent of Police was not available to sign, so his deputy did. Then the local guys were very reluctant to give me the one with his signature on it as it would not match the other documents and their messages to officials when I hand my exit  permit over at Mumbai. Trying to convince them that i is perfectly acceptable for the deputy to sign on the SP’s behalf just goes against the typical Indian work practice of having only one centralised authority  to whom everyone defers and waits for decisions from. So I ended up with 2 exit permits :)  That was yesterday. Today at 5PM we get a call lease come back to the Office and collect a 3rd exit permit, this time signed by the SP.

My last day saw me working to finish off some things with Mr P. This week saw usual power cuts being rivalled for inconvenience by the fact that we changed our Internet account and so ended up without any net for 4days waiting for the telecoms people to properly connect our new account

Sadly I did not manage to get back over to the Old Aged Home to say  my farewells there as the office had arranged a picnic lunch out of town by the river. So the CHILDLINE Team, and the main office staff headed out and set up cook pots on an open fire and dished up a delicious chicken curry, aloo gobhi, rice, dalh and salad. So much  food! I was glad the farewell did not turn into a formal one, with Indian style speeches. It was nice and relaxed, much more me.The local spot is a prime picnic spot at this time of year for Rayagada residents, being near the river, with trees for shade and the local kids make money bringing firewood to picnickers and washing up for them. I was pleased to see that we fed the boys who had helped and that as they were eating they were quietly but effectively told about CHILDLINE in their own language.

So this is my final post from Rayagada which has been my home for the past two years – I will not forget you.

Never Say Goodbye

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna

(Never say goodbye)

Directed by

Karan Johar


The greats of Bollywood cinema Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee,come together again in this film. The plot is classic Bollywood boy (Shah Rukh Khan) meets girl (Rani Mukherjee), they fall in love, but obstacles abound. In this case the obstacles are their two marriages to other people. Have a large pack of Kleenex to hand as hearts are broken left right and centre as life’s twists take the pair apart, fling them together again, only to wrench them apart again. As normal the hero get his girl but just because we know that is going to happen does not distract from the enjoyment of what is after all a stylise art form. The best of the forms set dances pieces in my opinion are “Rock and Roll Soniye” with real life father and son Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan leading the routine, and “Where’s the party tonight”, a Bollywood take on the Disco dance scene . Coordinated colour abounds as you’d expect from Bollywood numbers which make you want to get up and dance, cuddle into your own love, and cry your eyes out. It’s long over 3 hours but plenty of eye candy for old and young, male and female and perhaps the nearest you’ll get to a sex scene in Bollywood cinema.

 ashramblings verdict 3* Typical Bollywood artform

Monday 7 November 2011

The Crowe Eaters

The Crowe Eaters




Bapsi Sidhwa

Author’s website : http://www.bapsisidhwa.com

Faredoon Junglewalla is a struggling Parsi businessman living in Lahore at the turn of the 20th century when he strikes upon the then novel idea of an arson based deception of an insurance company. The consequential fire and visual comedy of his mother in law’s rescue from the balcony of the blazing house results in only some of the expected windfall, but enough to see him on his way to becoming a “Godfather” like fixer. As his fortunes grow so does his influence, to such an extent that his son is able to fall for and marry the young daughter of rich parentage. Humour abounds in this book: from the tongue in cheek choice of family names -  the Junglewallas and The Easymoneys – to the hilarious scene where Freddy’s son Billy consummates his marriage amid a thunderstorm.

The book is light on overall plot, but strong on memorable characters which the author crafts through side stories like Freddy’s other son Yadze’s infatuation with a Anglo Indian girl at school, whose dubious birth is an outrage to Freddy, and his attention to spiritual gurus and mystics, his search for his “janam patri” ( translates I think as “birthday letter” sort of like a horoscope) amongst a courtyard full of mouldy papal leaves. These side stories are decidedly double edged –funny whilst at the same time sadly poignant of the superstition, religious dogma and racial bigotry that can still be found in India today. 

Towards the end of the book Freddy, his wife and mother in law make to England,. This not only shows culture shock in reverse – the mother in law is outraged by the thought of her daughter having to dry clean herself rather than wash after toilet, whilst Freddy is outraged by the mother in law carrying a jug with every every visit. Also as they are guests of an English couple who had been stationed in Lahore they see their lack of servants in England and their perceived reduction in status compared to their lives in India. This dispels their illusion of England being the land of queens and coronets and transforms it into just another version of real live, with sad faces, hard work etc.

The Crowe Eaters was Sidhwa’s first published novel. She had written it and The Bride and failed to get either published and so ended up to privately publishing The Crowe Eaters. It was such a success that her further writings was assured of publication. (see Sawnet bio)

ashramblings verdict: 3* A humorous insight into Indian lifestyles of the time and to an author worthy of much reading further. Recommended.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The Ice Princess at Hell’s Corner

The juxtaposition of the 2 books I just finished could not be more startling.  Camilla Läckberg is one of the new generation of Swedish detective writers and The Ice Princess was her first book, whilst David Baldacci is a thriller writer in his prime. Result – the Ice melted in the blaze of glory that is Hell’s Corner.

  The Ice Princess

Camilla Läckberg

I borrowed the audio of this from a friend. Having been so taken with Stieg Larrson’s
Trilogy as an introduction to Scandinavian thriller writers I wanted to give another one a go. Sadly not in the same category.

I don't normally read or listen to abridged versions which this one was. It was OK. Reasonable plot, reasonable characters , not a particularly strong central one for a detective for whom there is a now a series of books. For now I shall put this down to the editing and abridgement for radio and may give another one a go as and when.

ashramblings verdict : 3* passable thriller


Hell’s Corner


David Baldacci

I have got totally hooked on The Camel Club series, by its characters, by Baldacci’s style and the voice of the excellent narrator  Ron McLarty

The assortment of characters that make up the Camel Club are very real, with clear, true voices and brilliantly delivered by the narrator. Readers of my previous blog post will know just how much I am loving reading this series

The 5th book in the series definitely does not disappoint, if anything it is the best so far, the rest were good, this was outstanding. A roller coaster of a great read, ducking and diving, wrong turns and diversions as Oliver Stone unravels the mystery behind  what appears to be the accidental triggering of a bomb without a target inn the grounds of Lafyette Park, opposite the White House in Washington, DC. The plot twists and turns in abundance: in the hands of a less accomplished thriller master this would wear the reader down, not so here. Hooked is inadequate a word, as is my 5*

ashramblings verdict :  5*  If you have never tried a Baldacci, do. Start at the beginning of this series and read them all even if it is only to enjoy the tumultuous piece of thriller writing that is Hell’s Corner

Thursday 20 October 2011

Reasons to be cheerful Part 3

( I suspect only readers of a certain age and disposition will get what the the title of this blog refers to  = everyone else – go google!)

The fact that power cuts happen has never been a real issue. Reality is that Orissa sells its power to better off neighbouring state of Andrah Pradesh. And powers outs are fine when they are regular or scheduled. No power between 7 and 8PM? No problem just make sure you have the water boiled for your nightly cuppa before 7PM, then puts your feet up in the dark and sip a nice brew.

We’ve been pretty lucky recently, with our power outs being scheduled or at least occurring at a regular time. But this week has been back to 20 minutes on, 2 minutes off, 10 minutes on, 30 minutes off etc etc all through the day. It is unpredictable, irregular, unscheduled.

We have UPS power backups in the office, one is attached to each PC. The idea of these Uninterrupted Power Supply units is that their battery charges when there is power and then when there is no power, you have battery supply for 20 minutes. Plenty of time to finish a piece of work, save your work and properly close down the PC. That is if they worked properly.

Sadly their battery life is not good. With the above erratic power outs being typical the batteries never get much of a chance to fully charge up.  Instead of 20 minutes of power in reality you get about 5 minutes. After about 30 seconds their warning buzzer starts bleeping (Annoying noise No.1), and then the interval between bleeps gets shorter as time passes until it is bleeping constantly (Annoying noise No. 2). Finally it just completely cuts out.  Eventually the battery cannot recharge and just bleeps constantly if switched on.

In practice this means that all work which involved an electrically powered piece of equipment stops for a length of time from 30 seconds to all day. That means no PCs, no router, no internet. No fans, no light. And try not to open the fridge door too often if the power cut if for more than about 4 hours or your fridge will start to become an incubator. Any ice in the freezer compartment will have melted so good excuse to have another one of those frozen fruit juice slabs – cold, sweet – or frozen water melon sticks (Upside No. 1)

Of course if you have a laptop you are not dependent upon mains power. But remember that battery that started of as having life of say 5 hours (depends on what you run and how) now after two years of tropical dampness, low and changeable voltage power supply only has a life of under 1 hour.  My colleague’s laptop’s battery is basically fried which means her laptop goes down, without warning, each time their is a power cut.

So “what did you do when the light's were off?”  I can always find something to do, even if it is jotting down some thoughts onto paper. There are also tasks around an office which need doing and which everyone puts of doing. Once I got everyone to muck in a clear the paperwork off all the shelves and sort what should be kept from what could get flung away; we’ve done planning on pieces of paper. By the way I have been a whole 2 years without seeing a yellow sticky or any other form of Post-it note either in use or available!

But doing something during power outs is not the usual state of affairs. Normally everyone has nothing to do ,so they sit around and chat.

This is grating on me more than usual this week! Perhaps it is because I am very busy working to complete things before leaving India. Perhaps it is people’s lack of initiative. Perhaps it is that managers don’t plan work for their subordinates to do during such times. Perhaps it is because I feel a little stressed. Probably it is all of the above and more. There you have it .

Reasons to feel stressed part 1

(1) Perhaps it is because one of the jobs I am doing is one I don’t really know how to do, I have never done before and I am not finding it straightforward to figure it out.

(2) Perhaps it is because one particular person in the office when he does not  have anything to do has the habit of standing beside me watching and asking inane questions. I have been through the polite requests not to do this. I have been through the assertive requests not to do this. I have been through the blatant “Go away” request. What to try next? Blockhead!

(3) Perhaps it is because having agreed a completion plan, new tasks keep being added. OK I know all about requirements creep and I can manage  prioritising and reprioritising no problem. But it is still reflective of the same lack of planning and lack of  urgency which abound here in India. Several of these tasks could have and should have been done months ago. Most required action on someone else behalf after my initial involvement and before my final involvement.

(4) I suspect the last few weeks are amongst the most stressful for volunteers - tying to get things finished, trying to get flights home arranged, trying to get your exit paperwork in order, trying to figure out what you will be doing when you get home, where to live, will you be able to find work

(5) I hate formal goodbyes and I just know there will be one here. Indians really like their formality, speeches etc. Me, I like to just quietly go.

(6) I took a gamble earlier this month and told my house agent to find new tenants now my existing ones have vacated amicably, so effectively I have no where to stay when I get home. If Plan A AND Plan B fall through  - sXXt ! :) 

Reasons to be cheerful  part 2

(1) I will have completed the whole 2 year placement! and with some nice sustainable work outcomes. Hooray! No mean achievement, girl!

(2) I am still financially solvent. I feel like giving a “I’m still standing” finger to those politicians, bankers and economists who mess with folks savings!

(3) I will get to eat cheese, and ham,  and lamb …

(4) I will get to drink cider, gin and tonics…..

(5) I will get to see friends and talk with them for more than 5 minutes

(6) I will get to show emotion, to hug and be hugged, to hold hands, dance and let my hair down

(7)  Plan A has always been to volunteer. As of this week, Plan A is looking at least feasible. I received a placement offer from VSO with a tentative start date of mid February 2012. The process is for me to consider this, do due diligence, and give a basic Yes/No response. Then if Yes, write up my reasons why I think I can do this role, send this to VSO for the recruiting NGO and await their decision. So for now I am in due diligence mode. There are pros and cons, not least because it is a poorly drafted  job description – why are all organisational development roles so poorly spec’ed out?  I’ll post more about my due diligence efforts in a separate post. For now, I’d love to hear from anyone with experience of living and working in Nigeria, or who can put me in touch with someone they know who has lived and worked there, especially if that was in the northern part of the country, Zaria city, Kaduna state to be precise.

And that all has to be weighed up against Plan B  - a tip to toe overland Africa trip

(8) Plan B has always been to go travelling, specifically I wanted to do an African transect. NSEW. Arab Spring makes North Africa crossing still a little fraught and recent developments in Kenya have to be watched closely, but one cannot live one’s life in fear and crossing the road is perhaps the most dangerous thing we do every day without giving its hazards more than a passing thought.  So the thought was to go with an overlanding truck group. Whilst would love to do it free style  and organised trips have their limitations, they also have the advantages of less hassle over driving and coping oneself with mechanical failures and for me just now the advantage of company after 2 years mainly on my own. Ok my ideal would be to hitch up the wagon with the right company, have a mechanic in our midst and go slow in 4x4 packed with tent, sleeping bag and spending numerous nights under the African skies by the camp fire. Dreams.  Reality could get close, but with the sacrifice of speed.

These trips have fixed start dates, with West coast route leaving in November before I get home. So I had been looking at just doing the East Coast route. But just when I think I had identified my first choice operator (trying to avoid the totally party time 18-30 type trips) this idea took a set back in October when they pulled out of running trips in Africa.  So back to the drawing board and what I have come up with is an other operator starts London in early April, crossing Europe, Istanbul, down through the Middle East, Cairo and then on down the east Coast route, crossing over via Botswana to Namibia and ending up in Cape Town in mid November? I’d love a companion – anyone interested? 

(9)  Plans for the period immediately after flying home on 12/13th November are slowly beginning to take shape. I am dependent on friends sofa and spare rooms until I can get dental  and medical checkups done formally should I take the VSO placement route. Also I need to get my eyes tested and new spectacles lenses in all my glasses and sunglasses. Mundane things but critical. I also need to buy clothes  - in typical girly fashion, “I have nothing to wear!” Time is constrained because I am heading back to Algeria so need to get  visa for there renewed. Hopefully all that can be completed by early December letting me spend 6 weeks or so chilling in the dry desert heat, by the camp fire, with good companions. Anyone else feel like coming? Then a few weeks back in the UK before either heading of on placement, or a slightly longer few weeks before heading of travelling. or something completely different, who knows!

reasons to be cheerful >>> reasons to be stressed = life is still  good!

Monday 17 October 2011

Where did all the circuses go?

Water for Elephants


Directed by


Francis Lawrence


First of all a really good story line, with solid performances from the leads Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, Robert Pattinson as Jacob, and Christopher Waltz as August.

Its funny how sometimes you are drawn subconsciously to films with the same actor in them. I recently watch Twilight, just to see what the phenomenon was all about, and then I picked up this one not realising Robert Pattinson was in both. He has that certain something of a screen presence: be it as the Edward Cullen, the vampire at school or Jacob Jankowski, the young naive child of Polish immigrant parents and  would be vet. However the performance that drew me was  that of Christopher Waltz as the effervescent, somewhat demonic showman struggling to keep the show on the road or more accurately the rails, dishing out cruelty to animals and performers alike, whilst being besotted by his wife as she and the young Jacob fall in love, brought together by their mutually caring for the animals. The story of Jacob’s falling in love with the circus and with Marlena is told Titanic style as Jacob the old man (Hal Holbrook) recants the untold story behind a  circus disaster from 1931 to a young big topper.

I did not know the director at all and was surprised to find he  is a music video director and has made only a handful of feature films. Impressed by this rendering which brought back memories of circuses coming to town as a child I have made a mental note to check out his others

ashramblings verdict 4* A polished (no pun intended) rendition of a good story. Highly recommended

Sunday 16 October 2011

Be Kind Rewind

Be Kind Rewind

Directed by

Michel Gondry

Remember when you used to rent video tapes and how it was so infuriating when the previous user did not rewind the cassette even when the sticker said Be Kind Rewind?

Comic caper with a touch of redemption set around the inadvertent wiping of all the tapes on the video store when the owner is away. It tells how two bumbling attendants, played by Jack Black and Mos Def , set out to remake, without any money, every film their customers want. Their home made “sweded” versions of standard like Ghostbusters &  RoboCop push up rental sales for the store. How they do it provides the comedy. The impact of their actions provides the redemption part as their down at heel neighbourhood rallies round and community spirit shines through.

I struggled with the early part of this film (it is not my sort of comedy) but it slowly grew on me. There’s support from Mai Farrow as the somewhat eccentric neighbour, Danny Glover, as the store owner with a soft spot for the music of Fats Waller and some good small parts for some young actors and actresses. I was particularly taken with Mos Def as the less wacky one of the pair who is left in charge of the store.

ashramblings verdict: 3* In many ways it is a vehicle for Black, so if you like his style then have a look see, but if you don’t Be Kind to yourself bypass it.

A class act on the Home Intrusion theme

The Strangers

Written & Directed by

Bryan Bertrino


I was impressed!  The writer/director looks very young in his imdb photo and I couldn’t find out very much about him but I think he did a stunningly good job on this film. Ok as readers of this blog will know Horror films are not normally my cup of tea, but every so often one just hits the spot. This one has shades of Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games about it and Yes I think it holds it own amongst these class acts.

You know from the beginning what the end is, but I was on the edge of my seat waiting for how it was going to get there. The reasons for Doll Face and the other masked intruders is never explained, indeed the only hint of an explanation is the “It will be easier next time” line near the end. So yes there is gratuitous violence but it comes late. It is suspense that the movie is full of, not horror. It is atmospheric throughout as we watch the young couple(played beautifully by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) dealing with a pivotal point in their relationship, face the unknown terror of intruders. Its blend of suspense creating moves (like the looping record, the alternately friendly – menacing intrusions of the masked trio, the moving of the mobile phone etc) balance nicely with some intensely emotional scenes as they try to repair the relationship breach. For the most part, there is only these two actors on screen. Their performances are riveting. Many internet sites did not rate this movie highly but not me. I really liked it.

ashramblings verdict : a stunning debut. A young director to watch (4*)


He cooked and cleaned at our Old Aged Home. He brought us chai when we had visitors and snacks when meetings went on late. He brought replacement gas bottles round to my house on his cycle. He wielded a extra long handled brush for cleaning the wings of ceiling fans. He was due to get married in December. A quite small man, physically lithe and full of energy and action, he was always on the go with big wide eyes and a constant smile.  He was 28.
My VSO colleague Gina was here on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to help us build our new web site. During our training session on Tuesday, something was not as normal, there was no chai that afternoon. I noticed it but then forgot about it until I came into the office early on the next day. Pralad had it seems gone down with fever on the Sunday, taken malarial medicine but had succumbed to coma and died at 4AM Wednesday morning.
Pralad had  worked at Shakti for over 7 years. Sadly I don’t have a picture – he was always there, behind the scenes, never in the photo! Pralad’s family come from a village only some 40miles from Rayagada. The vehicle wanted 4000 Rupees to transport his body back for burial. An exorbitant amount of money in local terms Shakti paid for this. There was a post mortem on Wednesday  morning and funeral arrangements had to be made. As per local tradition this happens very quickly. It was all over by Wednesday evening.
imageMalaria is endemic here in this part of Orissa. In the two years I have been here there have been regular instances of people getting malaria. Our field staffs are particularly prone, but office based staff have also succumbed. Everyone else has come through it. Pralad was unlucky he didn’t just get malaria caused by Plasmodium vivax, Plasmodium ovale, and Plasmodium malariae , he caught the cerebral malaria form caused by Plasmodium falciparum  which is a horrid, swift, effective killer – fever, enlargement of spleen and liver, coughing up of blood, renal failure, brain damage, unrousable coma. Fatality rates are over 20%.
As a volunteer we all get mosquito nets and antimalarials.  Pralad had a net. If you live here you cannot take these malarial medicines all your life, they are strong drugs. But as a temporary resident why not – the old adage of prevention being    better than cure certainly applies . I know some volunteers do not take their antimalarials. Readers will remember my dilemma last year when I was suffering from the side effects of my original antimalarials. In the end I stopped in May 2010 hoping the Hot season was too hot for mosquitoes, and started back on a different regime, Larium, upon my return in August after my trip home. Monsoon and post monsoon seem to be the worse periods. So far I am safe and well.
Not so Pralad, even with malarial net, he was bitten by an infected mosquito sometime  over the past couple of weeks. He went from being a healthy young man to dead one within 3 days!  A salient lesson for us all.
From Health Care
Some Orissa Malaria facts (Source)
Orissa reports
23% of all malaria cases in India
40% of Plasmodium falciparum  cases in India
50 % of deaths from Plasmodium falciparum  cases in India

Photo “Awareness raising re malaria and the proper use of mosquito nets”
courtesy of Shakti Organisation

Monday 10 October 2011

Money money money…life in a world without cash

Dussera is a big holiday here in this part of India when people travel home to  see family. In that way a bit like Thanksgiving is in the USA. People also buy new clothes at this time. The clothes shops give extra discounts to entice you to part with your money in the period between Dussera and Diwali holidays.  Everyone spends and everyone moves. Consequently the trains are full, the roads are crowded, and the ATMs are empty. I completely misjudged it this year and was left without money for 6  whole days!

Ok I slightly exaggerate, slightly. I got down as far as having 60 Rupees in my hand! That’s less than £1 GBP. Remember that here no one uses plastic.  I’ve not seen a credit card, or a shop with a EFTPOS swipe facility in all the time I have been here. Cash is king!

My little experience of surviving without cash for 6 days shows just how great people are in rallying round. First it should be said that I always had a back up. My neighbourhood grocer has in the past stood me my shopping when the local ATM has been out of action when the electricity supply has been off, so I always had a fall back position of a quiet word in the friendly ears with Kieran Kumar!

The first nice reaction from people happened mid holiday period. Mr P volunteered to lend me some cash to tie me over. Considering we have a “Don’t ask, don’t be refused” sign in the office regarding salary advances, I thought this was really nice personal gesture. So that got me restocked up with a few item like eggs, cooking oil, milk, cereal, etc That was on Wednesday 5th. I raided my store cupboard, cooked up eggs, tomato khadjura, lentils and beans and kept my last tin of tuna for a treat.

The holiday started on Sunday 2nd and continued through Friday 7th. On Saturday morning my sabzi walla re appeared and I sent her away saying come back on Monday. She came on Sunday! I had been hopeful of the ATMs being restocked on the Saturday or Sunday, but alas no such joy . I had to explain to her that I had no money ‘gote såptahå sabu dina rupee kichi nahi’ seemed to work, when I tried to explain that was why I sent her away the previous day, she got a fit of the giggles and started jabbering away in her mix of Telugu and Oriya, the jist of which I understood to be I should take my vegetables and pay her later! Amazing! In the end I raided the pennies jar and counted out the 1 and 2 rupee coins  that collect there and paid her 3 Rupees short!

Onto Monday afternoon and my office colleague, who had also been doing the rounds of the ATMs looking for money, said he saw a queue at one on his way into the office. Later that evening, Sanjay and I set of on the office motor cycle to see if we can find a working ATM.  3 ATMs later, we found a queue of 6 people  waiting at the railway station ATM. An optimistic sign I reckon! By the time I had my turn, the queue behind me had grown to another 8-10 people: clearly word of a working, stocked ATM travels fast! 

Those 6 transactions in front of me took about 30 minutes. The first 2 passed of without hitch and I didn’t really notice the time ticking by, it was a really nice cool evening to be outside. Then it was the turn of a tall man in a yellow Tshirt . It was clearly not at his usual ATM, he was reading every instruction closely and was having a problem with his card.  Now let me explain how ATM booths work in India. Everyone crowds into the  booth - there’s no standing waiting respectfully outside when you conduct your financial transactions in private. No, this is India, everyone gets inside! But in such circumstances  as this, folks are even keener to see what is going on and why this man’s transaction is taking so long. No one complains, indeed lots of advice is offered – ‘pull the card out more quickly’, ‘give it a wipe clean’ etc  But this time it is all to no avail.

The next guy tries his card just to prove the machine is still functioning. It takes forever to print  out his receipt but he gets his money, a few hundred rupees. It is now my turn. I tell yellow Tshirt to try again. Still no luck and he gives up. I step up the the ochy! Everything goes smoothly until I tell it how much I want. It sits there processing my request for what seems like an eternity. Again the advice comes from the folks at my rear. ‘Cancel it’, ‘it's got stuck’, ‘Try again’. I hear sounds of “card problem” further behind me from way outside the booth. More advice form inside the booth. ‘No don’t cancel, wait, the light’s on, its going to print’. The bleeping starts. Finally an ‘Unable to proceed’ with my request message appears !!! Ah Ha I think, I asked for too much money.  I half what I initially asked for and me and my entourage wait again. Money arrives, then the long wait on the receipt again. Everyone is amazingly patient.

Sanjay and I start to head back to the office. We are about half way when we run out of petrol! Luckily we are fairly near the petrol pump. Again as we are determining exactly what is wrong with the bike several people collect to see what is going on, and to offer advice on the clutch, on how to wiggle the bike to get the last drop out of the tank! After getting us moving again we just stall a little further on. We give up. I walk and Sanjay pushes the motor bike the last 5 minutes to the refill point. We joke about  how funny it would be if their was no petrol! In a town used to having no power, and no good road, it takes having no money in its strides, but no petrol would be a joke too far!

Eventually around 9PM I got back home. The whole house was already locked down for the night. Just as  I was locking up my own door, out comes my landlady’s daughter carry shopping bags. They had been to market. Realising I had no money they had bought me some fruits and some mushrooms with the expectation of me paying for them when the ATMs had cash.

Aren’t people just great! Thank you everyone!

Thursday 6 October 2011

What matters to you?

ashramblings supported charity this year is Cancer Research, donate via our
We’re 58 and in the Pink! campaign Just Giving gadget to the left
The somewhat expected news of Steve Jobs’ death aged 56 greeted me this  morning, another victim to cancer.
Now I’ve never been a great fan of the Mac (more a PC girl myself), but I own an iPod and use iTunes, although I don’t really like the way they work compared to some other mp3 players, synchronising with one computer is too restrictive, and as an early adopter of the Sony eReader, Apple missed out on me again as a user.
That said, I can but admire the concept, the design and the marketing of one of the world’s biggest brands. How many other world figures have truly touched, impacted and changed  the everyday lives of so many folks across the planet?
Reading his obituary I was struck by the common sense of the man and specifically by this quote.
"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful … that's what matters to me."
Steve Jobs, as quoted in his Guardian obituary
So I thought a fitting tribute to his vision and philosophy of life would be to ask everyone to post their own “what matters to me” comment here on the blog (let’s try and get them all in one place, so please do not post to the facebook rendering) and see what a diverse range of things inspire people to get up in the morning and make them feel entitled to a good nights sleep.
So let me start….
……for now, what matters to me is to have helped someone achieve something for themselves which they either did not know how to do or how to find out how to do beforehand or did not have the courage or confidence to attempt.

Monday 3 October 2011

A Rag, Tag and Bobtailed Consortium of Washington Truth Seekers

Camel Club No. 3 Stone Cold




David Baldacci


I listened to the first two book in this series some time ago as an introduction to Baldacci’s thrillers and really should have followed straight onto the third as the story continues from a baseline set in book 2 The Collectors and book 1 The Camel Club. The reader has a lovely sounding, slightly gruff, older male voice which I really liked. It suited the story and suited the main character Oliver Stone, ex US government assassin.

The Camel Club of the series title is a rag, tag and bobtail conglomerate of folks Stone, rare books librarian Caleb Shaw, obsessive Milton Farb , ex agent now anti war protester Rueben Rhodes and side kick veteran Secret Service agent Alex Ford. The characters are just great, well crafted and very human. It is the details Baldacci gives that makes them so real and personable from the physical descriptions to their familiar circumstances, to the emotional context of their characters.

“Harry Finn rose as usual at six-thirty, made coffee, let the dog out into the fenced backyard for its morning constitutional, showered, shaved, woke the kids for school and oversaw that complicated operation for the next half hour as breakfasts were gulped, backpacks and shoes grabbed and arguments started and settled. His wife joined him, looking sleepy but nonetheless game for another day as a mother/chauffeur of three, including a precocious, independent-minded teenage boy.

Harry Finn was in his thirties with still boyish features and a pair of clear blue eyes that missed nothing. He'd married young and loved his wife and three children and even held sincere affection toward the family dog, a floppy-eared golden Labradoodle named George. Finn was an inch over six feet tall, with a long-limbed, wiry build ideally suited for speed and endurance. He was dressed in his usual faded jeans and shirttail-out clothing. And with round eyeglasses on and his intelligent, introspective expression, he looked like an accountant who enjoyed listening to Aerosmith after a day of crunching numbers. Although he was amazingly athletic, living by his wits was actually how he put bread on the table and iPods in his kids' ears, and he was very good at his work. Indeed, there were very few people who could do what Harry Finn could. And live. He kissed his wife good-bye, hugged his kids, even the teenager, grabbed a duffel bag that he'd placed near the front door the night before, slid into his Toyota Prius and drove to National Airport on the Potomac River right outside of Washington, D.C.”

I like his paced style. The story line crosses the underworld/mob and the connections and progresses along very nicely linking in international espionage hit squads. I was so hooked at the end of this third book, with its Dumbledore moment near the end, that I have immediately started book 4 Divine Justice

Baldacci’s website has book intros, excerpts from the audio versions, for anyone interested

The Camel Club 

The Collectors

Stone Cold

Divine Justice

Hell's Corner

As far as I know only his first novel Absolute Power has been made into a movie – why none of the others? Who knows! Pity!

ashramblings verdict: (4*) If you like a real good thriller, this series is for you, but read them from the beginning and be prepared to read them all.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Independence day without the humour

Battle Los Angeles


Directed by


Jonathan Liebesman


Fast action thriller following basically the same premise as other alien invasion movies, with gritty determined band of brothers taking down the alien’s command and control centre. The usual civilians are picked up along the way, but the love interest is played down, there are no happy reunions with loved ones at the end, only solidarity with the staff sergeant the group did not initially want but came to understand, respect and follow. The film is heavy on effects, but interestingly sparse on real close ups of the aliens, save the makeshift autopsy, or much sense of the wider battle ranging beyond. The viewer is totally with this one small group of marines, in their isolation from the rest of humanity, as they make critical decisions, with limited information and little time. I was surprised to find myself on the edge of my seat with this movie.


ashramblings verdict : a good enough rainy afternoon thriller (3*)

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Sweet dreams are made of this

A colleague of mine brought some blossoms into the office from his garden. Beautiful fragrant passion flowers. Their smell filled the room all day. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me and anyways for now cameras cannot capture aromas!

The flowers gave rise to a discussion about flower names in English and Oriya. Passion flowers, Passiflora  caerulea, is known as  “rada tamara”.

The flowers one sees at weddings are “rajanigandha”, Polianthus tuberosas, trying to find the common English name for this I found this great website about the flowers of India. Also I loved the comments on this  essential oils website  - “its fragrance can enhance the fantasy factor and give yield wonderful bedtime!” Bon rêve tout le monde!

So for any aspiring botanists coming to India please consult www.flowersofindia.com

Sunday 25 September 2011

Sci-fi blast from the past!

Forbidden Planet


Directed by


Fred M Wilcox


One of my childhood dreams was to  travel, to travel to the stars. I was awestruck by the heavens, by the likes of Telstar, Sputnik. Then, I could name you all the Soviet and American astronauts, men, women and dogs! I even sat in a Gemini capsule! I have no idea really where this craze originated from but it found its way through DC Comics, to Thunderbirds, to Doctor Who, to Star Trek, to Babylon 5, and beyond and to every sci-fi movie I have ever seen. The first one I remember was “Forbidden Planet” and I still have a fondness for this movie even now 55 years after it was made. Robby the Robot was I suppose the 1950s equivalent of Honda’s Asimo, and defined the genre. His classic response to a request to synthesise whisky of “will 60 gallons be sufficient?” still gets  me . Whoever wrote Robby’s lines had a wicked sense of humour. The film has a Hollywood ending when the captain gets his girl, and good triumphs over evil, and yes the plot is flawed in that a man of Dr Morbius’ intelligence should have realised what was generating the monsters, but a fan forgives. It is after all inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest. Looking at it now I love the  artwork of the scene sets of the desert landscapes where the spaceship lands, the green sky with its two moons. I read that there is going to be a remake of the movie for release in 2013, and inevitably there is a lot of hype surrounding it. I wonder if it will be as ground breaking, genre setting and long lasting as the original ?

ashramblings verdict : a classic 4*

Friday 23 September 2011

A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2 - A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings




George R R Martin


I think the second book in a trilogy or longer series always has a difficult time to sustain the  impact of the first. Its main function is to progress the story line. That this one does for all the main characters. Westeros is now at war , the clash of kings of  the title is heard everywhere, nothing and no one escapes. I thought the battle scenes were well written, very visual. Martin likes his blood and guts, rape and pillage, tales of loyalty and deception. He excelled in his description of the sea battle scenes at Kings Landing . His descriptions of wildfire reminded me of those of Dark Fire to be found in CJ Sansom’s book of the same name. In Book 2 Martin sends the reader up a false trail and has laid the ground work for continuing the tale in what was originally going to be a trilogy but which now runs to 5 books, with 2 further ones in the pipeline. My thirst for this story continues unabated.

 ashramblings verdict : onward! 3*

Related Reviews:  ashramblings review of Book 1 A Game of Thrones

Sunday 18 September 2011

When Dreams Go Bad

imageRequiem for a Dream


Directed by


Darren Aronofsky


I felt I needed something more substantial movie wise this weekend. I have long been waiting to watch Requiem for a Dream, having first encountered its director from watching Black Swan which impressed me greatly. Investigating, I found he had directed Ellen Burstyn in two movies and this meant I just had to see more. Burstyn starred in one of my all time favourite movies, the very romantic, personally poignant, Same Time Next Year with Alan Alda. Now at an age when major good parts for mature women actresses are few and far between (the film was made in 2000, she was born in 1932, and is still going strong) , here she was centre stage.

The storyline is simple, drugs ruin lives. Four people spiral out of control as their addictions late hold: the youngsters on smack; the mother ( Burstyn) on quack prescription pharmaceuticals to aid weight loss in the vain hope of becoming a TV quiz show contestant. The opening scene with her son stealing and selling her television sets up the storyline, the culmination of which for all four people is disastrous ……SPOILER, death, incarceration and  prostitution.

The camera tempo for the good times is smooth and normal. For other times it is very jarring, fast and furiously shifting to and fro. There is a juxtaposition of graphical images of drugs flowing through veins, of hallucinations, of the high and the lows, of the energies and the depressions, of the paranoia, of the withdrawal. There is some humour - I’ll never look at a refrigerator in quick the same way again especially when it makes an unexpected noise  :) – but these only serve to show how bad it gets.

This may be a hard film for some people to watch, but this is quite possibly the best anti drugs movie I have ever seen. If I had kids I’d  watch it with them and then discuss. But it is adult in its content, so judge for yourselves first.

 ashramblings verdict: Simply exceptional! 5*

Saturday 17 September 2011

The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha

The Blue Bedspread




Raj Kamal Jha


This book is unique. I’ve certainly never read anything quite like it. Basically, a man’s sister dies. He takes her newly born child home for one night. New parents are to be found the next day. During that night he writes her stories. These are memories of his life, of his sister’s life, through their childhood, adolescence and adulthood in Calcutta The stories are often short fleeting glimpses. They mesmerise the reader. It is a kaleidoscope of thoughts streaming out of the man’s head onto paper. At one point he writes “maybe it’s memory trying to swim to the surface”  - well the waters are turbulent, oft times very murky. Out of sequence, reality and fiction mix, stories disjointed, touched on, left and returned to – the reader is left to make the whole. Some of the stories will make you remember your youth, bring a smile to your face : boy and girl go to the movies and get banned for back row activity! Others will profoundly disturb: the lengths his Princess went to for him and her to be together will stop you in your tracks. If you like your stories linear, then this is not for you. If you like your read to be like looking at an impressionist painting or watching a  dogma movie then this is a book for you.

 ashramblings verdict: If you can read it in one sitting, it is quite magical!  4*

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Calling all school teachers……

My landlady’s daughter is just about to sit here Term 1 exams for this academic year. She is in Class 9, at  an English medium school, which means all her subjects are taught in English. This is the first year of her education where this has been the case. She’s just been in to ask if I could find her some sample papers on the web. Oh how things change from my day :) No web, no sample papers at school level.

So it got me thinking how does the standard of education really compare?  Not having kids, nor an education background myself I thought I might share the link to the sample papers and ask if any teachers reading this would post their considered opinions.  Is the syllabus like what she would be studying if she was in school in your country?  Is the exam format the same as in your country? How alike is the syllabus?  How alike is the type of questions? Any other insightful thoughts and comments would be most interesting to hear.

Friday 9 September 2011

Turning one’s hand to many things….

P9080229When needs must one turn’s one’s hand to many things, especially when you are a volunteer :)  Here’s the tale!
A bit of history
Over a year ago it was clear there was a definite need to improve the quality of photographs taken by Shakti staff. Previously they had been working with cheap film cameras but had recently acquired a couple of compact digitals. However no one really knew how to use them properly. Consequently the resultant pictures were of poor quality – some over exposed, others under exposed – and the composition of the subject of the photograph left something to be desired.  Certainly very few were of suitable for scaling up or for use in a web site. I drafted a proposal to address this: and waited, and waited.
Then just when you thought it was never going to happen, it suddenly appears luminous on the horizon. “Can we do this on Thursday 8th September when members from all our project teams will be in town?” I was asked on Friday 2nd ! “Of course we can!” I say whilst thinking “OMG that’s less than a week, and one day I know is fully committed already, and one day is Sunday, oh that leaves at the most 4 working days. Can I really do a good job at short notice on a subject area that is not my forte?”
So Friday evening and Saturday I put on the thinking cap and identified what might be feasible to do and what should be left out. I reviewed what I had written way back in April 2010. I had originally been assuming we would be a photographer or a photography enthusiast with a development background  to present this training, not that I would end up doing it. Now I am no great photographer, and probably would have a hard job remembering enough high school physics to tell people how a camera works, but what I decided I could do was to design and deliver a workshop to encourage and motivate folks to take better pictures by discussing why photographs are important for our work at SHAKTI, review the various types of photos required and the reasons why, and show just how powerful a photo can be for reporting, for publicity and for fundraising.
On Monday I presented Mr Panda with a project plan complete with audience segmentation, use scenarios,  learning requirements, training objectives and draft course design. I got agreement with a couple of minor changes and I spent the rest of Monday & all of Tuesday scouring the web and the photo collection at Shakti for suitable images to illustrate various points and finalised the training photosets and prepared the presentation materials on Wednesday. I gave a final briefing to Mr Panda late on Wednesday evening after the project meetings had finished.
In a nutshell the workshop objectives would be to give staff
  • An understanding of why Shakti needs photos and how they will be used
  • An understanding of what constitutes a “fit for purpose” photograph
  • Knowledge of how to use their project cameras effectively
  • The ability to compose a photograph
  • The ability to plan and execute a series of photos for a project
The proposed training components would be
  • Introductory session  - why we take and how we use photographs in everyday life. Then relate this to why we take and how we use photographs at work – to report, publicise, fundraise
  • Interactive participatory session  - use photos to illustrate aspects like Point of View, the message or story in the photo, its emotional connection with the viewer etc. Aim to develop attendees ability to look closely and really “see” the image, its message, the composition, potential use and impact. Use photos which relate to social issues and to the areas in which Shakti works.
  • Breakout session (1) : Mix up the project teams. A collection of several different photos to each team. Review photos in light of points discussed earlier. Group presentations & discussion
  • Recap. Lunch Break
  • P9080223Photography 101 : An introduction to the basics and to the camera. Use studio photographer. Prepare briefing on what should be covered
  • Tea Break
  • Project Requirements  - Some events and occasions are common to all projects e.g. meetings, training workshops. Each project also has specific requirements for photos.  Some requirements are donor driven e.g. when funding includes provision for food for workshop  attendees it is necessary to report on lunch menu in order to prove what was given to whom and when. Use several series of photos showing points to remember when taking photos in specific situations (including meetings, focus groups, health camps etc),  to show methodology or approaches used (e.g. street plays, games, household mapping etc) for specific reasons (e.g. animal health vaccination administration, recording child weight gain, mother’s  haemoglobin blood test etc)   P9080181  
  • Breakout session (2) ; Split project team wise. Review the aim of your project. Identify a  typical forthcoming event/occasion to photograph which is going to occur in the next month. Draft a storyboard/ plan the days shooting. Groups presentations & Discussion
  • Feedback
  • 1 Month hence, project teams return with outcomes of planned photo shoot and lessons learnt, what went according to plan, what did not, what unforeseen things took place, any serendipitous good fortune etc . Award (small) prizes for best photos, best set etc .
  • Encourage sustainability by working with project managers to schedule photography planning as a regular project team meeting agenda item
Planning faced a minor preparation hiccup on Wednesday when we failed to find a studio photographer who could come at such short notice. Only on the Thursday morning did one of our staff locate one! In the end he arrived a little later than we had scheduled, had not been given the session brief, but he did a great job on explaining how to use and care for the cameras!
Overall the day was a great success as hopefully the accompanying pictures show.
Mr Panda took the Project Requirements Session and stood as translator for me for the other parts. Ok we ran over time: estimating timings when much has to be translated is still difficult to do accurately. Also half the group are new to Shakti so I had no experience of their level of competency in the topic area or how readily they would take to such a participative workshop. I’d recently attended one day of the CHILDLINE official training given by the national reps which had been mainly as lectures, classroom style.  In the end the group were marvellously talkative! After a few initial hesitant steps they got used to the interactive nature of the first session, and were in full flow by the time of the breakout sessions .
Yes I could have prepared the photo collections for the morning breakout session better, using ecopy rather than printed ones, but that was a constraint of time. In the end the second breakout session was rushed. The storyboarding idea did not take and the teams ended up planning an unconnected series of photos to take over the next month. But the upside is that they did plan and the have the thought of prizes to incentivize them to practice taking better photographs in the forthcoming weeks, and so embed, internalise and sustain the training. I will be following up with each of the project leads to make sure them schedule photography planning into their project team meetings, and with Mr Panda to ensure he does the same for his monthly project review meetings.
The feedback from the participants was most surprising and very gratifying
The training was beyond my expectation - very innovative, enriching and mind blowing. It was the need of the hour. Right training in right time and in right way. Thanks” Ramesh Nayak
Today’s programme was unique. It was a great opportunity to attend valuable training. I could learn many objects through this photography like as:  how to communicate a message, to think about the composition, wanted and unwanted messages, what is good and what is bad about a photo. I learnt why photography is important. It’s been really fruitful for me. Thanks” Suresh Lima
Comments like these really made a long day worthwhile and I went to bed giving myself a well deserved pat on the back!

Saturday 3 September 2011

A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1 A Game of Thrones


A Song of Ice and Fire Book 1 A Game of Thrones



George R R Martin


If you like fantasy novels then this is one for you. It may be a long book, but it sped by. I was thoroughly taken by the storyline, the more I read the more I had to read. As with all series some parts will be better than others so I will try and remember this and adhere to my philosophy of reading the whole set and treating it as a whole.

There's a multitude of characters, strewn across the united "Seven Kingdoms" of the land of "Westeros" the book. There's love, honour, sex, faith, betrayal, birth, death, madness, myth, magic and humour as the various house of the kingdoms go to war – you play the Game of Thrones to win else you die and in that way it is reminiscent in parts of the sort of stories found in a Star Trek holodeck with the safety turned off, with even The Khal seeming to remind me of Woolf with his mixture of Klingon fight and his softer sensitive side. 

Some of the characters are clearly "baddies", other clearly "goodies", but some, for whom I have a growing liking and admiration, I am at this stage much less sure about - Tyrion the dwarf, Dany the Dragon Princess. Then there is the ever present, mostly unseen threat from beyond the Wall which the 'Men in Black' patrol. Everything you expect from a story made to last.

The book has been filmed for TV by HBO and I think it should suit episodic filming very well. In particular the visually spectacular ending of Book 1 which did not disappoint me at all and hooked me into Book 2. Martin certainly nailed the ending!

Tuesday 30 August 2011

A weekend for silly love songs

image image


 “You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

but I look around me and I see it isn't so.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs

and what's wrong with that? I’d like to know”


Paul and Linda McCartney




Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Borrowed from a friend, never heard of it, didn’t know what to expect. A teenage adventure into love: dumped boy, still besotted, meets new girl. Old girl has new boy, but gets jealous. Boy realises new girl is best but new girl has boyfriend. New girl also realises new boy is best and dumps old boyfriend. So goes the tracks on the playlist of moments  during one night in the city that never sleeps, New York, as we are taken on a journey through the ups and downs of love.

  ashramblings verdict:  (2*) a pleasant enough little jaunt through the ups and downs of young love

  Over her dead body

One of those films that tries to do a Ghost, but without the stars, and without the characters, and ends up reminding one of the click of the fingers comings and goings of Q in Star Trek. The premise here is woman gets killed in freak accident on wedding day before the ceremony. Man can’t get over it, so sister takes him to see a medium who she convinces to help con the guy out of his grief using his beloved diary entries. Problem is the psychic and the guy fall in love. Then the psychic actually start seeing the ghost of the dead fiancée who is bent on stopping her getting her man. Some good funny moments, others seemed too staged and forced. I liked the energy that Lake Bell brought to the part of Ashley the psychic, reminiscent of Julia Roberts. A small key character part for Stephen Root done with characteristic brilliance.

ashramblings verdict:  (2*) quirky tale with bright moments

Saturday 27 August 2011

Fat is a political issue.

Why We Get Fat - And What to Do About It.


Gary Taubes

Published by Knopf, 2011


About the author

Gary Taubes is no crank. He is an established science journalist, regularly contributing to Science magazine. He holds Robert Wood Johnson Foundation investigator post in health policy research at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health. His articles about science, medicine and health have appeared in Discover, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine. He is the only print journalist ever to receive a Science-in-Society Journalism Award from the National Association of Science Writers and he has received 3. He has also received awards from the Pan American Health Organization, the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society. His writing was selected for The Best American Science Writing 2002, The Best of the Best of American Science Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000 and 2003. He is also the author of Bad Science and Nobel Dreams, and Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease to which this book can be seen as an update

About the book

Nowadays I don’t often read non fiction books although as a child I would voraciously consume them, but I seem to be having a glut of  non-fiction at present.

Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat - And What to Do About It.is a quick, if perhaps overly long rambling, account of how obesity became considered to be an eating disorder, how fattening carbohydrates became considered as fat free carbs, how scientific studies repeatedly mistook cause and effect, how prejudice post WW2 ignored German research, how obesity is inextricably linked to poverty. Yes all in all fat is a political issue.

I was intrigued by the title of this book, not because I have a weight problem (I am actually very happy with my weight),  but because I love my food, no, correction I love good food and like to eat well and hopefully remain healthy! Also, here in India everyone (me included), has a high (or higher than usual) carbohydrate content to their diet. When I was travelling on the boat – the only time in my life I felt constantly hungry! – the diet was again high in carbs. Everyone said it was because the physical work on the boat required more calories, more energy. Yeah, yeah, I thought it’s cheap, that’s why! Me, I just couldn't do the diet and stopped eating much of the meals on board and  all the snacks because the carb content was just overwhelming. Even so I came off the boat completely pasta-ed out, never to eat pasta again for almost over a year. At home I eat comparatively in the way of bread, potatoes.Now here in India, with limited sources of protein (chicken and river fish) , my carb content has been increasing again and much as though I like potatoes, pasta or rice,  and drink lots of fruit juices (sadly, water can get boring and beer is an exceptional treat !), such a high carb content is not my diet of choice and never will be – I am a meat eater, a fish eater, through and through, certainly not by nature a vegetarian. In fact, overall, I don’t like the food here (rice, dalh, beans, semolina and gram flours) and wouldn’t choose to eat it – Northern Indian food is much more me. I still cannot finish a plate of rice here – the volume is just enormous!

Taubes argues for a hunter gatherer style diet, one higher in animal meat and fat and lower in carbohydrates (“ketogenic” diet) than the now prevalent diet. He sees the global epidemic of obesity  and the rise of diabetes as inextricably linked in the “diabesity” problem. He looks at the prevalence of diseases such as heart disease, cancer. He cites examples of societies where fat and poverty can be seen hand in hand where carbs are cheap and protein expensive. He cites examples where societies have undergone the “nutrition transition” from traditional diets to Westernised modern diet and its concomitant “disease transition” e.g. the Kikuyu in Kenya, Southern Pacific Islanders for whom the introduction of sugar and white flour accompanied the rise in these diseases. Anecdotal evidence from here in India supports this where where the diet is now high in sugar (Indian sweets are so so sweet I find them inedible!) and the concern people express about the rise of diabetes in the local population. He cites examples of societies where there is little or no cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity e.g. Inuit, Masai – both meat &/or fish eaters – to dispel the illusion that meat eating is all bad – and examples of vegetarian societies where cancer is high e.g. Indian Hindus. Why then was all this ignored in favour of a “fat is bad, stop eating meat” philosophy – because of the idea of the “fattening carb” and a diet free of easily digestible carbs and sugars can make us lean clashed with the idea that dietary fat causes heart disease which had become the prevalent hypothesis of nutritionists in the 1970s.

So read this book if you are interested in the history of diets, dieting and the treatment of obesity, our preoccupation with dietary fat reduction, why some weight loss diets work for some people  but for the majority they never work. The science content is appropriate, even his description of the role of insulin in fat metabolism is written in a straight forward enough way for the layman to understand. It is well referenced and researched.  Read this book if you are interested in how society changed from a pre 1960s “carbs are bad” philosophy to a post 1970s “carbs are good, fat is bad” fad, and we became totally preoccupied with the calories in/ calories out equation which fuelled the growth in the exercise industry  and forgot what our grandparents generation knew: we forgot the 1825 writings of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin  ‘The Physiology of Taste’ where he wrote

oh Heavens!” all you readers of both sexes will cry out, “oh Heavens above! But what a wretch the Professor is! Here in a single word he forbids us everything we most love, those little white rolls…. and those cookies… and a hundred other things made with flour and butter, with flour and sugar, with flour and sugar and eggs! he doesn’t even leave us potatoes, or macaroni! Who would have thought this of a lover of good food who seemed so pleasant?” “What’s this I hear?” I exclaim, putting on my severest face, which I do perhaps once a year, “Very well then: eat! Get fat! Become ugly, and thick, and asthmatic, and finally dies in your own melted grease: I shall be there to watch it.”

It wasn’t until 2007 when Christopher Gardener(*), director of Nutrition Studies at Stanford Prevention Research Center, presented and published studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association comparing the holistic impact of the Atkins diet with its benefits of weight loss, a rising of HDL cholesterol, a lowering of triglyceride levels, a lowering of blood pressure, a lowering of LDL cholesterol, and a decrease in heart attacks that attitudes began to change. Even Gardner himself admits that he undertook the study because of concerns that the Atkins diet was dangerous because of it is rich in meat and saturated fat – he calls the results “a bitter pill to swallow”

(*) Gardner, C. D., A. Kiazand, S. Alhassan, et al. 2007. “Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women: The A TO Z Weight Loss Study, a Randomized Trial.” Journal of the American Medical Association. Mar 7;297(9):969–77.

And see his presentation on YouTube’s The Battle of Weight Loss Diets: Is Anyone Winning (or Loosing)?

For me this  book puts into words what I was intuitively doing by scouring the supermarket shelves for items which were NOT fat free, which were NOT highly sweetened, complaining bitterly of the fad to have fat free food and quietly bemoaning the death of lard. The book takes a long time to get to its point – that the quality and quantity of carbs we eat makes us sick with associated diseases such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, caner and Alzheimers. The author could have got to his point more quickly and succinctly, but he does put forth the argument and its an argument that needs to be heard if we are to counter our ever growing waist lines and the continual rise of diabesity world wide. This approach has implications for the world’s food production, it runs counter to the philosophy of vegetarianism, it has huge public health consequences and opens up a socio - political economic can of worms as the price of grain staples and food prices generally continue to rise and much of the world continues to not have enough to eat, never mind a well balanced diet.

Postscript: As I enter my last couple of months in India I can see my food ramblings, which have been remarkably well controlled so far (no haunting dreams craving cheese, cheese and more cheese that many volunteers have had!) may well become more focussed for my homecoming with thoughts of poached smoked haddock, a dripping juicy lamb rib, a thick slice of gammon, a crispy green salad, a slice of not too runny brie predominating and not a grain of rice in sight! But I’ll also be thinking of a pint of very cold dry cider, after all I’m not totally virtuous! I don’t know whether these thoughts made me read this book, or whether reading this book gave me my food thoughts – cause and effect – either way bring on the brie!

ashramblings verdict: 3* – skim read it for his thesis and supporting facts.