Thursday, December 04, 2014

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue - Review

Monica Ali's Alentejo Blue was a random buy from Blossom's many years ago. I had heard of Monica Ali thanks to her acclaimed debut novel, Brick Lane. I hadn't read Brick Lane, but this book, her second, promised me the story of a town told through the stories of many of its residents and visitors. I bought it for the princely sum of 130 rupees (the price tag is still on the back cover).

After I got home, I discovered that I couldn't read beyond the first two pages of the book. The beginning, a man named Joao coming out of his house early one morning to discover a friend's body hanging from a branch, somehow didn't make me want to read on.

The book's jewel-pink cover has been glaring at me from the bookshelf since then. I used to finger it guiltily once in a while, but I never actually opened it. You know how it is - if you start a book and then don't finish it, you develop a mental block about it and you can somehow never get yourself to get back into it again.

But a couple of weeks ago, I decided that it was Time. I would finally Read the Book and Put the Ghost to Rest. To encourage myself, I opened the book randomly somewhere in the middle, and what I read was reasonably interesting - the narrator was not a morbid old man, but a harmless English female tourist.

"Fine," I thought, "I'll somehow get through the first few pages with the old man and the body, and then I'll see if I like it or not."

And that's what I did. For a while, it looked like I had done the right thing. The old man turned out to have an interesting past, so I didn't struggle too much to read the first chapter. Then the second chapter introduced me to an English writer chap who was spending some time writing in the town (which is called Mamarossa, by the way). The writer was actually more boring than the old man, but I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But then, just as I got invested in the writer, the chapter abruptly ended, and I was suddenly reading about the owner of the local cafe. And then, a few pages on, about an English boy whose family had somehow landed up in Mamarossa. And so on... You get the picture.

Yes, yes, I know - that's exactly what the back cover of the book promised, and I shouldn't be complaining. But the thing is - I got a sense of neither the town nor the people. None of the chapters (I can't call them stories) really end satisfactorily. Most are vignettes, and most feel like the last few pages are missing. I kept wondering what the point of all this was.

Sure, there are a couple of themes that you can see if you look closely enough. Many of the residents of Mamarossa just want to leave and settle abroad, while many others (the writer, the English family, one of the tourists) want to just settle here. We all want to get away from the everyday reality of our existence, move to some far-away fairy tale land that we believe will be better, where we believe we will be happier.

The other theme is about the difference between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The writer, for example. He thinks he's pretty sexy, but here's how one of the visiting English tourists sees him, "He was the kind of person you felt sorry for but went out of your way to avoid. He was patronizing and probably misogynist and his mouth was unnaturally moist."

And it's also about how relationships can sometimes look totally different from the perspectives of the two people in the relationship. In many of the relationships portrayed in the book, one person is unhappy, while the other person is happy and blissfully unaware of the other person's feelings.

The last chapter reads like a belated attempt to get things together. All the characters finally come together, and things happen, small-towny things. But again, there's no "closure" (I hate that word, but how apt it is in some cases).

When you've had as phenomenally successful a first book as Monica Ali did, you might react in two ways. You might suddenly find yourself under so much performance pressure that you develop Writer's Block. Or you might go in the opposite direction and think that everything you write is awesome - pure gold that people are just waiting to lap up.

Well, the latter seems to have happened with Monica Ali. Either that, or she was just indulging herself - publishing some material she wrote for practice. And don't get me wrong - the woman can write. I just wish she had put her talents to better use to give us a more fulfilling book. 
• • •

Friday, November 21, 2014

Our Moon Has Blood Clots

"The best in me are memories. Many people will come to life in them, people who gave their blood while they lived, and who will now give their example." 

- Anton Donchev, Time of Parting

How do you write about the past - about emotions and memories? How do you know if you are being objective? How do you know if your memories are even real, much less accurate?

Rahul Pandita's Our Moon Has Blood Clots is about the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in 1990. The book is necessarily full of his memories - memories that are more than two decades old, and which have probably been stained, for good or bad, by nostalgia and longing.

As a journalist used to sticking to facts and data (though he has written some great opinion pieces as well), it must have been difficult for Pandita to write a book filled with so much pain. He deals with the problem by sticking to the facts - as he remembers them. His language is cold, clinical, unemotional. In fact, the first three parts of the five-part book read like a bald robotic description of what happened.

It reminded me of something Akhil Sharma said in this Guardian interview, published after he wrote his intensely personal book Family Life:
he decided to eliminate elements of what he calls "the sensorium" resulting in minimal description of sound, smell, or feel in the novel
Pandita seems to have attempted something very similar. He talks about how the Valley was when he was growing up (he had many Muslim friends, despite the fact that the Pandits and the Muslims supported opposing sides during Indo-Pak cricket matches). How the atmosphere slowly changed in the eighties, how the killings started, and how the Pandits started worrying for their lives. And then, the exodus - the terrible choice between leaving their home, and losing their lives. And how life is as stateless refugees who have lost everything they had.

The tragedy is that this isn't even the first time that they had to move. Part 4 of the book, narrated by his maternal uncle, describes the earlier exodus. The family had earlier lived in Baramulla - their home was destroyed during the Pakistan-supported Pathan invasion of 1947, and they had to shift to Srinagar. And barely a few decades after they had picked up their lives, they lost everything again.

It's in the final part of the book that the dam bursts. All the emotions that Pandita has held in check in so far erupt in a flood - the pain of homelessness, the longing for home, the helplessness he feels in being unable to take his parents back home. It's this part of the book that puts everything else in perspective.

Though the book's sub-title says it's a memoir, I do wish that he had let his journalistic side out a bit more - he could have done some analysis on what caused the sudden outburst of militant activity in the eighties. Maybe it's tough to bring that level of objectivity to something that's so close to your heart, but it would have added a deeper layer to the book.

Pandita ends on a positive note. "I will come again," he says, "I promise there will come a time when I will return permanently." This seems quite optimistic, given the current situation - but we can only hope.
• • •

Friday, October 24, 2014


Neil Gaiman says in his introduction to Stories, the short-story anthology he and Al Sarrantonia have edited, "What we missed, what we wanted to read, were stories that made us care, stories that forced us to turn the page. ... We wanted to read stories that used a lightning flash of magic as a way of showing us something we have already seen a thousand times as if we have never seen it before."

That's a pretty tall order for any anthology. In my experience, no such collection is perfect - even a good one will have only a handful of good stories, the rest being mere page-fillers.

Stories is no different, despite Neil Gaiman's promises. Out of the twenty-eight stories it contains, about ten are actually good; another two or three are readable. I couldn't really find any reason for the addition of the others in this anthology - maybe the hope that the famous authors would attract more readers.

Some of the stories are mere sketches (Michael Moorcock's Stories, for example), others peter out halfway, leaving you feeling cheated (Roddy Doyle's Blood). Many are good ideas, half-heartedly executed (Kat Howard's A Life in Fictions). I got the feeling that they had been hurriedly written in order to meet an obligation or a tight deadline. At any rate, the editors don't seem to have done much filtering.

The story I enjoyed most was Joe R. Landsdale's The Stars Are Falling - a dreamy tale set in Texas that begins, "Before Deel Arrowsmith came back from the dead, he was crossing a field by late moonlight in search of his home." It's a twist on the typical zombie tale - one that involves lost hopes and mislaid lives.

Overall - you'll enjoy this anthology only if you don't let the famous names on the cover fool you. In fact, the stories written by the authors I recognized were generally disappointing (Neil Gaiman's The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains being the sole exception). Set your expectations low before reading this anthology.
• • •

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Food Habits and Productivity

Image Courtesy: rageforst ├Žsthir

Just came across this interesting article on how the food we eat affects our productivity. Many of the points are quite obvious:
Some foods, like pasta, bread, cereal and soda, release their glucose quickly, leading to a burst of energy followed by a slump. Others, like high fat meals (think cheeseburgers and BLTs) provide more sustained energy, but require our digestive system to work harder, reducing oxygen levels in the brain and making us groggy.
In the Indian context, I've noticed that people who have lunches heavy on rice and curd (I'm looking at you, fellow South Indians!) tend to be drowsier in the afternoons.

The article does serve as a good reminder about some healthy eating habits. For example, it's better to "graze throughout the day" rather than wait till you're famished before lunch. This sounds very similar to the weight loss advice usually given by doctors - "small frequent meals".

The author cites research that suggests that:
The more fruits and vegetables people consumed (up to 7 portions), the happier, more engaged, and more creative they tended to be.
Fruits and vegetables contain vital nutrients that foster the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the experience of curiosity, motivation, and engagement. They also provide antioxidants that minimize bodily inflammation, improve memory, and enhance mood.
So if you weren't already eating fruits and vegetables because they're healthy, you have another reason to do so - they'll make you more productive at work.

Go read the entire article.
• • •

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Time and Tide

Photo Credit: Luke Peterson 

As a young man he'd never considered time as anything other than a current to bear him aloft, propel him into his future, now he understood that time is a rising tide, implacable inexorable unstoppable rising tide, now at the ankles, now the knees, rising to the thighs, to the groin and the torso and to the chin, ever rising, a dark water of utter mystery propelling us forward not into the future, but into infinity, which is oblivion. 

- Joyce Carol Oates (extracted from the short story Fossil-Figures)
• • •

Thursday, October 09, 2014


Whether you're a marketer trying to sell your product or an HR professional trying to get people to do their appraisals on time, have you, at some point, tried to get a large number of people to talk about something and change their behaviour even for a short while?

If you have, then this book is for you.

Jonah Berger's Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age manages to attain the Holy Trifecta rare in so-called "management" books - it's readable, it's backed by research, and it inspires ideas.

Not just that, it also makes it sound like it's very easy to build word of mouth. Just follow the six steps and you'll have a viral phenomenon on your hands!

Frankly, I'm still not convinced that it's possible to build word of mouth using a "by the book" approach. But for what it's worth, Berger creates a very convincing framework of six S.T.E.P.P.S for the aspiring viral-er to follow. Here are the six steps.

  1. Social Currency: People care about how they look to others. For example, if you make a club exclusive or secret, people will tend to brag that they've been there - thus spreading word-of-mouth.
  2. Triggers: Top-of-mind means tip-of-tongue. Rebecca Black's horrible Friday song went viral because - you guessed it - people were reminded of it on Fridays! 
  3. Emotion: When we care, we share. That Susan Boyle 'Britain's Got Talent' video? It inspired awe - and that's why we shared it. (I just watched it again, and it's still as awesome as before. Go watch it. NOW.)
  4. Public: Built to show, built to grow. To use the simplest example, this is why brands have their own signature carry-bags. 
  5. Practical Value: News you can use. Did you know that articles about education and health are the ones that people share the most? Because they're so practical you'll WANT to share them with somebody else. 
  6. Stories: Information travels under the guise of idle chatter. If you tell me Flipkart has great customer service - meh. But if you tell me you ordered a product at 5 PM yesterday and got it at your doorstep at 10 AM today - THAT'S interesting.

Berger illustrates each of the S.T.E.P.P.S with an interesting set of examples, and cites enough research to make you believe he's got a point. All the S.T.E.P.P.S seem quite obvious at first sight (OBVIOUSLY emotion would cause more sharing), but he digs in and shows us the nuances (low-arousal emotions such as sadness or contentment don't result in sharing).

Despite my belief that it can't be that easy to create something viral, I have a feeling I'm going to come back to this book again and again. If nothing else, Berger's framework provides an interesting way of looking at the viral phenomenon, and his examples are sure to inspire some ideas.

Want to know more without buying the book? This might help. 
• • •

Sunday, July 06, 2014

I Read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (And You Won't Believe What Happened Next!)

I came up with this post - what else?

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's American Gods again and have been (once again) blown away. Instead of writing a long post about how awesome it is, I decided to have some fun by writing it Buzzfeed style - click-bait title and lists and breathless writing and all (I'm not great at finding animated GIFs, so you'll have to do without those).

Here are eight reasons you should drop everything and read Neil Gaiman's American Gods NOW.

1. For the concept alone. The book is based on what is certainly one of the best ideas in the world of SF / Fantasy in a long time. The idea is simple (and obvious when you think about it). All the migrants who ever came to America brought their Gods along with them - African Gods and Irish Gods, Indian Gods and Chinese Gods. They worshiped these Gods, fed them with their prayers and sacrifices. But today, these Old Gods are slowly becoming powerless, as Americans become less religious, and start worshiping new Gods - Technology, Money, Drugs, Media. And now there's a war brewing between the New Gods and the Old Gods.

2. For the characters. The lead character is Shadow, an ex-con whose sense of loyalty and justice makes you fall in love with him. But he's one of the few humans in the book. American Gods is like a Who's Who of Gods from across the world. There's Odin and Anansi, Anubis and Bast, Kali and Ganesh. And many more that I didn't even recognize. And there are other creatures too - there are jinns and leprechauns, dwarves and thunderbirds.

3. Because nobody can quite figure out what the book IS. In Gaiman's own words, "... it was given a number of awards including the Nebula and the Hugo awards (for, primarily, SF), the Bram Stoker award (for horror), the Locus award (for fantasy), demonstrating that it may have been a fairly odd novel and that even if it was popular nobody was quite certain which box it belonged in." Is it a travelogue, is it a thriller, is it a romance? Who knows, and - frankly - who cares?

4. Because it's on pretty much every 'Best Fantasy Books' list out there. Maybe you don't care much about such lists, but here's one. And another one. Oh, one more. And another one. These are just the first few from a Google search, by the way. But I guess you get the picture.

5. Because they're making a TV series out of it. I don't know about you, but I like to read the book before I watch an adaptation. But don't worry - they've just announced the series, so you have some time to read the book before the series comes out. I just hope it's better than Neverwhere, which was I thought was quite bad (here's a sample). Neverwhere is strange because the TV series came first and then the book, but the book is still better - which just proves that books are always better than their screen versions, no matter which one comes first.

6. Because of how obsessed people have become about it. In Gaiman's words again, "... you create something like American Gods, which attracts fans and obsessives and people who tattoo quotes from it on themselves or each other, and who all, tattooed or not, just care about it deeply ..." Here's the tattoo bit he was probably talking about.

7. Because it's so awesome you don't want it to end. And it almost doesn't. It doesn't matter whether you're looking for a quality read or a quantity read. American Gods scores on both counts. The copy I just finished reading (the author's preferred version) is 600-plus pages. And even with that, you really don't want it to end. You want it to keep going on for ever and ever, because you love Shadow, and you don't want to leave him.

8. Because it's Neil Gaiman. I put this reason last, but really - do you NEED any other reason? Gaiman is the brain behind Sandman, Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. He describes himself as a "messy-haired white male author trapped in the body of an identical white male author with perhaps even less-tidy hair". I also like his Twitter bio, "will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down."

American Gods is probably the best of Gaiman's novels. READ.
• • •

Monday, June 23, 2014

Anita Nair - Cut Like Wound

Why aren't there more Bangalore books in this world? There's more to Bangalore than IT and traffic, you know. There are so many communities waiting to be explored - the Muslims who were part of Tipu Sultan's army, the Tamils who migrated when the British set up an army base here, the real estate mafia that springs up in any rapidly expanding city. There's so much waiting to be written about, and nobody's doing it. Everybody turns their noses up at poor old Bangalore.

Anita Nair didn't set out to write a Bangalore book. She just wanted to a write a nice dark meaty detective novel. But along the way, she manages to throw light on the dark steamy underbelly of Bangalore - an underbelly that middle-class citizens like me would have never known existed. Transvestites, corrupt corporators, gone-to-seed policemen, male prostitutes, young men hungry for sex - these are some of the people Nair chooses to populate her novel with.

A serial murderer is loose in Bangalore. A murderer who has sex with men and then strangles them with a manja thread (which is apparently a normal thread coated with glass particles). From the seedy by-lanes of Shivaji Nagar to the still-underpopulated places in Hennur and Nagawara, the bodies pile up, and it's up to Inspector Borei Gowda to figure the whole thing out (though nobody wants him to).

Gowda is a policeman in his forties whose career has gone to the dogs because he knows he's more intelligent and honest than his superiors (and doesn't have the tact to hide it). Gowda is a brilliant creation. He has a wife who doesn't want to stay with him, a son he doesn't feel connected to, and an old college sweetheart who's back in his life. Add to that an alcohol problem and the worshipful admiration of younger colleagues, and you have an interesting mix. Blasphemous as it may sound, I would put him right up there with the likes of Commander Adam Dalgliesh and Inspector Rebus in terms of complexity of character (for a detective, that is).

Nair's Bangalore is mostly restricted to Shivaji Nagar and the north-eastern parts of Bangalore - Banaswadi, Hennur, Nagawara. Lending local colour are things like the Infant Jesus festival, famous old Bangalore cafes, and of course the newer places like UB City.

The cover says Introducing Inspector Gowda. I hope Nair is planning to write a sequel (a whole series would be even better), because she's got a good thing going here.
• • •

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Eat Pray Love - Elizabeth Gilbert

The first I ever heard of Eat Pray Love was when the Julia Roberts movie came out back in 2010. Though I generally like romcom movies, the trailers weren't particularly appealing, and I didn't watch the movie. I knew that the movie was based on a book, but I had no intention of reading it. When it comes to books, the whole romcom genre is something I can't handle.

But sometime last year, I read an interview with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert. The interview was part of the promotion campaign for her latest book, The Signature of All Things and it made her seem fairly intelligent and common-sensical. So I thought that maybe I'd been mistaken in dismissing Eat Pray Love as a mere romcom. And I decided to try the book. 

The result in three short words? Biggest. Mistake. Ever. I should've just stuck to my original snap judgement.

Eat Pray Love describes a year in Gilbert's life. Some time after a divorce in her early thirties, she decides to take a year off from normal life and spend four months each in three different countries around the world. She spends the first four months in Italy, learning Italian and eating a lot of pasta. The next four months are spent in an ashram in India, meditating and whining about how depressed she is. The final four months are spent in Bali, where she ends up falling in love with a Brazilian guy. Does the book cover make sense now?

Why did I dislike the book so much? Well, mostly because of her sheer whining. 

Her divorce has made her SO depressed. Yeah, because SHE didn't leave HIM. And because it HASN'T been two years since the divorce, during which she's had another relationship as well.

She'll NEVER find another man. Nobody loves her. Yeah, because she's not a pretty white woman with a successful writing career and enough money to spend a year traveling around the world. 

I'm usually sympathetic to fellow women in distress, but reading this book, all I could think was, "Get over it already!" The heavy dose of pop spirituality in the India section of the book didn't help either. She goes on and on about meditation and kundalini shakti and what not. It was so terrible it was funny. And then later it stopped being even that. (Here's an interesting article on Gilbert's spiritual guru.)

The only parts of the book I enjoyed were the later chapters in the Italy section (where she finally decides to get off her ass and explore Italy), and her initial explorations in Bali (before the Brazilian guy comes into the picture).

And now comes the contradictory bit. Despite not liking this book, I'm in two minds on whether to try her next book. The thing is - Gilbert can write well. The good writing is visible in bits and pieces amidst all the whining and the crying. And the second book (Committed) sounds promising - an investigation into how the whole concept of marriage is seen around the world, inspired by her imminent marriage to the Brazilian guy.

Maybe she'll be tolerable if she whines less? Watch this space to find out.
• • •

Monday, May 05, 2014

Nilanjana Roy's The Wildlings

I picked up The Wildlings quite by chance at the library the other day. I'd heard about it and read Jai Arjun Singh's review, so when I saw it on the 'Just Returned' shelf, I picked it up immediately.

When I got home, I sampled the book to decide which of my two library books I should read first. Before I knew it, I'd read fifty pages. Yes, it's THAT engrossing.

The Wildlings is about a world that exists in and around our own - the world of the cats in our neighbourhoods. The Wildlings is a clan of cats that lives in Nizamuddin in Delhi. Each cat in the clan has its own distinct personality - there's Katar the leader, Baraal the fierce queen, Miao the wise Siamese, Hulo the warrior tom, Southpaw the kitten and - the latest entrant - Mara the Sender. 

The book starts with Mara's arrival in Nizamuddin. She's a Sender, which means she can broadcast her thoughts to other cats across large distances. The arrival of a Sender generally means troubled times ahead for the clan, and it's no different this time. 

Though Mara is the Sender, she is by no means the main protagonist. Every cat in the clan gets its own stage time and its own role. My favourite was Southpaw the kitten, who just can't seem to keep himself out of trouble. Other small animals are also introduced - a mongoose named Kirri, a tiger family named Ozzy and Rani and Rudra, a cheel named Tooth.  

Simple language and sheer imagination make this book a great read. Adding to the atmosphere are the wonderful illustrations of the cats. Roy also seems to have had fun with the animal names. My favourites were the Supreme Court cats named Affit and Davit, a mouse named Jethro Tail, squirrels named Ao and Jao. 

By the way, lest the cats make you think that this is a book for children, be warned - it's most definitely not, at least for younger children. There's plenty of violence and death in it, especially towards the end. 

The book ends on a note that indicates that there's a sequel coming - I fervently hope that's true, because I can't wait to read more about these cats.
• • •

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Z is for Zipping it all Together

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

I've written the twenty-five posts of the AtoZChallenge in no particular order. This post aims to put them all together in chronological order so that it makes sense to anybody who's planning to visit Cambodia.

Day 0:

Day 1:

We visited Angkor Wat first - getting up early to catch the sunrise there. After 3-4 hours there, we moved on to Angkor Thom and were greeted by its majestic gates. Inside Angkor Thom, the first temple we visited was Bayon, right in the center of the city. Next up was Baphuon temple, followed by the Royal Palace Group (the Royal Palace itself, the Elephant Terrace, the Leper King's Terrace, Preah Paliley, etc). After a bite of lunch, we left Angkor Thom by the East Gate and visited two smaller temples - Chao Say Tevada and Thommanon. Next up was Ta Keo, followed by the awe-inspiring Ta Prohm. After Ta Prohm, we moved on to the beautiful Banteah Kdei. Outside the eastern gopura of Banteah Kdei, we rested for a while on the shores of Srah Srang. We ended the day with a visit to Prasat Kravan and then drove back to Siem Reap.

Day 2:

The first temple on our route was the sandstone temple Pre Rup. After that, we drove almost 45 minutes to the beautiful miniature temple of Banteay Srei. It was there that we discovered which Hindu God guards which direction. On our return journey from Banteay Srei, we made a rewarding stop at the Landmine Museum. East Mabon was the next temple on the list, followed by the small Ta Som (a smaller version of Ta Prohm). Next was the eerie Neak Pean, followed by the astoundingly large erstwhile Buddhist University, Preah Khan

Day 3: 

We visited the Ruolous group of temples in the morning. From there, we went off to the Floating Village of Kompong Pluk and Lake Tonle Sap. After the energy-sapping visit, we went shopping at the Old Market

During those three days, the book Ancient Angkors was our tour guide. We got around by tuk-tuk, and had an interesting variety of food. We met hardly any Indians. We suffered under the punishing heat, but got through by buying a lot of water with our USD. We might have made a few bloopers along the way, but we survived. 
• • •

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Y is for Yet Another Temple

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

I know, I know. You're getting sick of the temples, right? Yes, you - the imaginary you who has stuck with me all the way through to the twenty-fifth post. 

I promise you - this is the last one. This ends tomorrow.

I was looking through my photos just now to decide which temple to write about under 'Yet Another Temple'. Despite the fact that I've written about so many temples over the past month, I still have about half a dozen left - Baphuon, Chao Say Tevoda, Thommanon, Ta Keo, Banteah Kdei, Pre Rup and Ta Som. Of these, Chao Say Tevoda, Thommanon and Ta Som are comparatively smaller temples. I didn't like Ta Keo because the Chinese seem to be reconstructing the temple rather than restoring it. Banteah Kdei is large and beautiful, but is too similar to Ta Prohm

I was inclined to write about Pre Rup, because it's so beautiful. I mean, just look at the photo below. Is it beautiful or is it beautiful? We visited it first thing in the morning on Day 2, and the way that the sandstone absorbed the rays of the rising sun was (and is) jaw-dropping. 

Pre Rup Temple
But this post is not going to be about Pre Rup. When I was looking through the photos, I found the Baphuon temple calling out to me. Somehow, I feel like I have some unfinished business with this temple. I don't know if I'll ever go back to Cambodia and finish whatever that business is, but there it is.

The thing I remember most about Baphuon is the heat. We got there around noon, after visiting Angkor Wat and Bayon. The sun was beating down on us like it personally hated us. We walked in with our heads down, barely daring to look up because of the heat and the glare. 

Baphuon is hardly a sight to soothe the sore eyes and weary limbs of the tired tourist. It's a steep pyramid that rises up to the heavens, drawing the eye ever upward to the top. Its worn steps would probably be dangerous, but the authorities have built wooden staircases with railings, which make it easier to climb. 

It's also a good thing that the temple has multiple levels at which to rest, because my husband and I just collapsed in the galleries on one of the upper levels. Aside - the central portion of the temple, which ends in a sort of peak, reminded me of that scene in Apocalypto where they cut heads off and throw them down the stairs. 

The temple is surrounded by tall trees and small ponds. After the visit, I sat on one of the stones underneath the trees, just enjoying the cool shade and the breeze. 

• • •

X is for X-Ray Vision

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Whew. I’m not sure I ever believed I would get this far in the AtoZChallenge.

And I nearly didn't; I've cheated a bit here and there - I've written really tiny posts; I've written multiple posts on a single day to catch up; I've used photos a lot so that I didn't have to write too much.

But still, here we are. I've climbed all the way up this steep mountain to the letter 'X'. There’s no obvious 'X' topic that I can think of, so I’m going to be innovative for a change. The theme for today is going to be ‘X-Ray Vision’ which is short for “What are five things I would’ve done differently had I known in advance how my Cambodia trip was going to be?”

  1. I would've done the Bangkok - Siem Reap journey by flight. I would probably still have done one of the journeys by bus to experience a land crossing, but still - at least one way by flight.
  2. I would’ve split Day 1 of the Cambodia trip into two. Day 1 was the most exhausting of the three-day Angkor tour, and it was honestly a little too much. After visiting Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple by mid-morning, we should have ideally rested a little bit rather than going on to the Baphuon temple immediately. We were so tired that we didn't really enjoy Baphuon (which involves quite a lot of climbing). It was only after lunch that we really perked up again.
  3. I would’ve made my husband pack his shoes. This seems like such a small detail, but it really did make a difference on Day 1 and Day 2 of the trip. I had read on Trip Advisor that sneakers or sports shoes would be the best choice while visiting the temples. I told my husband thrice to pack his shoes, but no - he preferred his sandals. Well, he suffered alright.
  4. I would’ve been more open to the food. Since we hadn't enjoyed the food in Thailand, we thought Khmer food would be the same, and we refused to experiment. It was only on Day 2 that we realized Khmer food was actually nice!
  5. I would’ve shopped more. I didn't shop as much as I should have because I got turned off by their general attitude towards Indians. I should have ignored that and just bought whatever I wanted. I also wish I had bought things from the people who were making things and selling them near the temples. That way, even if I’d got cheated, I would’ve been paying the person who created the art.
P.S. – Initially, I’d thought I would include the visit to Kompong Pluk here. But on second thoughts, I decided not to. Though I do think that the tour of the village was a little elitist, I did enjoy the visit to the lake and the walk through the mangrove.
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Saturday, April 26, 2014

W is for Way Out There - Banteay Srei

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The tiny temple of Banteay Srei is so far away from Siem Reap that many wonder if it's worthwhile to go there. While the nearly 45-minute long journey can seem a bit too much for this small temple, Banteay Srei's exquisite carvings definitely make it worth the visit.

Banteay Srei (literally - Citadel of Beauty) is so small that it seems almost like a miniature model for some of the other Angkor temples. Its doors and gateways make it look like it was built for children. 

The temple is famous for its carvings, which make its sandstone surfaces glow with life. The carvings are so delicate that the central portion of the temple has been closed off. If there was an award for highest amount of carving per square foot, then Banteay Srei would definitely get it.

The Nataraja on the pediment of the eastern gopura 
Perhaps because of its size, it seems hugely crowded. Tourists bump into each other and get into each other's photos. Unlike at other temples, it's impossible to lose yourself in some tiny corner of the temple, or take even a single photo without a tourist in it.

The paddy fields that surround the temple
The Cambodian government appears to have spent some time and money on developing Banteay Srei as a proper tourist attraction. Unlike at the other temples, the complex has souvenir shops, restaurants and a very detailed exhibition on the history of the Angkor temples. (I wish they would set up a similar exhibition at Angkor Wat - that would have let us understand the temple chronology right from Day 1.) The temple is surrounded by forests and paddy fields, the latter watered by a canal. We also saw boards directing people to boat rides on the canal. 

Part of the exhibition
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Friday, April 25, 2014

V is for Victory Gate (And All The Other Gates)

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The ancient city of Angkor Thom had four gates, one in the center of each of the surrounding walls. Today, though the city itself is largely gone, these stone walls and their gates survive and offer an awe-inspiring sight to the visitor.

Four gigantic faces are mounted on top of a wide gateway guarded by elephants. A visitor approaching any of the gates first crosses a wide moat. The causeway leading across the moat is lined by a row of Asuras (demons) on one side and a row of Devas (Gods) on the other side. Both the Devas and the Asuras hold Nagas (snakes), symbolizing the churning of the ancient Sea of Milk to get Amrutha, the Nectar of the Gods.

The photos below are from South Gate, though Victory Gate (which is on the eastern side) is almost the same. 

The four faces

The rows of Asuras and Nagas

One of the Asuras - note his expression!

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for USD

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The official currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. But the entire country seems to survive on US Dollars. Everybody quotes prices in dollars. The ATMs dispense cash in dollars. 

I have no idea how this works. How can two currencies work in a country? How can the Cambodian government be okay with this? What implications, if any, does this have for the US economy?

There's no doubt, of course, that this is an extremely convenient arrangement for us tourists - you see, 1 USD is about 4000 riel. So being able to carry around dollars instead of thousands of riel is convenient. And of course, instead of cents, they use riel. So if you give a dollar for a half-dollar bottle of water, you'll get 2000 riel back. 

The word 'dollar' sounds very cute in the Cambodian accent. I don't think I'll ever forget the way the vendors used to call out every time they saw me, "Laddeee! One dollaaa laddeee, one dollaaa!" 
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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

T is for Ta Prohm

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Ta Prohm - my favourite of the Angkor temples. Why did we feel like we had a connection to this temple? 

Though we were as tired as tired could be, though just the thought of exploring this large temple tired us out even more, Ta Prohm invited us to sit down and look around. To lie back and understand that humans matter very little. That no matter how much humans think of themselves, no matter how large the monuments they build for themselves, nature will still take over. It might take centuries, it might even take a millennium, but it will happen.

Ta Prohm, of course, is The One with the Trees. The photos you've seen of gigantic trees growing on top of shrines and in the middle of shrines and all around shrines? Most of those photos came from this temple. The Indian government is the one that's restoring Ta Prohm. We were supposed to a complete it in 2013, but work is still going on. 

Ta Prohm is a maze of green stones inside. Shrines spring out of nowhere. Masses of broken stone, precariously balanced. Those trees, towering over everything, throwing everything into a green gloom. If you want to get a sense of how tiny you are, stand next to those trees. You're smaller than a single root of a single tree, that's how small you are.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

S is for Srah Srang

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

To the east of Banteay Kdei temple (on the Inner Round) is a large lake named Srah Srang. Though this modern name means 'Royal Bath', its inscription says the lake was for the benefit for 'all creatures except the dyke-breakers (elephants)'. 

The lake's landing stage hides it from the road, which makes it a pleasant surprise once you actually manage to climb up. Sitting on the stone landing platform of the lake is such a relief after the grueling heat of the temples. A cool wind blows, the water pleases the eye, the only sound is that of children playing nearby. It's a good spot for some much needed rest before winding up for the day.

The lion guardians of the landing platform

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Monday, April 21, 2014

R is for the Roluos Temples

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Before the ninth century, what we know today as Cambodia was just a collection of city states, each contained within its own fortress, and each fighting with all the other city states. It took a king named Jayavarman II to unite them all into the Khmer kingdom.

Jayavarman II had his capital at Hariharalaya on the shores of Lake Tonle Sap. Three Hariharalaya temples still survive, and today we know them as the Roluos group of temples. 

Preah Ko

Built in 880 AD by Indravarman I, Preah Ko is a set of six shrines on an elevated sandstone platform. The shrines are in two rows of three, with the ones at the front dedicated to the protecting deities of three Khmer kings and the ones at the back dedicated to those of their queens. The platform is surrounded by two enclosures, both now broken down. The forest, which must have claimed the temple over the centuries, has been beaten back to form another green enclosure.

Three of the six shrines
Bakong Temple

My favourite Ruolos temple for its sheer majesty, the Bakong temple is in the form of a large five-tiered pyramid topped by a central shrine. Built by Indravarman I in 881 AD as his State Temple, Bakong's grounds are littered with the remains of shrines and libraries, and its enclosures are surrounded by a moat. It was originally built of laterite, but was later clad in sandstone. Bakong is considered the first of the temple-mountains - a form that would later attain its zenith in Angkor Wat.

The Bakong temple-mountain
Lolei Temple

Built a decade after Preah Ko and Bakong, Lolei is a tiny temple - just four shrines clustered together in a square. Apparently, there were supposed to be two more, but they were never built. Today, a more modern monastery functions to the side of the temple. Though Lolei was originally built on an island in the middle of a reservoir, mango trees and papaya trees now thrive on its grounds.

Wooden steps lead up to the Lolei temple
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Q is for Quite a Small Temple

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The smallest temple we visited in Siem Reap was Prasat Kravan, which was our last stop on Day 1. Built of brick in the tenth century, this Vishnu temple was left incomplete. Its five shrines are arranged all in a row, facing east. It's unique because of the brick bas reliefs inside its central and northern shrines. The central shrine has images of Vishnu, while the northern shrine has images of his consort Lakshmi.

The afternoon sun lights up the shrines from the west

Lakshmi, with worshipers at her feet
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Friday, April 18, 2014

P is for Preah Khan

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Preah Khan
It's funny how the time you visit a temple can have such an effect on how much you like it.

It was past four when we got to Preah Khan. This large temple is the last stop on the Grand Tour, also known as the Outer Round. Because we had taken our time at the other temples, we got there much later than other tourists. And that served us well, because we got the temple almost to ourselves. The last of them seemed to be leaving as we were going inside.

The three gopuras at the northern enclosure
The main road runs to the north of the temple, and then turns left and passes the western entrance of the temple. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us at the northern entrance, and told us that he would pick us up at the western entrance (though the main entrance of every temple is, of course, to the east and the rising sun). 

Built in the twelfth century, Preah Khan was actually much more than a temple. It was a Buddhist university, and so it's huge - almost a square kilometer in area. The outer-most enclosure is a high stone wall with majestic Garuda statues placed every fifty meters. It's surrounded by a wide moat. The causeway that leads across the moat to the three-towered gopura has, for railings, two nagas, each held by a line of devas and asuras (we had seen the same thing the previous day at the gates of Angkor Thom).

One of the Garuda statues in the outermost enclosure. Also note the head of one of the naga-holding devas (in darker stone to the right)

Inside the outer-most enclosure is a forest - this is where the university buildings stood eight hundred years ago. A wide path leads across the forest to the third enclosure.

Inside, Preah Khan is almost like a maze. The original plan was probably a simple one, but so many shrines have been added later on that it's difficult to figure out where one shrine begins and the other ends. Many are in such a state of disrepair that fallen masonry adds to the confusion. Massive silk cotton trees grow on some parts of the temple and add to the general air of neglect. The smell of pigeon shit is also much more obvious here than at other temples.

A silk cotton tree growing on the eastern wall

The central shrine of Preah Khan contains a massive shivalinga. Around the central shrine are a Shiva temple (to the north), a Vishnu temple (to the west) and a temple dedicated to old kings (to the south). An interesting feature is that, standing at the eastern entrance of the temple, it's possible to see all the way across the temple to the western entrance (and vice versa, of course).

The Shiva linga at the central shrine
Preah Khan is so large that, if you want to, you can spend a lot of time here - you can walk all around the outer enclosures, explore all the shrines and libraries, figure out how many small shrines there are. On the other hand, if you've visited other temples such as Ta Prohm, much of it will seem familiar. Since we were tired, we explored only the eastern and northern parts. 

When we left by the western gate, the late afternoon sun was lending a golden glow to the entire temple. We spent some time dawdling near the causeway, enjoying the coolness of the moat and the warmth of the stone statues. There was nobody around except an old couple, and we felt at peace with the world.

Thus ended our second day in Cambodia.

The moat

Goodbye, Preah Khan!
• • •

Thursday, April 17, 2014

O is for the Old Market

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

Whew. We've had quite a week already, haven't we? We've visited a lake, a museum and a temple. So let's go shopping today! 

Siem Reap, despite being a small town, has three markets aimed at gullible tourists such as us - the Central Market, the Night Market and the Old Market. All three are within walking distance of each other, and very little distinguishes them in terms of products available or even prices. 

The Central Market gets its name from the fact that it's the closest to the city center. The Night Market, of course, opens only after 6 PM. The Old Market, presumably, is the oldest of these markets. It occupies an entire block off Pub Street.

We were told that the Old Market is where the locals shop. That's a little hard to believe, because we didn't see any locals there. And no wonder - the place is full of shops that sell souvenirs of different kinds; there's very little that the local would be interested in. As for us tourists, there are plenty of things on offer, as long as you're willing to bargain - wooden carvings of the famous Angkor face, silk stoles, cheap cotton t-shirts, beautiful dresses, cushion covers, jewellery, women's wear, dried fruits. 

Since we had just shopped at Chatuchak market in Bangkok, the Old Market seemed a bit small to us. But then how big can such a market be in a town the size of Siem Reap? There are at least a dozen stores that all sell the same thing. Which actually makes it easy for the buyer - you can ask around in a few shops before finally deciding where to buy from.

The only part of the market where the locals probably do shop is the food market in the center. You can tell that you're getting near the food market by the stink - the smell of different types of seafood. I refused to go near the place, but my husband (who loves seafood) ventured in. The place looks colourful, but I wouldn't even begin to know what all these things in the baskets are!

The different types of seafood inside the market
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

N is for Neak Pean

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

The Jayatadaka today
Neak Pean was the strangest and creepiest of the temples we visited during our time in Siem Reap. Situated in  the middle of the Jayatadaka (the reservoir that served the then capital city), the temple was on an island once upon a time. Today, a wooden walkway leads from the main road to the temple across the long-dead reservoir.

The walkway
Neak Pean has a strange layout - the central shrine is in the middle of a pond, and has four shrines around it. Its base has two entwined nagas, which give the temple its modern name (Neak Pean literally means 'entwined snakes'). Each of the subsidiary shrines also has its own pond. A miniature horse rises up from the water near the eastern door of the central shrine.

Today, a fence bars access to the central pond and shrine. But I had no wish to go closer. I found the entire place silent and creepy - the silent forest, the green and still water, the inaccessible central shrine.

The central shrine, in the middle of its pond
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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for the Museum of Mines and Missiles

This post is part of the AtoZChallenge, which I'm doing on my recent trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia.

In all the fuss about Angkor Wat and the other temples, we often forget that Cambodia is a country which has lived through some terrible times recently. The atrocities committed by Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge are within living memory for Cambodians above the age of thirty. We outsiders may associate Khmer Rouge with the 1970s, but the movement only truly died down after Pol Pot died in 1998.

Old missiles line the entryway into the Museum

During the decades that the Khmer Rouge fought the Vietnamese Army (who invaded Cambodia because they were sick of Khmer Rouge raids into their territory), both sides laid hundreds of thousands of landmines in the fields and villages of Cambodia. These landmines are still there - and still cause death and disability to dozens of Cambodians each year. In addition to the landmines, there are unexploded missiles from the carpet-bombing that the US Army conducted to eliminate the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was the supply chain of the Vietnamese guerrillas.

We didn't know all this, of course. We landed up in Cambodia purely to see the Angkor temples, quite forgetting to associate Cambodia with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. It was only on Day 2, when we were on our way to Banteay Srei, that we spotted the Landmine Museum. The museum gave us a whole new perspective on life in Cambodia.

The Landmine Museum was started by a Cambodian man with the Japanese name of Aki Ra. Aki Ra spent many years as a soldier - first for the Khmer Rouge and later on for the Vietnamese Army. After the UN Accord brought peace of a sort to Cambodia in the early nineties, he started his life's true mission - removing landmines from the villages of Cambodia. Whenever farmers found a suspicious object in their fields, they would call him and he would go 'deal with it' for them. 

Just one of many displays of mines and missiles
The museum contains all the mines and missiles that Aki Ra has removed. A collection of old and rusted mines and missiles might sound boring, but it's not. For one, the sheer number and type of landmines is astounding, as is the number of countries who supplied them. At one point, there were four different groups laying mines in the ground in Cambodia - the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese Army, the Thai Army (to protect their borders) and the Cambodian army itself. 

Secondly, Aki Ra is also running a school / orphanage for children who have suffered because of landmine explosions. The museum has their stories - tales of hope that bring a tear to the eye. 

The children created this display of all the different armies who laid mines in their country

Thirdly, the museum has free tour guides who make the experience much more visceral. Our tour guide was an American who, after years of contributing on and off to the work of landmine removal, had come and settled here five years ago to help Aki Ra out. He was absolutely brilliant - his passion for the cause and sheer dedication made the problem so real. 
A poster - the Khmer Rouge used child soldiers

And make no mistake - the problem is real. Three thousand people are currently working in Cambodia, removing landmines. Even with that many people, it's doubtful if all of Cambodia can be cleared of landmines in the next THOUSAND years. Almost every Cambodian knows somebody who has lost their limbs in a landmine explosion - the number used to be in the thousands earlier, but has now come down to less than hundred a year. Cambodian children receive lessons on how to deal with strange metallic-looking things on the ground. 

The tour had some embarrassing moments for us as Indians. Imagine being told that your country is one of a handful that haven't signed the Landmine Ban Treaty. Or that your country is one of the three that still produce landmines (the others are Pakistan and Myanmar). India claims that it can't sign the treaty because we use landmines on the border with Pakistan.

If you're ever in Siem Reap, make it a point to visit this museum. It's a bit away from Siem Reap, but if you're visiting Banteay Srei, then you have no excuse for not dropping in here.
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