Sunday, March 03, 2013

This House of Cards is Coming Down

Despite being sure that this American version of the superb British series would probably not be as good as the original, I have to admit that all the media hype did get to me. And it was with a great deal of anticipation that I started watching The House of Cards with the wife.

A can be a very skeptical viewer and is very deliberate when it comes to suspending her disbelief.  I had a similar opinion of myself in my single days, but she seems to be stricter in this regard. (Maybe I've changed.) So when we start to watch something she is unsure about, it can sometimes be an uphill battle for the show to win us over! Initially, I intercede, defending the show every time she points out a logical inconsistency. A few episodes down the line, I stop trying to defend the show too much. Eventually, when the inconsistencies, both pointed out and self-identified, become impossibly hard to ignore, I completely lose interest in watching the rest of the season of the show. Something similar happened with the second season of Homeland, and something similar is taking place with the House of Cards.

It took me a couple of episodes to warm up to the show.  I even kept telling A how I liked the fact that the show was not an exact copy (although, I had no idea that the American legislature also had a chief majority whip), and that Kevin Spacey was not trying to play the character of Uruquat, but a less ruthless one -- the show spends considerable time on tangents that are mostly about illuminating the more humane aspects of our protagonist's personality. I admired the multiple plot lines the show had created -- till I stopped caring for them, when they became too irrelevant to the main plot. They started to feel like soap-opera like digressions which seemed to have absolutely no connection with political intrigue that the show claimed to be about. I mean, who cares about the episode where Underwood goes back to his Military school, and we get shoved, heavy-handedly, towards seeing how absolutely normal his undergraduate years were, for a man who is now supposedly the embodiment of evil and intrigue at Capitol Hill. Who really gives a fuck about Peter Russo who Frank drags out of obscurity only to destroy politically a few episodes later. Who has any sympathy for the plot line about the VP feeling politically impotent -- do you really expect us to believe that the insignificance of his office came as a surprise to him?

If you really must see a show created by Netflix, do yourselves a favor, and watch LilyHammer which although a little low-key, is a delightful, unusual, and intelligent show.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Diwali Tale

While chatting with my mom the other day, she wanted to know what we (now that I am a married man the pronoun has changed in some contexts) were planning to do for Diwali. Being no match for my mom's enthusiasm, I handed the phone over to the wife who was similarly enthused. She, while still on the phone, asked me if  I remembered the story my dad narrates during the Diwali puja. The idea of narrating the story in our own puja suddenly seemed quite appealing to me; I took the phone from her and got my mom to revise the story for me. Here's the story:

Once upon a time there lived a woodcutter and his seven sons. They were poor, down on their luck, neither very employable nor motivated to do too much about it. The six eldest sons were married and had wives who were similarly fairly unmotivated resulting in a very dirty and unkempt household. Things changed when the youngest son got married. His wife was a real go-getter who got the house organized and improved the spirits of everyone in it. She also instituted a rule according to which none of the men were allowed to return home empty handed in the evenings (work was hard to come by in those days). One day, the woodcutter not being able to find anything of value, in desperation, brought home a dead snake. The daughter-in-law consoled him and threw the snake over the roof of their home.

It so happend that the queen and the courtesans of that kingdom would bathe at a lake not too far from the woodcutter's house. That particular day was Roop Chaudas or the day before Diwali, a day on which women traditionally wash their jewelry. An eagle drawn by the glitter of the jewelry laid out to dry swooped down and flew away with the queen's priceless necklace (naulakha haar). The queen was distraught and the king announced that whoever found the necklace would be granted anything he desired. The eagle spotted the snake, swooped down for it and left the necklace behind on the woodcutter's roof. The necklace was found by the family. As the woodcutter prepared to take it to the king, he is instructed by the daughter-in-law to tell the king that it is she who will ask for the reward from the king.

The king is overjoyed about finding the necklace and gets her to come over to the court. She demands that on the day of Diwali, the woodcutter's home should be the only one which has any light in it, all other houses should be in darkness. The king has no choice but to agree and gets that decision announced far and wide.

On Diwali day goddess Lakmi, the goddess of wealth, predictably, is drawn to the only house with any light in it and asks permission to enter. The daughter-in-law asks the goddess what role would she come in as. The goddess replies: as a daughter. The daughter-in-law rejects that proposal saying that daughter's eventually leave the house; she asks the goddess to enter as a daughter in law, instead. Lakshmi agrees and accompanied by the pleasing sounds of the anklets she is wearing walks into their home and lives  (... 'aur lakshmi chanchan karti ander aayi').

Dad concludes with the blessing: 'jis tarah lakshmi lakadhare noo baudi saanu aur sade sambandhitah noo bhi baude'i.e., like she entered the home of the woodcutter assuring prosperity for his family, may goddess Lakshmi also come into the lives of our relatives and friends assuring the same for them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Comfort from a stranger with bad teeth

Some 4-5 hours into my trip from Penn State to Champaign my check-engine light first came on and then began to flash alarmingly. I pulled over at a gas station, feeling a little anxious because I still had so long to travel, the weather was terrible (there was snow predicted later that day most of which I was able to avoid by taking a detour that took me all the way South to Kentucky), and I didn't have AAA to bail me out if it turned out be something serious. Was so perturbed that I started discussing the problem with the first stranger I met. He turned out to be a truck driver originally from Algeria. When he heard about the source of my anxiety he burst out laughing, revealing really bad decaying teeth, telling me that he had been driving his truck for years with the check-engine light on and I should probably just ignore it too. I drove the rest of the trip considerably less alarmed.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Spider in the bath tub

I saw it--a big chunky spider--in the bath tub just before going to bed. Was relieved that I would not have to deal with it till at least the morning by which time it would probably be gone. My subconscious however had other plans, because a few minutes later I found myself having decided that I needed to wash my feet before going to bed. Dealing with the spider was tricky. I didn't want to kill it because would have hated cleaning up the gooey mess it was sure to create. I tried to initially nudge it so that it would walk up the walls of the tub and out, but I think the walls were too slick for a good purchase. Then I just scooped it into a magazine--pushed it up the wall and caught it on the magazine as it fell back off the wall--and dumped it outside the tub. Making sure that it left the apartment would probably have been a smart thing to do but I have become too complacent since I got an actual bed to sleep on--bye bye sleeping on the floor grad school days! But as I was falling asleep I obsessed a bit about where the spider might be. When I left the apartment in the morning, as I turned back to make sure that I'd locked it behind me, I saw the spider on the door mat on its way out--perhaps to a friendlier bath tub.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

First garageband experience!

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Baños and related ramblings 2

Baños is perhaps most famous for the active volcano Tungurahua whose threatening shadow it lives under. The volcano regularly sends out puffs of sulfurous clouds into the atmosphere which make for impressive displays and are best viewed from a smaller adjacent peak. I made the hike to this adjacent peak on my third day in Baños. One of the things I picked up on this trip was learning to deal with territorial unfriendly dogs whom I often encountered while hiking. This lesson came from the Quito couple who biked wherever they traveled and had learnt how to deal with this issue from experience. The trick was--sorry, if this is obvious to anyone who is reading this; it wasn't to me--to prove that between the dog and you, it is you who is the alpha male. The best way to do this is to look fierce(!) and chuck, or at least threaten to chuck, stones in their general vicinity till the dog is convinced of your dominance. They told me that for the over confident ones scoring a direct hit was more effective, and in some cases necessary ("Just nail the ^&**er!" is how they put it.).

Armed, no pun intended (I lie!), with this knowledge I began my uphill hike to see the volcano. Climbing in South America is certainly more adventurous than say in the US. In addition to dogs, there are hikes people advise you to not take any valuables on because of a strong possibility of getting mugged, and often there are trails that are poorly if marked at all. This particular hike also didn't have too many markers. At some point I had to decide between which path of a fork I should take and ended up taking the wrong one. After walking through a boggy insect-infested stretch I found myself on a paved road. It was hot, and I felt silly about hiking up a paved road but didn't have the enthusiasm to retrace my steps and find the trail again. I had been climbing for about close to two hours when a man emerged from the side of the road beckoning me to follow him for desayuno. I was obviously on my guard immediately but decided to follow him to his hut when I decided he was too old , frail and missing too many teeth to be dangerous. Maybe not the best criteria under the circumstances; I guess I was just lucky it turned out okay. He offered me some fruit and also some sopa which was cooking on a fire. I ate the fruit but refused the rest. The vessel looked dirty and besides I was afraid of getting drugged and discovering my kidneys missing on waking up! He was friendly enough though and gave me the charming toothless grin of a host every time the volcano made the ground tremble, almost as if he had organized the activity of the volcano just for me. When I motioned to leave, he asked for money for the fruit. I gave him a little something which he quietly accepted.

A little farther up I had a scary encounter with an Alsatian. I heard some ferocious barking headed my way and soon saw, almost in slow motion, this large Alsatian bounding his way toward me; it was time to put the who-is-the-alpha-male lesson to work. I picked up some good sized rocks and hurled them toward the dog. I didn't really hit the dog but was able to cower him enough to continue on unmolested. Felt quite empowered.

The trail soon became a bit of labyrinth because some of this area was inhabited and many of the paths led to the dwellings of people living there, and it was hard to figure out where exactly to continue. After a few false leads came upon a bunch of tourists picknicking, waiting for the clouds around the volcano to clear and hoping to see a fresh eruption. There was a Dutch couple who had made their way up for the second day in a row and a German guy about my age. The Dutch man showed me some burst clips which he's captured on his handycam the day before, which unfortunately were the only bursts I got to see as it remained cloudy till all of us decided that it was late and time to head back. I decided to come down with the German guy as I was hiked-out after walking up the paved road and was eager it get back to the hostal. He was taking a short cut as he was running late for a meeting he had organized with his friends. We took this really scary, slippery and steep path back which we literally sprinted down, me doing my best to keep up with him. After a couple of falls I tried to convince the German to carry on without me but he was a nice guy and would not desert me. (It was incredible, the number of friendly people I met on this trip!) We did the last quarter slower but not as slow as I would have liked.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Baños and related ramblings 1

About two weeks into my 2007 trip I found myself in the Southern Ecuador town of Baños which, being located at the foot of the volcano Tungurahua, gets its name from the resultant natural steam baths. Despite the fact that the driving force of the town is tourism, its commercial enterprises seem well blended with the natural charms it has to offer--actually, I'm not completely sure about that claim, maybe I was just in a happy-tourist frame of mind, and would have discovered an ugly underbelly had I stayed longer than the five days I spent there. This was a time when I was allowing myself to be baby-sat by my Lonely Planet guide so this is quite possible. A related image from the day I arrived there, after a short bus ride from Latacunga, is that of walking towards a hostal strongly recommended by LP and actively ignoring the beckonings of proprietors--I was a dead give-away tourist with the backpack--of other hostals which had not made it into LP. Later in the trip, now that I was a more seasoned tourist and more comfortable with the setting, I would strike up conversations with tourists as soon as I landed in a town and get them to recommend places to stay at instead of using LP. That worked out much better as you can't beat up-to-date info. Also, new hostals open pretty frequently in tourist-centric places and offer really competitive prices in the beginning--I was paying $5 a day for one in Cuzco which had been recommended to me by a tourist in an internet cafe. I never regretted any of these recommendations although some of the LP recommendations left me a little cold. In Lima following LP's recommendation I stayed in a place which didn't have any other tourists but was full of lots of office-going locals--I remember feeling quite lonely with my minimal Spanish there, definitely a bit of a low point of my trip.

So where was I? Right, getting back to describing the town, the wide and clean streets of Baños gave the impression that the town did not come up haphazardly, but was planned, and had an efficient local government. There were some interesting cafes, discovered again mostly through the LP, which served a blend of local and international cuisine. One that I was particularly fond of had cosy seating areas with a happy mismatch of furniture, and was tastefully decorated by people with obvious artistic sensibilities. It was spacious with many comfortable nooks and corners, random pieces of art--very international. And a collection of books which is ubiquitous to any place frequented by tourists, and the policy-- also quite common--of only exchanging books as opposed to allowing people to buy them to maintain the volume of the collection. I think the owners were Americans who had visited the town and liked it so much that they had decided to settle down there. The food was quite good though a little more expensive than the less ambitious eateries in town. The larger room of the cafe also had big sized windows which let lots of natural light in.

There was another cafe which was run by a local artist who, as the LP predicted, also used the place as his studio when it was not open. Although it did have a strong odor of turpentine, the food was good authentic unassuming cuisine from Ecuador which had a homemade feel to it. Ecuador was, in general quite friendly to the vegetarian tourist. The locals' diet has a strong presence of vegetables and fruit--some completely new to me--and I really enjoyed the fruits salads I often had while over there. Your average lover of spicy food might however be a little disappointed as I found the food a little on the bland side and would have struggled had every meal not been accompanied with ahi which is a sour and sometimes hot tomato based salsa. I would have come back to this eatery more often if it was not so stifling from the smell. The paintings were just about average and I was glad for the artist that he'd had the sense to start this side business.

A major source of excitement for me was the discovery that a couple who I'd met and liked in Quito were staying in the same hostal as me. In any case, people are very friendly while traveling like you can only be to strangers you don't expect to ever meet again. A second meeting, under the circumstances, is like meeting a childhood friend! It provided such a fine start to my stay in this town. And this was not the only time this happened. There was another couple I shared the bus ride out of Baños with whom I ran into a second time in another one of my favorite places of the trip--Vilcabamba, which is farther South of Baños, not too far from the border with Peru. I was in the town square when I saw some people waving in my direction. My first reaction was to assume that they were waving to some one else but when the waving persisted I realized who it was. They were wearing sun glasses this time and different clothes--inexcusable, how could I have recognized them?! I guess staying on the gringo trail has its advantages.

There's a very pretty river that flows on one end of the town and my first hike here was down to the river bed. It was fairly pleasurable hike till at one point I found the trail blocked off by a large barking dog who was intimidating and threatened to cut my hike short. I spent about half an hour inching my way towards the dog--I would have felt incredibly stupid if I'd turned back--the philosophy being that if I gave it time to get used to my presence it would not find me so threatening. It was nerve-racking nevertheless to be in that situation and I really wouldn't have know what to do if the dog had decided to attack me--somehow the thought of traveler's health insurance was not a particularly comfortable one then. I eventually made my way past the dog, and a small one room structure outside of which a couple who were cooking and were the likely owners of the dog sat not reacting to my friendly and relieved 'hola'. Although probably squatters on public property, they felt comfortable enough there to resent my invasion of their privacy. Another few minutes and I was at the river bed where I sat meditating about my trip and soaking up the sun. This revery was interrupted by this time the barking of not one but two dogs. The original dog had brought along a scarier and braver companion who was leading the charge. I got pretty scared especially when this dog stepped off the trail onto the river bed I was occupying. My strategy of trying to get these dogs used to me was obviously not much of an option now. I made some mock half-hearted threatening gestures when he did that which forced him to get off the bank temporarily. We reached some kind of an impasse (with the dog taking note that I tended to get more aggresive when he stepped on the shore), I was quite unsure about what I should do and just stood there for a bit. After a while the aggressive dog seemed to lose interest in me and wandered off. I used this chance to start back up. I encountered the dogs again soon but was somehow able to use my momentum to carry on. Along the way I made my anger felt--more in tone than in actual words since my Spanish vocabulary was pretty limited at that point--to the couple outside the hut. Once I got back to the hostal I discussed this encounter with the Quito couple who gave me advice that took care of this issue for the rest of the trip.

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