Monthly Archives: December 2013

Exchange Reading List

<exchange> and <reading list> : most people would raise an eyebrow if these were yoked together


1. A History of the World, Andrew Marr: Read it on an endless journey with not-so-wonderful company. The book is so-so in terms of writing (rather bad editing, in my opinion – meriting the “somebody take this editor out to the back and sentence him” kind of humour). While it’s difficult to do justice to the history of the entire blessed world, Marr does bring out some really obscure facts (for example, that the Western Europeans veered off on the Fourth Crusade and sacked the Christian city of Constantinople ; that Queen Elizabeth and Francois I were on friendly terms with Suleiman the Magnificent, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire). A decent read if you’re bored and want to brush up facts – or learn new ones for, say, your quizzing obsession. 🙂


  • An anthology of short stories – The Signalman by Dickens and The Country of the Blind by Wells are the ones I remember, but the others were remarkable too. Sorry, can’t remember all the names – Joyce’s The Dead was probably one.
  • Save Me the Waltz – Zelda Fitzgerald. I seem to gravitate towards these Pre-Women’s liberation American novels with a common theme. This one is a thinly disguised autobiography of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife. Poetic and leaves one with a sense of incompleteness. But atleast you feel more sympathetic towards this woman than towards Daisy, Madam Buchanan…
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories – A children’s book, perhaps, but with some nice wordplay and skilled writing.
  • Glengarry Glen Ross – Sorry, did not get this at all. Did. Not. Get. It. Clearly this was not a play that was meant to be read.
  • Harold and Maude– Creepy. Very. And depressing. Also very.
  • The Pavilion of Women I already reviewed.
  • Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey – I don’t know why we clump the Bronte sisters together. It’s surprising how different these books are – Jane Eyre is a fairytale romance (though not unsubtle in its psychological analysis) and Agnes Grey is more of a middle-class English family-girl-meets-middle-class-English-family-boy-who-is-studying-to-be-a-solid-country-priest romance. Somewhat like DDLJ versus Do Dooni Char. 
  • Vanity Fair I wrote about earlier.

That’s all folks ! 🙂


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Food Observations

1.”These aren’t any old butter biscuits. They’re St Michael’s buttered biscuits.”

2.  Why are food items sold in such large minimum quantities ?

3. Those hot chocolate – on – a -stick things. The concept is brilliant, but the resulting drink just  tastes…oily.

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The Pavilion of Women : A Review

One must first live before he can safely know.

China in the 1920s is an ancient culture resistant to change. Things that are valued include “honour”, loyalty, class and heritage. Things that are not valued are girl children (left out to die in the cold),  education (especially for girls) and new thoughts.

Madame Wu – our protagonist – would seem to epitomize the old Chinese elite. She is the powerful, intelligent and practical head of the rich, land-owning Wu family. Everyone around her respects her wisdom and knowledge, as well as her considerable personal charm.

But now, on her 40th birthday, she is about to make a strange announcement : She is set to bring into the family a “Second Wife” –  a concubine for her own husband.

A concubine. For her own husband.

Everyone thinks she has gone completely insane (though no one dares say so). Even Mr Wu himself – a kind, gentle man for his time, what we’d call a nice person – is shocked by this odd decision. He begs her (though rather weakly, his wife is quick to notice) to change her mind. But Madame Wu is resolute :

The first part of her life was over and the second was about to begin…A woman who had lost her looks might have hesitated through feelings of defeat or even jealousy. But she had no need to be jealous and what she was about to do was of her own clear, calm will.


After this unconventional step – unconventional inasmuch as it was initiated by the *wife* rather than the husband, for polygamy was prevalent in China at the time – she reflects upon her life so far, and the reader begins to understand her a bit better. Remembering the way she was not allowed to read her scholarly father-in-law’s books, she ponders upon her lack of formal learning. Madame Wu had a mind of her own, even at eighteen :

‘These books, my child,’ he had said to her in his grave way,’these books are not for you.’

‘Because I am a woman?’ she had asked. He had nodded…

She had then put one of her clear questions to him. ‘Our Father, do you think my mind will never be beyond that of my lord’s at fifteen?’

Her father-in-law explains rather honestly that she’s way too smart for her husband:

‘Will my lord hate me then?’ she had asked again.

Without his putting it into words, it was clear to her that Old Gentleman knew that she was more intelligent than his son, and he was warning her.

‘My child,’ Old Gentleman said,’there is no man who can endure woman’s greater wisdom if she lives in his house and sleeps in his bed. He may say he worships at her shrine, but worship is dry fare for daily life. A man cannot make of his house a temple, nor take a goddess for his wife. He is not strong enough.’

At the time, she agrees to follow the family’s norms faithfully.But now Madame Wu is forty and secure. She has spent the last twenty-two years of her existence dissembling and solidifying her power by never overstepping her bounds. Now, at last, she wants to be free. How she delicately manages it – without going to the Himalayas or abandoning her responsibilities – and what she learns in the process – these make up the core of the novel.

The Good Earth always struck me as slightly stilted, but Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women is a wise, intelligent and lucid work. For an author to avoid falling into stereotypes while describing an alien culture is an achievement in itself, when we consider that the book was written nearly 70 years ago when racism and fear of the Other were rampant. Even though she clearly does not approve of some cultural practices, there is no judgement, only empathy. (I later found out that Pearl Buck spent her childhood in China). But more interesting is how modern – how, sadly, relevant ! – the heroine of the novel sounds. Her dilemmas regarding family, change and the eternal conflict between duty and love belong to the 21st century. The lucid prose, never overdone, never tacky, completes the novel. There is no patronizing of the protagonist. There is no unnecessary dramatization and sentimentality. And thus Buck manages to make her story of a middle-aged Chinese woman one of the most engrossing coming-of-age novels I have ever read.

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Wer wird mich erlosen ?

The Musee Jacquemart-Andre isn’t very tourist-friendly. It’s off the beaten track, and it’s pricey. But they were having an exhibition of Victorian British artists, and who can resist that ? (Answer: Not me).

The place  is basically an old mansion bought by a fabulously rich 19th-century couple, and the permanent exhibition consists of all the art they collected : a miniature Louvre in the comfort of a home. But what interested me was the array of  Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the temporary exhibition. Nearly everyone was represented, from John William Waterhouse (The Crystal Ball) to Rossetti to Burne-Jones (one of the Pygmalion series).

I’ve always been fascinated as well as horrified by this particular movement because of the way they depicted  women. It was either the angelic pure lady (Beata Beatrix)….


She’s supposed to be praying.

….or the damsel in distress (innumerable depictions of Ophelia)


Yes, they were weird.

… or the evil but beautiful witch (Lilith).


The pre-Raphaelite definition of the Bad Girl (TM)

Like in modern-day Hollywood, all the women, whether good or evil, are perfectly beautiful – even, if I may be crude for a moment, sexy.

And yeah, they only seemed to paint women, the weirdos.

What in my view has endured more than all the above are the words of the few female pre-Raphaelites who seemed to concentrate more on personal subjects such as spiritual fulfilment and life’s meaning, especially the poets like Christina Rossetti:

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?


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On Not Taking Pictures

Exchange turned out to be about so many things that you cannot photograph.

About tasting bad food cooked in a way that one is unaccustomed to, and yet slowly finding the taste in it.

About feeling badly out of place, and conquering those feelings.

About travelling alone. About doing many things alone, awkward as one is.

About realizing the gap between the France of one’s dreams and reality – and about accepting that. About understanding that no country or people are a set of stereotypes frozen in stone.

About an elderly French passenger on the Karlsruhe platform asking for one’s help and doing one’s best with one’s own limited knowledge of the language.

About having your calculator break down two days before your exam and rushing into a large shopping complex to get it repaired somehow.

(And, in the shopping mall, realizing that the little girl right in front of you on the downward-sloping elevator has lost hold of her mother’s hand and is now too scared to go down the weird moving steps alone. About suddenly identifying with her (wasn’t I exactly like her twenty years ago?) ; holding her arm, unsure of how her slightly forgetful mother would react; guiding her gently on to the steps until she safely reaches Mama and then running towards the electronics store.)

About attending worship at the Notre Dame cathedral and wondering if an Indian temple would so willingly let obvious foreigners and non-believers take part in Mass.

About walking down the Champs-Elysees with that Joni Mitchell song floating through your mind.

About suddenly wishing that one spoke more French.

About having your gentle, friendly housekeeper explain why she is “perhaps a little bit racist” and why she supports Sarkozy and hates Hollande  – and about realizing how different things look when you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and understanding how complex some problems really are.

About reading Francois Villon on an astonishingly warm December day. With the Ballade de Mercy playing in the background.

About eating ghar ka khaana with a student from a third country (neither India nor France), and explaining – or trying to explain-your country to her, and listening curiously in return.

About visiting that pretty historical village just down the mountainside, with its medieval church , and noting the number of young men slain by those two wars -all that the world gave back to them was a plaque, festooned with the blue-white-red  tricolor and the occasional bouquet  of flowers.


Sure, exchange is also about planning trips and seeing amazing places, the sort that make it to “50 Places to Visit Before You Die”. Europe is immensely beautiful, and travelling is easy. I loved the few trips I managed to make. But somehow I never expected exchange to be an extended European holiday. To be honest, that attitude seemed a bit…strange.  And it didn’t turn out to be one, and I find it interesting that exchange turned out to be about a lot of things – trivial, perhaps, compared to the thrill of climbing cliffs and enjoying beautiful scenery, but who knows ?


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Fun Fact…

…that I discovered in a conversation with a friend today.

1. Singaporean politicians are amongst the highest-paid in the world. Also, according to the same friend, the most well-educated people tend to get into politics.

Also here is another fun fact:

2. Singapore is ranked 5/177 in the Transparency International corruption index.

If all this is true, and is not a matter of perception, it might be interesting to see what this implies…

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Newsflash: Orthodox people are orthodox

Borduria, Dec 14: The President of the country’s major political party, the Bordurian People’s Party, today announced that they will vehemently oppose the right of two consenting adults to do anything in private.

“We hereby announce that doing *anything* in private is opposed to Bordurian culture,” the Party’s president, Robertus Stickelbacker, proclaimed. “From now on, people will have to surf the internet in public, while 80 stick-wielding ZEP inspectors stand behind him peering at the screen. Also, Bordurian women will be married off at 14. The ones who are over 14 and unmarried will be sent to work in Jadugoda to dig uranium with their bare hands.”

Several liberal Bordurian citizens expressed their deep discomfort that the party,which they had been supporting for its liberal economic views, has put them into a bind.

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Shakespeare and Company

Stately old ladies in fashionable hats rub shoulders with pale beautiful women and bespectacled young men.  I am almost afraid to touch the books, for this is not a mere commercial establishment, it is practically a church. (Some cynical part of me whispers “marketing” but  I don’t care.) An antique-looking sign says “Point d’arret des trains SNCF”. Welcome to Paradise for bibliophiles.

A narrow wooden staircase brings me to a wonderland more desirable, by far, than Alice’s. We must be quiet so that we do not disturb the writer’s feedback session that is going on in one of the rooms. In a corner, an intense young student (I think ?) is playing a classical piece that we fail to identify. A typewriter lies comfortably on a desk wedged between two large racks full of old, hardbound volumes.

“Please leave the ladder firmly placed on the rack” reads a notice. Clearly some overly enthusiastic people have endangered the lives of their fellow book lovers at some point.

“I think this is where the spirits of readers and introverts go when they’re dead, if they’ve been good,” I whisper to my friend.

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Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain ?

Real question in the International Banking final test :

Whose parents wanted him/her to become a banker ?

1. Lady Gaga

2. Elton John

3. Justin Bieber

4. Britney Spears




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Night Music

It’s terrifying how accurately some pieces of music can recall certain times and places and emotions. Especially places.

I came across Neil Finn’s Song of the Misty Mountain and before the first verse had finished I was transported back to A, to those not-so-cold Gujarat evenings and all the people and events associated with the last one-and-a-half-years. How many times must I have played this song while cramming for a CF test or a DM exam ?

It is a brilliant night. The moon shines through the birch-branches and I understand what some authors meant by calling moonlight silvery. I get up and stand outside on the balcony letting the cold December breeze blow through my hair until I’m neither in A nor in this small university, until the far away lights of the little French town become the twinkling lights of some fairy city.

Suddenly, I can’t wait to get back home. And I’m not even sure what I mean by “home”.



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