the wonderful world of veena.

30 January 2015

book number two of 2015: all the light we cannot see [anthony doerr].

Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See has been getting rave reviews for months. I purchased the Kindle version last fall, but generally when I am at home I read physical books, not digital ones, so it got put on the back burner. But since I am currently transient, I figured now was as good a time as any to dust off the old e-reader and see what I've collected on there in the last few months.

And man, was I blown away.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the parallel and sometimes intertwining stories of Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig. Marie-Laure grows up in Paris in the 1930s and 40s with her father, the head locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History. At the same time, Werner and his sister Jutta grow up with other childless parents at Children's House in Germany.

As children, both experience life-changing events. Marie-Laure's occurs when she loses her eyesight and has to learn to navigate Paris in a different way, using her father's wooden models of their neighbourhood to learn her way around. Werner's comes when he discovers a discarded radio and teaches himself how to fix it, thus changing the trajectory of his life.

As both grow up, they continue to learn the different ways their childhood experiences have changed their lives in the leadup to and the outbreak of World War II. For Marie-Laure, that means she and her father must leave Paris during its occupation and travel to the Breton coast to escape the German army. For Werner it means attending a military schools and using his skills as a radio engineer to help the German army locate the illegal radio broadcasts of its enemies.

I got so wrapped up in both Marie-Laure's and Werner's stories that I wanted to know even more about their lives. It's no secret that I have long been fascinated by WW2, and this book only served to feed into that fascination. I just cannot imagine what it would have been like to live in Paris and have to abandon my home and all my possessions just to survive. It's absolutely mind-blowing. Or to be a young boy growing up in Hitler's Germany, an orphan with no options other than going down into the mines or joining the army.

Doerr's book was exquisitely written, and I raced through the 500-odd pages in just over a week. I quite literally could not put it down, reading in autos on my morning commute, before and after dinner, and late into the night. It was both a quick and a thought-provoking read, and although there was one point late in the story where I was so shocked I had to walk away from it for a little while, I ultimately came around and finished it. It was fantastic.

There is a third parallel storyline, about a priceless historical gem known as the Sea of Flames, but to divulge its history and story would be to give away too much. You'll have to read the book to find out more.

Which you should do regardless. It's great.

My favourite line, which I highlighted no fewer than 4 times throughout the book: "Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever".

next up: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. the first book of hers I'm reading since The Poisonwood Bible, and I am enjoying it thus far.

28 January 2015

hello hyderabad: salar jung museum.

When I was casting around for things to do during my first full weekend in Hyderabad, one of my uncles suggested checking out the Salar Jung Museum. Touted as housing the world's largest personal collection belonging to one man, the Museum is located in the old part of the city, close to the Charminar and the Chowmahal Palace.

[the exterior of the museum. my panoramic skills are still in need of some improvement]
[the view as soon as you enter the museum]
When Salar Jung III, one of the last Nizams of Hyderabad, passed away with no direct heirs, his collection was donated and turned into a museum so that anyone interested could look through his collections and marvel at the sheer number of items he and his ancestors had accumulated.

[antique fire engine as you are walking up to the entrance] 
[statue of salar jung iii in a little garden outside the museum] 
I visited on Sunday morning and spent about 2.5 hours wandering the halls. I had to keep reminding myself that everything I was seeing belonged to one man. There was so much stuff that it seemed almost impossible, but there is enough documentation to assure even the strongest of doubters that it is legit.

[creepiest seven dwarves i've ever seen]
[pretty awesome train set. i know a certain little nugget in baton rouge who would be all over this]
[beautiful grand piano]
[this guy made me laugh. and kind of reminded me of a russian czar. anyone else?]
[a lighthouse clock. i want one]
[wooden toys made in india] 
[the main display in the 'flora and fauna' room]
[loved this rug]
Since there is so much stuff, the collection is broken down into rooms centered on common themes, including Ivory; Jade; Manuscripts; Armor; Kashmir; Textiles; Miniature Paintings; Flora and Fauna; Rugs; etc. There are about 33 rooms in all, not including the 5 rooms in the Western Block and the 4 rooms in the Eastern Block. My favourite in the Western Block was the Clock Room, which I just thought was really cool. In the Eastern Block it was probably the Porcelain Room -- it's always so humbling to see works like that which have survived for over 400 years.

[because of course the french room has clouds and angels painted on the ceiling] 
[i don't normally take photos like this, but i couldn't get enough of the floor in the clock room]
[anyone up for a tea party?] 
[my favourite wall hanging in the chinese room]
Of the main exhibition, my favourite room was hands-down the Manuscript Room, which is really shocking to no one at all. There are all these ridiculously old books with Urdu sprawled all over them, and I literally just stared at them trying to figure out what tales they must include. In all reality it is probably not all that exciting, but in my mind it is thrilling. [ed note: when I posted a picture on Instagram and Twitter about how fascinated I was by the books, the Museum's Twitter account responded and invited me to make an appointment and spend some time in their Manuscripts Department. umm, yes please]

[i love old books] 
[especially when they are written in foreign scripts]
[so many books, so little time]
Second to that were the Kashmiri, Ivory, and Textile Rooms. There was a table and four chairs made completely of ivory which were amazing. They used to belong to Tipu Sultan, so of course that made me like them just a little bit more.

[some of my favourites from the textile room] 
[the workmanship on these ivory chairs was remarkable]
[pretty sure i need one of these for my house]
Probably the biggest attraction of the Museum, and the thing I read the most about prior to my visit, is the Musical Clock. At the beginning of every hour, a little figurine comes out and hits a mini gong to represent which hour it is. People start clamoring for seats with 20 minutes to go, and by the time it rolls around, there are people crammed into every possible corner in order to witness it. I was lucky enough to see it at noon, so the gong sounded 12 times, which was pretty cool. I caught it again at 1 o'clock, which to be honest was a little anticlimactic, since it only sounded out once. It was kind of funny, though, because you could tell people were waiting to hear more and were confused as to whether or not that was all. But yes, it was all very cool.

[the musical clock]
[the crowd waits patiently for 12 o'clock]
The second-most popular attraction is the "Veiled Rebecca", a marble statue that attracts a lot of attention. It was certainly exquisite, but for me the manuscripts and textiles and wall hangings hold more intrigue. I would have liked a little more back-story for the statue; perhaps then it would have held more significance for me. But there is no doubting it is a remarkable work of art.

[the veiled rebecca]
Overall I really enjoyed visiting the Museum. It provided a little glimpse into the history of the city - of which there is a lot - and it was really interesting to see how much stuff the Salar Jung Nizams had collected from around the world during their reigns. And for only Rs 10 [the Indian entrance fee; it's Rs 150 for non-Indians] + the Rs 50 camera fee [the first time I've ever paid a camera fee for an attraction in India, if that tells you anything], it was definitely worth the visit.

[boris and i think you should check out the salar jung museum]
And you better believe I'll let you know if I make it back to that Manuscripts Department.

23 January 2015

hello hyderabad: initial observations.

I arrived in Hyderabad early on Monday morning for work and will be spending the next 7ish weeks here helping to set up our new schools. I obviously still have many areas of the city - nearly all of them, really - to explore, which I hope to do in the coming weeks, but I thought that today I would share some initial thoughts and observations from my first few days here.

[schools in india celebrate every possible holiday]
1. This city is HUGE. I knew it was larger than Bangalore, area-wise, but I never knew just how much bigger. It's so spread out, and it would take me ages to learn my way around the entire place. For now I am sticking with figuring out how to get back-and-forth between home and the schools.

[a nice quote, but perhaps a little dark for a school?]
2. It's hillier than I expected. Sure, having localities called Jubilee Hills and Banjara Hills are kind of a giveaway, but I didn't realize quite how flat Bangalore and Bombay are until riding around Hyderabad. I'm used to the hills being outside the city, not in the middle of it. It's kind of cool.

[all lined up for after-lunch assembly. indian schoolchildren are adorable]
3. I don't like it when auto drivers don't use the meter. Hyderabad is a lot like Delhi in that most of the auto drivers will quote you a fare rather than use the meter. And when you have an American accent and are clearly not from here, those quotes tend to be quite a lot higher than what the fare should actually be. And because I had a nice driver who used his meter on my way to one of the schools, I now know how much it should cost, but no auto driver will actually take me for that price. Cue the arguing and stamping of feet and the walking 8km in the heat just to prove a point.

[i wish my school had had carrom tournaments. maybe i would be better at it today if we had]
4. My language skills are going for a toss. Although the local language in Andhra Pradesh is Telugu - of which I speak none - Hindi is very prevalent in Hyderabad. That being said, however, my instinct for communicating with auto drivers is still to go with Kannada, as it is the language I am most comfortable giving directions in. So all that is to say, my languages are getting all kinds of mixed up. My ability to understand basic Telugu is slowly improving, but only if people are speaking really slowly. Otherwise I get lost and tune it out. So these few months in Hyderabad are either going to straighten out my language skills a little bit, or else they're going to be even more confused than they already were.

[exterior decorations at one of the schools. further down were mickey and minnie and then pooh and friends. obviously]
5. The infrastructure here is pretty great. Because Hyderabad grew a lot slower than the other big cities in India, leaders had a lot of time to plan for its expansion. As a result, the roads I have been on are all in pretty good condition, and traffic flows fairly well on the main roads, something I am not accustomed to in Bangalore. I also like how in Banjara Hills and Jubilee Hills the roads have numbers rather than names. I've not been around long enough to know if they are numbered in any particular order, but I thought it was a good idea. And on the road to Attapur, all of the pillars are numbered, so even if you don't know exactly where you are going, all you have to do is find the closest pillar and go from there. It's great for newbies like me who don't yet know particular landmarks.

[because in india it is totally acceptable to shut down a road for a celebration at your house]
6. I would be lost without my uncles. I am currently staying with Saranya's uncles and grandmum on her mother's side, and they have been amazing. Grandmum makes sure I am eating properly, and uncles make sure I know how to get to and from work safely. One uncle has arranged an auto pick me up each morning and take me to the schools, and both have provided suggestions for things to see and do in the city. It's been great having them to introduce me to the city, and I am beyond grateful for their help.

[every evening i get snacks delivered to my room while i finish up my work. one day it was pieces of papaya; yesterday it was an orange. i could get used to this life]
Those are the main overarching things I have learned during my first week. I am going to explore a few places this weekend and continue to get my bearings. I'm missing having friends in town, but in a ways it's good because it will help me save up some money -- I'll need it when I return to Bangalore and have to put down a deposit for a house.

[just a small snippet of what my morning commute looks like]
More adventures to be forthcoming soon!

17 January 2015

book number one of 2015: nobody is ever missing [catherine lacey].

I love beginning the year with a good book, and I love it even more when that book is written by an old friend.

[getting started on my journey back to india]
I first found out about Nobody Is Ever Missing when Catherine Lacey wrote on her Facebook page that her book was being published. She had been publishing short stories in some of my favourite publications for years, and I loved it every time I saw her name in print, so I was beyond excited when she announced she had a novel in the works.

The book came out last year, and I finally got my hands on it toward the end of the year as I was preparing for my move. I began it on the last leg of my trip to India, and I just finished it this week. I would have finished it faster, but between work and catching up with people, I've been slacking on my book-reading.

In short, I loved it. And I am saying that not because I know the author but because I genuinely think it is a great book. It's such a treasure to read the adult writings of someone you knew as a gangly 9th-grader, and I was floored by the maturity and depth with which she wrote.

The story is not a happy one, but there were a number of the main character's inner thoughts I could relate to and can remember thinking at some point in my life. It is the story of a woman who runs as far away from her life and her husband in Manhattan as she can get and the experiences she has along the way. It is the story of how a person can be so haunted by their past, by one defining moment, that they don't know how to let themselves move past it and be happy. And it is the journey of a woman finding and redefining herself after years of pretending to be someone she's not.

It's a fascinating read, and one I will likely turn to again in a few years to see how differently I understand it. I can't wait to see what the author comes up with next.

And Lace, I'm so proud to know you and to call you my friend. Keep up the great work!

next up: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I am almost finished with Part One, and I am obsessed.

15 January 2015

bangalore eats: south indies.

To celebrate Pongal, Prakash and I decided to head to South Indies in Indiranagar for a proper south Indian food spread. I had previously only been there once, but they have since moved to a new location, and I was interested to see how it was.

Pongal is the harvest festival celebrated by Tamilians at the end of the harvest each January. The festival generally runs for 4 days, during which most people will return to their hometowns or native villages to celebrate with their families. Since it fell in the middle of the week this year, traveling was not in the cards for me, but luckily there are plenty of nice south Indian restaurants in Bangalore to keep my satisfied.

South Indies specializes in food from the four south Indian states - Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. I have noticed it's pretty heavy on the last two and not so much on the first ones, but the food is still pretty delicious.

[the results of my first go-round of the buffet]
It's an interesting setup, with soup and starters being served at the table and the main course on offer as a buffet. To start with we had mixed vegetable soup which was spicy and really good as well as masala idli, some other kind of mini idli, fried vada, and potato chips, all served with coconut chutney and some other chutney whose name I didn't catch. All were delicious, and although the servers kept trying to bring more, I was eager to check out the buffet.

And holy crap, was there a lot to eat. There were lots of salad options, and the beetroot and tomato raitha were both really good. And then there was stew [which I skipped because I'm not a huge fan of it], drumstick sambar, vegetable palya, and a potato concoction. Beyond that were steamed rice, vegetable pulao, and pongal, while paratha, appam, and dosa were all served at the table. I think there might have been two other kinds of sambar as well, but I already had too many things on my plate and not enough space in my stomach for all of it.

[dessert plate, split between the two of us]
My favourite by far was the drumstick sambar. It had something in the masala that just made it killer, and I had a second helping of it mixed with veg pulao because it was just that good. The potatoes and the veg palya were also great, and I liked being able to mix it up between the paratha, appam, and dosa. I also had approximately 3 papads, because I cannot resist them.

The curd rice with mango pickle was good, and although I appreciated the ingenuity of the pineapple rasam, it was just a little bit weird for my liking. I think the pineapples were a little too strong, and it masked the taste of the rasam, which made me sad.

[pongal decorations at the entrance]
And finally, the desserts: we tried gulab jamun, Mysore pak, mango payassam, some fruits and some sort of custard thing that we originally thought was kulfi and were disappointed to find out was actually not. There was ice cream as well, but I was so stuffed by the time we discovered it that I actually had to say no. Imagine, Veena turning down ice cream. That should tell you how full I was.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this place and will likely be back there once I return from Hyderabad. At roughly Rs 400 per person, it's a really good value for money considering how extensive the buffet selections are and that it really is all-you-can-eat.

I won't lie, I dreamt about that drumstick sambar last night.

14 January 2015

first work trip coming up!

I have been employed for two weeks and officially on the job for one week in Bangalore, and I am already preparing to head off for my first work trip!

When Zaya hired me at the beginning of November, they were projected to be working in 10 schools in Bangalore by the time I arrived in January. Ten schools meant they would need two SIMs, hence my hiring, but due to some setbacks those schools never materialized. So as of my arrival last week, there is only one school that is currently implementing a full blended learning curriculum, with two more set to come on board with remedial content "soon".

In the meantime, six schools have come on board for the expansion into Hyderabad, and there is a lot of work to be done. Teachers need to be trained on the technology and how to implement it; students need to be trained on the technology; meetings need to be held with teachers and school leaders on the importance of the data and how to read it. In short, there is a lot to do and only one SIM to do it all.

On Monday morning I received an email from Meg, my supervisor in Bombay: would I be willing to go to Hyderabad for 2 months to help get everything set up and launched there and then come back to Bangalore after? To which I responded with a hearty "yes". It will be good for me to see our work in more schools, and it will better prepare me for the next academic year in Bangalore when we will have more schools on board here.

I have never before been to Hyderabad, so I know nothing of the layout of the city or the local language, but I am not one to say no to a challenge like this. Plus going to Hyderabad means lots and lots of Hyderabadi Biryani, so sign me up for that. And it also means that I get to go ahead and check off my goal of visiting a new place in India in the first month of the year.

The only drawback is that I miss out on the nice house I had found in Koramangala, but that just means Shonali and Prakash have to find me an even better one before I return in March.

[you had better believe i'll be spending some time out here, too. image via]
So Hyderabad, here I come!

12 January 2015

in photos: my first week back in bangalore.

I'm not doing the "of 52" series again this year, because I just can't guarantee right now that I can keep up with it, especially since I'll be heading out to Hyderabad next week for an unknown amount of time. Between starting a new job, trying to find a place to live, and generally trying to find my balance, I had to let that one slide. That being said, however, I will continue to post regular updates and pictures, beginning with my first week back in Bangalore.

[first view of my garden city as i left the airport]

[the murals on the exterior of lalbagh are fading slightly, but i still love them]
[my friend johanna had a stall set up at the ckp chitra santhe]
[loved watching this guy make chai. and he loved posing for my camera]
[dinner at kund to wrap up my first sunday funday back in my city]
[good to be back in pretty chamarajpet] 
[kicking off our tinfinity celebration in guzzlers] 
[i love friends who respond to a direct order to come to guzzlers with "ok!" and show up with smiles]
[reunion with my peanut. she wore her graceland shirt in honour of elvis' 80th birthday. smart girl] 
[decorations at mangalore pearl. had me cracking up all through dinner]
It sure is nice to be home.