Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My blog's moved!

After almost 10 years with Blogger, I"ve decided to try out Tumblr. Tumblr's great for publishing both my writing and photography, and hence the move.

So, head on over to for the latest. (And if you've been following my blog via RSS, I'm now at

So long, Mendelismental.

- Niyantha

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Sleeping Dictionary

This review first appeared in the Asian Review of Books.

As ten-year-old Pom watches from the relative safety of a palm tree, her family and the village of Johlpur in West Bengal are washed away by a massive wave and left underwater.
Dead people were also part of the tide. At first I did not want to look at them, but then I knew I had to, for with every one I didn’t recognize, it meant that my family might be safe.
Her family doesn’t survive, but Pom does, and Sujata Massey’s The Sleeping Dictionary takes us on her journey, one that spans seventeen years, from the calamitous flood of 1930 that ripped apart Johlpur to the night of Indian independence in Calcutta.

As she works the fan in the back of a classroom—her refuge after escaping the flood—Pom discovers that she has a love for the English language, and the ability to teach it. She also secretly falls for Pankaj, her best friend’s fiancé, over ghostwritten letters. These dual desires—to teach, and to be with Pankaj—set her on the path to Calcutta, a perceived promised land. It is not an easy passage, however; Massey does not allow the relaxing assumption that Pom is ever safe.

Pom is young and alone in a decidedly patriarchal British India, and Massey doesn’t shirk from describing the realities of that situation. On her way to Calcutta, Pom’s fluency in English puts a roof over her head; her naiveté about the the kind of work required soon becomes apparent. It’s a place where she hears of “sleeping dictionaries”, a term used to describe the local mistresses from whom British men learned the language and the ways of the land.

As Pom moves from place to place, each time changing her name, religion and caste in a bid to survive, it becomes clear this is more than a story of a young woman’s struggle for survival if not success in pre-independence India: at its core, it is about dealing with the repercussions of a shocking past. The relics that hang on from the places Pom has left behind threaten to derail her every attempt at a new life.

When Pom gets to Calcutta, Massey creates an intriguing dynamic between her and Simon Lewes, a man in the Indian Civil Service who employs her to organize his library. The Indian freedom movement becomes an integral part of the final section of the novel. Pom’s motivation to aid the movement arises from her infatuation with Pankaj, now a lawyer deeply involved with the struggle. She must manage this while working for and living under the roof of the mysterious Simon who, she suspects, plays a larger role in keeping the freedom fighters at bay than he lets on.

We also see through Pom’s eyes Calcutta transition from a city of hope to one torn by a World War fought by its colonizers:
Trenches had been dug in Park Street and Chowringhee. Calcutta’s worn tongas and carts and buses looked like battered toys next to massive military vans and lorries. Most private cars had been taken by the military; one could see their drivers patiently waiting outside the cafés. The Allied military elite dined at Flury & Trinca’s and the Golden Slipper by day and slept in the Great Eastern and Grand Hotels at night. How ironic that our city, once the jewel in Britain’s crown, was the only Asian metropolis she had left—and the ones able to afford her pleasures were foreigners.
Through Pom’s journey, The Sleeping Dictionary brings up the societal issues of the time. She constantly encounters discrimination on the basis of her gender, religion, caste and race. When she interviews for a filing position in Calcutta’s Writers’ Building, she is told, “This is a seat of government where men do serious work.” Simon is different, however, from the other men who’ve treated her poorly, and Massey develops their relationship with nuance and patience—but Simon’s discovery, towards the end, of a secret Pom’s been holding on to doesn’t result in the conflict that their characters seemed to be heading towards.

Barring the odd narrative thread—there is a section with an Australian photographer that doesn’t advance the story—the many topics that this book touches upon are brought back full circle. This is an ambitious and, by all appearances, meticulously researched novel, that interweaves a personal journey and a historical narrative. Massey tells it engagingly; we end up rooting for Pom.

And with the story ending on the night of Indian independence, a moment of transition for the country and its people, one suspects that Massey’s also laid the groundwork for a potential sequel.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


For a six-year-old who can’t spell, there are few things as frightening as an English exam in a Singaporean primary school: a classroom silent but for the furious scratching sounds of pencil on paper, overly zealous classmates protecting their answers from wandering eyes such as mine, and of course the bespectacled Miss Das at the front of the classroom whose patience I had exhausted that morning with my inability to tie my shoe laces. I looked at the fill-in-the-blanks section on the sheet in front of me. “Insert the right question words,” it said.
I knew what the right question words were, I just didn’t know how to spell them. But I knew someone who did.
“Miss Das… can I go to the toilet?”
The kids around me sniggered, unaware of my genius plan. Miss Das’ eyes met mine and I dropped my gaze, worried that she’d see right through them and read my thoughts. The sound of pencil on paper dimmed as Miss Das contemplated the question.
“Yes, but hurry up,” she said. I laid my pencil case on top of my sheet to mimic the studious lot and walked briskly out of the classroom, my shoe laces flying in all directions.
The school had a wall mounted telephone near the restrooms, and I pulled out from my pocket the prepaid telephone card I had been given for emergencies. I looked around to make sure I was alone. I then picked up the receiver with confidence—I was going to ace this exam!—and dialed my home phone number.
I heard a beep, but then nothing else. Had I dialed the wrong number?
I said the number out loud as I navigated the key pad to make sure I got it right the second time.
Again, a beep, but then nothing else. Was the line busy?
“Hey!” yelled a voice behind me.
I slammed the receiver down and turned to see Ajay, my nemesis. Just a week ago, I had been accused of stealing my neighbor’s eraser, and my claim that I would never steal a pink one did not fly with Miss Das. I later found out, when the pink eraser fell out of his pocket at the playground, that it was Ajay who had taken it.
“Who are you calling?” Ajay asked.
“No one.”
Cheeeater,” he sneered.
“I’m not a cheater.”
“Do you want me to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheeeater?” he asked, an evil grin on his fat face.
I looked down at my shoe laces that lay sprawled on the polished floor. I didn’t know how to spell question words, my mom wouldn’t pick up my phone calls, and Ajay was going to get me kicked out of school. My life was over.
“Are you crying?” he asked with a laugh.
“I’m not a crybaby, stupid!”
“I’m going to tell Miss Das that you’re a cheater and that you called me stupid,” he said, walking back towards our classroom.
“I know the pink eraser is in your pocket,” I said softly, stopping him in his tracks. I blinked back my tears and walked up to him. “I saw it fall out in the playground.”
“My dad bought that eraser for me,” he said, his right hand slipping into the pocket that housed the stolen item.
“Your dad bought you a pink eraser?”
He stared, speechless, and I knew he was stumped. But within a couple of seconds, he was smiling again.
“We’re friends,” he said. “And friends don’t tell on each other.”
“I won’t tell Miss Das you took the pink eraser,” I said.
“And I won’t tell her that you are a cheater.”
“I’m not a cheater!”
“I saw you on the phone!”
“I tried calling… but my mom didn’t pick up,” I said.
Ajay commiserated with a sad nod of his head, and then said, “Don’t worry, I’ll help you out.”
“That’s what friends do.” He put his arm around me as we walked back towards our classroom.
“I don’t know how to spell questions words,” I admitted, now that we were friends.
“It’s simple,” he said. “Always put the ‘h’ at the end.”
“So, it’s W-A-T-H?” I asked.
My new friend’s face widened in a smile. He nodded and held the door open for me. I bent down, stuffed my unruly laces in the gaps of my shoes, and walked in with swagger.
I was going to ace this exam.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Bubble That Burst

Source: Cricinfo

I grew up in a bubble that shielded me from the realities of time. In my years in Chennai and the subsequent undergraduate years in the US, I couldn't wait to get older. For example, when I was in the third standard I looked up to the fifth standard students who were deemed responsible enough to write with ink pens. And when I was in the sixth standard, I wanted desperately to be in the eighth so that I could rid myself of those childish blue shorts and be a part of the mature brown-pants crowd. In college too, there were clear advantages to being older. Students in their junior year got to register early and avoid the punishing 9 a.m. classes. Plus, I had to be twenty-one to legally get into a bar on Austin’s 6th street and the clock just didn’t seem to tick fast enough.

One of the foundations of my bubble was the comfort of short-term finish lines. Even if I hated school, I just had to see out a few years and I’d be in college. And if college sucked, well then it would be a four-year grind but still it was just four years. But a few weeks into my first full-time job, I realized that I didn't have a short-term finish line anymore. The limited control I had assumed under the structure imposed by college had now expanded. I suddenly had many questions and very few answers. Was I going to spend all my working years in this company and in this city? Was what I was working on really making a difference? What was next for me? No longer a student, I now had plenty of time to worry about what seemed like too little time to figure out what I really wanted to do, and then… you know… do it.

The bubble was in danger of being pricked.


A few days ago, Sachin Tendulkar walked out to bat for the very last time, and I sat at the edge of my friend’s couch shutting out the sounds around me and focusing on the television screen. Every time Tino Best delivered a bouncer and Sachin cheekily offered a dab to third-man, I panicked. I was consumed by the selfish fear of what the repercussions on my life would be were he to get out. Sure, Cheteshwar Pujara played a wonderful knock, but his greatest contribution was that he helped delay the inevitable. But it was only a delay, and Sachin was soon dismissed, nicking to slip.

In my teens, all I did was go to school and then come home and play cricket. It didn’t matter if the stump was a tree or if the crease was drawn with a piece of brick. Cricket was a constant. Sachin was a constant. I may not have been particularly good at the sport, but it didn’t matter. I bought an MRF bat because Sachin endorsed it. I even drank Boost for a while because I wanted it to be the secret of my energy. The time that I spend in my head now worrying about what's next, well in my teens that time was spent standing in front of a mirror with a bat in hand, my imagination in high gear as I took on the likes of Wasim and Waqar with the calming presence of Sachin at the non-striker’s end, a smile on his face saying, “You’re doing good, kid.”

Sachin Tendulkar, that other foundation of my bubble.


On November 16th, Sachin Tendulkar walked up to the Wankhede pitch and displayed his deepest gratitude to the twenty-two yards he’s lived his life on. And as he made his final walk back to the pavilion, his floppy white hat expertly shielding him from the cameras as he dabbed away tears, the wobbling bubble burst. The man’s been playing for India almost as long as I’ve been alive, and while he was around, I felt like I hadn’t completely left my childhood behind. Goose bumps, shivers and chills – the whole lot of them descended at the thought that I now had to face life without Sachin’s career running in parallel.

Life’s unknowns can be confusing and scary, and I’ve found it easier to cope sometimes by holding on to symbols that remind me of a simpler past. Sachin Tendulkar may have retired, but there is consolation. If I ever need to remind myself of the Sachin experience and what he meant to me, I just need to watch the highlights of his ‘desert-storm’ knock. A diminutive man in Indian colors taking on the world champions. A match set to the soundtrack of the late Tony Greig. “The little man has hit the big fella for six!” Tony cheered, and then when the little man did it again, “Whadda playa!” he declared in that happy, embracing voice of his. “Did you see that?” he seemed to ask of his viewers. “Did you see that?”

Yes I did, Tony. Yes, I did. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Locked Out

Hi, you’ve reached Kavya. Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Hey, it’s me. Wait—don’t hang up. Hear me out. I know I promised not to call, and trust me I do want to stay out of your life. I really do. It’s just that… well… I locked myself out of my apartment.

It’s fine. Go ahead. Have your I-told-you-so moment. The first time my door locked itself shut behind us you asked if the two seconds it saved was really worth the risk. I’m using those rollover seconds now as I sit in the elevator, no phone, wallet or key on me, talking to a row of buttons.

I didn’t want to call you. I knocked on my neighbors’ doors, but it’s late and they’re asleep. I waited in the hallway hoping to run into someone with a couch to spare. I then looked for a warm place and ended up in the elevator. Do you remember that button in the elevator you’ve always wanted to push? Well, I pushed it and it turns out a voice emerges from amidst the row of buttons and asks, “Are you stuck?”

Jeremy—he’s doing the night shift for the elevator company—was happy to help. Too happy, even. You know the type of person who says, “Have a nice day!” with such enthusiasm that you wonder how one could possibly be that happy? “Sure thing sir, good luck!” he said when I asked if he would re-route the call to your cellphone.

I didn’t want to call you. But the problem with having a cellphone is that I can never remember anyone’s number. Well, obviously, I remember yours, but trust me I’m trying to move on. Tonight’s plan was to fix the broken leg of the dining room table as a way to distract myself. Remember how the lopsided table used to drive you crazy? I stepped out to pick up a block of wood I had left by the door, and well… you now know the rest.

I think back to that night sometimes. A few minutes before the last time you heard my door click, you asked me to shut up. All you wanted, you said, was to be able to sit across from me, say nothing, and feel wonderful, not awkward, in that shared silence. I was always trying to fill it up, fill up the silence with words. Meaningless, unnecessary words. “Why are you so afraid to hear yourself think?” you asked.

There’s a spare key to my apartment in the coin jar on your kitchen counter.

I’ll shut up now.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Big Sur Road Trip Diary

Date: July 3, 2013
Departing from
: Seattle, WA
: Eugene, OR
: 280 miles
Prad dropped the GPS on the concrete of the rental car parking lot. He picked it up, dusted it off and then dropped it once more, this time definitely rendering it useless. An auspicious start to a road trip of 2000 miles.

Prad’s clumsiness added to Santy’s frustration. It was 6 p.m. and we were two hours behind “schedule”. Santy’s goal of making it in time to eat at Chennai Masala, a restaurant near Portland he claimed served the best chicken biryani, was under serious risk. It was rare to see Santy flustered in front of a steering wheel. This was a man who drove solo from Seattle to Yellowstone National Park, a 1,900-mile drive with only himself and his car radio for company. Very few things tested his patience on the road. So it catered to my sadistic tendencies to see Santy curse away while cutting through traffic, desperate to get to his chicken biryani at Chennai Masala.
Once we passed the initial bottlenecks, the drive was excellent. The car, a standard SUV, hit its stride after some coaxing and we zoomed past neighboring vehicles. The best section of the drive arrived when we were a half-hour from Portland: the landscape was golden under the setting sun, and Amit Trivedi’s best played through the car speakers. Who knew the music from Dev D and Ishaqzaade could sound even better at 80 miles per hour?
At Chennai Masala—we made it with minutes to spare—Victor fell in love with his chicken tikka dosa. Victor is Mexican, but is frequently mistaken for Indian and so we gave him the name Tejas Vetrivel. He was beaming after eating his dosa and so it was easy to convince him, a strict chocolate-milk drinker, that as part of his South Indian experience he end his meal with a filter coffee. He had his first sip of the greatest drink ever and ended his meal with a pained expression on his face. This was in direct contrast to my reaction. I was pumped up and ready to romanticize the shit out of that filter coffee. I kept thinking about that last sip, that final pull of the sugar that had settled at the bottom of the tumbler. Uff.
We were 100 miles from the Best Western in Eugene, our final stop for the night, but the miles flew by as we took turns recounting our many embarrassing incidents with women, one of which sent Victor into a five minute laughing fit. For the first minute, I felt good about inciting such laughter, but by minute three it got disconcerting and by minute five I was seriously questioning my life choices. It doesn’t matter if they’re laughing at you as long as they’re laughing… right?

Date: July 4, 2013
Departing from: Eugene, WA
Destination: Santa Clara, CA
Distance: 570 miles
We woke up early, crammed muffins, mini pancakes, bagels and toast at the Best Western and got on the road, plenty of distance to cover. The day began with this question: If an insect flies in to the car and is then released miles later when the window is rolled down, is the insect confused? Or is this an elaborate ploy by the insect, a form of hitchhiking, the insect making its presence known when the car is approaching its stop? Top conversation, really.
The first stop of the day was at Hugo, Oregon, a blink-and-miss kind of town. The lovely people at Dutch Bros coffee asked us if we were first time visitors and when we nodded they gave us coffee on the house. Fortified by their generosity and the caffeine, we made our way into California, driving along the coast on 101S. As we passed through Crescent City, I rolled down the window, peered out and felt the wind on my face, the scent of salt strong in the air.
Driving through the Redwoods

We passed one motel after another as we entered Eureka and it seemed like the town knew the business inside out, the entire range covered, from shady to standard. The most interesting aspect of Eureka was the naming convention of the streets: it started with A St. and made its way through the English alphabet. Once Prad had dropped his thing for the day, an ice cream cone this time round, we left Eureka and drove through the Redwoods. Tall, coniferous trees flanked the road on either side, sunlight poured through the gaps, and we passed cars till the road narrowed to a single lane. A couple of bright yellow lines separated the traffic gunning past in opposite directions. The bright yellow lines fascinated me. It got me thinking about the people and the machines that drew these lines, the people and the machines that built these roads. It’s incredible how easy it was to go from the sloping streets of Seattle to the alphabetically ordered ones of Eureka.
Even if I wasn’t looking at road signs, the dryness of the grass was a dead give-away that Washington and Oregon were long gone and that we were firmly in California. We got sudden views of deep chasms surrounded by trees and more trees. Creeks sparkled, and layers of mountains created a brownish hue. We drove up and down single lane roads and passed fields of grapes on either side with hills forming the backdrop. It was hot and dry, the temperature hitting 100F at one point, but from within the air-conditioned confines of the car what was most impressive was how the land shone in the late afternoon sun.
First sight of the Golden Gate Bridge

I’ve been to San Francisco a few times, but each time I’m taken by my first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s always unexpected and it’s always awesome. After hours of being on the road, the sudden view of that red metal was a burst of energy we needed. We were mostly winging it – we knew we wanted to be in Big Sur by Friday but that was pretty much the extent of our plans. And so to be in San Francisco in time to catch the July 4th fireworks was quite something. The fireworks lasted for twenty-three minutes at Fisherman’s Wharf and were accompanied by oohs and aahs from the crowds cheering from the piers.
It was after midnight and I wasn’t sure if sleep or hunger was my primary feeling. The fireworks were a hazy memory as I held my head in my hands at an IHOP in Santa Clara. Despite my demeanor, I realized the comfort that IHOP offered. I was starving and all the places I wanted to eat at were closed, but I found solace in the knowledge that IHOP’s doors were always open and that their containers of syrup were always full.
Date: July 5, 2013
Departing from: Santa Clara, CA
Destination: Big Sur via Monterey, CA
Distance: 150 miles
Got up at 10:45 a.m. after one of those rare dream-less sleeps, but really only woke up after brunch at the Saravana Bhavan in Sunnyvale. We didn’t have too many miles to cover and so being stuck in slow-moving traffic on the CA-1S wasn’t too irritating. It allowed us more time to stare at the beautiful green fields. The farmers were tilling away and the sprinklers were in full effect on this cloudy morning. The breeze and the scent of the wet soil took me back many years. It reminded me of the road trips we would go on as a family when I was a kid. For a moment I wished I was in a “travels” vehicle - that white Ambassador car with the steering column gear and the distinctive cushioned bench seat. And then all of a sudden the smell of fish overpowered as we passed Moss Landing. Strong, cool winds blew and waves crashed on fine, light brown sand.
Monterey was our first stop for the day. Pam and Rosalie at the Visitor Center helped us out by marking up a map of Big Sur with places to visit. When I asked Pam about the bridge from Kerouac’s Big Sur, she mentioned matter-of-factly, “Yes, that’s Bixby Bridge. Many accidents, many suicides. Most photographed bridge. Good place to visit.” I doubted the most photographed aspect having just the previous day seen way too many drivers taking pictures with their phones while driving on the Golden Gate Bridge, but I let it pass without question and in return heard an even more entertaining anecdote. “You should stop by the Henry Miller Library,” Pam said. “Miller met this woman called Carol Hill there, they fell in love and took off to Europe and India.” When I asked about this story later at the library, one of the volunteers said, “I do not know a Carol Hill, but I wouldn’t put it past Henry Miller.”
Point Lobos

We kept hunger pangs at bay with coffee and tiramisu at Caffé Trieste and headed towards Big Sur. On the way we saw a wedding party at Point Lobos, a group dressed in white and black, tiny in front of the ancient rocks and rough waves. Clouds dispersed and we could see the homes on top of the hills accommodating those lucky enough to wake up to views of the ocean meeting the horizon. The engineering genius behind the Bixby Bridge fascinated me as we drove across it. One look at the fierce water swirling below was reminder enough of the awesome power of nature.

I sat on a boulder and gazed at an endless spread of blue. The clouds that threatened earlier were nowhere to be seen. The sun warmed the land. For a short stretch, no cars passed behind me and the only sounds were those of the wind and the water. A one-on-one with the vastness of Big Sur.
McKay falls

Our road trip was inspired by a picture of McKay falls, but looking at it from the designated vantage point it was the smallest high-profile waterfall I’d seen. Tourists arrived to stare at the advertised image of Big Sur and there were plenty posing for pictures. One of them was a young Indian guy whose father was prescriptive about what he wanted in the picture. “Tone down your smile, man,” the father said to the son. “Too much teeth.”
Henry Miller Library

The crowd was in splits by the time the credits rolled. La Bifle was the name of the film. Translation: The Dickslap. We had accidentally landed at the Henry Miller Library for the Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series. Four short movies were screened outdoors under the starry sky. There were about sixty people on the lawn, some in blankets, others in sleeping bags, and the four of us on chairs shivering in our summer clothing. Green tea, bottles of Stella and the laughter induced by La Bifle distracted me from the cold for a bit, but the powerful ending of the final film, Dotty, was plenty sobering.
We crashed for the night at a Travelodge in Monterey, but only after chugging hot saké and chowing down some Veggie Maki at a sushi restaurant that the owner kept open late for us exhausted stragglers. As impressive and amazing as the sights of Big Sur were, little could beat the high produced by the kindness of those who went the extra mile for us weary travelers.
Date: July 6, 2013
Departing from: Monterey, CA
Destination: Mount Shasta, CA
Distance: 420 miles
This time it wasn’t coffee that woke us up. Bagpipers walked through the parking lot of the Travelodge, playing their tunes, destroying the morning for everyone around them. The return journey thus began and our first stop was at Santa Cruz where Prad bought sandals to replace the ones stolen by the waves and Santy discovered that his ace parallel parking effort had resulted in a ticket for blocking a bike lane. An old, bearded man on a bicycle stopped by to commiserate and encouraged us to fight the ticket. “But there is no bike lane sign! How would you guys know?” he said. We nodded sadly in agreement.
This way to San Francisco

We were on CA-17 when we saw an incredible straight arrow of cloud. It was as if the clouds were pointing us toward the white fog of San Francisco. A few rays of sunlight cut through the cloud cover and mountains in the distance looked magical in the haze. We hurtled into the streets of the city and passed through blocks of lovely, narrow apartments where no two adjacent buildings were painted alike. A palette of colors on the slopes of San Francisco.
Driving through Napa

It was too late to make it to a winery in Napa but we decided to take the one-hour detour anyway. Near St. Helena we took a turn up a narrow lane and followed a sloping road that felt never-ending in the most wonderful way. Santy pulled out expert turns and passed cars trekking up. We hit a stretch where the branches of trees on either side of the road met to form a tunnel of leaves. Windows rolled down, 73F outside and Manmarziyaan on the speakers. It made me wish for an afternoon on a balcony that overlooked the vista, an opportunity to stare at the mountains and sip the wine of the land.
After dinner at Gott’s Roadside, we began our final session of driving for the day. The sun had set and soon the only light was from the reflectors on the road. There is a thrill to night driving and a huge part of that is the music. A playlist of Thievery Corporation, Radiohead, Daft Punk, David Bowie and A.R. Rahman thundered through the car speakers. Pulsing bass, soaring vocals, and speed.
“You help me out man, and I can hook you up with some women tonight,” said Chris, the off-the-clock bartender at the lodge in Mount Shasta. Santy responded with that big laugh of his. A night with a prostitute in return for tips on Search Engine Optimization. Had such a trade ever been offered before? Chris then pitched a position on his board of directors but Santy laughed again. So Chris tried to gauge my interest in his start-up.
“I did my marketing degree at USC,” he said.
“Pretty good school,” I replied.
“Pretty good school? Pretty good? Fuck man it’s the best school out there.”
“So do you know anything about SEO?”
“Nah. But this guy,” I patted Santy on the back. “He used to work at Bing,” I said and walked away.
Scadenfreude makes for a good night’s sleep.
Date: July 7, 2013
Departing from: Mt. Shasta, CA
Destination: Seattle, WA
Distance: 580 miles
It was the final day of our road-trip, and we started out with breakfast at a diner called Shasta Pinnacle. The American diner with its pancakes, waffles, omelettes, hash browns, and mugs of coffee is key in a road-trip. The booths are comfy, the hours are dependable, the menu is obvious and the servings are large. On the surface, there exists a sameness, but only on the surface. Whenever I’m on the road, I feel that the American diner offers a glimpse into the community I’m stopping through. The photographs mounted on walls, the ads pinned to boards, the drawings slipped under tabletops, they all tell a story.
"Frisco glitters up ahead. Our radio plays rhythm and blues as we pass the joint back and forth in jutjawed silence both looking ahead with big private thoughts now so vast we can’t communicate them any more and if we tried it would take a million years and a billion books. Too late, too late, the history of everything we’ve seen together and separately has become a library in itself." - Jack Kerouac, Big Sur
The mission for the day was to finish reading Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. I settled into the book; his thoughts flowed at high speed, but not without its sudden stops and quick turns. It was an intimate look into a man’s struggle with alcoholism, age and the consequences of fame.

Mount Shasta

The great views of Mount Shasta were a welcome distraction from the slow traffic as we headed north on I5. California was eventually behind us and we entered Oregon. We took the exit towards Cottage Grove in search of a snack. It was a Sunday and the town reflected it. There was hardly anyone outside and most stores were closed. A restaurant called Jack Sprats was open and we ordered coffee, cheese sticks and pie. Our waitress was the prettiest; her dark blonde hair was up in a ponytail and she wore a green necklace that matched the color of her eyes. Think Diane Kruger in small town America.
After five days and more than 2000 miles on the road, we were back in Seattle. We returned the rental and picked up my car from the nearby parking lot. I dropped Victor, Santy and Prad off and drove home, up the sloping streets of Cap Hill.
Good trip.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Spelling Bee Commentator

Welcome back folks. We’re here at the Haverford Resort in Maryland tonight for the 2014 Annual Spelling Bee. It’s been a fantastic day of spelling, and after fifteen rounds we are now possibly one word away from declaring the winner. That’s right, just one word separates thirteen-year-old Divya O’Hara from the glory that all these contestants have been dreaming of.

Do you hear the buzz in the audience? It’s been a tough slog to get to this point, but they finally sense a champion in their midst. And why wouldn’t they? Divya’s fresh off the heels of spelling ‘Staphylococci’. She’s had a great run so far but what’s stood out the most to me is her demeanor. There is no extravagance in her stance. She acknowledges each word with a mere nod of the head. This is a welcome counter to those who believe that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. For example, her mom Lalitha—yes she’s the one wearing a ‘Bee-n there, done that’ t-shirt—led a “For she’s a Human Spellcheck” chant during the break.

My God that t-shirt. It drives me crazy. ‘Bee-n there, done that’. For fuck sake it was 33 years ago. Whoa. Sorry. Can’t believe I let the f-bomb slip. Nothing that can’t be bleeped out, right Jerry?

So, here we go. The judges have the word.


Are you fucking kidding me?

Shit. Sorry, Jerry.

I’ve never seen my producer this red. Haha, what’s up with me today? Take a deep breath. That’s it: inhale… exhale. I apologize for that outburst. It’s just that, well, the word SORITES and I go back a long way. 33 years in fact.

SORITES could have been my ticket to glory.

I have this recurring nightmare: a smug twelve-year-old Lalitha holds aloft the trophy while I clap softly from my seat behind her. A never-ending stream of confetti drops from the ceiling and soon envelopes me. I shout for help but no one notices the sinking runner-up. I wake up with the sweats.

It’s fine, Jerry. I got this. I’m a professional.

Divya’s not taking any chances here. She’s going by the playbook. Language of origin, alternate pronunciations, you know the drill.

Question. Have you ever been so close to glory that it scared the shit out of you? Have you ever been so close to glory that it made you doubt the very strategy that got you there in the first place? I knew how to spell the word. I knew SORITES didn’t start with a silent p. But that’s when that annoying little voice inside my head took over: “No it can’t be that easy.”

You’ve never seen someone shake in their chair before, Jerry? I’m a professional goddammit. Do not try to mute my mic.

Divya practices the word on her palm. There is zero emotion on her face. She is seconds away from winning this thing… as long as she doesn’t fall for the Silent P trap.

Lalitha’s snort when I uttered the P still haunts me. I remember the look on her face when she walked past me, like she was destined for greatness and I was just a tiny obstacle in her path.

Divya’s ready. Here we go. Do we really need to split-screen this Jerry? A reaction shot of the mom? C’mon man. That t-shirt she’s wearing… it really does drive me nuts. Brings back all those memories. All that confetti.

Bee-n there, done that.

Bee-n there, done that.


Friday, June 21, 2013


“Do you mind bringing the shutter down?” she asked.

“It’s beautiful out there,” I said.

“I’m afraid of heights.”

“Hmmm, we’re at 30,000 feet.”

“My dad once threw me into a pool that was twenty feet deep,” she said.

“Were you OK?”

“I was until he told me the pool was twenty feet deep.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s OK. Well, not really. You know why?”

“You’re afraid of heights, and we’re on an airplane.”


I turned my attention to my laptop.

“What are you writing?” she asked.

“A short story,” I said.

“I write too these days.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, I’m working on a mystery series,” she said. She looked out the window and took a deep breath. “The first novel starts with the protagonist, a retired detective, moving to Bartlesville to get away from it all. But then there’s a diamond heist and he can’t stop himself from getting involved and helping the city fight crime.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

“I may be overwhelmed by the clouds floating outside your window, but I heard the sarcasm.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What’s your story about?” she asked.

“I don’t like to talk about what I’m writing.”

“Are you afraid I’ll steal your story?”

“Of course not. I’m sure your protagonist’s got enough adventures in Bartlesville to keep you occupied.”

She started to tap the edge of her tray table.

“Stop doing that,” I said.

“You should write about us,” she said, still tapping.


“Now don’t say us like that. You know what I mean.”

“I really should get back to…” I pointed at my laptop.

“I skimmed through what you’ve written and it’s pretty flat. Now if you wrote about—”

“—It’s flat?”

“Like a plateau.”

“This is so like you.”

“Being honest?”

“No, being mean.”

“Would you like anything to drink?” the flight attendant interrupted.

“I’ll have a Coke, please,” she said.

“I’m good, thanks,” I said.

“It’s free, you know?” she said leaning in.

“I’m good, thanks,” I said.

“You guys look great together,” the flight attendant said.

“He doesn’t think so,” she said.

“You two would have just the cutest babies… if you don’t mind me saying,” the flight attendant said.

“Actually, I do mind quite a bit,” I said.

“He gets like that sometimes,” she said.

The flight attendant placed the Coke on her tray table.

“Have a good rest of the flight,” the flight attendant said and moved her cart one row forward.

The airplane jolted.

“It looks like we’re heading into some turbulence,” the pilot’s voice appeared. “Fasten your seat-belts, hold on to your drinks and tell yourself ‘we are going to be just fine’.”

“Oh shit,” she said.

“We are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said, moving her cart back one row.

The airplane jolted again. She spilled her Coke all over my jeans.

“Ah shit,” I said.

“We are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said.

“No, it’s not that… it’s—” I pointed to my jeans.

“Oh you poor thing. We really are going to be just fine,” the flight attendant said.

“No, it’s not – I didn’t – ah fuck me. She spilled her drink on my jeans.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Would you like another Coke?” the flight attendant asked her.

“Yes, please,” she said.

“Thanks for your prayers. We’ve made it through the turbulence. Now that wasn’t so bad was it,” re-appeared the pilot’s voice.

She twirled the ice in her drink.

“Happy?” I asked her.

“Very,” she said.

“How’s the Coke?”

“Flat. Just like your story.”

Monday, June 17, 2013

Think of it like this: jump ahead, ten, twenty years.

Warning: Contains spoilers.

“You come here to Paris, all romantic, and married, OK? Screw you. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to get you or anything. I mean, all I need is a married man. There's been so much water under the bridge, it''s not even about you anymore, it's about that time, that moment in time that is forever gone.”

For days after seeing Before Sunset I thought about the tragedy of Celine and Jesse – the nine years they spent thinking back to that moment in time that is forever gone, nine years of wanting desperately to relive that perfect night, having to give up a core part of themselves to handle the blow of that lost connection. I thought about the scene in the car where the two characters finally erupt; Celine reveals how numb she’s become, and Jesse offers in return how terrible his life is – “I have these dreams, you know, that I’m… I’m standing on a platform, and you keep going by on a train, and… you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and you go by, and I wake up with the fucking sweats.” The romanticism and hope that we saw in their slow wander of Vienna is markedly absent. The characters are consistent, but their concerns are larger.

I left the theater with the same feeling after watching Before Midnight. There’s still the crackling conversation and undeniable chemistry between Jesse and Celine. But this movie is harder to watch – it gives you a front row seat to an eruption different to the one in Before Sunset. The difficult part of a relationship usually isn’t the initial connection, but how it continues to work for the years and years that follow. There is a dinner conversation early in the movie about love and longevity; the inevitability of time defeating all. The trajectory of the conversation shifts based on who’s talking – there’s the excitement of new love tempered by a surprising pragmatism and there’s the age-old discussion on the differences between man and woman, but what I found most interesting was how the tone of the conversation changed based on the age of the person. Jesse and Celine are in love, but the years they’ve spent getting to fully know each other and the years of caring for their children have hardened them. The oldest woman at the table, maybe in her sixties, who’s been silent so far finally speaks, and she seems at peace, her voice dripping with experience. The conversation closes with her comment on the ephemeral nature of life. “We matter a lot to some people, and then one day we disappear. We’re just passing through.” It’s a theme that is explored throughout the movie. Time moves too slowly when we’re young, and then one day we wonder how it all occurred so quickly.

What I love about this series of movies is how we’ve been privy to the encounters of two engaging and charming characters who’ve grown and matured over two decades. Their joys and worries are so relatable. The way they wing it in Before Sunrise, the way they get around the awkwardness of December 16 in Before Sunset through that art of flirting, and the way they challenge in Before Midnight the notion of soul-mates and true love. Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater must have developed these characters from a deeply personal space for the dialogue and body language feel so authentic. Think back to that scene in Before Sunrise, right after Celine and Jesse get off the train, there’s a distance between them as they walk, she’s looking down, the gravity of what she’s decided to do unnerving her, and a nervous laugh escapes both of them. Most film-makers would have chosen to skip that moment of vulnerability.

Having just re-watched the first two movies, it was nice to see nods to them in Before Midnight. Jesse makes a clicking noise as he bids his son farewell at the airport, a nervous tick that shows up the first time 18 years earlier when he convinces Celine to get off the train. And of course there’s the same kind of beautifully crafted ending where it’s up to the audience to decide what’s next for these characters. Will Celine and Jesse make it work? The journalist at Shakespeare and Company asks Jesse a similar question in Before Sunset to which he replies, “Well, it depends on whether you’re a romantic or a cynic.”

What do I think? Well, my take is that they stay together. But then you should ask me again in nine years.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Recent good reads

No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

“It was a real whale, a photograph of a real whale. I looked into its tiny wise eye and wondered where that eye was now. Was it alive and swimming, or had it died long ago, or was it dying now, right this second? When a whale dies, it falls down through the ocean slowly, over the course of a day. All the other fish see it fall, like a giant statue, like a building, but slowly, slowly.” 
There is an underlying sadness to the stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You. The characters search for connection, anything really, to break out of a loneliness that threatens to engulf them. But I sensed the sadness slowly, partly due to the humor on the page that is uniquely July. Take for example the hilarious premise of The Swimming Team: The protagonist teaches three seniors how to swim in her apartment for the town has no swimming pool. With Mon Plaisir, July writes a tremendous short story about a couple that connect as extras on a movie set. When the director yells 'action' something changes for these two characters, and July describes this change beautifully. It’s one of the best short stories I’ve read.

Here is New York by EB White

“It is a miracle that New York works at all. The whole thing is implausible. Every time the residents brush their teeth, millions of gallons of water must be drawn from the Catskills and the hills of Westchester. When a young man in Manhattan writes a letter to his girl in Brooklyn, the love message gets blown to her through a pneumatic tube—pfft—just like that. The subterranean system of telephone cables, power lines, steam pipes, gas mains and sewer pipes is reason enough to abandon the island to the gods and the weevils.”
'Here is New York' is a tiny hard-bound book that houses EB White’s essay about the city, written in the summer heat of 1948, a tribute that still relates sixty five years later. Even if you couldn’t care less about New York, the prose is wonderful and the essay can be read just for that. The writing flows; the sentences are built with a cadence that begs to be read aloud, and there is preciseness to the language that reminds one of Hemingway:
“The café is a sanctuary. The waiters are ageless and they change not. Nothing has been modernized. Notre Dame stands guard in its travel poster. The coffee is strong and full of chicory, and good.” 
White puts down his flag of ‘this is what the city was like in 1948’ and this gives us the opportunity to contrast with the modern day. It’s fascinating to see the similarities and trends (“There are fewer newspapers than there used to be.”) but there is one passage that stopped me and required a re-read, both for it’s foresight and the succinct evaluation of the kind of world we live in now:
“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

Friday, May 17, 2013

There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things


My four years in college had numerous highlights, but I clearly remember my lowest point. It was a Friday afternoon when I trudged back from class and sunk into my futon, miserable as hell, and switched on the latest episode of The Office on Hulu. As it turned out, it was the Jim & Pam wedding episode. You know, the one with that dance in the aisle, that shot of Jim and Pam on the Maid of the Mist, that look of almost paternal joy on Michael's face when they're declared husband and wife. "Why the hell are you smiling like an idiot?" my room-mate asked me when he walked in.

I just watched the series finale, and it's a heavy feeling. A moment from the show that keeps coming back to me is the final few seconds of the season 3 finale. Pam's in the conference room talking to the camera when Jim interrupts her. It was the moment the show had been building towards, and Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski absolutely nailed it. Jenna Fischer spoke about this scene in an interview on NPR's Fresh Air:

"In that moment when Jim burst into the conference room while Pam's giving an interview and he finally asks her out on a date and I turn to the camera and in that moment... the one that they used I'm sort of tearing up and the reason that I teared up was because when I looked back at the camera I saw Ken Kwapis and he... his eyes were full of tears and he smiled at me and gave me a little wink, like 'that's right, you finally got what you wanted sweetie'..."

Pam was right. The reason The Office worked was simple. There really is a lot of a beauty in ordinary things.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Café Tales IX

The evening sunlight strikes her hair, turning strands of brown to gold. She looks at the camera. At me. The sadness in her eyes, as if crying out to someone who’s never coming back. Paired with that laugh of hers. Mystifying. She’s in focus. A blur of green and yellow behind her. Lens flare. Her laughter dies, but that look in her eyes remain.

What has she seen?