A Realization 

Some things are only learned from experience. Take for example all the clichéd sayings about hard work. Haven’t we all been hearing stuff like “there’s no shortcut to success” since childhood? And yet I never quite registered it. Now, nearing 30 and full of regret and resentment, I see that it’s true. There really is no shortcut to success. 

There’s no miracle food or quick workout that can help in losing weight drastically – what is needed is sustained workout and diet control over many months, without even seeing any change in the first few weeks. And this last bit is crucial, because often we quit because we don’t see any change taking place. I have quit many times, sometimes after a few weeks and sometimes after a few months. But I’ve never actually gone the whole way, stuck to a strenuous and disciplined routine for at least a year, before concluding it doesn’t work. So of course it never worked.

The same is true for career. All the success stories we see today started off small. There’s no magic qualification that can propel you straight to the stop; indeed, many people with top qualifications may also fall short if they take it easy. But people who persevere always climb up, however slowly it may appear at first and however humble their beginnings might have been.

It’s easy to envy someone for their success, but extremely difficult – if not impossible – to follow in the path they took to reach that position. The sportspersons who are millionaires today started playing when they were as young as five or six years old. Those who crack admissions into top colleges have been working hard on their acads since primary school days. Any professional who looks successful in middle age started off early in life as a lowly paid intern somewhere but worked her or his way up meticulously.

They didn’t take any shortcuts. The only thing that guarantees results is – as a hard-working friend pointed out – consistent persistence, and the sooner one starts the better. 

But does this mean that those who didn’t work hard since the beginning have missed the bus? Or do second chances exist? 

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Book review: The Perils of Being Moderately Famous by Soha Ali Khan

I’m guilty of reading a book because it promised to be a quick read and I was lagging behind on my reading targets. And quick read it was: light, breezy, not requiring deep attention, and thus, good enough to read in a crowded train. About the book itself I don’t have much to say. There are chapters on the author’s father and his royal background, on her mother and her intellectual ancestors, and her own time at Oxford University, among others. It’s short and well-written, and has occasional flashes of brilliance in the form of beautifully structured sentences. 

 

I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of book that would have any lasting impact (and it’s silly to expect that from a celebrity autobiography anyway). Soha Ali Khan has the humility to admit that actresses approaching middle age generally seek other creative endeavors and writing is one of the options, and so here she is, trying her hand at writing because she has the time, and because she is well-read (and because she will readily find a publisher owing to her fame, this last point being most important in my opinion because there are many of us who have the time to write autobiographies and who also happen to be well-read but publishers and readers don’t care about our life stories). 

 

To conclude, read this book if you have lots of free time, or if you don’t like to be hooked to your phone while commuting. 

 

An ode to the handbag 

Ok it’s not an ode, but I always wanted to use the word ode in a title and I can’t really write odes, although it should not be impossible because odes follow irregular metre so how hard can they be, and yet I am terrible at poetry even though the free verse exists for people like me who can’t rhyme to save their lives. So that’s why I’ve always stuck to prose.

Coming back to the matter at hand, what is with the handbags? How is it possible that I put something in it and then reach out for it just five seconds later, and I can’t find that thing for the next twenty years? It looks finite from the outside, the bag, but clearly it hides some kind of black hole in its dark recesses. I’m convinced there’s some sort of sorcery going on here, because I carry the lightest bag possible and no matter how little stuff I put in it, it always gets heavier through the day. I have tried and failed so many times to get the insides of my bag in order. Nothing works. You can try to be all systematic and neat, but once you put your belongings in the bag, it all gets jumbled up into a colossal mess that is impossible to navigate with just two hands.

And our clothes are pathetic because we are women and women don’t deserve pockets in their pants. So we keep our phone in the bag and the law of the universe dictates that it must always ring when it has slid down into the black hole and we are in no condition to retrieve it. So it keeps ringing and we keep looking for it frantically, and our fingers reconnect with long lost items that had faded from memory but heavens forbid that we should find the phone!

Looking for the earphones is an even bigger task, because earphones don’t ring to give away their rough location. So I search and search and search for a neatly folded set of earphones, and then I find a stray wire and I pull it delicately, but it drags out half the stuff along the way anyway. Clingy little ba***rd, getting entangled with everything. 

And yet, despite everything, I can’t live without the handbag. I wish we didn’t have to carry so many things to work. I see men going to work empty-handed, with just a few bare essentials tucked in the back pockets of their trousers. How liberating it must feel, to have both hands free, and to not have anything weighing down on one’s shoulders! I then think of my cat. She has no possessions at all in this world, just a pretty wide territory which supplies her with birds and squirrels. So she roams around all day, minus any unnecessary baggage.

So that’s the hierarchy of the natural world. Animals, who have nothing at all, then the male humans, who need very little, and finally, on top, are the women, who carry their world with them everywhere they go. And the humble handbags make that possible. 

On getting things done

I feel like I’ve come a long way today, from ranting about having to work to writing about how to get the most important work done first, but don’t applaud me yet – it may just be another subconscious delaying tactic on my part. I should probably give a little context first. These last few months I’ve been swamped with work. The months of August, September and October were particularly brutal, and I usually had 15-20 things to do each day, which included 3-4 long projects. My strategy for each day had been to write down all the things to-do and happily tick each task off as I completed it. It was always satisfying to check things off in a list at the end of the day, but a big problem was that the major tasks remained untouched every day. Because I made a list of ALL the pending tasks (which included the smaller, routine tasks as well), at the start of the day I would always pick up the easier, less time consuming stuff first, planning to gradually work my way up to the deeper stuff that required research. But as you can probably guess by now, this approach resulted in completion of only the smaller tasks.

If I think about it, this has been my approach to everything in life. Back in my student days, ahead of exams, I always started preparing from the beginning – the easiest chapters first, even if I could’ve skipped them completely. So I ended up devoting a large chunk of the prep time to the relatively easier topics, and had to rush through the trickier bits on the eve of the exam. I can now conclusively say that the approach of starting slow and easy and working your way up to the more difficult things does not work, at least for me. The key is to tackle the most difficult or time-consuming things first.

So after many years of poor planning and poorer execution, I’m going to give myself only ONE task today: start with the most complicated case, take all day for research and background work if that’s what it will take, but submit the damn thing TODAY. Everything else can wait. Let’s see if it works!

Weekend woes

Yet another weekend will come to an end soon, and yet again I have a long list of things I ought to have done during these two days but alas, I didn’t. Books remain unread, clothes remain unironed (is that even a word?), the house remains a mess, and I remain depressed. This is what happens when you get only two days to live a happy, peaceful and slow-paced life. And now I’ll just sulk until Sunday is decidedly over. Tomorrow will bring another week of unproductive drudgery. Such is life: hopeless, colorless and utterly directionless. 

Looking back at my first trip to Europe 

Bonjour! Here it is finally, the much-awaited (by me, not my readers) write-up on my not-so-recent first visit to Europe! It has been on my mind since the day I landed in Paris, over two months ago. The original idea was to jot down everything I did/saw/learned at the end of every day there, but we all know that never works out unless you’re 70 years old and come back to your room by 7 pm.

So that plan never took off, the trip began and ended in the blink of an eye (or so it seems although the boarding passes confirm I was away for 10 days), and it has already been two months since the trip and I never got the time to write about it all this while. Besides, I didn’t know where to begin, or what to write. There’s no point of a detailed description of my travels because the web is overstuffed with articles gushing about the places I visited, and I might not have anything new to add to that. But I did come back with heaps of my own observations which I think are worth preserving. So here they are, in no particular order:

1. Everyone is beautiful: No seriously, Paris especially was like a sea of perfectly shaped legs and thin waists. Everywhere I looked I saw pretty women in great shape. I don’t think I saw any overweight person, in fact. Plus everyone was so tall, and most had blue eyes – damn! I got a major inferiority complex there, to be honest. In India I never felt like I needed to change anything, but in Europe I felt like a walking-talking paneer pakoda that had put on some make-up. This made me go into some serious introspection mode, about me and the Indian culture in general in which fitness is given no importance at all and it is perfectly fine for people to become chubby, especially post marriage. In Paris, though, even women with kids were in great shape. Heck, even middle aged women seemed to be fitter than me. Damn!

2. So much love in every corner: This point too is mostly Paris-specific. There were love-struck couples in every direction, and I never felt more #foreveralone in life. I can’t imagine the agony of my companion – a married girl traveling sans her husband.

3. There is art everywhere: No seriously, at first I was impressed with Parisian museums and buildings and bridges, then I was awe-struck, and finally it all started to look a little pretentious. No matter which way we turned, we saw beautiful sculptures. I was constantly at a loss for adjectives and could not stop clicking pictures, looking a lot like Mr. Bean from Mr. Bean’s Holiday. This taught me a valuable lesson…

4. You can’t capture everything: I was visiting Europe for the first time and was justifiably overwhelmed by the beauty, but after a point I began to question the habit of clicking endless pictures. It’s just not the same, seeing all the roads and buildings and rivers later on your laptop screen, so it’s better to take in the views when you’re actually there.

5. Disneyland is shit: This came as a shock to us; visiting Disneyland had always been a childhood dream and I was extremely thrilled to finally achieve that. Don’t get me wrong, the place is gorgeous, but where were the rides? Most of the landscape was dotted with souvenir shops that had very tempting products which were sadly unaffordable for me. And then there were various eateries selling roughly the same food. We walked for hours without seeing any major rides. There was a jungle-themed stage show that was delightful, but the overall experience was “meh”. At the end of the day, grossly underwhelmed and with aching, swollen feet, we almost wished we hadn’t visited it at all.

6. But the Palace of Versailles was worse: It’s magnificent, but the three hour-long queue outside in the scorching sun with no place to sit made the experience feel more like a punishment than a fun outing. We would have happily gone back to Paris if we hadn’t come all the way to Versailles in a cab. So while we were getting baked in the July heat, I couldn’t help thinking about all the other places we could have seen instead and it was not a happy thought. Which leads me to my next point…

7. Plans go awry: It doesn’t even take much; one small lapse of judgment and everything can get derailed. I had researched a LOT for this trip, made lists of all the must-visit places, and scanned the maps to see which attractions could be paired together to minimize the time spent commuting. But nothing prepared me for the crowds. All major attractions, all the good Disneyland rides, had serpentine queues and a lot of our time was just spent waiting. So in the end we missed out on two or three places that we would have liked to see and I still regret that (and blame Versailles) but the truth is nothing ever goes according to plan. If I had skipped Versailles for Père Lachaise and Sacré-Cœur I could still be regretting that today. The lesson here is that one can’t see everything, unless one goes on a really long vacation, and that’s OK. Traveling is not about ticking things off a list: I saw this, I did that, etc. It’s about unique experiences, and I think we had plenty of those in this trip.

8. Deviating from the plan may not always be a bad thing: As part of my thorough research, I had stumbled upon this divinely beautiful place called Giethoorn in the Netherlands and had instantly fallen in love with the idea of visiting it. I shared this idea with other people, some of whom booked day trips to the place immediately. My friend and I didn’t because we were staying in Rotterdam and we thought we would join our other friends (who were staying in Amsterdam) directly in Giethoorn. But on the morning of that trip we woke up to rainy weather and our hosts suggested it would be a bad idea to travel so far on a rainy day. Although it was disappointing at first, we utilized that day by visiting Delft, The Hague and Leiden instead – and believe me it was not a bad bargain at all. As a bonus we also got to visit a beach in The Hague (and I remember thinking we were looking at the Atlantic Ocean but it was the North Sea).

9. The Netherlands is the prettiest place on Earth: Ok maybe not the whole world, but among the places I visited in this trip, I was most impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of Dutch towns and cities. Actually, the Netherlands formed the major chunk of my visit: I visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague and Leiden. Outside Netherlands I visited Paris and Bruges (Belgium), so maybe it’s an unfair comparison but that’s what I feel. And before you ask: yes, I saw many windmills but no, I didn’t visit any tulip fields because they are a seasonal thing.

10. I’m in love with Belgian chocolates: I had brought heaps of chocolates back but the stock didn’t last a long time and I still dream sometimes that I’m in Bruges, buying MORE chocolate.

11. Bruges felt like time travel: It looked like any normal city from the railway station but as we walked towards the old city it suddenly felt like we had stepped into the medieval era. Cobbled streets, medieval buildings (not exaggerating: some of the structures indeed dated back to the 16th and 17thcenturies, and the famous ones went as far back as the 11th century!) and bridges on the canals dating back hundreds of years: Bruges seemed to exist in a different era altogether. The old town there had few signs of modernity which preserved this ancient feel of the place. On top of that it was a gloriously sunny day, there were chocolate shops in every street, and we took a canal cruise, so it was a perfect day.

12. Thank God for Italian food: Pizza and pasta saved us from death by starvation, because the other local options were mostly just salads, croissants and ham sandwiches. In fact, I failed to understand how the people were in such great shape when their food is mostly made from maida. Think about it: all breads are maida, all desserts basically sugar and maida, and the meat is usually processed meat, and I believe all these are unhealthy. Our breakfast always comprised croissants, crepes, some fruit drowned in sugar syrup, flavored yoghurt, cold meat and coffee or tea. I actually started missing Indian food, especially vegetarian food because veg food in Europe basically means salad and I just can’t swallow that. Now I’m not saying all European food is like that, but we never had the money to go to a good restaurant so all our meals came from cafes and this is the food I encountered everywhere.

13. Delhi metro is truly world-class: I won’t explain this one, you can see for yourself. But I’m aware that the western world has had underground trains for decades so naturally their infrastructure is starting to look old and creaky now. But I miss the wonderfully complicated Paris Metro system! Studying the maps, asking for directions, not understanding any of the station names on the announcement because the pronunciation was so whacky (eg.: station name Saint Michel, pronounced sunshell) and hurtling back to our hotel in the most rickety train that felt like it would derail but it never did so it was always a fun ride (better than Disneyland)…all in all it was quite adventurous and exciting! But even more fun was the tram in Rotterdam because Dutch locality names are AWESOME. We would spend the entire ride debating how best to pronounce Vierambachtsstraat or Burgemeester van Walsumweg. So exotic!

14. You can’t go everywhere: “You’re going to Paris but not London?!” “You were in Europe but didn’t go to Switzerland??” “How could you miss Prague and Vienna?” These are some of the comments I got after the trip, and I was exasperated. Most people probably see Europe as a once in a lifetime trip and so they try to hit all the major capital cities in one long vacation, but that’s not how I like to travel. I had planned to cover only Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands in this trip and I did just that. The big idea behind this plan was to see the places at a leisurely pace instead of running from one country to another in a bid to cover all of Western and Southern Europe in one go. And I do believe I’ll get more foreign trips in life, so all those other beautiful places will be visited some day. So I was in no rush to cover it all, and I’m happy with that decision.

I’m running out of points now. I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Maybe this piece is giving the impression that I had a rotten time in Europe but that’s not true at all. Yes there were challenges – the language barriers, the food (though not always, mostly we could find a good meal), the homesickness, missing being able to afford drinking water etc. – but I must have had a great time nevertheless because I miss those places very much. It was only my second foreign trip, and first visit to Europe. Not everything went as planned, but we also got many pleasant surprises. It was extremely tiring, but even more rewarding. I felt proud of being able to gift myself this budget trip, and even prouder when I traveled from Rotterdam to Paris by bus on my own, found myself stranded at Bercy with three bags and a park full of shady-looking locals, and still managed to first track down a Metro station without GPS and then reach the airport without getting robbed. If a trip is rated for the stories it lets us tell later on, then this one was super-successful! I’m glad it happened, and I hope I get to travel more.

A Stray Dog Named Alpha 

A dog died on the street last month, and barely anyone noticed. But such was the story of Alpha from the beginning, or at least the beginning of my association with him. How and when he entered our life, I can’t say. There was always a pack of dogs living near the T-point in the colony but the members kept changing with time and I never cared much about them (having been a cat person all my life). But a few years ago I noticed this large, cream colored, exotic looking doggy who was nothing like any dog I’d seen before. He had a long fur around his ears and neck and on his tail, so his tail seemed to appear like a sort of flag as he walked majestically on the dusty road. He was cute, but also quite smart.

I think he was abandoned by someone, and was most probably a mixed breed. However unfair that was to him, being abandoned, he did not seem to complain. He had happily joined a bunch of strays on the streets and was the leader of the group, hence the name Alpha. He certainly looked like a leader – the biggest, cutest and best behaved doggy. The whole group was – is – taken care of by the local shopkeeper. 


My association with Alpha was limited to stroking or patting him on the head sometimes as I passed his territory. He was a very friendly dog. No resident ever complained about him, he wasn’t prone to barking at people and I don’t think he ever bit anyone. I often noticed that on Tuesdays he would sit outside the temple among the people asking for alms, and it used to make him very happy to receive a few pieces of the ‘boondi prasad’ from those who exited the temple. Never mind that sweets are bad for dogs, he loved all junk food. I had also noticed on several occasions that he used to stare inside rather intently. Some could imagine he was trying to imitate the humans who were praying inside, but I think he was fascinated by the devotion of humans and tried really hard to understand it. 


But his favorite spot was somewhere else. He had dug a hole in the ground next to the main road. I had seen him digging it, and back then I’d thought he was just digging for food but nope – he had dug a small hole for sleeping or just chilling. That’s where I found him most often afterwards, that shallow hole near the road, observing his territory, keeping an eye on his family, and looking content with life. For a dog who had probably suffered a lot, whose only possession was a hole he had dug for himself with his sweet front paws, he was a very happy creature. 


My family has always been against keeping pets in the house so I could never bring Alpha home, but I always fancied that one day I would have a dog just like him, if only I could find out his breed. I did click some pictures once, maybe someone might be able to tell me. But Alpha had been to my house too. Last year, on Diwali, he got separated from his family and I found him roaming the streets looking terrorized. We quickly brought him in, gave him milk – he drank two bowls and was greatly comforted. Every time I stepped out that night, he kept following me. And once the firecrackers had stopped, he went back outside. For that one night he was almost my pet, and I’ll always cherish that memory. 


There is one more memory, from 2013. I was out late one night, attending a function. While coming home the roads were eerily quiet; it was winter and quite late and we were on foot. But there was no need to feel insecure because Alpha and his gang had actually formed a protective ring around us as we walked home! Imagine – a bunch of stray dogs, being so protective and thoughtful. 


Such was Alpha – a sweet little boy. He was growing old but I never noticed because he was always so innocent and childlike. 


Then last month, one day I saw his pack gathered around his spot, but Alpha could not be seen. I didn’t see him anywhere the next day either, although I looked around thoroughly, hoping that even though he wasn’t in his spot I would see him come out from behind the temple where he often went to forage for food. But I didn’t see him for two days and I knew I would never see him again. I felt it inside my heart. But I had to know, so I asked the shopkeeper where he was. Run over by a speeding car, about a week ago, he told me. 


Look, you can say that he wasn’t even my dog so why am I going on and on about him? I don’t know, really. He wasn’t mine, but I was deeply upset when I heard that he was no more. Murdered by some jerk for some cheap thrill, it was SO unfair. And I’m not writing about him because I want sympathy. No way. It sucks but the harsh truth is that his passing made no difference to my life. And yet I have felt the need to write about him before I can move on. 


I want the world to know about him and I want to keep his memories alive. He may have been a homeless dog, but he wasn’t unloved. And now that he is gone, he is deeply missed. I see his spot every day as I cross that street, and it sucks that he’s not there, sleeping happily in his self-dug hangout area. I hope he’s in a much better place now, away from murderous humans. My dog lover friend told me that it’s an established fact that all dogs go to doggy heaven, and that’s a greatly comforting thought. 

Rest in peace, dear Alpha. I’ll always remember you.