Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries) is the much-hyped movie by Kiran Rao that released earlier this year. The movie portrays a few days in the lives of 4 people in Mumbai, whose experiences turn out to be interconnected. Arun (Aamir Khan) is a painter, living alone, his divorced wife and child now in Australia. He draws energy from the buzz of the city for his work. Shai (Monica Dogra) is on a sabbatical in Mumbai, on a photography project to capture the life and professions of the city. Munna (Pratiek Babbar) is a dhobi by day and a rat-killer by night. He has dreams of being a Bollywood star one day. And finally Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra), a newly-wed small-town girl from Uttar Pradesh experiencing the big city and recording her moments on a video camera. Something seems amiss in her life.

Like the title suggests, there is no real plot in Dhobi Ghat, it is just what happens in the lives of these characters. All the characters feel real and complex, portrayed well by the actors. The cinematography is excellent, capturing the nuances of the people and the city. People die, things happen, moments pass by slowly, and the city feels like a throbbing living organism. There is a creative vision and some good writing here. Dhobi Ghat is a snapshot of Indian city life, nothing more, nothing less.


Weight Training for Dummies

After being a physically inactive guy all my life, I joined a gym for the first time about a decade ago. My intention was to get active, gain some strength and muscle in the process. The gym experience turned out to be a disaster! I had no idea about the body and how to work its various muscles. The trainers handed me a cookie-cutter workout program and totally ignored me. It looked like the gym was a rip off for underweight guys (like me) and overweight people. The trainers spent all their time and attention on people who did not need any help: muscular guys grunting at their weights and shapely women bending at their routines.

Thankfully, I have gotten more active and fitter (?) over the years since. But, I recently sprained my back after doing a back extension and could not bend for a couple of days. That experience awoke me to the fact that I needed to have a basic understanding of the body and how to work it safely at the gym. I picked up Weight Training for Dummies (Third Edition), which to my pleasant surprise is written by three ladies: Liz Neporent, Suzanne Schlosberg and Shirley Archer. Like most Dummies books, the book is aimed at total newbies who want to learn about the body and how to work it using weights for strength and endurance.

Parts I and II of the book give an introduction to weight training. If like me, you too felt overwhelmed and awkward looking at all the machines, the weights and the people working out, these pages are a godsend! Nothing is spared, all the exercise/gym jargon and the complex-looking equipment are demystified. The authors explain how weight training is useful for anyone, whether your aim is to gain endurance or to gain strength. In this part and in the rest of the book, the authors constantly point out how to exercise safely without harming any muscle or getting injured.

Part III is the meat of the book which describes the exercises for the different parts of the body. I have read innumerable articles on the Internet and complex body charts at gyms, but this book easily beats them all in its clarity. It breaks the body down into back, chest, shoulders, arms, abdominals, butt-legs and the core. There are 1-2 major muscles in each of these areas and the book elaborates on exercises for each of them. For each such major muscle, at least 3 kinds of exercises are described: using a machine, using free weights (dumbbells or barbells) and using your own body weight. I found this kind of breakdown very useful since knowing this I can work out no matter where I am: at the gym, at the park or at home. Knowledge is truly liberating! 🙂

Part IV helps the reader create workout programs to accomplish their objectives. For example, one might design a full-body routine or a split routine that covers upper-body one day and the lower body on another day. Part V has the Part of Tens chapters, with ten ways to use a rubber band and exercise ball for fitness. And not to forget that like all Dummies books, this one too has some rib-tickling cartoons by Rich Tennant.

I definitely think that it is the female touch in this book that makes the subject of weight training so refreshing and easy. This book is for you if you find the testosterone-filled gym atmosphere nauseating or intimidating. Read this book and you will be able to confidently workout at any place with any equipment and easily talk about curls, glutes or reps without breaking a sweat! 😉 Whether you want to work your body for endurance or strength, this is a good reference. Who knows, it might turn you into a gym rat! 🙂

Peking Diary: (1948 – 1949) A Year of Revolution

Peking Diary: (1948 – 1949) A Year of Revolution is a compilation of diary notes by Professor Derk Bodde on his stay in Peking (now Beijing) during the tumultuous year that culminated in the formation of the People’s Republic of China. Derk was a sinologist, with an expertise in Chinese philosophy, and the first Fulbright Scholar to China. The book draws from his first hand experience of living in the city during the revolution, the people he interacted with and his vast experience of China.

In the early part of the 20th century, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (now called the Father of the Nation in China & Taiwan) and his Kuomintang (KMT) Party created a revolution that overthrew the imperial rule that China had been under for many millennia. Known as the Nationalists, they were later headed by General Chiang Kai-shek during WWII, when China was subjugated and raped by Japan. But, there was also growing discontent due to the corruption and bad governance of the Nationalists. Mao Tse-tung created a Communist force in the rural and mountainous regions that grew on this unhappiness and drew the Nationalists into a civil war. The Nationalists were well funded with money, supplies and weapons by USA. Despite this, the Red Tide from the North grew steadily and reached the vicinity of Peking by 1948, around the time Derk moved there to work on a translation of Chinese works. Peking would fall to the Red Tide in 1949, which would sweep over the entire mainland China and the KMT would retreat to Formosa (now Taiwan).

In the beginning, the Nationalists were confident that they could hold Peking against the Communists. They had come to power on the promise of (land) reform and development, which they never delivered. The Communists fed on the increasing economic disparity, promised a classless society and an end to feudalism in rural areas. As Communist forces massed around Peking, the city went under seige. It became choked with refugees, students and Nationalist soldiers fleeing from the North. With the supply of food dwindling, the regions under the Nationalists experienced hyper-inflation. With massive price fluctuations, hoarding and looting, the Peking general finally gave in to the Communists.

Being able to speak and read Chinese fluently and having lots of native friends, Derk paints a very real picture of how the city changed once the Communists took over. Despite their inexperience with urban management, they brought order, good governance and reined in the economy. Women in particular and the youth in general found empowerment. However, the Communists took complete control of every other sphere of life. Workers of all trades were brought together under unions. The independence of all newspapers and radio was curtailed, and they had to become mouthpieces of the Communist propaganda machine. All religious activities were called as silly superstitions that harmed society and were shut down. Socialist and Marxist subjects were introduced into schools and the textbooks were modified. Secret agents and information boxes were introduced to weed out the people who opposed the Communists.

Not only does the book give a clear picture of the Communist revolution, it also answers two big questions. First, was the Chinese Communist revolution a copy of that in Russia (like the USA says it is)? Second, why did Chinese embrace Communism? For the first, Derk shows that though the ideology was from Russia, the movement was wholly created, fed and led by Chinese problems, ideas and culture. Secondly, having experienced years of apathy and corruption under the Nationalists, the Chinese embraced Red, since that was the only strong alternative they saw. The lesser of the two evils, if you may.

With each passing year, my interest in the history and culture of East and South East Asia continues to grow. As I discover more, I see the myriad similarities and the surprising parallels that can be drawn with India. Post-1947 Indian history is replete with socialism and a brush with Communist-style clampdown (the Emergency). Today, economic disparity and corruption continues to grow. Naxalism gains power in tribal and rural areas where the government has looted natural resources. Standing at this crossroad in time, I found Peking Diary to be a fabulous read, both for its first hand view and its historic insights into the Chinese revolution. The book is refreshingly free of the American stereotype of China and the writing is so personal that it cannot be put down.

Rating: 4/4

Jeeves and Wooster (Series 1-4)

Many lives before he was the sadistic doctor in House M.D., Hugh Laurie was an enormously talented British TV actor who paired with another great persona that is Stephen Fry in the rib-tickling comedy series Jeeves and Wooster. Any bookworm from the Indian subcontinent should be familiar with the books by P. G. Wodehouse, which was a staple of all circulating libraries during my school days. This TV series is loosely based on the works of Wodehouse. Set in UK of the pre-WWII era, Wooster (Hugh Laurie) is a parentless young high-society gentleman and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) is his valet. In a seemingly never-ending string of stories, the feckless Wooster adventures through the various girls who are thrust at him by his Aunt Agatha, escaping the clutches of each by a mix of luck, pluck and the intelligence lent by Jeeves.

Some of the finest things in life are an acquired taste and Jeeves and Wooster is no exception. I cannot fathom how this series will be received by folks who are not familiar with the works of P. G. Wodehouse. For me, it took a few episodes before the yin and yang of Jeeves and Wooster became intimately familiar. After that it is one sweet long ride of pure joy. Through 4 seasons of 50-minute long episodes, this series is a keeper. Not just the enormous talent of the two principal actors, but the whole cast is excellent. Though it aired in the early 90s, the 1930 setting of UK and USA have been faithfully recreated. The dress, mannerisms, culture, the weirdly amusing English names and the verbal volleys exchanged between the gentleman and his valet are sure to remain etched in one’s memory. Watched through the glasses of 2011, Jeeves and Wooster has only gotten better, this is a series for everyone and anytime.

Green Lantern

The spate of super-hero movies this year seems endless, Hollywood studios must have gotten really desperate! Not having seen the effectiveness of 3D in movies in quite a while, I decided to check out the 3D version of Green Lantern at a theatre recently. The story is set in an alternate universe involving Earth and aliens of all sorts. Planet Oa is the home of the Green Lanterns, a regiment of green-suit wearing aliens who guard the Universe. Their superpower is will, which they can use to bring to life any object which they can imagine. The villain named Parallax, a planet-sized smoky mass shaped like a spider, preys on fear (depicted by yellow). To interest us Earthlings to watch the movie (or buy the comic) a new Green Lantern is chosen from Earth, a fighter pilot named Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds). As is typical in the first movie of a superhero series, Hal has to turn into a responsible human, get used to the powers of his green ring and then trounce the villain to prove himself to his green peers.

Quite a bit of the plot takes place in outer space with weirdly shaped aliens and lots and lots of green and yellow swirly undulations. I did not find any of this interesting, maybe because I am not familiar with this superhero or maybe because it is actually tedious. There is a mad scientist (played by Peter Saarsgaard) who is the pawn of Parallax on Earth, which he plays to maniacal aplomb. Ryan Reynolds in a buffed-up role took some getting used to, mostly because in my mind he still remains the carefree medical student he played in the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. (I love that series, too bad it was shelved after just 2 seasons.) His love interest is Blake Lively, a stiletto wearing fighter pilot (!), who has no use but as the prize fought between the hero and the villain. I still remain skeptical of the power of 3D, and the unending barrage of computer effects in this movie did not repudiate my opinion. Green Lantern is an uninteresting long-drawn-out yarn, whether you catch it in 3D or less.

Turning 30!!!

When we were young, we could not wait to grow up. And now that we have, there are days we wish we were young and irresponsible. Age is just a number and yet it causes so many hours of worrying. People worried about mid-life crisis before, but now even folks in their 20s are not spared of quarter-life crisis! In this progression of ever more depressing numbers stands 30. As one who turned 30 recently, I am all too familiar with the assumptions and expectations that families and society in India direct towards a 30-year old. The pressure is only worse on the fairer sex in India.

Directed by Alankrita Shrivastava, Turning 30!!! deals with the problems facing one such urban working woman. Naina (Gul Panag) works at an advertising agency and is going steady with Rishabh, her boyfriend of 3 years. Her dreams of a happy married life in her thirtieth year are dashed when Rishash leaves her and she is unjustly pushed to the verge of losing her job. Life throws a confusing melange of people into her life: a former boyfriend who is interested, a close friend who comes out of the closet and another friend whose perfect marriage is on the rocks. The movie deals with Naina trying to find her own footing from the mess she has been thrust into.

Turning 30!!! is one of the new breed of Bollywood movies which are in English, which I was glad about, especially given this subject. The story is unique enough for Bollywood, but its actual implementation is quite tacky. Acting, editing, production, everything looks amateurish. And yet, I found the movie quite watchable as it progressed. Despite some of the absurdities the Naina character is forced to endure (literally throwing herself at Rishabh), the plot works and the ending is comforting. Turning 30!!! is a good movie to watch once, especially if you are in its target audience 😉

Excel 2007 for Dummies

In the Indian computer teaching centers of the mid-90s, the two entries that were de rigueur in all beginner computer courses were Wordstar (word processor) and Lotus 1-2-3 (spreadsheet). After one such cursory brush at the spreadsheet program, I had been mostly avoiding the spreadsheet for more than a decade. The spreadsheet would go on to become the ubiquitous sidekick to the wordprocessor in all office suites from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org (now LibreOffice) and Google Docs. Recently, when dealing with numerical data that needed analysis, a friend played around so deftly with the data using Excel 2007, that I finally realized the power of the spreadsheet. Having to process some data and being close to a total illiterate, I again fell back on the Dummies series. I picked up Excel 2007 for Dummies written by Greg Harvey to introduce myself to the capabilities and possibilities of the killer application of the PC revolution.

Excel 2007 for Dummies is no exception to the good quality introductions that are the hallmark of the Dummies series. (And can you really resist whizzing through Dummies books looking for those super-funny Rich Tennant cartoons?) This book has two aims: introduce you to use the spreadsheet for your work and also familiarize you with the Ribbon interface, that was introduced in Office 2007. Since I had a certain idea of what I wanted to learn, the book took only a few hours of my time. By the end, I was familiar with the kind of problems I could quickly throw at Excel 2007 and get them solved and the what-if analysis I could do. I also realized that the unfamiliar Ribbon interface was a true innovation over the hierarchical-menu driven UI. Excel 2007 is also full of multiple keyboard or keyboard-mouse shortcuts for almost every task. You can pick what is most intuitive to you and use it accelerate your most common operations. (For example, press Alt in any Office 2007 program to visually see all the Alt-based keyboard shortcuts possible at any time.)

Excel 2007 for Dummies is a good easy-to-read introduction to the spreadsheet program. It only deals with the basics and if you feel the need for more (like I do), you will have to pick up a more advanced book after this. Whether commerical or free, today everyone has access to a full-fledged spreadsheet program, and you will be surprised at the myriad kinds of data you could enter, track and analyze with it. The basics learnt with Excel 2007 translate easily to LibreOffice Calc, Google Docs or any other spreadsheet program you might want to use. Dive in and spend just a few hours with Excel 2007 for Dummies and you will not be disappointed! 🙂