Saturday, August 30, 2008

Historian Sima Qian

People, Bill post. He is all jealous that only I get to read the Keay and has become good at stealing the book when I am not looking. To make up for it, he has promised to write posts on on book. So here, Bill on Sima Qian:

The Chinese are often characterised as having a highly developed sense of history. With good reason, as their carefully recorded year by year accounts of rulers and dynasties goes back much longer and is more well-documented than anywhere else. It's then appropriate to talk about the first, and arguably the greatest, of the historians, Sima Qian, also known as the Grand Historian. Living in the second century BC, his life's work, the Shiji, or the Records of the Great Historian, is the model on which all later imperial histories were written, and an invaluable source of early Chinese history.

The Shiji is a large book, with around 130 volumes, purporting to record history from the earliest, heavenly precursors, to Sima Qian's own emperor, Han Wudi. It is written in a novelistic style, with dialogue, scene setting, the works. All of this was based on court records, and supplemented by written and remembered memories of actual participants and their descendants. The same period is often described from many perspectives in different volumes. Thus, a ruler may get quite conventional praise in the chapter which is his biography, but his flaws would be pointed out in another chapter describing his contemporary or a subsequent ruler. The history is structured as a series of biographies, with interspersed chapters on ceremonies, religion, philosophy and so on. Many, if not most, of the chapters on a particular period are contradictory in the explanations of motives, allowing many different perspectives to emerge.

The Shiji is the source of most of our information about pre-Han China. In particular, our knowledge of the Qin, the dynasty immediately before the Han, comes almost entirely from the Shiji. The Qin was a short-lived dynasty, started by Qin Shi Huangdi, who declared himself the first emperor. This was the guy who connected up all the short stretches to create the Great Wall and the Great Road, burned books and killed scholars of Confucianism, and buried himself with the Terracotta Army to protect himself in the afterlife. History does not have many good words to say of him, calling him a brutal tyrant. Keay makes the point that this is very different from the reputation of his contemporary, Ashoka. Ashoka we know of primarily through his stone inscriptions, which go on and on about his love of peace and his spread of Buddhism. If we had only Shi Huangdi's inscriptions to go on, we would probably say the same of him, since these are about spreading peace and prosperity as well. The reason the historical assessment is so different is all due to subsequent historians, primarily inspired by Sima Qian and the Shiji. But here we have to be careful, since Sima Qian was writing in the time of the successor empire, the Han empire, and was naturally interested in portraying the Qins in a negative light. Also, Sima Qian saw his work as preserving the collective knowledge Shi Huangdi had tried so hard to destroy. In fact, the Shiji was seen as a direct response to the massive burning of the classics Qin Shi Huang had initiated.

Typically though, Sima Qian is not wholly negative about the Qin dynasty. He had good reason to dislike the Han emperor Wu. He got involved in defending Li Ling, a defeated general who was forced to surrender (on one the many expeditions to Central Asia following Zhang's exploits) His attempts were seen as going against the emperor himself. Such a serious charge meant that he was imprisoned and expected to commit suicide, to save himself from the inevitable execution. With his great work unfinished, Sima Qian was unwilling to kill himself. The alternative of buying himself a pardon was out of the question with his lack of funds. The only alternative was the humiliating one of undergoing ritual castration. This, in a Confucian society with its emphasis on family, was the ultimate catastrophe. He chose to stay on as a palace eunuch, enduring the deep humiliation and ignominy to finish his work, writing:

"When I have truly completed this work, I shall deposit it in the Famous Mountain. If it may be handed down to men who will appreciate it, and penetrate to the villages and the great cities, then though I should suffer a thousand mutilations, what regret should I have?"

Next in the series: Monk Xuanzang

Friday, August 29, 2008

We read (and review) so that you don't have to

In case you need more reasons why NOT to read The Clothes on their Backs, here, read Fëanor's review.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Old wine...

Because SB asked for some. And because, well, we are like this only. All boring.


"Hey. Its me"

"I know"

"Ya, so I will be late tonight"

"Ok, call amma and let her know"

"I did"

"Ok. No dinner then?"

"No, I am meeting B for dinner"

"He is in town?"

"Yeah, for a couple of weeks"

"Couple of weeks? Doesn't he have kids to teach?"

"Semester hasn't started na. So he is here to talk to us"

"You or the folks across the street?" (For the uninitiated: Across the road from the William H Gates building in West Cambridge is yeah, the MSR Cambridge office)

"Both. But mostly the people across the road. Time to be nice to them especially since grant money is drying up everywhere"

"Yes, yes, we love the Finn but when the time comes, we shall suck up to Bill. He has the money after all"

"Its not like we don't like Bill or anything"

"Now you are telling me you like Bill?"

"Of course I do. But sometimes, his stuff is not fit for our purpose, for the kind of work we do. He understands that"

"I am sure he does. Not fit for purpose! Is that why you con poor housewives to switch to Linux?"

"Oh, that is not our fault. We don't con people to do anything. People try different things and they choose. It is a free world"

"I see"

"Anyway, so I was talking to B"


"He was saying how I am basically unemployable now"

"I could have told him that years ago. How did he reach this conclusion now?"

"Well, not just me. People like me. With the recession and all, there is no grant money. No support, no new people needed anywhere. So no jobs. Esp in the States"

"So what can you do?"

"Nothing much really. Stick around here for a while. Do more post-docs in other places. Travel"

"For the rest of your life?"

"Why not? It is a good life"

"For whom?"

"What do you mean whom? For us of course"

"You think so?"

"Absolutely. What's wrong with it?"


"So you don't mind?"

"Why should I?"

"Because you always did"

"But you just said it is a good life"

"That it is"

"Then why should I mind?"

"Oh. Are you alright?"

"I guess"

"So you think its alright?"

"Dude, you just told me its alright. It is a good life"

"And you trust me?"

"Is there a reason I shouldn't?"

"No. Its just not, you know, normal"

"Well, I trust you. If you say it's a good life, I am sure it will be"

"Okay good. Oh btw, I need to book ticket"

"For where?"

"States. For dissertation"

"Oh. So now that's happening?"

"Yes, it is all settled. Sep 12th. I fly out on the 11th"

"On Sep 11th?"



"Can I use your miles?"


"Why not?"

"Because I need it for later"

"Oh. I thought your firm pays for your US trips"

"Yes, they do"

"So why do you need miles?"

"Because I fly to other places on personal trips. And I might not be working with the company anymore"

"Wait, you are quitting?"

"Yeah, I might not be working with them anymore"


"Because of the good life we are going to have"

"I knew it"


"But I thought you wanted me to do my dissertation"

"As a stepping stone to a real job, yes. But as you are anyway unemployable, I don't think it matters"

"Okay, if that's how you see it, I can look at other options"

"Such as what?"

"Strictly speaking, I am not unemployable"

"You are not?"

"I am just overqualified"

"For what?"

"For a number of jobs"

"Such as a checkout clerk at Tesco?"

"That too. But also other jobs which pay slightly more"

"I am listening"

"Like you know, in the city. Be a banker or something"

"You want to be a banker?"

"No. But if are absolutely sure you want me to have a real job, I can consider being one"

"How considerate of you"

"That I am"

"You do realise I could say yes and you will be in trouble"

"What, you think I am kidding?"

"I know you are"

"See, this is the problem. The jobs I can get, I can never get because you don't like them"

"Yes, that's why you are not a banker. Because I don't like it. You have always wanted to be a banker all your life. Your true calling"

"Arrghh. Please. I have standards"

"Exactly. So what are you going to do?"

"I need to think"

"Ok think"

A Fraction of the Whole

Falstaff reviews Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole here

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The White Tiger

In short, I think reading this book is a better use of one's time than watching Fox News and a worse use of one's time than having sex.

For those of you who don't read comments, here, n! reviews Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

PS: Yes, the one and only n!! We are kicked alright

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

More links

Woody Allen's Spanish diary with gory details of Scarlett, Penelope and Rebecca competing for his attention. Poor Javier.

And well, Anthony Lane's week 2 at the Olympics.

More reviews

Space Bar on Sea of Poppies here. Haven't read the book yet but my view of the book is now highly coloured by this review. Andre-Louis Moreau in paragraph 2. What more can one ask for?

Falstaff's note on Netherland from a few weeks ago, and n!'s one word review of The Enchantress of Florence.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Anthony Lane at the Olympics

People, please drop everything and go read this if you haven't already. And if you know of anyone who seems to have had more fun at the Olympics, please to let me know. Every line is a classic but I guess I have to pick a few to get you to go there. So here:

It was time for the winner’s national anthem, which began with an ominous pop, settled down for a while, gathered itself for the finale, and then stopped. We got the land of the free, but apparently the home of the brave was no longer available. Did someone foreclose? Accidents will happen, but, as a rule, if you’re going to screw up the national anthem of another country, especially a major trading partner, try not to do so when the President of that country is in the audience. George W. Bush was indeed in the Aquatics Center, standing at attention, and, even across ten lanes of water, I could tell that I was looking at a confused man. Was this insult calculated, and how should he react? The world held its breath. Somewhere nearby was a briefcase with the nuclear launch codes, possibly held by a man wearing trunks. The crisis passed. The President sat down. The semifinals of the women’s hundred-metre butterfly got under way. As for the Assistant Button-Pressing Technical Manager for National Anthem Digital Recording Systems (Aquatic Branch), I don’t know the poor fellow’s name, but his extended family has just been rehoused inside a hydroelectric dam.


The obvious precedent for Beijing was the Berlin Olympics, in 1936. Both were showcases for a muscle-flexing nation, although Hitler made an elementary error when he chose not to dress his young National Socialists in lime-green catsuits laced with twinkling fairy lights. By a careful choice of color scheme, China was able to draw the sting from any accusations of militarism, while rarely permitting the result to slide into camp.


It will be scant consolation, however, to Lord Coe. Formerly Sebastian Coe, part of the shining generation of British middle-distance runners in the nineteen-eighties, he now heads the team that will bring the Olympics to London in 2012. I tried to pick him out among the V.I.P.s on that first Friday, but without success. He may have been hiding in the men’s room, calling home to order more light bulbs. You can imagine the rising panic in his voice: “They had two thousand and eight drummers, all lit up. Yes, two thousand and eight. And what have we got so far? Elton John on a trampoline.”

Bye then. I gotta go read it once again.

The Clothes on Their Backs

To say that Vivien Kovaks, the protagonist of Linda Grant's The Clothes on Their Backs likes clothes would be an understatement. The story begins with a middle-aged Vivien convinced to buy a flattering ruby-red silk jersey dress from a closing sale at a Marble Arch boutique - a dress that signifies a new beginning and fills her with general optimism about things to come. Then we get to go back to Vivien's younger days where we discover that the outstanding image of her childhood is that of a man in an electric blue mohair suit with black hand-stitched suede shoes, a watch attached to his diamond bracelet and on his arm, a black girl in a nylon leopardskin coat and a mock croc handbag with gilt clasps. We also get to learn about young Vivien's induction into the world of clothes - a trunk bottom comes apart when a man in a stained leather jacket and studded boots carries a dead woman's belongings out of her flat leaving in its wake silks, satin, velvets, anglaise, lace and feathers. Vivien grows up with the times, in turn acquiring and discarding such icons of high fashion as the half-length skirt, the bolero jacket, wide high-waisted Katherine Hepburn pants, Dietrich shoulder pad and the flapper fringed dresses and cloche hats from vintage stores usually run by dirty old men. She arrives at the uni in a crepe de Chine cocktail dress, an instant sensation as a result of which she gets to be the costume designer for the drama society. This exciting position has some fringe benefits - all gay men in the drama society have one last fling with Vivien before they come out. If you are wondering by now whether you are in the middle of a Sex and the City episode, wait, it gets better. A stranger randomly walks into her bath (and is reminded of a Modigliani painting, what else!), marries her and promptly dies off as expected, and then a mandatory erotic relationship with a boy from the wrong side of the tracks before settling into domestic bliss completes this picture.

But this is not a book about clothes. No wait, it is - it is about the clothes we wear and how they change us from the inside out as Grant explains to us in one of her final chapters. Good that she tells us because we would never have guessed that from reading the book. I for one thought she was giving the reader a crash course on this city's fashion history over the second half of the last century. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, just that if that's what one wanted to do, I don't see why one should insert story of immigrant Hungarian Jews and slum landlords. What, I hear you cry. What Hungarian Jews and slum landlords? Where? Here only, in same book.

In a mansion block off Marylebone Road[1], Vivien grows up, an only child of Hungarian Jewish parents who moved to London from Budapest before the War. Her father Ervin works in Hatton Square in a backroom of a jewellery store. Vivien's parents brought her up to be a mouse, she says out of gratitude to England which gave them refuge, they chose to be mice people. They lived quietly and had no friends, never talked about their lives or families back in Hungary and encouraged Vivien not to ask questions. A colourful visitor turns up at their doorstep one day claiming to be an uncle who Ervin promptly throws out. A few months later, Uncle Sandor is all over the news - the King of Crime, slum landlord who lived off poor West Indian immigrants finally caught and sentenced to prison. Nothing is heard of this man for long years until when Vivien is back home in Benson Ct after her husband's death and basically has nothing much to do than to take up family history. Uncle (now out of prison) and niece find each other in a park in Regents Park (yep, London is that small) and Vivien takes up a secretarial job with her uncle to type up his memoirs. The relationship between these two is the rest of the book - Vivien learns about family history and in a sense, comes into terms with her uncle's warped morality the gist of which is like yeah well, now I know every monster is human in some respect and btw, its not like the West Indians lived in better conditions back in their country and anyway, no one here rent them flats and someone's gotta do it. Plus you know, this is a man who spent years in a forced labour camp and whose parents were sent up a chimney, so his sense of fairness and justice is slightly different from ours. Fair enough. I just found it interesting that this deep insight into human nature merited a place on the Booker longlist. Obviously, the folks on the Booker committee did not grow up like the rest of us or worse still, they never read any childrens' books.

I know I am sounding mean but if truth be told, I didn't actually dislike the book. Two things that did not work for me (if not clear from the above paragraphs): one, this metaphor with clothes which is utter nonsense, and two, the banality of what seems to be the underlying message of the book. But a book is not just about what it says, it is very much about how it does it. On that count, I liked the book. Grant's prose is simple and (quite often) delightful at the same time especially when she talks about London and well, clothes. It is only when she tries to explain these deep things in life that she transforms into your regular Hollywood screenwriter.

In conclusion, The Clothes on Their Backs is an eminently readable book especially if you are into fashion and such. There is also a nice little story in there somewhere which manages to get lost between all the clothes and the explorations into the nature of hypocrisy. So go on, read it, it takes only a couple of hours and you probably won't remember anything of it by the following morning.

PS: Must say that the book that this one most reminded me is Art Spiegelman's Maus, and not just for the obvious mouse analogy. I know you can't compare a graphic novel here but both have similar themes - a first generation Jewish refugee narrative that describes life as it was back in the homeland, the children born after the War in the exiled land and their difficult relationships with their parents or uncle in this case - though Maus is more about the former than the latter. I liked Maus for telling the same old story in a new way, for telling things as they are and not attempting to explain everything. Perhaps if this book had stuck to that, I might have liked this better.

PPS: Now, for the real reason I am being mean: you can't see the traffic lights of Hyde Park Corner from Edgware Road and anyone who says that you can in a book set in London just doesn't make the cut.

[1] Astute readers of this blog no doubt know that this is the same neighbourhood where yours truly has lived for the past couple of years

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Linus takes over

In which I realise I am the only one in the household who is loyal to Bill.

"Bill, your old computer is not that bad as you said it was"

"You booted Faramir?! Were you able to go online and do whatever you wanted then?"

"Yes, yes, I started it and it asked me whether to boot windows or linux. For some reason, there were two linux choices"

"I know. Choosing Windows leads to what you know and love but it is slow"

"Yes, I tried that. But it was so terrible. So slow"

"Yeah amma. It is a really old machine and there is too much stuff on it"

"So I went and tried linux"

"You what?"

"It was so nice. So fast. It took me a while to find things. Especially Firefox. But once I found it, things were perfect"

"You daughter runs away screaming if I try linux on her"

"I don't see why. It does everything I need and it does it well"

"Yes! Another round to the Finn. Say, why don't you teach your daughter the important things in life?"

"I would like to think I did. She married you, didn't she?"

"Arghh. Amma, I am glad you think I am important and all but can you not use the M word? Please"

"You are both the same. No sense"

"Amma, you know about Ubuntu?"

"No, what is that?"

"That's what Shonku runs on. Come, let me show you"

A couple of hours later.

"How do I install this Ubuntu?"

"Oh, is it quite straightforward. I will get you a bunch of install CDs"

"Great. I will take them with me and install this in our home laptop"

"You won't miss Windows?"

"Of course not. Good riddance"

"Hear, hear"

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Explorer Zhang

Those of us who grew up on a healthy dose of Hopkirk surely know the original Great Gamer - Zhang Qian[1]. An intrepid traveller and diplomat from the 2nd century Han country, Zhang is credited as being the pioneer of the Silk Road. Needless to say, I am all super excited that Keay devotes a few pages to Zhang in his China - A History, and in the interests of spreading excitement and information, you all have no choice but learn about Zhang.

By the second half of the second century BC, things have (sort of) calmed down since the Qin[2] implosion and the civil war that followed in the last few years of the third century. Young Han Wudi is on the throne in the Han capital of Chang'an (around current day Xian). The Hans are in expansionist mode but there are these peope in the northern frontier under the leadership of a tribe called Xiongnu who are turning out to be a major problem. In English, Xiongnu is apparently rendered as Hun which means that these Xiongnu could very well be the later Huns of our Eurocentric history books. Over the first half of the second century BC, the Hans followed a "peace-through-kinship" strategy with the Xiongnu which wasn't very 'flattering to Han sensibilities'. As part of this policy, the Xiongnu promised to curtail their incursions into Han country and in return, they would be paid a tribute which included an imperial princess. With each treaty renewal, this tribute went up but the incursions didn't exactly go down. (Aside: Keay, being Keay, reminds us that this first international treaty bears an uncanny resemblance to imperial China's last in nineteenth century in that though ostensibly between equal parties, they were both deeply unequal treaties)

So anyway, Han Wudi decides that enough is enough and something has to be done. But what? News reaches the Han capital of another Xiongnu success - they have extended their dominion westwards by driving the Yuezhi people out of the Gansu corridor and Xinjiang to beyond the Pamirs and that the Yuezhi are looking for revenge. So the idea now is to make contact with the Yuezhi for an anti-Xiongnu alliance. Enter our intrepid hero - Zhang Qian, a palace official who volunteers to go establish ties with the Yuezhi. The year is 138 BC.

Working with a tiny military escort, Zhang is promptly captured by the Xiongnu and made the subject of furious diplomatic messages. In the meantime, he was sentenced to slavery, married a Xiongnu bride, escaped, and turned up thirteen years later in Chang'an bearing news of the wide world out there. His famous reports were quoted extensively in first century BCE Chinese histories. Keay compares the culture shock from his discoveries to that of Columbus. He had gone across the deserts of Xinjiang, the bleak ranges of the Pamirs, and reached the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. The places he visited included Ferghana in modern Uzbekistan, Bactria in northern Afghanistan, Parthia or Iran, and so-called Shendu (Sindhu, or India), the land of elephants. Many of these places had long established kingdoms shockingly unaware of the greatness of the Han Chinese, and even refusing to acknowledge they were far away from the Middle Kingdom, center of the world!

The one revelation that caused much excitement in the Han court was that of a trade route through Shendu. Zhang had noticed cloth and bamboo canes from Sichuan in Bactria which was said to be imported via Shendu. As Zhang knew from first hand experience, the northern access to Central Asia (over the Lop Nor) was controlled by the Xiongnu and the southern route controlled by their proto-Tibetans allies, so this possible route through the Shendu appeared promising. Needless to say, our man volunteered again to lead a secret expedition to explore this route and he set out in 125 BC. His intention was to cross Yunnan to an intervening kingdom of 'Dianyue' (Burma) before heading into Shendu. Our hero promptly came back to Chang'an in 123 BC as he couldn't quite make it past the hillsmen of Yunnan. Twelve years later, the Han troops (without Zhang) did force their way through Yunnan but they did not progress much beyond the upper Mekong river due to the 'perpendicular terrain' as well as the population. Zhang's silk and cane route would thus remain unchartered for centuries until the construction of the Burma Road in the run-up to the Second World War. Who knows what our history might have been if a direct trade route had opened up between India and China over the extremity of the eastern Himalyas back in the first century BC?

Anyway, back to Zhang. Disaster strikes. Zhang was sent to fight a few battles with the Xiongnu, some of which the Han lost. Zhang was demoted and was nearly beheaded as a scapegoat for one of these defeats but he bribed his way through and bid his time. Time came. He was recalled after a series of Han successes against the Xiongnu to provide information on the 'western regions'. His reports of the great wealth to the West ensured that Wudi diverted his troops to the flourishing states of Central Asia instead of progressing all the way North. The very commercial people of Parthia and Shendu were sure, Zhang said, to welcome Chinese trade. In keeping with the imperial beliefs, this was seen not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to making all these places acknowledge the emperor and eventually become vassals.

Towards this end, Zhang devised a new masterplan very similar to his first mission. The key, he decided, was to secure Xinjiang and its transit routes. Xiongnu had been resupplying themselves from Xinjiang's oases and the way to cut off their suppiles was to secure these oases. Wusum, a tribe in one of these oases had fallen out with the Xiongnu and were looking for an alliance against them. Zhang set off once again. This time to what we know as Chinese Turkestan. He was well received by the Wusun, and they even supplied interpreter guides for his envoys to Parthia, Ferghana and Sogdiana. Wusum signed a treaty with the Hans in 105 BC and received lavish gifts (including a bride) and in return, they were a willing feudatory and supplied Han with horses. Over the next few years, the Hans won a series of victories as a result of which the western regions including Parthia and Bactria now sent missions to the Han court at Chang'an.

(A note about horses here: Horses would become a very important item in the Han trade and enough battles were fought over them. Hopkirk fans no doubt know that this obsession with horses wasn't just a Han thing. Centuries later, in the 1820s, William Moorcraft of the English East India Company's stud farm would spend years searching for stallions in this same region and thus put the European participation in the Great Game into top gear)

Zhang didn't live to see the Han control of the west. He is supposed to have died in 113 BC soon after his success with the Wusums. When he died, he was recognised as the pioneer who opened the western regions and according to Sima Qian (the Grand Historian) "all the envoys who journeyed to these lands in later times relied upon his reputation to obtain a hearing. As a result of his efforts, the foreign states trusted the Han envoys". Thus ends the story of Zhang Qian, traveller and diplomat extraordinaire.

Oh, wait, one more India connection - remember Zhang's first mission? Whatever happened with the Yuezhi? Zhang ran into them 10 years too late in Bactria which they had just overrun and they had no interest in coming back east through the Pamirs to fight the Xiongnu. Their future lay South of the Himalayas where soon, they would found one of the India's greatest empires - the Kushan empire. In a century and half, they would also repay Zhang's visit by sending to China the first Buddhist missionaries.

Coming up next: Grand Historian extraordinaire - the story of the Sima Qian.

[1] Like Keay, I shall stick to pinyin

[2] The terracotta army people. For more, go read Keay

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Kudikara kudumbam

People, Bill post. Bill's promised to keep this blog thing alive while I am off catching up on some reading so I shall be nice and say nothing of the tickets-that-has-not-been-booked. (For now, that is). Not that he needs much help - with both sets of parents in and out over the past month, there is no dearth of blog material. For a while, it seemed like we were back in 2005 and its like bed-a-bong time all over again but thankfully things are under control now. Anyway, expect to see a few more parenty type posts in the next few days (though knowing Bill, this will be the last you will hear from him)

Living room. Veena on the phone. Amma[1] in the kitchen (where I am banned). Don takes me to one side.

"That part where I bit my tongue the other day. It is still hurting"

"We will go get some mouth gel. I am surprised it's still so bad after 3 days"

"I know what will help"


"Just one shot. Whisky always helps"

"Heh. Okay, should I get you some ice?"

"No, no, I will get"

"Come to the living room, I will get all ice and whisky and we can have a manly father-in-law -- son-in-law whisky"


"Oh. Why not?"

"I will go see what amma is doing in the kitchen"

"Because she will not shout at you as much as your daughter?"

"No no, because amma also likes whisky"

"What? Since when?"

"I gave her in the morning, she likes single malt"

"Wait, you were drinking away when we left?"

"What, me? No, it was amma"

"I mean, both of you"

"Well, we get bored sitting at home while you both are away"

"But you are not at home. You have been visiting places"

"Not all the time"

"I guess. So when you get bored, you sit and drink whisky?"

"Not really. If you can get us some toddy, that would work too"

"And this is like a family tradition?" (Don family! What did I expect?)

"Not in my family. In amma's family, yes. Any new person gets welcomed into the family by waking him up early in the morning and making him down a cask of fresh toddy. I remember they did that to me back in the day"

"So I am not part of family?"

"Who said?"

"But no one gave me alcohol when I visited amma's village"

"Yes, yes, I remember. That's because Veena said you can't handle such stuff"

"She said what?"

"She said you are this wine-drinking pretentious city boy who cannot handle the real stuff. Not like us, you know"

"I shall have you know that it is just not true. Next time I come there, you have to get me toddy"

Veena off the phone by now.

"Darling, the toddy guy who goes up the tree, he comes at 5"


"So they make you wake up at 6, have toddy and put you to work in the farm. Like ploughing and stuff. You will die"

"6! Who wakes up at 6?"

"Non-Bongs. Real people"

"Yeah right. All this cos you don't want to feed me alcohol"

"Why would I want to do that?"

"Because you want to drink it all up"


"True only. How did I get married into such an alcoholic family[2], I don't understand"

[1] I know. We were all bewildered by this amma-appa comedy that Bill does, but my parents have finally gotten used to it. These vague uncultured Northies. They don't have concept of athai-mama. We will have to put up with this only.

[2] (For non-Tams) Kudikara kudumbam