Love among the Book Shelves

You can never be lonely at a bookstore, if you are a bibliophile. One may extend this fact and conclude that it’s true not just for books but also for other interests: a glutton will never mind dining at a lonely table at a restaurant, a movie buff will not find it unusual to go alone to the movies and watch the screening of a much-awaited movie.

I seldom eat alone. It is, as Paul Theroux puts, ‘one of the most depressing activities’. But there are times when I have to eat my lunch alone. And unlike most people at work, who are paid by the number of hours they work, I enjoy my ‘holy’ lunch hour; I must get out of work, got for a stroll. I love to walk on the streets by the side of restaurants and then make a choice as to where I will eat my lunch. I enjoy that freedom of having to make a choice – amongst Mediterranean, Indian, English, Continental; Vegan or Vegetarian; Healthy and lean or Rich and fried, and so on. I take my time, and, after much deliberation that a Libran is known for, I decide on what my lunch will be. It must never be a take-away. I either eat-in or never eat at all. I don’t like to walk my lunch. Eating is such a private affair, you don’t want to walk around and display to the world that you’re busy , you’re worried , you’re walking fast and eating your lunch, or that you have ham and lettuce and cheese, and tomato sandwiched between two thick slices of freshly baked multi-grain bread. The sight of a man, dressed for work, walking and drawing out a sandwich strangulated inside a transparent cling wrap from inside his trouser pockets appalls me.

The lowest common denominator of all needs of us humans – rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, Caucasian or African – is Food. If you exclude all the higher needs of a human, what remains at the dregs is: Food, besides of course clothing and shelter. Then, why not pay the food its dues by sitting in one place and eating it than make a public display of what you’re eating.

Anyway, if you think there is a disconnect between what I intended to start off in the first paragraph and the rest of this writing so far, then let me retract back to what I wanted to write about.

I often like to give my mind a therapeutic treatment of the sight of books in a good book store. After I eat my solitary lunch, I always visit Fuller’s Book Store on Collins Street in Hobart. It falls on the way back to work from where all restaurants are.

I love the sight of those neatly arranged books – new books, paperbacks, re-printed classics, hardbound; fiction and non-fiction; history and current affairs. I often delve around the fictional and classics section where I get to browse the magic of Orwell, Hemmingway, Albert Camus, Ulysses, Steinback and the likes – I don’t find my Indian favourites: RK Narayan and Ruskin Bond in this store, but that doesn’t disappoint me. As much I love the smell of fresh paper, I know I can’t afford the embarrassment of picking a book out from the shelf and smelling it. Yet with so many people reading from the new books, the air is filled with the typical whiff you get at a bookstore.

I see people around me sauntering around the shelves – some like me with no book in hand, some with one book, and others with two and few with more than two books. I never followed them beyond that point to see if they purchased those books but it did look to me that they intended to buy them. And me – I would simply walk slowly from one end of the shelf to another, and then back again, gazing at the same books as I did just a while ago. I’d pick up some books I have read in my Kindle. I’d read some lines from a page in between to see if they read the same in print as they did in pixels. There are some books of whose starting line I vividly remember – such as PG Wodehouse’s Thank You, Jeeves,and Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. And it gives me a shot of queer happiness to read lines I knew of before as if I knew what the writer was going to write. Strange, I know, but I do this often. It’s just how books and I play with each other.

One strong reason for my frequenting the book store is that I have gone cold-turkey on purchasing more books for the past 2 years. Since I got a Kindle, I have resolved to not buy any printed books. There are two reasons for this. First, because I resist making any place home, and I keep travelling every 2 years, I cannot afford to lug my books around upon relocating. Baggage and cargo are expensive and I have given away all my books I had in my past travels simply because it was not practical to ship them. Second, Kindle books are cheaper. Therefore, I do a rather strange thing when at the bookstore. I decide upon a book I want to buy. Then I say to myself, ‘You won’t regret buying this book. Buy it. It feels good to hold; it’s an excellent story and what a great author! Classic piece. A must buy. Add to your collection.’ Then I turn to rear jacket and see the price tag. It may say somewhere between $19 and $50- average range! Then I pull out my mobile phone, key in the name of the book and check the Kindle price – it may say $8.99. I then put the book back and walk away from it. I seem to self-tantalize and then convince myself that I must not buy the print version for the two reasons I mentioned above.

After some more sauntering and touching and rubbing books, feeling the edges of the crisp pages, checking the binding, the typesetting, comparing prices between print and pixel versions, making a list of books I must download, I look at my watch and I exit the book store. Yet another day goes by when I have entered a book store, loitered around for quarter of an hour and return without making a purchase. I wonder if someone watches me each time I do this, maybe the lady at the cash register, or someone manning the CCTV. They may well think I just come ‘to make love among the bookshelves’. The origin of this phrase, and the title of this piece, is attributed to one of all time favourite Indian authors – Ruskin Bond.


Thanksgiving Burgers

For my first Thanksgiving as host, I bought the biggest turkey they had in the store and the hours that followed it made me feel nothing lesser than a surgeon – except that this surgeon knew no scalpel or incisions!

I am a vegetarian. And this is why how I came about taking it upon me to roast “Turkey”.

The day before Thanksgiving:
“…And this way we shall best learn best about each other’s culture and exhibit our culinary aptitude of which we have so boastful about”, concluded Yfrah, after a lengthy discussion about how we self-proclaimed that we were “chefs-without-a-title” and that we know much about food of the country we came from and were so eager to feed each other the dish we knew best to cook.

There were four of us – all from different countries, but none from America, working together for the past 6 months on a computer project at Montebello, LA. All four of us loved cooking.

We sat a cafe in downtown LA the evening before Thanksgiving and thought we will spend the Thanksgiving weekend with a pot-luck. When we listed all that each one would bring, there was nothing American about the feast. And that was when Yfrah convinced us to drop the idea of pot-luck and rather do something American for Thanksgiving.

“Why not take turns and have one of us cook for all, every weekend – a dish that he has never done before?” No one liked the sound of the sentence spoken by Yfrah.

“And what do we do for Thanksgiving? Turkey?”, asked Ronil sarcastically.

“Why not? Sudhir, you sounded most eager to cook something for us? Why don’t you roast a Turkey this weekend?”

“But I am vegetarian, I have never used a mutton mincing knife, leave alone cooking meat….”

“Turkey is a bird. It’s not meat. So you don’t worry go for it!”, Nikolo interrupted.

I stood no chance of exercising my choice or will. I agreed under duress.

As I took the train back home, I was reminded of a hilarious episode from Mr. Bean – of his disastrous attempt at cooking Turkey, which saw him emerge out of the oven with his head shoved right into the “body cavity” of the bird as the guests walked in.

I learned the recipe from the web and kept all ingredients ready that night.

Thanksgiving day:
The recipe made me embark on a process that I earlier had known to be “taxidermy”.

Unlike Indian cooking, which is complex and detailed in terms of preparation and cooking and involved a lot of chopping, slicing and accuracy in proportions, the roast Turkey appeared to a child’s play – Stuff, Tie the legs, Roast, Slice and Serve – except that this child had never handled flesh on the kitchen top.

As I put my hand into the cavity to stuff some white onions, garlic and herbs, I felt like an obstetrician delivering a baby except that I was trying to push in than pull out.

At last, I concluded that I had “stuffed it up” enough, and then brushed it with some lemon and butter and sprinkled a pinch of some “Garam” masala – (I had to introduce an Indian-ness lest it may be thought that it was too good and American to have been cooked by an Indian). And into the oven it went. I played with the control knobs and let it cook.

2 hours later:
“4 burgers and large cokes please”, I ordered at Burger King, next block from my home, while Ronil, Yfrah and Nikolo sat with their stomach muscles still aching from the laugher spree they just recovered from.

The burgers arrived and a Fire brigade went past us on the road. The Fire brigade was the uninvited fifth guest for a Turkey to which I had just given a conventional Hindu burial in my oven – by burning it to charred remains. The smoke had set the condominium fire alarm and alerted the Fire station.

I never admitted that I was terrible at using the oven. I have been the conventional bloke who’d cook on cooking-range that had no controls or knobs that told of time, temperature and any pre-sets.
The turkey vanished and took the onions, garlic and lemons with it. I didn’t see it again after it went into the TARDIS.

“Biryani on you Nikolo, next week. Want to see how an Italian does the Biryani!”, challenged I, as we started biting into our burgers.

“I can assure you that whatever I do, the rice grains won’t vanish like the Turkey did. Alas, I am not a magician as you’re Chef Sudhir!” and we laughed heartily.

“I was famished”, said Ronil. “Thats why we’re eating Hamburgers”, added Yfrah, ”eat before it disappears.”


An evening with Antoine on Spring hill

Antoine had invited me and my wife to dinner. This turned out to be one of the best evenings spent so far in Brisbane.

Everything was very fine about this evening. Antoine’s warm and cordial company was matched very well by his simple but delicious pasta and Greek salad with a glass of Vina Rosa. Antoine remarked that he did not cook very often and so he asked us whether we liked the food. I rated him a 10 on 10 and Shobha wanted to give him an 11! He found it flattering and felt that we were just being good and courteous guests. Then I did something which in my opinion is always the best expression of appreciating  good tasting food. I got up and took a second helping – almost as much in quantity as in the first serve. He was overwhelmed and felt happy.  Considering that he spends most evenings by himself ( because his family lives in Sydney ), this was indeed a happy evening for him in our company.

Antoine setting the table
Auto-click! Guten Apetit!

The dinner concluded with Vanilla ice-cream on Apple pie and a cup of hot, black Dilmah.

We then sat in his balcony and chatted for a while before Shobha and I took his leave. One of the finest evenings, truly.

The Story bridge looked splendid – with blue diamond like lights – on our way back home. The way back home was noisy! Three reasons for this – One: today concludes the Brisbane festival which had started on September 3,Two: This is a Saturday night, Three – And this is important – Tomorrow is ‘National Sleep in’ day in Australia in support of people afflicted with mitochondrial disease ( who have no choice about being bed ridden ). God bless them all and give them strength.


An Open Kitchen

The best guarantee of good and  hygienically  prepared food that a restaurant can offer to its patrons is an open kitchen – the one where patrons can see what and how the chef is cooking.

Shobha and I just returned from Vapiano on Albert lane. The food was delicious – her Pomodro E Spinaci, a pasta so tomatoish and abundantly showered with baby spinach and my traditional, safe bet choice of Margherita Pizza went into us just as fast they were cooked. Loved the experience of watching the chef cooking our orders! As I watched, the sentences of the opening para crossed my mind and made me hungrier than I was before entering the doors of Vapiano. At the dining tables, there were potted herbs – perhaps Basil. Another one of my favourite among greens.

We concluded our dinner with dolci – death by chocolate. Not so impressive. But no regrets;I’d have never turned to Italian cuisine for dolci anyway. The Ps are just enough to keep the glutton in me active.

“We will come here again”, I told Shobha as we left Vapiano after paying the bill.