Sunday, 27 August 2006

Mousetrap - 68

Hitting the write note
Rock Bottom Remainders
Everybody wants to be a rock star. No matter how much you achieve in other aspects of your life—or whether you have any musical talent—you still would love to strut the stage, spotlight following you, guitar slung low, hitting just that chord while the groupies scream your name. Why should some of the best-loved writers of our time be immune? Like who? Try Dave Barry, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Simpsons creator Matt Groening and others. The band’s name comes from the book industry's name for cut-price books, or “remainders.” How well do they play? Well, Bruce Springsteen once played them. He said: “Your band's not too bad. It's not too good either. Don't let it get any better, otherwise you'll just be another lousy band.” They play for charity, by the way.

43 Things
Need goals? Simple. Make a list. Up to 43 items. Why 43? “More is too much,” the site says, and also, “Everything needs a name.” Right. What were we thinking? Anyway. Here, aside from creating your own list, you can browse through other people’s lists and use their items, and, if you see an item that you’ve accomplished, you can leave some helpful advice for the person who posted it. The rationale: writing down your goals helps you clarify your thoughts; you can get inspiration for your goals list from others; and you can share your experiences with others, and learn from them.

Making Tracks
National Rail Museum
Bet you didn’t know that five out of seven of the longest railway platforms in the world are in India? Including the Number One, Sonepur’s 2,415 foot platform. The Rail Museum site, an online presence for the real-world museum in Delhi, has heaps of facts like that. And some nice pictures too. The text is rather clumsily written, but not incomprehensible. A nice site to visit for the buff or out of casual curiosity.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 27th August, 2006.

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Sunday, 20 August 2006

Mousetrap - 67

All your’s
Apostrophe Protection Society & The Dreaded Apostrophe
Dedicate’d, unlike so many signboard painter’s, advertiser’s and (the horror) newspapers, to the correct use of that poor, harassed mark of punctuation. The first sites page’s are full of photograph’s and other example’s of misuse, plu’s a forum. The second ha’s detailed example’s of proper usage, with lot’s of little tip’s. Both feature set’s of interesting link’s the grammar lover wo’nt find uninteresting. Now, I’m looking for someone to set up a forum dedicated to sticking lighted matches under the fingernails of people who use “you’ll” (which, fercryingoutloud, is a contraction of “you will”) when they mean “y’all.”

Help me get US$18 million out of Zimbabwe
419 Eater
419 scams pre-date the net. But they’re an industry that has made the transition effortlessly. They’re named 419s after the section number of the Nigerian penal code that deals with “advance fee scams.” They prey on greed, offering you a share of a large sum of money provided you help get it out of insert-African-country-here, and if you bite, you will, at some point, be asked to send money, usually a small (but only in comparison to the promised sum) “processing fee.” This site’s FAQ is a must-see for basic information. But the main reason I recommend it to you is its focus on scam-baiting, or scamming the scammers. There are hilarious email records and photographs, and lots more. Go see. Mariam Abacha, and the family members of other assassinated dictators await you. [Link via Devangshu Datta.]

The Good Loo Guide
The name of this CollaBlog tells you what to started out to be. And while the group of bloggers behind it haven’t exactly delivered on that score, what they have put together is a lot of links, frequently funny, to do with toilets. Go read. And till next week, I’ll use my brother’s attempt at a humorous sign off: to-de-loo.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India / Outlook Traveller, Mumbai edition, 20th August, 2006.

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Tuesday, 15 August 2006

Choupal [Restaurant review]

The worst thing about Choupal is its location. You must brave the chassis-slaughtering motocross ups and downs of Turbhe naka to get to it. I kid you not. Even the large lorries from the APMC—who are the cause of the lunar landscape—slow down to a crawl as they pass, and we saw a stalled BEST bus getting a wheel replaced as we exited.
Choupal is a couple of months old, and specialises in North West Frontier cuisine. It is not a large restaurant; 12 tables for four and one larger round-table are set around a large obviously fake tree (with blatantly unrealistic foliage and weaver-bird nests). Wood and copper feature prominently in the decor—once you tear your horrified eyes from the tree, that is. And there’s live music of an evening. Big negative in a place this small. We could barely hear each other talk.
Choupal serves liquor, so you can wash the dust of the journey down while you peruse the whacking great menu, which comes in a frame. My friend drank an Aab-E-Taskeen (Rs 30), which is a sort of jeera-based drink, and I, a beer. We had decided that if it was to be frontier food, then we would concentrate on the mutton. So we glossed over the vegetarian dishes and shuddered delicately over the Chinese section (wrong frontier, chaps). We paused at the Rann (Rs 399), but regretfully concluded that an entire leg of lamb that promised to feed 5 to 6 was too much even for our massive appetites. Instead, we ordered a couple of plates of kababs as starters: a Barra Kabab (Rs 135); and a token chicken dish, Murg Angara (Rs 145). Both were delicious, succulent and not too spicy. As we finished smacking our lips over these, our main course arrived. Gustaba (Rs 145), minced meatballs in a thick gravy with a hint of sweetness to it, and Nalli Rogan Josh (Rs 145), a house specialty, mutton on the bone with the marrow, accompanied by a couple of paranthas (Rs 20 each), some slices of tomato, cucumber and onion that go by the glorified name of Baagichey Ka Salad (Rs 49), and a Ghosht Dum Biriyani (Rs 155). The paranthas were a mistake—too oily, a dryer naan would have gone better with the meat and gravy—but the Gustaba was good, and the Nalli was excellent, with the tender meat falling easily from the bone, and the marrow yielding to a most genteel sucking. The biriyani was fragrant and well-cooked, with generous chunks of meat. Most of the dessert menu was unavailable, thanks to a chef being on leave, so I couldn’t try the intriguingly-named Benaami Kheer, and had to settle instead for a Gajar Halwa (rs 55), which wasn’t anything to write home about. My pal ordered a Gulab Jamun Kesari (Rs 55), which came to the table piping hot—and tasted bloody awful.
The Verdict. Ambience, passable, and the tree is a good for a few jokes, though they should really dispense with the music. Very attentive and helpful wait-staff. Good food, decent portions, but the desserts seem avoidable. There’s a 10% service charge on your bill (I’m biased against restaurants which do that), but it’s not too heavy on the pocket. We ran up a much larger bill, because we were experimenting (and, erm, we’re gluttons) but you should be able to get a meal for two moderate eaters for between five and seven hundred rupees. My pal plans to take his wife and daughters there soon, so, yes, it’s worth risking the Turbhe road to eat here.

Choupal, in Centre Point, Dc1, TTC Industrial Area, Turbhe, Navi Mumbai. 27683311/22.

Published in the Time Out Mumbai. XXth XXXX, 2006.


Sunday, 13 August 2006

Mousetrap - 66

Snake Oil
The Patent Medicine Menace
In the 19th century, the USA was plagued by “patent medicines.” Taking advantage of gullibility and a still very undeveloped medical establishment, using a combination of lures that included faith, superstition, alleged native remedies and pseudoscience, hucksters peddled all manner of cures for everything from baldness to impotence. It was only in the early years of the 20th century that the first Food and Drugs Act was passed, and some measure of accountability came in. The gallery link at the bottom displays some of the labels from the peak years of the patent medicine age. And below that, a timeline and other links for the more serious student. Strange how some very similar labels still exist a hundred years later somewhat closer to us, hm?

Sociable Networking
Shareaplan (Beta)
A newish site, with a single-minded focus: when you sign up, you can post events and gatherings which you’d like to publicise, and have people RSVP online. What works for it is the clean interface and lack of clutter, but it is a service that (as I’ve mentioned before when talking of similar sites) isn’t exactly novel. Similar offerings are available bundled with social networking sites, for instance. Keep a look out. The site’s in Beta (for the non-geeks, that means it’s still in development, and may be buggy), so perhaps there’s more and better to look out for.

Key(chain) apps
Handy programs to put on a USB stick
Do you own one of those handy little storage devices that you can plug directly into your USB port? Until such time as hand-held computing devices get far more efficient—and cheaper!—they’re still a more convenient way to carry around your data without a hernia-threatening laptop or a clunky portable drive. But even so, you may wind up having to use a PC that doesn’t have the programs you need. Well, check out this page: a long list of useful apps that can run straight off a USB stick. And they’re all freeware! (Link via Ashwan Lewis.)

What the well-dressed blog is wearing
go fug yourself
Fug? I’ll let the site explain. ‘“Fug” comes from “fugly,” which is a contraction of “fantastically ugly” (or an f-word more prurient, if you like, but we are clean and delightful young ladies who don't engage in that kind of filth, dammit).’ That tells you all you need to know about the attitude. The rest: it’s a couple of funny, opinionated writers being, well, funny and opinionated about celebrities and what they wear at premieres and suchlike. Remember our press talking about a certain actress at Cannes? Like that. But wittier.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 13th August, 2006.

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Sunday, 6 August 2006

Mousetrap - 65

Your Space
I don’t actually know of anyone with a MySpace page, but on the grounds that it takes all kinds, some of whom might read this paper, here we go. Here, you get to you pick options right there on the page, which make changes in a CSS script which controls the look of a sample MySpace page (also visible on the page). Play around, get precisely what you want, then copy the CSS into your MySpace account and be the envy of all your Extended Network. [Link courtesy a reader who identifies her/himself only as “skillfull.”]

Sanctioned Vandalism
Is there a site you love to hate? A blog you want nasty things to happen to? Perhaps *gasp* some poor columnist whose archives you’d like to tear into? If you’re a hacker, you’d know how to do damage for real, but then you wouldn’t be reading this. For the rest of you peaceable, law-abiding citizens, there is, at least, some psychological satisfaction to be had. Just enter the site address, pick a method of damage (choose from a long list that includes acts of nature, technology, even a range of, um, bodily excretions) and sit back and gloat. Yup, this column’s URL is below. Be my guest. [Link courtesy “wisedonkey.”]

Master of Illusion
The Official M.C. Escher Website
Maurits Cornelis Escher is one of the most famous graphic artists ever, with a cult following around the globe. You may not have known his name, but chances are you’ve seen some of his work (or derivatives of it) in countless email forwards, usually with subject lines like “amazing illusions.” While he is admittedly best known for works like “Ascending and Descending,” there was far more to him, which you can find out about here. And, whoopdidoo, there are six picture galleries covering the body of his work from his early years until his death in 1972.

This week’s blog

In your face
The work of a young Pune cartoonist, the site promises fresh takes every week on Indian life, politics, and the usual mix. I like the art—it has a fresh, vibrant feel, and a charming identity—but find the humour a tad forced now and then. But the blog is just over a month old, and I’m guessing it will be worth following as he hones his style and finds his voice. Unless, of course, he gets picked up by a publication soon. [Link courtesy Sonia Menezes.]

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. ( users, make a suggestion by tagging sites with “for:zigzackly”) Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 6th August, 2006.

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Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Oracle Bones [Book Review]

My first book review. The version that appeared in OT was half this size, mainly because I couldn't condense this to 500 words.

Oracle Bones
A Journey Between China's Past and Present
Peter Hessler
Harper Collins
Rs 565, 491pp

China, to Indians, is more than love affair with Chinese food and chop sockey films. It is a looming presence across the border, one who we have had a war and a skirmish or two with, but with whom we do business now. A repressive, nominally communist regime that seems to be doing rather a good job of out-pacing the running dogs of capitalism. A close and often direct competitor in India’s endeavour to attract investor dollars and global customers. The source of ultra-cheap electronic gizmos and other mass-produced goods.
China has been, in to large parts of the rest of the world, a hazy myth, due in no small part to its own choices over the centuries.
While I was reading Oracle Bones, I was also neck-deep in a fight against an Indian government order restricting free expression on the internet, an effort that took up enormous amounts of my time, got in the way of my reading the book, and delayed my submission of this review. But explaining that to the editor isn’t why I bring that up here. The riff I heard most frequently, whether it was online or in the press, was along the lines of are we going the China way? Chinese citizens have restricted access to large parts of the web: the Great Firewall of China is grim reality. Among my blog acquaintances and people I read on the web are people from most corners of the world. But aside from one blogger/activist (who I had heard of because he was jailed) I know of no one in China.
So Oracle Bones was a fascinating read. A picture of the modern, bustling China in transition, a land at once familiar—vast size, huge population, staggering contrasts and variety, extreme poverty and immense wealth living cheek-by-jowl—and alien. Hessler tells the story through his own life over the period from 1996 to 2002, first in a Peace Corps stint as an English teacher, then as a “clipper” (he clipped out and filed news reports from papers) for the Wall Street Journals’s Beijing bureau, and as a freelance writer.
He writes of his travels to around the country, of Chinese perceptions of world events, of politics and larger concerns and everyday life as a foreigner and a struggling freelancer. He also he weaves in the stories of the lives of some of his students students from his teaching stint: William Jefferson Foster and his girlfriend, Nancy Drew, Emily, Freeman (all the “English names” that these young people chose for themselves) and others. He shows us their struggles to find work, to beat the system, to make a living, through their letters to him, and his meetings with some of them long after their student years. He also tells the story of “Polat” (name changed, for his own protection), a member of the Uighur ethnic minority, from the Xinjiang province. When Hessler first meets him, Polat is a former teacher, now a “businessman” and fixer in Beijing’s black market. His aspiration, to get the USA, something he manages to do during the course of the narrative.
The most fascinating character, however, is one Hessler does not meet.
Chen Mengjia, poet, member of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, professor, researcher in the USA, who came back to the New China after the revolution, but who was then condemned, like many other intellectuals, as a Rightist during the Cultural Revolution, a tortured soul who, after two failed attempts, committed suicide in 1966. Little was known about Chen, but Hessler pieces together the life of the disgraced scholar, through people who knew him. His tragedy, representative of so many other intellectuals purged during the revolution, plays counterpoint to the pragmatism of the lives of Polat, and of Hessler’s former students.
Chen was an expert on the oracle bones of the title—dating back to more than three thousand years, these cattle bones (and frequently, the undershells of tortoises) were heated till they cracked, and seers would foretell the future from the sound, believed to be the voices of departed ancestors. Their divinations were then inscribed on the bones and are the oldest-known examples of what we now call Chinese writing.
Over the course of its twenty-four chapters and twelve “artifacts” (interludes that “reflect a deeper sense of time—the ways in which people make sense of history after it has receded farther into the past,” to quote his introductory note) Hessler’s book paints vivid pictures, and makes every attempt to present an objective view. He does not, however, disguise the fact that it is a picture seen through western eyes. But, while he makes it clear that China isn’t a uniform, single-culture country, that it has distinct languages and scripts, geographically disparate regions, ethnic and religious minorities and huge cultural differences, there is more than one sweeping generalisation about the “Chinese way,” or a typically Chinese gesture the equivalent, perhaps, of referring to a Punjabi accent as an Indian one.
In Artifact A, at the beginning of the book, Hessler describes a scene at an archaeology dig. Alluvial soil being deposited by floods, wind-borne loess from the deserts, and other factors make archaeologists here develop tools and methods somewhat different from the traditional. Workers using a Luoyang spade (“a tubular blade cut in half like a scoop, and then attached to a long pole”) pound straight into the ground, twist, and extract a cylinder of soil six inches long and a couple of inches across, a method that can yield soil cores from six feet down and deeper. Occasionally, these cores contain artifacts, bone shards, the evidence of the tamped earth of a wall. An experienced archaeologist can, from these cores, “determine whether he stands above an ancient buried wall, or a tomb, or a rubbish pit. The dirt plugs reflect the meaning of what lies below; they are like words that can be recognized at a glance.”
That’s pretty much the feeling that Oracle Bones left me with: of a series of narrow diameter excavations that, with a combination of study and conjecture, and some generous dollops of insight, reveals a time and place of which we know little. It is not the whole picture, though, and leaves one hungering for a genuine insider’s view. Perhaps that will come from Hessler himself, when he settles more firmly in Chinese soil.

Published in the Outlook Traveller, August 2006 issue.


Cybertrack - 12

All airline seats are not created equal. So if you need to get up to use the toilet frequently, but still like a window seat, but, nevertheless, would rather not have the other passengers in your row swearing at you, a bulkhead seat is a good idea. Maybe you’re taller than average and need a little more leg room? The seat near the emergency exit is to die for. Perhaps you’d rather not be near the loos because of that chap from the second sentence who keeps whizzing by. Or... Well, you get the picture—it pays to be able to choose your seat. Seatguru lets you do a little advance planning. Choose airline (only some international carriers listed, I’m afraid, and no hamara Air India), pick out aircraft type, and bingo, colour-coded seat plan, location of toilets, galley, exits, even which seats have power points for your electric gizmos. Extras: list of amenities on that plane type, with explanations. Also available, that airline’s policies on stuff like check-in luggage, hand baggage, kids, pets and so on. Oh, if you’re travelling a budget airline? The kind with—gasp—free seating? Use this site as a crib sheet for which seat to sprint for.

Published in the Outlook Traveller, August 2006 edition.

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