March 25, 2007

Mousetrap - 95

Found in translation
Zamzar
Web browsers and HTML, the computer world’s equivalent of Pidgin English, serve up stuff to us that most computers can read. But, like Pidgin, they have their limitations when it comes to communicating more complex thoughts than the yes-no-bathroom variety. Which is why we will continue to need specialised file formats. But there are so many of them out there (txt, pdf, rtf, doc, odp.. and those are just the more common text formats; it gets much more complex when you get into multimedia stuff), and in this hyperconnected world, we’re always sending each other stuff. Most high-end programs have conversion utilities. But what if you’re on someone else’s computer, or in a cybercafe and you need to do some conversions? This site will do the trick for you. Upload a file (or enter a URL), and you get instant conversion, right there.

All in the family
Geni
We’re big on family ties in this country. So most of you should enjoy this one. It lets you set up a family tree with a simple, elegant interface, and then, if the family members you bung in have email addresses, you can invite them in too, to do their share of the work. You can choose to add in more profile info, both for yourself and others. Pretty soon, as the connections, filial and marital, add up, you have a comprehensive family tree, and you’re probably going to find connections you never knew existed. Of course, this means that all the relatives must obligingly do their thing, but it is quite addictive (and as I said, simple), so you can be pretty sure of that. The tree you generate is only visible to the people you invite, as is your profile (which I actually think should not be the case; I’d like to invite a few trusted pals to look at mine, for instance), so go right ahead and create your own.

Value addition
The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary
A perfect site for those of you who have to deal with jargon-addicted management-wallas every day. Simple definitions that will have you nodding knowledgeably when the chap in the ghastly tie runs something up a flagpole to see who salutes. (Yes. Really.) Just promise me you won’t use them yourself, hm?

Write me a letter
Literary Stamps
A very single-minded blog, this. The title says it all: this is about postage stamps that pay tribute to literary figures. A lovely collection from all over the world. And there’s this too: when did you last see a postage stamp?

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, 25th March, 2007.

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March 23, 2007

Zest

Zest

Twenty four-hour restaurants are a novelty in that middle-class haven, New Bombay. Well, there are a few dives that stay open all night, once the lair of thirsty mildly anti-social elements, now also home to equally dehydrated call-centre kids. But a legitimately open fine dining establishment in a fancy hotel, one you can seriously dent the credit card with? Nada.
Well, gentlefolk, you and your expense account now have Zest, at The Park, in Belapur. Zest says it serves coastal Indian and Asian cuisine, and we took a while to browse through the long menu, with the aid of attentive wait-staff, and to scope out the buffet. The interiors are bright and shiny—too much metal and glass—and garish red-orange-and-white-patterned tiles cover an entire wall. The buffet occupies centre stage, a marble-topped ring choc-a-bloc with serving dishes.
The friend who’d opted for the buffet (Rs 625) circled his prey, then scorned the inviting salads and cold cuts and loaded up on the meat and a side-plate of cheeses.
The rest of the table went a la carte. The lager prawns (Rs 706) were delicious, large and succulent, with a lovely tamarindy dip. The Black Snapper (Rs 511) was well-presented, with a delicate flavour to the sauce, but the fish itself was unevenly cooked. We attacked the vegetarian Khow Swey (Rs 488) with relish; it was almost as authentic as the dish my grandmother, who lived in pre-war Burma, used to make. The Bheja Gurda Kaleji Kheema Fry with parathas (Rs 484), the menu confided, was from a recipe by an old man in Bhendi Bazar. It lives up to billing, but at perhaps ten times the price of the original, I hope that gentleman is getting a percentage.
Thanks to all the selfless sampling for the benefit of this review, we were too full now to order dessert. Instead, we nibbled off the eclectic selection on the buffet-eater’s plate. If the staff noticed this robust display of bad manners, they chose to smile indulgently; we did not get our just desserts in our bill. Clever folks. Because now we’ll be back. Peter Griffin
Zest, The Park Navi Mumbai, No 1, Sector 10, CBD Belapur, Navi Mumbai (2758-9000). Daily 24 hours. Meal for two without alcohol, Rs 1,300. All credit cards accepted, except Diners.


Published in Time Out Mumbai, XXth XXXX, 2007.

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March 18, 2007

Something’s Fishy

Something’s Fishy

In the welter of buildings that have sprung up over the last few years in Sector 30, Vashi, one of the newest is the Tunga Regency, all cement and blue glass.
This magazine told me to wander over and pick one the three restaurants to review. The choice was easy: Café Vihar, the vegetarian place, was overrun with noisy brats, partly open-air and looked like a food court in an amusement park mall, not a restaurant. This writer scuttled off quickly, in search of ACs and peace.
We started off at Crimson, the coffee shop, whose signage beckoned with promises of spirits, coffee and grills. It was a dry day, so we sipped a fresh lime soda (Rs 45) and a chaas (Rs 55) while we sniggered at the typos and fractured English in the menu. For what at first glance looked to be a quiet, subdued haven, Crimson was noisy. Not because it was full or patrons were yelling, but because of sheer bad design. The constant clatter of cutlery, every movement and word is preserved and amplified echoed through the room. I’m notoriously cranky about those things (“ossified old curmudgeon,” my politer friends say), so I checked with my dinner companion, younger, more tolerant, more inclined to smile. Nope, it wasn’t me. The place gave her a headache, she said. The food on offer seemed uninviting, so we decided to head next door to eat. To do so, we had to step through the hideousness that is the atrium (imagine the inside of a jukebox) into the even noisier Something’s Fishy.
The interior motif here is glass and silly curtains dangling coyly a third of the way down from the ceiling, and the tables are jammed way too close to each other. The senior waitstaff wear pinstripes and gold braid. ’Nuf said? And the acoustics are even worse here, or perhaps it’s the number of yelling toddlers gambolling in the aisles.
The name leads one to expect seafood. But there is something black in the lentil soup. Like the presence of lentil soup. Because the place is multi-cuisine, with Indian (when a restaurant in India does that, one, um, wonders), Chinese, Malvani, Mangalorean and Goan food. Pushy waiter wants our order before the chairs were warm. He is twice dismissed. When we’re ready to order, the first three items we choose aren’t available. The place being new, he confides, it hasn’t started preparing all the items on the menu. The baby at the table to the left has started to bawl, and from the one just below (our miniature table is on a raised sort of gallery at the back), a brat shows signs of wanting to stick his fingers in my water. We order before our appetites vanish, staying with the marine section of the card, and then attempt to converse through the din.
My Crab Meat Soup (Rs 125) arrives, and it is swimming with capsicum and chillies, which effectively smother all taste of crab. Gah. I do so love crab. Comes the main meal. The Kolambiche Ambat (Rs 350) is lovely. The prawns are succulent, the gravy has a mild bite, and goes well with the steamed rice (Rs 95) that has taken the place of the appams and neer dosas that they don’t make yet. The rice sets of the Tesereya Ani Batata (Rs 195) as well; the gravy’s spicy without taking the roof off of your mouth, but alas, the potato chunks easily outnumber the shellfish morsels.
Verdict: fair enough if you live in Vashi and want to try out a new place, but hardly worth the trek from any other part of town.

Something’s Fishy, Tunga Regency Hotel, Plot 37, next to Centre One, near Vashi Station, Sector 30 A, Vashi, 400703 - Mumbai. Phone: 66801818. Meal for two, without alcohol, Rs 1200 - 1500. Service charge and VAT charged over the bill.

Published in Time Out Mumbai, XXth XXXX, 2006.

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Mousetrap - 94

All in a flap
The Ornithopter Zone
What’s an ornithopter? It’s a device that flies by flapping its wings, bird-style. The Ornithopter Zone is a fascinating resource about these unusual machines. Plenty of information about the history and science of this branch of aviation, with instructions and tips for those experimentally inclined. There’s even software to help you make your own machine, and, naturally, a forum for the regulars.

Oops
Only Human
As the old saw goes, to err is human. We learn by making them, or, if we’re lucky, from watching other people me them. So if you’ve made any good ones lately, here’s where you can go to tell all, and read up on other people’s sad tales. As the site says, “Mistakes make the most compelling stories, the funniest jokes, the best movies and provide the easiest advice to accept because of their ability to evoke empathy.” And of course, for good, clean laughs, helpfully sorted by category, popularity and newness. Enjoy. And if you don’t, well, hey, put it down to experience.

Hearts and Flowers. Not.
Relationshit.com
This site makes it clear right there on the masthead: “Brutally honest dating advice for the cynical, bitter and jaded.” Do not go here if you’re young, in love, or have even a smidgen of romance left in you. But then again, maybe you should. Well, not if you’re very young (keep the kids away; it’s, um, definitely not kid-safe). Articles for men, for women, a shop where you can buy books about break-ups, a forum where you can vent some angst about the ex, even songs (in various genres) for break-ups.. it’s all here. A survey too, where you can fill in a few details about your sad story and ‘“incompatibility patterns” will emerge that may help future relationships suck less.” Right. Good luck.

What on earth..?
Geocide
Keep this for the days when you’ve had just about had it with everyone around you. Because this is not about messing around with your colleagues or family. This is total destruction, baby, like the whole darn planet. Much enjoyment here, with sections on why such an action could be desirable (with a set of counterviews), geocide in fiction, and, when you’re ready for it, a pretty comprehensive how-to guide with a host of options to choose from. They are, of course, a bit expensive, and, well, not easy. So, rest assured, our government won’t ban the site.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 18th March, 2007.

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March 11, 2007

Mousetrap - 93

Holy statistics, Batman
Adherents
A vast array of information on religion, but in a rather secular way: through numbers and statistics. You could spend days in here, flittng from topic to topic, from the serious number crunching (the site claims, as of my last reading, to have over 43,870 citations and statistics for over 4200 religions) by geography or religion, to essays and collections of citations, to lists of influential people on history and their religious affiliations. It’s a great site to get answers on numbers and the like — don’t expect any of the bigger answers, hmm? — and for random browsing, on lighter topics like lists of the apparent or deduced religions of fictional characters, including sci-fi and comic book characters. The jury’s still out on Batman: he’s either Episcopalian or Catholic, but both camps agree that he is a lapsed believer.

Psst!
Wikileaks
Leaks (nope, not that kind, little boy, go away now) are practically an institution in politics, with governments and oppositions alike using them to make sure information gets out that wouldn’t see the light of day officially. This site want to help the process along, even if not for the same reasons. To quote its FAQ page, it is “an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.” It aims to release documents to the world at large, so that they can be studied, critiqued, explained, what-have-you. The site claims to have over 1.2 million documents already, but nothing’s out there yet barring a sample doc. And around the web, theories have begun to fly: is this a CIA plot? Something nefarious? A money scam? Watch this space.

March of the penguins
PenguinWiki
Writers like to nurture the romantic notion of the author slaving away alone, all alone, to produce her or his masterpiece. And then you’ve also heard the old saw about a million monkeys on a million typewriters eventually turning out the Compleat Shakespeare, right? Well, Penguin, the publishing house, teamed up with De Montfort University (in Leicester, UK) to midwife a rather unusual collaboration exercise: a novel by collaboration. Not just an ordinary collective, mind you, but wiki-style collaboration, where anyone anywhere with the price of a net connection could come by and write, edit, delete and commit mayhem. Alas, this site is one of the casualties of the erratic appearance of this column over February; I meant to include it last month, but the project’s now closed to contributions.You can, however, go view the results, and read the companion blog which comments on the whole thing. [Link via Nilanjana S Roy, and many others.]

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 11th March, 2006.

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March 04, 2007

Mousetrap - 92

Second helping
A month ago, this column did an edition devoted to food sites. Space constraints meant that I could only put a few sites in. So I promised more in the next week. And that next week happened to be only the second since this column began where I didn’t send one in on time. And what with one thing or another, that promise slipped my mind. But not my little database. So, here you go. Some more mouth-watering sites. (If you have a favourite I’ve missed, do send it in.) This week’s set: sites that specialise in Indian cooking.

Home-cooked
thecookscottage
There are many, many food blogs around, so it’s difficult to make picks to recommend to you. I like this one for the mix (and with food, it’s all about the mix, innit?) of recipes, chatter, commentary, world view, and some nice writing. The blog seems to be on a bit of a hiatus at the moment, so go wake the site owner up, will ya?

Home-cooked 2
Mahanandi
As I said, many, many food blogs around, and I’m going to have to repeat the subhead. Sue me. And I’m going to get really lazy and give you a review by the friend who recommended the site to me, Megha Murthy (no mean cook herself). She says ‘Mahanandi gives me a chance to revisit recipes that I would otherwise have to ask Mom about. Plus I like how warm and friendly Indira is and how that translates into making her recipes more approachable. She instantly gives you the “I can try this!” feeling. And of course, her pictures! Gawd! She can make one perspire for a raw dondakaaya!’

Hotchpotch
My Dhaba
Last month, I wrote about a very cool idea called the Feed A Hungry Child Campaign which asked for donations of heirloom recipes for a cookbook. Well the recipes have been pouring in, apparently, and this blog links to all those donated recipes at the sites of the donors. Ignore the garish design and go slurp over the pictures.

The old chef
bawarchi
Mm. There was a time, when the web was still young, when a list of Indian cooking sites would probably have started with this name. The old bawarchi.com was subsequently bought by Sify (during the dotcom boom, if memory serves me right), so typing in that URL takes you to this site now. It’s a genoowine portal type thingy, some interesting sections, like some decent features and tips, and user-contributed recipes, counter-balanced by a godawful Celeb Talk section, clunky design and painful pop-unders and the like. Still, for old times’ sake..

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to http://o3.indiatimes.com/mousetrap for past columns, and to comment, or mail inthemousetrap@indiatimes.com. The writer blogs at http://zigzackly.blogspot.com.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 4th March, 2007.

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March 01, 2007

Bombay for beginners

Bombay beggars description. Which hasn’t stopped people from trying, borrowing and adapting freely, in typical Bambaiya style. Urbs Prima in Indus. Gateway of India. Bom bahia. The Big Mango. Slumbay. Bollywood. Maximum City. The city that never sleeps. The city of opportunity.

Of course the city has inspired others who have expended more than just a catchy slogan’s worth of words on it too. Arun Kolatkar, Salman Rushdie, Suketu Mehta and so many others have left their version of the city to posterity. And then, in my own humble way, as copywriter, hack and blogger, I have written at least a novella’s worth of copy about the place. So I thought it would be a bit of an ask to try and find new things to say about it without treading on some one else’s toes or one’s own. But, having studied, worked and lived in and just outside the city for over thirty years, I find myself with far more to tell you about it than the editor will condone.

Let’s start with a brief run through of the history bit. I’m told that the area’s first known appearance in writing is at around two thousand years ago, when it was part of Asoka’s empire. At any rate, there were seven hilly islands, home to fisherfolk, and not particularly in the mainstream of history. In the 1500s, the Portuguese laid claim to the islands, and christened them Bom Bahia, which meant “good bay.” Next century, they handed over both Catherine De Braganza and the islands to Britain’s Charles II, who leased them—just the islands, not the Princess—to John Company for £10 per annum.

The Brits knocked over the hills, filled up the swampy bits between the islands and, while they were at it, flattened the name out a bit as well, to Bombay. It became their Gateway to India, quickly growing into a major centre of commerce, attracting ambitious traders and suchlike from other parts of the country. They stayed, of course, moulding the city to their needs as it outgrew the old fort walls, expanding ever northwards, through its days as capital of the Bombay Presidency and later, the smaller Maharashtra state.

Such historical structures as remain are mainly in the old Fort area, and even those lack the sweep of a Delhi’s vistas or the grandeur of even a small former princely state; there just isn’t enough space for stately showing off.

Chances are that you’ll visit for business; the city is very much the commercial capital of India, home to corporate HQs for most industrial and business houses, banking and finance, advertising, media, and yes, the Hindi film industry. Even if it isn’t commerce that brings you here, it’s pretty likely that you’ll spend a few days in the city en route to the beaches, palaces, wildlife resorts or mountains, since Bombay is conveniently connected to almost anything else of consequence in India. So hey, come on in. Let us show you a good time, hm?

When? The summer can get awfully muggy. We’re on the coast, so be prepared for major humidity. The monsoon, much as we love it, is, we admit, an acquired taste. Hell, there are times when we get kind of sick of it ourselves. But come November, when the mercury begins to dip to pleasant levels, and going up to February, we’re in the zone.

But first things first. Whenever you do come, prepare yourself to face a city that is, quite simply, one of the most congested areas on the planet, with a population the size of your average small country. There are roughly 15 million people in the island city, and if you want to include the neighbouring towns that are pretty much part of the city though technically separate municipalities, that number gets even higher. (Yes, it is relevant to include them, since vast sections of their populations commute to jobs in the city six days of the week.) One estimate predicts more people than all of Australia in less than ten years. Which, to cut out the statistics, pretty much means crowds everywhere. Heaving masses of humanity such as you will find at very few other places. Traffic jams, noise, pollution, dirt, transport infrastructure straining at the seams, it’s all there. For those unaccustomed to it, this can be traumatic. I know people who holed up in hotel rooms for the duration of their stay after a brief dose of Bombay rush hour. I kid you not.

The other thing you have to keep in mind is that Bombay is a long city, with its “centre” in the south. Think of a conventional city map as a pizza. Now cut yourself a thin slice. That’s Bombay. And the pizza analogy isn’t half-bad either. Moves to decongest the South Bombay business district have had some success, so there are a lot more toppings closer to the crust than there were a decade or so ago. You now have clusters of glass-fronted office towers, industrial estates, malls and multiplexes not just closer to the city’s geographic centre, but in the suburbs as well.

With all of this, it pays to have a basic knowledge of how to get around. A task somewhat hindered by a rash of renaming; streets, railways stations, even the airport, all have been targets of the same zeal that renamed the city itself. Most residents, of course, cheerfully ignore the official diktats, and continue referring to them by their traditional names, to the further bafflement of the visitor. But not to worry, if you get lost, just ask around, and directions will flow from all and sundry. One little Bombay quirk: unlike other parts of India, where people will tell you distances to a fraction of a kilometre, here, you will get it in units of time. A half-hour walk, a twenty minute rickshaw ride, and so on. Corrected for time of day and state of traffic, natch.

Once you figure out where you want to go, how do you get there?

Bombay has one of the most efficient—if massively overburdened—public transport systems in the country, with its commuter trains doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Visitors to the city, though, are advised not to seriously contemplate venturing into these mobile sardine cans anywhere close to peak commute hours. Which means you do not travel North to South between 7a.m. and 11a.m., and South to North between 5p.m. and 9p.m. That in mind, it’s usually the fastest way to get anywhere in the city. Just get yourself a first-class ticket (shorter queues, and deo rather than sweat to smell once you’re in the train) and you rocket past all the traffic jams and bad roads. For shorter and cross-town jaunts, the municipality’s red BEST busses are an option. Aside from the normal crowded busses, the company also runs air-conditioned sitting-room only specials on selected routes, an airport special that runs through the night with extra space for luggage, and open-topped double-decker busses for tourists on weekends, on the picturesque Marine Drive route. Both trains and busses run from well before dawn to way after the Cinderella hour.

Of course, if you’d rather not rub shoulders with the masses, there are the black-and-yellow taxis all over the city, and three-wheeler autorickshaws in the suburbs. These run strictly by a meter—except that these meters have not been re-calibrated to keep pace with fare hikes, and so require “tariff cards” (drivers must have these, by law) which translate the difference between the fare shown and what you must pay. Note the extra column that factors in the extra 25% “night charge” that applies between midnight and 5a.m. To keep the grime and noise out, you can also find or call for an ACed blue-and-silver “Cool Cab.” Or just hire a car and driver for the day. Self-driven rentals aren’t too thick on the ground, I’m afraid, but then, would you really want to drive here? Ditto for walking—the distances are just too much—or for quaint notions like exploring on bicycles—the traffic would kill you, with exhaust fumes or by more direct methods.

When it comes to places to stay, you have the spectrum from luxury hotels, to business traveller specials, to service apartments, to family hotels and guest houses, clubs, right down to hole-in-the-wall lodges and seedy dives. You’ll find them all over the place, from tony South Bombay 5-stars to beachfront suburban spreads, to smaller places near the air and train terminals to places handy for business.

And after you get that stay and transport thing licked, what next?

History? It’s there in gobs, if you know where to look. There are ancient cave temples within city limits; Mandapeshwar, Kondivita (or Mahakali), the UNESCO World Heritage Site Elephanta Island caves, and the oldest, the 2000-year-old Kanheri caves. Remnants of forts that have survived the urban invasion: the Portuguese Vasai Fort, the British Fort St George, other ruins in Sion and Bandra. Old churches date back a century and more. South Bombay’s Raj era buildings show off a wide range of architecture, from the Indo-Saracenic to the wildly Gothic to the Art Deco.

There’s culture aplenty, for brows of various elevations, with art galleries, music concerts (Hindustani, Carnatic and Western Classical, pop, rock, jazz, indipop, trance, whatever), dance and theatre, and of course the movies, in a multiplicity of multiplexes. In the cooler months (we call it winter), there are a slew of cultural festivals, mostly free and open to the public.

Wildlife and Mama Nature? The only National Park in the world within a city’s limits sits in the middle of North Bombay, a birders paradise. And flamingos visit the wetlands along the eastern coast. The North-Western stretches have a number of quiet beaches ideal for the weekend away from the bustle. Except that you’re likely to share space with a large chunk of the madding crowds with the same idea.

When it comes to sports, cricket rules, not just in the two stadiums, the Wankhede and the Brabourne, but also in local league games all year, including the unique and loony Kanga League in the rains. But you’ll also see top level hockey, tennis, badminton, football, basketball, swimming, golf, billiards & snooker, sailing, golf and horse racing. Those so inclined can indulge in most of these directly, at any of dozens of clubs and gymnasiums.

And when it comes to the truly urban attractions, Bombay leads all the rest.
The shopaholics are spoiled for choice. Most of the world’s big name brands have outlets here, and massive malls are beginning to proliferate. Traditional shopping—and bargaining!—is there for the asking too: handicrafts, textiles, clothes, antiques, leather, jewellery and more.

Food? This is practically the Universe at the End of a Restaurant. You’ll get it all here, from handcarts to the McFood variety international franchises and the restaurants that appeal to working stiffs and families to the best and most expensive cuisines of India and the world. And if you don’t feel like queuing up for a table, most of them would be happy to deliver. As a young chef I used to know said with some amazement, “You Bombay people don’t cook at home?”

Night life rocks too, with pubs, bars and discotheques that stay open and rocking until the wee hours (not all night, alas, the Government prefers its citizens to get home before the milk). And if you’re connected, or know someone who is, there’s a high profile party practically every night of the week, where the licensing laws have no jurisdiction.

When it comes to finding ways to fill each minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Bombay kicks the rest of India’s butt. Nothing’s truly unique, I’ll grant you that, and sure, some cities do some of it better, but you won’t find the whole vibrant package anywhere else.

Don’t be a stranger.

Published in Outlook's Incredible India Travel Special, March 2006 under the title Bay of Bombast, which I hate.

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