Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Notes From a Small Island

I will now be reviewing books on this blog. It’s not so much a passion for a new genre than a need to keep my memory from simply erasing the contents of a book 3 months after reading it.

For instance people often ask if I’ve read so-and-so book and I nod enthusiastically because I have a vague memory of having extracted a lot of joy from it. Then that person might go on to say, “The character of Dorothy Waldorf Kent is so well developed - like the time she runs away with a married man abandoning her husband of 12 years only to find that this married man is an old git and farts even louder than her previous one. Remember?” This will leave me completely mystified because neither will I remember anything about old gits and farts; nor will the name of this adulterous Mrs. Waldorf Kent set off any bells.

It is to rectify this situation that I am now going to write book reviews and here I begin with Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island.”

The Times blurb on the cover of my book warns that this is “Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts” and I am glad that I didn’t take it out of the house because I found several loud snorts essaying forth quite involuntarily.

The small island Bryson is on is the British one and in this book, travel writer Bryson criss-crosses the foggy, rainy country from John O’Groats (this is really a place, not a person) up in Scotland to Exeter and Bournemouth in the south. He is on a long trundle through the country to rediscover it before hauling himself and his family back home to vast America.

Bryson’s observations on Britain are often quintessentially American. He likes his gratification instant and his logic cold. But as a resident of North Yorkshire for many years Bryson also knows the country really well so his disdain or sheer delight at the idiosyncrasies of Britishers has complete credibility. Like the time when he says that Communism should have been left to the British instead of the Russians who we all know botched the whole thing up. He says Britishers would have done it properly because all the conditions are right. They like “going without, queing up indefinitely and accepting with rare fortitude the imposition of rationing and bland diets” among a host of other things.

Bryson tickles with his wonderfully keen eye for little detail. He has the ability to entertain while being utterly bored out of his skull himself. He does not leap from one grand adventure to the next. Instead he delights with his gift of making everyday observations about fellow diners in dull restaurants, empty town squares in quaint British towns, long train rides and several other mundane things that all travelers need to do to get from one destination to the next.

Through his eyes, Britain emerges as a funny, silly, grand and wonderful place. In the early part of the book Bryson is mostly in places he doesn’t take a shine to – criticizing everything from Oxford’s awful new buildings to crusty old Britishers who love dissing America. But as the weeks go by and he wanders from one town to the next, all the quirks of the British system and way of life are brought alive in the most hilarious sketch I’ve read in a long time. About Britain, Bryson concludes, “What a wondrous place this was – crazy as fuck, of course, but adorable to the tiniest degree.” Makes you want to immediately pack your bags and away to Her Majesty’s blessed plot.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Insecure at an Indian Airport

I have held the view for a long time that Indian air passengers are plain lucky. In fact, there should be a prayer room at every arrival lounge because security at Indian airports is so lax that every time we fly and emerge at the other end of a flight alive, we can all head to the prayer room for a little thanks to the Almighty.

I was flying from Chennai to Calcutta a few days before Independence Day, when everything is generally on “high alert.” At the Chennai airport, the machine that puts the stubborn plastic tape around checked baggage was not working. No one put any stickers on my lock and neither did they insert a thin plastic strip through the zipper handle that keeps bags locked. All I got was a flimsy sticker with the date on it and that too was ready to drop off at the lightest touch. I could have put a baby crocodile into my suitcase if it had suddenly caught my fancy.

I handed over my bag to the airline agent hoping that there would be another level of security after that so that anyone else deciding to travel with live animals or explosive devices might yet be detected. But there probably wasn’t.

After collecting my boarding pass, I headed over for a personal security check. I entered the ladies screening area and as the bored lady in a khaki saree started running her metal detector device on my upper body, I remembered that I had a set of keys in my jeans. But before we could get to my lower half she surrendered her device, stamped my boarding pass and sent me on my way! If I’d had the time, I might’ve insisted, “Lady, I have metal in my pocket. Don’t you want to check?”

But she may have still said no because it was lunchtime and two of her colleagues were already at a table in the curtained screening area eating rice in an eager, hurried manner. I shoved off to collect my things.

Once at my destination a few hours later, I found that one of my bags arrived without its lock. It was gone. Vanished. These days it’s more worrying because of the things people can put into your bag rather than remove from it. Anyone could’ve introduced a packet of some banned substance and had any sniffer dogs been around I would probably be clocking time in jail. Curiously, nothing was stolen from my bag but I can’t rule out the possibility that the person trying was disgusted with the tangle of clothes and probably just gave up.

None of the scary scenarios involving baby reptiles and contraband substances took place of course. But the manner, in which security was handled, really does not inspire any confidence in the security measures in place at many Indian airports. Even the basic, very first level of security is handled in a half-hearted, bored, perfunctory way that makes it all one big joke. Laugh on. Pray on.