My Top 10 : Books

Again, a simple list of books that everyone can read and enjoy:)

Shihanspeaks

The reading habit is fast dying…its decline hastened by, among other things, our decreasing attention spans (thank you Twitter) and availability of lesser alternatives (thank you cable television). Having said that, for many, reading has also made a transition – from paperback to electronic versions. I prefer the e-book mainly for its convenience (try carrying around seven thousand books) and additional features like inbuilt dictionaries and note-taking. It is this convenience that has got me to read more..and I did read quite a bit in 2014.

Here is my pick of the lot, and it includes non-fiction (mostly) and one exceptional piece of fiction. Again, these are books that I read in 2014, not necessarily books that were released in 2014.

In no particular order.

Bending Adversity – Japan and the art of survival – by David Pilling

Bending AdversityJapan has always been a sort of enigma. Certain aspects of its…

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India rediscovered

Little known spots have topped the ‘must-see’ lists of intrepid travellers, as we uncover stunning destinations that stand testimony to India’s natural beauty.
(1) 360 degree LETI, UTTARAKHAND
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For those tired of vacations being spoiled by loud, pesky kids of fellow tourists, this place is perfect.  Nestled high up in the Kumaon hills, it is almost too difficult for young kids to reach.  Even for most able-bodied adults, an 8-hour car ride ending with one-and-a-half-hour uphill trek to reach the cottages is not easy.  But the pay-out : Meals prepared by a former Tibetan monk, fine wine and blissful solitude.  The 360 degrees mountain views aren’t too shabby either.
(2) TINCHULEY, WEST BENGAL
tinchuley
Located at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, it is known as one of the hidden treasures of Darjeeling, or in other words, one of those places still safe from accumulated touristy junk.  The residents of this rural village have turned this spot into an eco-urban village and the viewpoints it offers are unique.
(3) KOTTUR, KERALA
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Two words —-JUMBO TREK.  Lying in the laps of Agasthyakoodam hill in the Western Ghats, visitors to Kottur get to tour the forest perched on an elephant.  You can also get into the water with the mahouts and give the pachyderms a bath, which will be an experience hard to forget.  Just remember to scrub well.
(4) KALPA, HIMACHAL PRADESH
kalpa
Famous for its apple orchards, Kalpa sure must be a place where doctors are all unemployed,  The village, located at the base of the Kinnaur Kailash snow-capped ranges, guarantees a mind-blowing view.  It is also known to have a few options for thrill-seekers.
(5) PELLING, SIKKIM
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At the risk of sounding like an airline travel booklet, can you imagine the view of a virgin forest from your balcony ?  This is the reality for the locals living in Pelling town.  Of course, as tourist as it can get, Pelling has an abundance of options.  If your visit coincides with the Khangchendzonga Festival, you also get the added bonus of being part of a local cultural experience.
(6) TALASARI BEACH, ODISHA
talasari
Referred to as one of the least-explored beaches in Odisha, Talasari Beach is the perfect spot for a picnic.  If you don’t mind the red crabs scurrying all over the place.  If you are thinking of posting selfies from that expensive beach vacation last year, this beach will give you a run for your money.  The long stretch of white sandy beach is known for its picture-perfect sunrises and sunsets, and one has to cross the backwaters to get there, which itself is a nice, adventurous start to your trip.
(7) MANCHANBELE, KARNATAKA
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The latest darling of the trekkers, visitors to Manchanbele can also spend their weekends camping and kayaking along the side of a dam.  Though considered a good spot for amateur rough terrain bikers, there’s nothing really amateurish about the perils on this terrain.  Trust us, we have bruised knees and elbows claiming otherwise.
(8) GAVI, KERALA
gavi
If you think building a tree-house is an idea straight out of a Hollywood movie —– you are wrong.  Come to Gavi and find a tree-house of your own !  Previously, unexplored, we’re pretty sure the plastic covers and the litter are soon to follow.
(9) DHARCHULA, UTTARAKHAND
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Keeping with hills and chills theme, Dharchula is perfect for those who like cold, crisp air of mountains.  Besides, it is so close to Nepal that you can actually pretend that you are on an ‘international’ holiday.  The quaint village is separated from the Johar Valley by the Panchchuli peaks.
(10) NIGHOJ, MAHARASHTRA
nighoj
POTHOLES —— that’s what this destination is known for.  But why escape the city to go see more potholes, you may ask.  But these are natural.  The river bed of Kukadi River is known to resemble an alien planet with all the open potholes and rough terrain.  We wonder how soon before they shoot the next STAR WARS flick here.
(11) PHUKTAL MONASTERY, JAMMU & KASHMIR
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Located in one of the most isolated valleys, this could be the perfect spot to experience what being detached from the rest of the world would feel like.  This monastery does not just involve hours of trekking, but a lesson in patience too, for it is hidden in a cave on a hillside for you to discover.
(12) UNAKOTI, TRIPURA
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We all knew Lord Shiva didn’t suffer fools.  Apparently, he was not a big fan of tardiness either.  On his way to Kashi with a group of other gods and goddesses, the Lord halted at Unakoti for the night.  Next morning, Lord Shiva woke up really to leave, only to find that the other sleepy heads hadn’t woken up on time.  Lord Shiva’s curse turned all of them into the stone images that adorn this site even today, making it a treasure trove of local legends and mythology.
(13) MEGHAMALAI, TAMIL NADU
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This is a spot perfect for those who love to be surrounded by unhindered stretches of green untouched by the modern world …… or for as long as it lasts.  Also known as High Wavys, this spot has been one of the least known parts of Madurai.  These mountains are known for their exciting yet dangerous hiking trails.
(14) KAAS PLATEAU, MAHARASHTRA
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It hosts hundreds of different species of flowers and has been declared a Biodiversity World Heritage Site by the UN..  Make sure when you visit the area, you enjoy the flora and fauna without harming them.  As the saying goes : Shoot only photos: leave only footprints.

Quirky traditions

The year 2014 is hurrying to a close.  Here is a recipe for a HAPPY YEAR.
Take 12 complete months.  Clean them carefully of all —— bitterness, hate and envy.  Cut each month into 29, 30 or 31 different pieces, but do not cook them all at the same time.  Prepare ONE DAY AT A TIME, with the following ingredients :  a pinch of FAITH, a pinch of PATIENCE, a pinch of COURAGE and a pinch of WORK.  Add to each day one part of HOPE, FAITHFULNESS & KINDNESS.  Mix well with one part PRAYER, one part MEDITATION, and one part APPLICATION.  Season with a portion of GOOD SPIRITS, a pinch of HAPPINESS, a little ACTION & a good measure of HUMOUR.  Place everything in  a VESSEL OF LOVE.  Cook well on the fire of RADIANT HAPPINESS.  Garnish with a SMILE and serve ABUNDANTLY.
quirky ChristmasYou sure haven’t heard of bizarre Christmas traditions.  Rum cake.  Rib roasts.  Cane candies.  How about plump, fuzzy caterpillars ?  For Southern Africans, those hairy caterpillars are Christmas munchies.  The Inuits in Greenland have kiviak as Christmas lunch.  Kiviak is not apple pie, it is a buried bird .  Inuits stuff nearly 500 Auk birds in seal skin and bury them.  After months, the meat becomes pungent.  Inuits relish them as Christmas vitamin pills.
The Filipinos make the cake differently.  Rice is stuffed in bamboo tubes, steamed, sprinkled with sugar, grated coconut and margarine.  The Aussies lay shrimp on the Barbie ( not the doll — the barbecue) and have wreath-shaped soda bread.  The Swedes opt for Janssen’s Temptation —– a potato, cheese and anchovy casserole that’s traditional part of the Julbord (Christmas smorgasbord) .
In Slovakia, forget the food on the dining table ——- spoon it and fling it.  In a curious tradition, the patriarch of the Slovak family loads his spoon with loksa (pudding) and flings at the ceiling.  The more ‘loksa’ sticks up there the better the harvest next year.  In Finland, they feed the dead.  On the Christmas table, a plate is placed for ancestors.  In Catalonia, children feed the Yule log.  The log is covered with blankets so that it does not catch a cold.  On Christmas eve, children beat the log in the hope that it will poop gifts !!!!
Traditions are not only about food.  They are about music as well.  For Christmas, Cubans beat their pots and pans to create music.  The Venezuelans skate to church, and Yugoslav children sneak up on their mother, tie her feet to the chair and then dance around singing, “Mother, Mother, what will you pay to get away ?”  Poor Mum, has to pay ransom.  She gives gifts.  The Germans put glass pickle on the Christmas tree, while Ukrainians hang spiders and webs on it.
——–Preeti Verma Lal   
Now we come to some strange New Year traditions : ** In Bolivia, Venezuela, men wear new underpants on New Year’s eve —— red underpants for love, yellow for money.  **Spaniards eat 12 grapes at midnight ; each grape symbolising one month of the year.  **The Filipinos wear polka dots and arrange round fruits on the dinner table.  Polka and all things round signify coins, hence prosperity.  ** In Scotland, the townsmen walk around with giant fireballs hoisted on long poles (resembling the sun) to purify the coming year.  ** The Danes break glass dishes on the doors of neighbours and friends.  **Estonians eat seven times on the first day of the year to ensure abundant food throughout the year.  ** Unmarried Irish girls place mistletoe leaves under the pillow to catch a good husband.  .

Golden-winged warblers

Golden-wingedWarbler
Little songbirds, known as GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLERS fled their nesting grounds in Tennessee up to two days before the arrival of a fierce storm system that unleashed 84 tornadoes in southern US states in April.  The researchers said the little birds were apparently alerted to the danger by sounds at frequencies below the range of human hearing.  Songbirds have an inbuilt early warning alert for nature’s furies.  The storm killed 35 people, wrecked many homes, toppled trees and tossed vehicles around like toys, but the Warblers were long gone, flying up to 930 miles to avoid the storm, and reaching points as far away as Florida and Cuba, the researchers said.  Local weather conditions were normal, when the birds took flight from their breeding ground in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee, with no significant changes in factors like barometric pressure, temperature or wind speeds.  And the storm, already spawning tornadoes, was still hundreds of miles away.  Said wildlife biologist David Andersen of the US Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota, “We hypothesize that the birds were detecting infrasound from tornadoes that were already occurring, when the storm was still quite distant from our study site.”
Infrasound is below the normal limits of human  hearing, but some animals can hear it.  The warblers came right back home after the storm passed.
golden-winged-warblerThe GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLER is a New World warbler.  The male has a black throat patch, suggestive of the throat patch of a Chickadee , black ear-patch bordered in white, yellow crown and wing patch.  Females feature a similar colouration pattern, but the black is replaced with light grey.  In both sexes, extensive white on the tail, is conspicuous from below.  The bill is long and slender.  These warblers are migratory, breeding in eastern N. America and wintering in southern Central America and the neighbouring regions in Columbia, Venezuela and Ecuador.  They lay 3-6 eggs in a highly-concealed cup nest on the ground or low in a bush.  They feed on insects and spiders and leaf-roller caterpillars.  The song is highly variable, but is often heard as a trilled bzzzzzzz buzz buzz buzz.  The call is a Buzzy chip or zip.
GOLDEN-WINGED WARBLERS are the first birds seen migrating during the breeding season to AVOID TORNADIC STORMS.  So, you might want to be careful about who you call BIRDBRAIN.  Some of our feathered friends exhibit powers of perceptions that put humans to shame.

For a good night’s sleep

A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP lays the foundation for good health.  While a lot of research is underway on why people have problems in sleeping, one of the aspects that have come to light is that ONE’S DIET may be the reason for sleep disorders.  While consuming the wrong foods can cause problems, going to bed on an empty stomach can also hinder sleep.
Foods that disturb sleep —– tea, caffeine, other stimulants like soft drinks and alcohol.
Some people have problems with dairy and wheat products as they cause gastro-intestinal problems, congestion and gas.
Eating too much of sugary or spicy food, before sleep, can also cause heartburn.
Chewing tobacco or smoking, before bedtime, also hinders sleep.
a_good_night_s_sleep_9b0641e5b30787ab359f12f6193cce83Everyone responds differently to different meals, with some people reporting that a meal high in whole grains helps them fall asleep, while others swear by a high protein and / or high fat meal.  The specific timing of carbohydrate and protein consumption optimises our circadian rhythm (around day) and improves sleep initiation and quality.  Dr M. Gayathri, senior nutritionist at Apollo Hospitals, explained, “Those who come with sleep disorders are advised to move carbohydrates from breakfast, lunch and morning snacks to evening.  After 4 p.m., the goal is to cut back on protein and emphasise on healthy carbohydrate-rich foods like brown bread, starchy vegetables, whole-grain cereals, seeds, sprouts and fruit.  They are also asked to cut down on red meat and heavy foods like biryani as it can create acid reflux and cause insomnia.”
While high-calorie foods is one problem, patients are advised to not sleep hungry, as hunger pangs also disturb sleep  Dr. Gayathri added, “If they are comfortable with dairy products, they are suggested to have milk or opt for nutrients such as melatonin, magnesium, potassium and Vitamin D, which play an important role in inducing sleep.  The diet should not be less than 1,200 kcal It should also be rich in proteins.
Here are a few dietary tips :
  • Try a strong cup of chamomile and / or lemon balm tea —— two hours before bed.  Brew for 15 minutes before drinking.
  • Avoid tyramine containing foods (bananas, avocado, cheese, sour cream, beer, wine, pickled salamis, liver, caviar,  beans) after 5p.m.
  • Adopt regular meal times.
  • Balance blood sugar by avoiding refined grains or sugar.
  • Don’t drink any fluids before 1.5 — 2 hours of going to bed to minimise night urination.
  • Spices consumed in evening meals appear to be disruptive to some people, including exacerbated night-time heat intolerance problems which can further disrupt sleep.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Go low on salt.  Ninety per cent of the salt comes from packaged foods and only ten per cent from the saltshaker.
Dr. Ramana Prasad Velamuru, consultant pulmonologist respiratory and sleep specialist at Kims Hospital, said, “We often find tired executives or managers eating heavily and going to bed immediately.  With time, they develop obesity leading to sleep disordered breathing —– snoring, choking during sleep and dozing off during day-time or even while driving.  Such people are also at risk   of developing hypertension, diabetes, stroke and heart attacks.  Therefore, establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine.  Avoid emotionally upsetting conversations or activities.

My Top 10 : Hollywood movies

Here is a list, not from a critic, but from a common viewer like you and me 🙂

Shihanspeaks

I wish I could make this a list of my favourite films from world cinema. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t watch many. Next year however, I should be able to come up with a more inclusive list. For now, my top 10 from Hollywood. Keep in mind that this is my opinion of the best I saw in 2014, not necessarily released in the same year.

cover326x32610. The Grand Budapest Hotel

If there is a ‘Sanjay Leela Bhansali’ in Hollywood, it surely is Wes Anderson. A comparison unfair to both, but for persons unfamiliar with Wes’ unique narrative style and grand visuals, this is a start. The Grand Budapest Hotel combines satire, comedy, a bit of theft, history and mixes it thoroughly, garnishing with opulent sets and colorful scenery. The result? An enjoyable cinematic experience! Ralph Fiennes turns in a fantastic performance as a concierge of the said hotel, whose…

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The Philippine Violet

barleria cristata
The PHILIPPINE VIOLET also known as the DECEMBER FLOWER is an old-world garden favourite.  December is one of the most gorgeous months of the year in South India.  It’s chill, but just enough to make the heart sing.  The glorious pink Tabebuias and Poinsettias are in full bloom, as are some of their more terrestrial kin.
philippine-violetDecember shrubs themselves look fairly unremarkable throughout the year, until they burst into bloom in the winter.  They are hardy shrubs that grow to about three feet in height, making them excellent stand-alone plants to grow in pots, or even as box-hedges around lawns.
Phlippine violet
How can you grow some of these beauties in your garden ?  Well since they are native to this part of the world, they don’t need too much fussing over.  If you spot a December bush in a neighbour’s yard or growing wild by the roadside, take a nice woody cutting from the bottom of the plant, (if it is in your neighbour’s yard, please take their permission).  Make sure the cutting has at least a couple of leaf nodes from which it can produce new shoots once you plant it.  Strip the leaves off the plant, and plant it in a sunny spot, making sure you bury at least one of the nodes.  You can plant your cutting in a large 20 cm pot too, if you like.  Water it everyday, until you see tender shoots emerging, and keep up with the daily watering until the shoots are at least 10-15 cm in length.  You can ease up on the watering to once in three days, after that.
philippine violet 2
Decembers are perennials.  The upside is that you don’t have to replant a December bush every year.  But don’t be surprised if your plant doesn’t bloom for a couple of years.  Over time, it’ll adapt itself to its surroundings and sync up with the other Decembers in your neighbourhood.  And when it blooms, gather the flowers and string them up in a nice bunch and tuck the flowers in your hair.
————Sriram Aravamudan.