Saturday, 24 July 2010

Retail therapy: CMYK bookstore

Out the front of CMYK bookshop, in inner-central Delhi, there's a long ditch where they're digging up the sewer which runs along several shopfronts. In the Delhi summer heat the overwhelming miasma of sweet refuse takes hold.

To get inside the shop you have to gingerly sidestep the lactating street dog and her suckling pups, make sure you don't fall in the ditch, and navigate around it to a small set of steps.

Inside CMYK and it's a whole other world.

With books displayed on shelves and on tables, it's perfect for a lengthy browsing session. CMYK – named for the four colours used in printing (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) – is a modern, grey-toned, downlit and minimalist space. Unlike most cramped bookshops, this one is spacious and high-ceilinged, calm and quiet.

CMYK is an art and design focused shop, unveiled last September mainly as a vehicle to give the books of its parent publishing company, Roli Books, prominent positioning. (Roli Books books are about 30% of the stock; there's also Taschen, Phaidon and other major international houses).

Every time I go to CMYK I stay for around an hour, browsing through the collection of books like I Know How To Cook and Raghu Rai photography tomes. No one stops me, or asks me if I want them to put the book aside, or want it in another colour.

CMYK is ideally positioned in an up-and-coming area: the Mehar Chand Market, very close to Lodi Colony and right behind Delhi's cultural hub, the India Habitat Centre.

Here's a handy map:

Roli Books, which is a small family owned publishing house, has big plans for CMYK: there are plans afoot to take the concept to seven cities. First off will likely be Mumbai, where they are set to open a store-within-a-store at Bungalow 8. Next on the list are Goa, Bangalore, Gurgaon.

But for now, visitors to Delhi should most definitely add it to their must-visit list. I'm sure the sewage works will be done by then.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

desiderata book club: In the Valley of Mist

I spent much of the weekend in Mussoorie with my head stuck inside this book:

It's In The Valley of Mist, by British writer and journalist Justine Hardy.

It's non-fiction, about the trials of a family in Kashmir and how they managed to survive the violence of the past two decades, as a bloody conflict has raged there, mainly between Kashmiri separatists and the Indian military.

But far from being a dry, fact-based account, Hardy takes readers deep inside the insurgency thanks to her deep knowledge gained from years of travelling to the region. The book opens with a vignette of her and her mother in the late 1980s, shopping in central Srinagar wearing shorts and t-shirts. A year and a half later, when she next visits, she does so with her face and head covered, as the conflict had, in that short time, deepened and religious fanatics closed in.

The Valley of Mist doesn't give a comprehensive, blow by blow account of the conflict, but what it does give is a searing, honest depiction of how events have shaped the lives of this one family, how they have affected the lives of others in the region:

"From the top of the meadow the calls to prayer come from every direction, and at all angles across the lake, from the Shi'a mosque to the left side of the local bazaar, and from the two Sunni ones towards the right and rear side. Silence followed.

Up until 1990 the evening call to prayer was accompanied by bells ringing from Shiva temples around the city. As the azaan finished the bells would continue for aarti, evening prayer. The sounds wound together.

Children born in Kashmir since 1989 have not heard that song of symbiosis. Just as the young Pandits (Kashmiri Hindus) in the refugee camps have only their parents' memories to portray the homes they felt forced to leave, so too do young Kashmir Valley Muslims have only stories and old photograph albums as proof of how it used to be before they were born."

I couldn't put it down. In particular I appreciated that Hardy holds back - for the most part - from placing herself front and centre, rather, she depicts herself as a sideline character: observing and digesting, not judging. Only towards the end does her presence become more pronounced, her opinions more sharply outlined.

Given the current conditions in Kashmir, In the Valley of Mist is an ideal way to get inside the conflict without having to wade through something like this, or even this.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Travels in the hills: Mussoorie

The hill station of Mussoorie, they say, is imbued with history at every turn: it was the place where British soldiers, stationed in India under the Raj, would come to, ahem, play away, often with the wives of their superiors. There's even a Scandal Point lookout.

The guidebooks describe Mussoorie as a fairyland, an ideal honeymoon spot, a peaceful, scenic spot for quiet contemplation.

In reality, visiting Mussoorie is an exercise in tempering expectation with reality.

I'd bought into the myth and had been desperately looking forward to escaping Delhi and its pressures for a long weekend in the cool of the hills. As it turned out, it was cool, it was misty, it was damp - but it was not peaceful, far from it.

Hill station streets weren't built for traffic. They were built for donkeys, carts, foot traffic. You won't be finding no dual carriageways or divided streets or white lines on those narrow hill station roads. Granted - there was a barrier along the side for much of the way of the drive up the hill - reassuring for me, after far too many drives on zigzaggy, landslide prone mountain passes - but there's very little space.

Surprising, then, that town elders haven't thought to ban traffic from the main drag, The Mall. It's about five metres wide, lined with shops and as crowded a marketplace as anywhere else in India, but you can't walk more than a few steps before being forced to lurch steeply to the side into the gutter to make way for a screeching moped or car or 4x4. And the worse thing is the endless horning and beeping, right in your ear. Drivers just do not care. It's law of the jungle, and the bigger the wheels, the louder the horn, the higher up the food chain you are. Much like any Delhi street, but
right up close in your ear.

So much for my plans to meander around town in a daze.

After a tipoff from a friend, I had booked into a hotel, the
Rink Pavillion. It's a quirky hotel, surprisingly not mentioned in any guidebooks or websites. What makes it unique is that it is built around a 19th century skating rink that was also, back in the day, used for everything from dog shows to Shakespearean plays to balls. Go on, click on the link. Doesn't it look marvellous, atmospheric and not at all rundown? That's not the reality. The reality is, it's a bit of a dump. Yes there's a skating rink and that's quite cool, but it's dark, faded, badly maintained and has an overall air of neglect. The room itself was murky, with a sagging mattress and a dusty bathtub. Not quite the thing for a romantic weekend away in the hills. (Although, under other circumstances I think it would be quite a cool and fun place to stay - so long as you know what you're in for).

We managed to get out of the booking by paying 500 rupees, and moved to the second choice,
Karma Vilas, which turned out to be wonderful, with searing views over the valley - once the fog cleared.

After about a day we finally wised up: stay away from The Mall, and head for the hills. Landour, that is, a cantonment area up high which means there can be no rampant building of illegal concrete boxes. There are still vehicles screaming up and down the hill but less so than down below, and there are a handful of fun antique shops where you can easily blow a few thousand rupees on, say, a Burmese incense holder, a Raj-era carriage clock or a print of a famous painting by a famous Bengali artist whose name the shop owner can't quite remember.

Another good spot is Sister Bazaar, for sights like this:

But if you are planning to go to Mussoorie for a weekend, ignore any guidebook that only shows you photos pointing upwards:

Because really, it's what's at ground level you have to worry about.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Random bloggeristic facts

I got tagged last week by the radiant Ephemerette, who was kind enough to award me the peer-judged Versatile Blogger Award. So now, the Seven Random Things about me that must accompany (plus one extra):

1. This week I was delivered a brilliant facial by a one-legged beautician. She didn't need a crutch, she simply hopped everywhere with relentless efficiency, not to mention balance. I will think of her every time I get tired and irritated when standing in one place for an hour on my two good legs.

2. I have the focus and concentration of a goldfish. I know I should be writing the book but I just can't sit in one place long enough to do it. I have many unfinished blog posts in draft form; I have started three books in the past year: one non-fiction, two fiction. I wish I could just focus.

3. I used to live by the beach in Bondi for four sweet years and it is the place I want to, eventually, raise my children, teach them how to dodge bluebottle jellyfish, how to not drown in wicked surf, where to get the best kugelhopf and let old people on the bus ahead of them.

4. I think about food perhaps 90 percent of the time. I read cookbooks in bed and love buying exotic organic ingredients. However I am chronically incapable of eating breakfast (unless it involves mango) and cook only about twice a week.

5. I love travel to the point that if I haven't been anywhere new for a couple of months, I actually get panic palpitations. India is good for quenching this; Australia is not (imagine a $1000 surcharge on air tickets). At a previous job, whenever things got a bit too stressful I would pull the atlas off the shelf and plan travel routes. Being in a new place - even if it's just the airport - is like oxygen, I feel like I can breathe more easily. I wish someone would give me a job that involved travelling somewhere new once a month.

6. I grew up in a suburb in Melbourne, two streets north of Essendon airport, and a seven-minute drive from the main international airport, which took us past my dad's office. I spent a lot of time staring at the undersides of planes when younger.

7. I am the middle of three girls, the Jan Brady if you will. Jason says we are all textbook cases of eldest, middle and youngest sisters. My friend Steve once bought me a badge that reads: Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.

8. I love National Geographic magazine; it's what inspired me to become a journalist. My husband and I first bonded over the famous Steve McCurry photograph of the Afghan girl. My parents have boxes and boxes and boxes of Nat Geos from the 1970s and 80s. Despite annual cleanouts of the manse, no one will ever throw them away.