Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Westin Gurgaon, New Delhi

Photographs from The Westin Hotel in Gurgaon. This is a relatively new hotel, and came up only in 2011 (or late 2010), and is strategically located just off the Delhi Gurgaon Expressway, at the Mehrauli Gurgaon Marg, popularly known as MG Road, and the site of literally dozens of malls. What used to be a sleepy road connecting Gurgaon to Mehrauli till as recently as 15 years ago is now a picture-perfect example of chaotic unplanned urbanization.

A most peculiar design decision that baffles, nay boggles, the mind is the decision to have this huge glass partition separating the bedroom from the bathroom, instead of the usual solid wall or partition. This may well appeal to the honeymoon couple out on a romantic rendezvous away from home, or to the flirtatious executive looking to bring, err... work, back to the hotel. But to the family looking for a comfortable room this  poses challenges to say the least.

 I shot this photo below from my hotel room at 7AM. Within the next half an hour or so this road would become completely clogged with cars trying to get on to the expressway, get off the expressway, and in general create a chaos.

And this photo below was taken at 7PM. Good luck if you work in this area and need to travel back home, or to the airport for that matter. It is therefore not surprising that prices of residential properties near this place are astronomical. I mean obscenely astronomical. More than a crore rupees of apartments is the norm. And some run as high as 5 crores - that is one million US dollars. For a 2000 sq ft apartment.

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© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson - Review

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (Amazon.comI Am Legend (Movie), Kindle Edition) - my review
4 stars
More nuanced and complex than the movie
Reviewing a book by comparing it to its movie is not the ideal thing to do, but I did watch the Will Smith movie first, which itself was not the first movie adaptation of the book - The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man both were based on the novel and came out more than 30 years ago, and only more than a year later read the novel.
Robert Neville's character in the book is more complex, more prone to weaknesses, and more fallible than the movie character.
In a post-apocalyptic world where a bacteria has killed most of the world's human population and turned the survivors into blood seeking vampires that stalk Neville's house at night, Robert Neville must live and survive, though seemingly without purpose. He frequently succumbs to bouts of drinking, frustration, and rage. He wages a lone, sometimes gruesome, and what often looks like a pointless battle against the vampires. Company comes in the form of a dog, that brings back to him a modicum of humanity he had long forgotten he had, and then in the form of a young woman who has just lost her husband to the vampires. The end is bleak and quite unlike the movie.
This book is supposed to have inspired such legends, so to say, of the field as Stephen King and Dean Koontz. Not to mention its influence on a whole genre of gore-filled zombie infested movies of the 70s and 80s.

Kindle e-book excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Boomerang by Michael Lewis - review

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, by Michael Lewis

My review: Monkeys and posteriors do not mix. Except when governments start doing financial planning.

Money and morals also do not mix. Lewis captured this in "Liar's Poker", and he travels to Europe to find the same holds true for countries too. A morbidly funny disaster-financial tourist's travelogue.

And oh yes, who would have thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Governor of California, would turn out to be a far, far better governor than actor, not that that bar was too high to begin with. Nonetheless, who woulda thunk?

Monday, January 16, 2012

A King Cobra's Summer, by Janki Lenin - A Reading

"A King Cobra's Summer", by Janaki Lenin - A reading 
(Buy from Pratham Books, Flipkart)
5 stars
Gorgeously Illustrated, educational, informative, entertaining - four books in one!

On a bright Sunday morning on Dec 18, at 9:30AM, our small apartment complex library opened up, and the kids started trooping in - seven of them. All excited by the prospect of a story-telling session and the chance to do some drawing too. At the very outset I had to remind the kids, gently, without dashing their hopes, that we would "try to draw" something from the book after the reading, and that I could not guarantee any sort of decent results. I have the equivalent of "two left-feet" when it comes to drawing. I also have two left feet when it comes to dancing, so both abilities sort of complement each other. Kids being kids, all they wanted a good story and an opportunity to spread color on canvas.

This whole episode had started a couple of weeks earlier, when I had emailed Pratham Books, asking them whether I could volunteer to be a book reader for their soon-to-be-launched book, "A King Cobra's Summer", written by Janki Lenin and illustrated by Maya Ramaswamy, and be what they call a "Pratham Books Champion", an honor to be sure, since I lay no claim to being a champion. They readily accepted. Maya from Pratham Books called back and spoke with me, and a few days later the book had arrived by mail. The first order of business was for me to read the book. Which I did. In half an hour I had gone from cover to cover. I was quite taken in by the high-quality printing, the gorgeous use of colors, and the easy-to-understand prose, and how the story weaved a rich tapestry of information about the king cobra within its pages.

On the Sunday, after the children had all gathered, over the next 45 minutes we spent a very interactive 45 minutes (see - no point in wasting even a single minute) going over the book. Rather than make it a one-way aural street, I had breaks every five minutes or so, asking the children questions about Kalaa. Of course, the kids had questions of their own that couldn't wait even those five minutes! Right on the first-page, where we are told that king cobras grow to over 15 feet in length, one way to bring this length alive for the children was to tell them that 15 feet would have meant placing four kids on top of another - give or take a few feet. Or that 15 feet would have been almost the entire length of the library room. You know that children have 'got' it when you hear the appreciative 'ooh' and 'aahs' from them!

The part where Kaala gulps down the python elicited a few 'eews', and rightly so. One should peel the skin before eating it, right? Don't we peel the skin of a banana before wolfing it down? See, right there there was a distinction to be made between humans and animals, or in this case, reptiles.

A swift 45 minutes later, it was time to start with the drawing, and to bring out the Raja Ravi Verma in all. Or so went the wistful hope.

The portraits of Kaala on pages 2 and 20 were quit similar, and in the end we selected the one on page 2 to draw. It also looked the easier of the two. Once the outline had been drawn, the children went about tracing the outline with a black sketch pen, and then started filling in the colors.

What you see on the whiteboard down is my own attempt at fleeting artistic immortality. The book lies at the foot of the whiteboard with its pages opened to the pages.

By about 11AM or so we had decided to wind up - the children had shared a very enjoyable 90 minutes listening to, participating, and then drawing from the lovely book, A King Cobra's Summer.

Kudos to Pratham Books and their amazing team for everything. Their books are informative. They are educational. And they are entertaining. And they are cheap. I kid you not. And that's not even a pun. The books are very affordable, and here's to them coming closer every single day to their aim of getting a book into every child's hands.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai  (Kindle, Flipkart, my user review on
4 stars
The Journey Is In the Evocative Stories, Not the Climax As Such
After reading these three stories, I felt a bit disappointed. After thinking a little bit, I realized that I was mistaking her novellas for some crime thrillers, that needed to have some nailbiting, cliffhanger climactic end. That is not the case. These novellas satisfied my need to read good quality writing.

There are three novellas here - "The Museum of Final Journeys", "Translator Translated", and "The Artist of Disappearance" - eponymous with the title. For my money I enjoyed the second story the most - the story about a middle aged woman who faithfully and lovingly and successfully translates the work of an Oriya language writer, but for the second translation casts a more critical eye ("more professional perhaps?") - "I began to wonder if publishing such a disappointing novel would be good for Suvarna Devi's reputation, which I had worked hard to establish."

The third one is the most abstract, so to say, but not without its moments of levity - "... there was no way they could carry their equipment down there: it was unfortunate that Nakhu was only partially and not completely a donkey." The prose is also sort of reminiscent of RK Narayan's writing perhaps...

Yes - I think I enjoyed the book as a whole. Satisfying in the way that stays with you after you have finished reading the book.

The Artist Of Disappearance

Kindle Excerpt

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

About Me - Photography 1

I got interested in photography in 1999. Till that time I had had a point-and-shoot 35 mm Canon film camera, and I would, like most people I knew, carry the camera to places I went, take a few snaps, get them developed, and stick them into an album. In case you are wondering, and this is most likely to happen if you don't 'go' back to the 90s, then this whole talk about '35mm' and 'film' cameras will seem quaint and odd. Let me clarify. The first thing to clarify is that in 1999 digital cameras were far and few in-between. A megapixel was a big deal, and most digital cameras were sub-pixel in resolution and no match for even the most basic of 35mm point-and-shoot cameras when it came to quality. And they were costly. Digital cameras. Things would change rapidly in just a few years. But in the reality of digital cameras that existed in 1999, 'affordable' was not a word you would find in its dictionaries. A digital camera was therefore not on my mind at that time. The second point follows from the first: shooting on 35mm negatives meant you had to get them processed and then printed. This usually happened at the local K-Mart of Wal-Mart. There you generally got two options: one was to use the store's in-house processing and printing capabilities, the second was to use Kodak processing. Kodak processing was about a dollar or two costlier than the in-house option for the entire 35mm roll, but gave much better results. Since I was not shooting that much anyway, it did not make much of a difference, and I would go for the Kodak processing option. 

The photos that I did want to share via email, or put on my website, I would scan using a flatbed scanner, and then upload them. Even the scanning had to be done at low resolutions, and the resulting image file no larger than a 100KB in most cases. This also had its origins in the cost of storage. Email providers like Hotmail, Yahoo, and others usually provided 2MB or 4MB of free storage space. You could purchase a massive amount of 25MB for something like $25 a year, but most did not. I did not. Lest you wonder, Google mail (Gmail) did not exist at that time. Google the company itself was a year old. So you could not send large images to your friends and relatives. You ran the risk of overwhelming their entire email quotas, which would make you rather unpopular with such friends and relatives. Hosting space was at a premium - especially the free one, and hard drives in those days maxed out at under 10GB or so. External hard drives were costly. Flash drives were almost unheard of - and their capacities was measured in KB and not MB. USB had just about made its appearance in consumer PCs a year or two earlier, USB2 was a few years away. External storage, for the most part, came in 3.5" floppy diskettes. You could also buy CD writers, but these ran at a few hundred dollars, and the CD-R discs were themselves about a couple of dollars each. So you see, there were limitations imposed on storage.

Till 1999 I had little idea about either film speeds or exposures - the basics of photography. You see, automatic cameras took care of all that - auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-forward, auto-everything. All I had to care about was to make sure that the film had been properly inserted into the camera. You really did not want to shoot an entire roll of film, pop out the lid at the back, only to discover that the film leader had somehow not latched itself quite properly into the camera, and all you had been shooting were blanks, so to say. I was photographing, but I knew next to nothing about photography.

In 1999 I decided to invest a little money in a better camera than I had. The reason I came to this decision was actually quite silly. I had gone to San Francisco to visit my cousins, and there, in bright San Francisco daylight, under the open skies at the Golden Gate bridge, I had shot photos with ISO 400 speed film. The others had used Kodak ISO100 film. And when I compared the prints, I realized mine were not as saturated in color as theirs. Mine sucked, to put it simply. The short of it was, and I of course would not want to admit that even if I had known it, that I knew nothing about photography.

To remedy my less than desirable results I had to take a decision. Providing impetus to the decision was a realization that I had started taking more pictures than before. I had refused to accept that photography was becoming a hobby for me. Now I could continue to stumble on as before, take mediocre photographs with a mediocre camera, and exult at the occasional good photograph, pat myself on my back on a job well done, more the result of accident than design, and continue taking mediocre photographs. That was certainly a course of action that required little to no effort on my part. It was the status-quo. It was the path of least resistance. But what was clear was one thing: taking more photographs was not making me a better photographer.

This is the first post in this series. I am also posting this to a page I have added to my blog, About. As this year progresses I too intend to make progress in adding to this page.

Live long and prosper.

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Camel Club by David Baldacci - Review

The Camel Club, by David Baldacci (, Kindle e-book, Flipkart, my user review on Amazon) - my review
5 stars
Thrilling fast-paced page-turner. A few holes in the plot. And yes, Mahatma Gandhi could have written the ending!

After having read two disappointing Baldacci novels (The Winner and Hell's Corner) that flattered to deceive, this one is a much better read. Graded on a curve, yes, this is a five-star read.
Oliver Stone, fka John Carr, is still very much a man of mystery here. His past is decades behind him and we are not given much background there. The Camel Club has already been in existence for years. What we do get to learn is that there is a very sinister plot being, err.. plotted, to assassinate the President of the United States, and too in his hometown. Arabs, Pakistanis, Iranians, and well, basically, it looks like Islamic terrorists may be involved. That cannot be a good thing. And then there is this killing of an NIC operative that is witnessed by the Camel Club. The plot makes it way through the book in an unhurried though gripping manner. The climax is fast-paced, and the denouement takes place in a former CIA and now abandoned facility named "Murder Mountain".

Having read two of Baldacci's novels, The Winner and Hell's Corner, both promising but ultimately disappointing, The Camel Club is much better. The plot, and especially the ending, when fully revealed, is still fantastical, and I will note again, one that could have been written by Mahatma Gandhi - without saying more. Read the book to find out. Parts of the plot are still a little implausible, but that is excusable here.

In short, gripping fast-paced turner that doesn't ask for much thinking from the reader.
My review post of "Hell's Corner"
My review of "The Winner"

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2012, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Hudson News at Changi Singapore Airport

© 2011, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Review of India's Culture and India's Future by Michel Danino


Indian Culture and India's Future, by Michel Danino

Ready reckoner for the confused Indian and the misinformed rest.
A book that attempts to put forward the vast richness of India's culture, its contribution to the world, and the crossroads the country and its culture finds itself at.

Indians have long been accused of looking at their past with rose-tinted lenses and a sort of smugness about their superiority. A lack of knowledge about their past means most Indians have no objective perspective of their present, nor are they able to cogently argue why India's contributions to the world have been so often and so grossly misrepresented. This book attempts to put together, in one short read, a guide on India's past, its achievements, its thinkers, its contributions, and also tries to identify the causes that have led to this strange sense of dissociation and lack of pride that so many Indians have for India and its culture and heritage.