Thursday, June 24, 2010

Book Review: Open - An Autobiography

Author: Andre Agassi
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 388
Price: Rs 599

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, June 24, 2010 at 03:01:34 PM

"It's no accident, I think, that tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature." It is this statement in Open that touches a chord in your heart. It doesn't matter if you are a tennis fan or not. It doesn't matter if you've hated eight-Grand Slam-winner Andre Agassi's on-court and off-court antics. And never mind if you've sworn off autobiographies for good. You read this one line in the book, and you want to read more.

We love flawed heroes. Top seeds make for good tennis but it's those who've been there and fallen from grace only to fight their way back into the charts and people's hearts are the ones that make matches memorable. Everyone remembers Pete Sampras as a great player, but it's his arch-rival Andre Agassi who still makes headlines.

Three years after his retirement, when Agassi's autobiography, Open, was released late last year, little did he know that he would be opening another can of worms. His admission that during one low period he found solace in crystal methamphetamine, supplied by his “assistant,” and later lied about it to tennis officials, thus avoiding a three-month suspension, caused ripples through the tennis world.

It was just one of his secrets that he let out in Open. The other, almost unbelievably, is that he hates tennis. Why? "Because tennis is so damned lonely. Only boxers can understand the loneliness of tennis players - and yet boxers have their corner men and managers. Even a boxer's opponent provides a companionship, someone he can grapple with and grunt at. In tennis you stand face-to-face with the enemy, trade blows with him, but never touch him or talk to him like anyone else... Of all the games men and women play, tennis is the closest to solitary confinement..." 

Agassi takes the reader into confidence as he tells the story of his life - of how he played tennis because his obsessive Armenian father left him with no other choice or education, of his banishment to a tennis camp in Florida which he likens to a prison, his rebellion (long hair, earrings, painted nails, pink gear) that makes him a 1980s sports icon and turning pro at 16. But just when his lightning-fast return promises to change his career, he gets engulfed in a storm raging inside him. As Agassi battles his own demons and duels with his rivals on court he discovers that his greatest enemy is neither Boris Becker nor Jimmy Connors, neither Pete Sampras nor the media. It is perfection. In his quest to hit every ball perfectly - just like his boxer father Mike wanted - he exposes himself to several blows. 

The mere acceptance of this fact makes it much easier for his game and his soul. He puts a failed marriage to Brooke Shields behind him as he prepares once again to regain the top position. This time the goal is for a bigger purpose - a school for underprivileged children he wants to build in his hometown Las Vegas. And on his way to the top, he meets the woman he always wanted to be with - Stefanie (Steffi) Graf.
Agassi likens his life to “a painting from the Italian Renaissance” of “a young man, naked, standing on a cliff” at the Louvre in Paris. The painting is most probably French artist Girodet's Scene of the Flood. But it's not important that Agassi got the period and the artist wrong. It's significant how vividly he remembers the painting. He reiterates that he doesn't forget. And he brings this near-photographic memory to every pivotal match and every public relationship.

Unlike most sports biographies/autobiographies, Open is not about the making of a hero. It's not about the image but the person who makes up the image. It's about how a boy, who was forced to play tennis in the Nevada desert, turned into a tennis superstar of sorts, when he didn't want to even play the game. Credit goes  to Agassi and his collaborator J R Moehringer for actually having the guts to write something with such honesty.

Of mismatched ambitions and gruelling matches, Open, like Agassi's game is all about grace, speed, style and power. You don't want to miss this one.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

Book: Ecological Intelligence - Knowing the hidden impacts of what we buy
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 276
Price: Rs 399

Published on Times Wellness on Monday, June 21, 2010

Green can also have some dark shades and we should know better to choose. It is this simple fact that is the central theme of psychologist-journalist Daniel Goleman's Ecological Intelligence.

Which toy do you buy?
You are what you eat, but you can make yourself and the world a healthier place to live in by choosing what you buy carefully. "Our world of material abundance comes with a hidden price tag. We cannot see the extent to which things we buy and use daily have other kinds of costs - their toll on the planet, on consumer health, and on people whose labour provides us our comforts and necessities," Goleman writes. So it's the choice you make between an inexpensive small, bright yellow wooden racing toy car which may contain poisonous lead and the one that certainly doesn't, that can impact not just your health but that of a whole lot of people and resources that go into making that toy.

Green's not green
It's not just the product that needs to be checked for quality, it's it's whole life cycle that should be under the scanner. Goleman scratches the surface and find out why 'green' does not always mean healthy, recycling isn't about just newspapers and bottles and why our brain is not designed to warn us of the innumerable ways that human activity corrodes our planetary niche. 

What's Life Cycle Analysis?
Goleman digs deeper into Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of a wide range of products, looking at the environmental and social ramifications that are usually "out of sight, out of mind," guided by expert Gregory Norris. LCA analysis allows us to know how chemicals impact our health or that of the biosphere:
1. Cancer impact assesses an industrial process or chemical in terms of the expected pathways of carcinogens put into the environment, their persistence once there, the probability of human exposure to them, the cancer potency and just where in the supply chain all those cancer impacts come from.
2. Disability adjusted life years measure the amount of healthy life lost due to impacts from particulate emissions, toxins, risks on the job, etc.
3. Loss of biodiversity refers to the degree of species extinction caused by a given process or substance.

4. Embodied toxicity calculates how many problematic chemicals are deployed into nature over a product's life cycle. It recasts what have long been thought of as "occupational hazards" - such as welders' heightened risk of Parkinson's disease from inhaling manganese fumes - as consumer issues.

A case for radical transparency
Goleman's biggest contribution in this book is the coining of the phrase, "Radical transparency" which is the availability of complete information about all aspects of a product's history, with the potential to drive consumers to make better choices. He explores different synergies between media that will allow a consumer to know what exactly he/she is buying at the supermarket by just holding his/her mobile phone next to the product's barcode. The choice will be the consumer's but this process will ensure that he/she will think about it instead of randomly picking attractive jars off shelves.

The verdict
Ecological Intelligence is a provocative book. It makes you think about products you use everyday - an organic cotton T-shirt, nail-paint, sunscreen (chemicals leached from sunscreen on swimmers' bodies are responsible for bleaching coral reefs), mangoes, Coca Cola, and much more. Goleman tries to make his point with several examples, highlighting the good points of bad processes and bad points of good products. He doesn't try to alarm you by exposing the ruthlessness of manufacturing companies but instead makes you realise how little you know about things around you. Terms such as ecological intelligence and radical transparency may sound like 'green jargon' but ultimately, it boils down to how you think and act. As Goleman suggests, "Make goodness pay."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book review: The Pillars of the Earth

Author: Ken Follett
Publisher: Pan Books
Pages: 1,088
Price: Rs 385

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, June 14, 2010 at 06:44:45 PM

"Nothing happens the way you plan it," this simple sentence in the introduction to British author Ken Follett's book, The Pillars of the Earth, sums up this classic masterpiece. Few thriller writers would think of penning down a book on cathedral building set in Medieval England. But Follett tried, persisted and was rewarded with success.

A look at the cathedral in Cologne, the tallest in Europe, and you know why this book had to be written. You marvel at the high arches and turrets that kiss the sky and you think about all those craftsmen, masons and builders who worked with stone for 500 years to build a monument such as this one. That Follett's book sells more copies in Germany than anywhere else may not be just a coincidence.

Set in twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral. On the face of it, it is a story is about a humble stonemason, Tom, who pledged to build a cathedral in the memory of his wife who died during childbirth in the middle of a forest in winter. Follett weaves in family drama, violent conflict and unswerving ambition into a wonderful epic. The characters are well defined - the outlawed Ellen who becomes Tom's second wife, Prior Philip whose only ambition is to build the cathedral at Kingbridge, the conniving Bishop Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh, the Devil incarnate.

But look deeper and it's actually a commentary on a period of history we know little about - a time when the Church was as powerful (if not more) as any monarch, a time when earls could get away with putting fire to entire villages, a time when a thief could be hanged for stealing just on the basis of testimonies of three witnesses, a time when independent, self-sufficient women were rare or were unjustly labelled as witches and a time when love conquered all, if it was blessed, and destroyed all, if it was cursed.

The book is lengthy and is tedious at times when it comes to the technicalities and descriptions of architecture but it is also these details that makes the cathedral more real to the reader. The Pillars of the Earth also contains explicit sexual content that is not suitable for young readers. However, in spite of the number of pages, Follett ensures the reader's complete attention. You actually feel bad when the book ends. Follett has also done well to share his love for cathedrals and of how they were constructed in the Middle Ages in the book's introduction.

In the end, what makes The Pillars of the Earth an epic, is not the period it is set in or the size of this masterpiece, it's the sheer love that Follett has for the subject and the way he tells the story. It's a story you'll remember!

Monday, June 7, 2010

City of Contrasts: Paris

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Friday, June 11, 2010 at 06:54:31 PM

"The whole city is a museum. It is so old," our Parisian host tells us as we make our through Paris' narrow lanes to Hotel de Ville, the city hall that has been the location of the municipality of Paris since 1357.

We knew Paris would make us relive history, what we didn't expect was that we'd find a MacDonalds in an old building. We'd heard that the French were lazy and could be seen picnicking at one of Paris' many gardens on a Thursday afternoon but we were surprised that they'd walk kilometres through the city all day till sunset at 10.30 pm without whining. We'd expected designer boutiques at Champs-Élysées (one of Paris' poshest streets) but not the wretched poverty that took human forms in the dingy metro stations and on the steps of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at Montmartre. In spite of the numerous definitions attributed to it, Paris stands ground as the city of contrasts, much like Mumbai.

Mona Lisa and the stinking sewers
Like pilgrims, tourists flock to the Louvre Museum. We buy the 48-euro four-day Paris Museum pass that enables us to dodge queues and save upto 45 minutes of waiting time at each of the 60-odd museums and monuments in Paris. We start our Louvre tour from the wing that houses over 50,000 Egyptian artefacts (including the Sphinx) and a huge collection of the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman sculptures. Like most museums in Paris, the Louvre too, despite its popularity among tourists, has displays and instructions written only in French. Tourists are left with little choice than to hire multimedia guides and earphones.

We walk from room to room marvelling at frescos and sculptures till we stumble upon a long corridor-turned-gallery decorated with paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Sigismondo Benini. We find a black and white poster of Le Joconde (The Mona Lisa in French) pointing to another room. We follow the Japanese tourists into a roomfull of magnificently large paintings. Not many tourists notice them, for their eyes are glued to the glass showcase in the centre of the room. Mona Lisa can't compare in size and brushstrokes to the masterpieces surrounding her, but for the Bengali tourists in front of us, this is their final destination at Louvre. They bow down in respect and leave the museum.

It's impossible to see the whole of Louvre in a day. We finish three wings before the museum closes at 5 pm (that's the standard for all museums in France). While Louvre is Paris' biggest attraction, the space-age-like-structure of Centre Pompidou is the largest museum for modern art in Europe. It also gave us our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. And there's also a fashion museum tucked into one corner of the Louvre that houses over 16 000 costumes going from the 16th century to modern times.

In a city that boasts of art and culture, it's the sewers that make for its most interesting display. Sewers have been draining wastewater in Paris since the beginning of the 13th Century, when the city's streets were paved and drains were built on orders from Philippe Auguste, the king of France from 1180 to 1223. Until recent times, Paris' sewers also carried tourists: initially by carts that were suspended from the walkways along the tunnel walls, later by carriages drawn by a small locomotive.

Today, they have been replaced by an even better attraction: the Musée des égouts de Paris, or Paris Sewers Museum that is a "must see" for those who are interested in engineering, public works, or unusual tourist attractions -- and for fans of Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables.

"France is largely atheist, but we love our churches"
Notre Dame is a must-see for all tourists. As we take in the stained glass paintings that make for the church's windows, we hear strains of music. We expect pipes, for the evening prayer will begin soon. What we find instead is a Powerpoint presentation on a holographic screen. We hear a French guide telling tourists, "Most of the French are atheists but we love our huge churches."

Cabaret nights for birthday parties
Think cabaret and you'd think of a woman gyrating in a teeny-weenie dress with men ogling at her. In India, we'd call it vulgar. In Paris, it's entertainment. We catch one on a Saturday night at the basement of a Chinese restaurant in Bastille. To our surprise, we find an equal number of men and women waiting to watch the performance. The transvestites and strippers saunter on the makeshift stage, much to the delight of the viewers. There's a lot of skin, and the audience cheers on. And then everybody toasts to the performers who move to join in a guest's birthday celebrations.

Snails on the plate!
Eating out is fashionable in France. And when we say eating out, it doesn't mean going inside a restaurant but sitting at the tables laid out on the sidewalk. In all probabilities you'll find a table inside, but if you want one outside, you may have to wait. The cafes start filling up at 9.30 am and remain crowded till after midnight. The French love watching people go by and if you do the same in the middle of a busy street in Paris, you'll probably see people of every religion, colour, culture, caste and tribe from everywhere in the world.

The French are known for their breads, cheese and wines. But for those looking for a typical French delicacy, it has to be foi gras (fattened goose liver) or snails. The snails come in a thick garlic gravy and with a fancy shell-cracker. But unlike in posh restaurants in India, it's perfectly ok to eat with nails, hands and molars at even the fanciest of restaurants in Paris. We toast to that with glasses of kir, blackcurrant liquor and wine, which is the aperitif of choice. Paris is home to cuisines from every part of the world and houses some of the best bakeries in the world, but we try out the very untypical French delicacy called flam. Thin, pizza-like, flams is cuisine from Alsace, the northwest region of France that borders Germany. We roll them up like chapatis and gobble up several slices. No one's counting. It's an unlimited supply for just 15 euros.

When cows strutted along Champs-Élysées

We are lucky to have witnessed the once-in-a-lifetime transformation of the Champs-Élysées from a swanky boulevard to a farmland overnight. In an event staged by young French farmers, who wanted to highlight their financial problems, caused by falling prices for agricultural produce, plants, trees and flowers were brought in by lorry overnight to transform the avenue into a long green strip right upto the Arc de Triomphe. Kids playing with sheep and cows in front of Louis Vuitton and Chanel stores was quite a sight!

Tips for travellers
# While the French appreciate you speak in their language, English is commonly used in Paris.
# The best way to travel is the train. You can buy tickets in bulk and use them as per your requirement at all metro stations. There are plenty of bicycle stands in the city from where you can hire one to get around Paris. Or else, walk.
# The menus are almost always in French so check for some standard words such as poulet (chicken), poisson (fish), viande (meat), légume (vegetable) and champignon (mushroom).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Livin' it up in Lucerne

Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, June 03, 2010 at 05:05:39 PM

"It always rains in some parts of Europe," this line from the Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring comes back to me as the plane touches down at Zurich. airport The pilot announces that we should expect rain as we alight. It's May and it's pouring. The sky's gray and the grass a brilliant green. The fog thickly hangs over the mountains. "Welcome to Switzerland", the crew tell us.

A true holiday
We take in the lush countryside as our friend drives us from Zurich to Lucerne (Luzern in German). "People in Switzerland live in the villages and go to cities such as Zurich for work. Today's a public holiday and all shops, establishments and offices are closed. It's a day you spend with your family, enjoying yourself - hiking, picnicking or merry-making," our friend tells us. We make a note. In India, a holiday would mean better business for kirana shops and malls. But not in Europe.

Of Lake Lucerne and the hidden Alps
The German word for Lake Lucerne is Vierwaldstättersee that literally means Lake of the Four Forested Cantons. (Canton is the 14th-century term for the wooded territories of Alpine settlements in Central Switzerland. The lake has a total area of 114 square km and is the fourth largest in the country. Much of the shoreline rises steeply into mountains up to 1,500 m above the lake, resulting in many picturesque views including the famed Mount Rigi and Mount Pilatus. In better weather, Mount Pilatus would be overrun by tourists who'd take a boat from Lucerne across Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad, go up on the cogwheel railway, come down on the aerial cableways and panorama gondolas, and take a bus back to Lucerne.

We see little of the sun during our four-day stay at Lucerne though sunset time is 8.45 pm. But the unexpected rains has brought a different colour to the country, seldom captured in Bollywood flicks.

The downtown tour
"Lucerne is bright, beautiful and has been little Miss Popular since the 19th century," reads the Lonely Planet. We step out in our boots, jackets and stockings and walk through the old town with medieval ramparts and towers, 15th-century buildings with painted facades and its famous 204 metre-Kapellbrücke or Chapel Bridge crossing the Reuss River. Kapellbrücke is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. Constructed in 1333, it was designed to help protect the city of Lucerne from attacks. Inside the bridge are a series of paintings from the 17th century, depicting events from Lucerne's history. Much of the bridge, and the majority of these paintings, were destroyed in a 1993 fire. Though the bridge quickly rebuilt, some of the charred paintings have been left there for tourists.

Lucerne's blockbuster cultural attraction is the Sammlung Rosengart studded with masterpieces by Cezanne, Klee, Kandinsky, Miro, Matisse and Monet.

There is also the Lion Monument i.e. a giant dying lion carved out of a wall of sandstone rock above a pond at the east end of the medieval town. It was designed as a memorial for the mercenary soldiers from central Switzerland who lost their lives while serving the French king Louis XVI during the French Revolution. When the revolutionary masses attacked the royal Tuileries castle in Paris on August 10, 1792 the Swiss mercenary troops tried to defend the royal family and make sure the royals could escape.

For engineering enthusiasts like us, the Swiss Museum of Transport provides us with an opportunity to learn about the old Swiss wagons, the Swiss railway clock, navigation tools and also allows us to walk all over a giant map of Switzerland to locate Beckenried, the village where we're staying!

A big fat Swiss wedding
It's both our honour and pleasure to have been invited to a Swiss wedding. The bride's German, the groom's Swiss-German (there are Swiss-French and Swiss-Italians too!) The bachelorette party is a cosy dinner at a downtown pizzeria (the Swiss love Italian food) where the bride-to-be is crowned the queen and has to answer questions about Switzerland and her groom-to-be. The party is informal and followed by a round of cocktails at a bar later. "We're not into discos and dancing," says one of the bride's friends.

The wedding's a much formal affair and starts with the church ceremony where the groom and bride exchange their vows in German. It's followed by refreshments (comprising cheese, breads, cold cuts and wine) at a nearby restaurant followed by a seven-hour-long dinner that starts at 5.30pm. By six, we're seated at a table with guests from places as diverse as Slovakia and Mexico, Latvia and Morocco. The dinner menu includes tomato soup, gnocchi (a potato pasta), meat, salmon and four different types of wine. It's also the time for the couple's friends and relatives to recount their stories and play a few games. Surprisingly, no dancing. "The Germans don't dance much," a Slovakian guest tells us.

On the plate
Cheese, chocolates, coffee and more cheese. The Swiss relish cheesecakes that are not exactly desserts, but are more like quiches. Of course, the national dish is the veal sausage, which doesn't taste very different from any other sausage. Chicken is a little tough to get by but it's available and so are salmon and tuna. If you're vegetarian, you can opt for breads, sandwiches and cheese. And if you crave desi food, pop into an Indian restaurant (there's at least one in every major Swiss city). The best thing about Switzerland is that you'll find the menus in English too. For drinks, you can choose from an array of wines and/or kirsch made from cherries.

Know your chocolates
"Many kids in Zurich believed cows were purple because of the logo used on Lindt chocolates," a friend remarks when we ask him about Swiss chocolates. We're at a supermarket and we've got our quota of Swiss chocolates. We ask the salesgirl whether they have German chocolates. She frowns, "You will not get German chocolates anywhere in Switzerland. We have great pride in our chocolates." Well, chocolates can have nationalities too!

Travel tips
1. Though Switzerland is a Schengen country the Swiss Franc still rules. Carry some on you or else, you'll have to contend with poor exchange rates for the Euro.
2. Switzerland has one of the best railways in the world. Train travel isn't exactly cheap, but it's very efficient. For really cheap travel, hire a bicycle at one of the railway stations.