Unexpected Elephants and Moustache’d Inspectors

On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.

And thus starts a novel which takes Inspector Chopra on a journey which no one could have expected at all. Full of murder, conspiracy, domestic dramas in the complex they live in and a cute little elephant, this novel has it all. This novel was recommended to me by a friend who thought I would like it, and I’m glad she did – it reminded me of a lot of things in different way which made me enjoy the story all the more. There’s scenes of the manly hero, Inspector Chopra chasing the ‘baddies’ through meandering roads and hiding in warehouses a la Bollywood style (albeit the 60s and 70s action movies kind). There’s conspiracies, corruption and secrets, with the weak poor classes against the corrupt rich. And at the heart of it all is the focus of traditional values and the importance of honesty.

The story also reminds me a little of another detective series, Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which has the similarities of infusion of local culture, wonderfully drawn characters and quirky, gentle humour. The story follows the retirement of Inspector Chopra in the richly-described Mumbai, following two mysterious cases; firstly the inheritance of a baby elephant left to him by a loved uncle for reasons unknown, and secondly the drowning of a young man whose death is suspicious, yet keeps being brushed under the carpet. With this, Inspector Chopra’s retirement suddenly feels too peaceful and boring, and the hero is led to investigate on his own, leading him to more serious issues like the corruption of the upper-classes, the activism of lower classes for more rights, into the dark Underworld and slums.

The story is quirky and whimsical enough that there are a few sweet, silly lines which keep the story entertaining, although there are also more serious issues which are given their space, which balance the story well. This isn’t a serious, thriller-type crime novel, but it is a story which draws you into the busy, colourful world of Mumbai and see it through the eyes of a native. This is something which feels a little more old-fashioned, quietly showing us the story yet charming, the characters are very likeable, such as the sub-plot of the Inspector’s marriage with his feisty wife Poppy (and her mother!), and the impact of the baby elephant on all of their lives.

I really enjoyed this novel, if only because I loved the story is brought together, the two mysteries running alongside each other, with the colourful voice of Mumbai, street-life and the gentle humour which gives this story the whimsical touch. There are some who have said that this story isn’t credible, or even very original, but I think that it’s hard to depict the characters and city-life of India the way this story has, and it has been quite well done. I’m already looking forward to the next in the series on my book reader, and I’ll wait to see if the baby elephant is still in the next novel!

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Mother Tongue

We are
wildflowers
with roots
still growing
in our
motherland.
-Women of Colour
by Mehrin Poetry

 

As I grow  older, the importance of my mother tongue comes more clearly into focus – although at times it feels like I have a lot to learn yet. As someone who was born and grew up in England, I have always considered English as my ‘mother tongue’ simultaneously and alongside with Punjabi, which is were I feel my roots also are. During my childhood and my teen years, I spent so much time exploring the wonders of English, the literature, and studying the words that I felt a little like I lost some of the the words of Punjabi. I have always had a passion for English, whether it was the literature, or just the pure study of words, and it’s a little embarrassing to me now that Punjabi doesn’t always come as naturally as English does.

It puts me to mind a poem I studied as a teen – Search for My Tongue by Sujata Bhatt – which I didn’t fully understand at the time, but which makes so much more sense to me now. The poem symbolises the author’s fear of losing her cultural identity and her ‘mother tongue’, and of the idea that assimilating in a ‘foreign’ country comes at the cost of losing your roots. While I can understand the fear, I think it is a little different for me as well as I didn’t emigrate to the country like the author did, but was born here.

Growing up, I was one of the only Asian girls in my school and often felt a little left out – being among mostly white children made me feel like I had to strive more to fit in, from dress, tastes, clothes and culture, and I remember at the time that I divorced myself from my culture a little – my home life and my school life were always kept separately. Don’t get me wrong – I still had chicken curries at home cooked by my mum, still spoke in half-English-half-Punjabi to my parents and relatives, and made the most of Eid celebrations and glitzy salwar kameezes sewn by my mum. But I have always felt that the culture I was educated in did not understand Pakistani culture or language in a way that I could embrace it.

One of my earliest memories is my mum taking me to nursery on my half day, holding my hand and slowly teaching me words in English – colours, numbers and letters as we swung our hands and stopped at Sainsbury’s for our weekly shopping. My dad taught us Urdu as best as he could alongside our Quran lessons after school – although I’ll admit I wasn’t very interested in learning at all (and couldn’t wait til we could run off and watch TV!) It’s always felt a little ironic to me that these days I meet so many immigrants who are slowly learning English, while I am on the other side of the coin and trying to learn Urdu and Punjabi a little better.

As I entered my late teens, my school environment changed – suddenly there was an influx of Indian, Bengali and Pakistani students at the school who had transferred in, while a lot of the white students in my class left, preferring to stop their classes and go into work. I felt incredibly out of place – here were Asian kids who were comfortable in their skins, knew in jokes in Urdu and made it normal to talk about the things we had at home. Fast-forwarding into university this was even more the case – I found myself surrounded by mostly Asians, and would sometimes self-deprecatingly describe myself as the ‘coconut’ – looks brown on the outside but white on the inside. While my friends were into British-Asian music, Bollywood and Indian restaurants, I was a self-described goth; into soft rock music, heavy black eyeliner and desserts at The Cheesecake Factory.

Over the next few years, my friends, my family and my husband have all played a part in making me comfortable with my words – I can be English and Pakistani and speak both languages without one being more important than the other. I’ve learned a lot more Urdu over the years – mostly from Bollywood films, online websites, and even an Urdu course I went to once (it was terrible, we spend six classes going over the same basic phrases because everyone kept forgetting the previous lessons). These days, whenever I need to know a word, or the meaning of a word, I’ll ask my sister or mum, and my husband is a walking dictionary for this too. I also get a lot more practice – I work with a lot of clients whose first language isn’t English and often have to translate – we all acknowledge my Urdu and Punjabi are terrible but passable, and I’m a lot less embarassed than I used to be.

This isn’t a sad story – as much as I wish my Urdu and Punjabi were more fluent than it is now, I feel like I’ll get there. I have found my own way to embrace my roots, language and culture, and I’m happy with that. I know that I’m not the only one with this issue – I’ve come across a lot of British Asians who can barely understand their parent’s language, and don’t speak a word of it, preferring to stick to English. I can also see this in second-and-third generation parents when speaking to their children in English. When I think of myself, I would love to teach my future children my mother tongue. Urdu is a beautiful language and it is my husband’s language, but Punjabi is where I feel my home and my roots are, so would always want to pass this on too. Having said that, I don’t think there is anything wrong in being fluent in, and choose to speak in English. I grew up devouring books, studying English (and blogging in English), and I think it really is an amazing language with so much depth.

My advice to others who are struggling with re-learning their mother tongue is don’t give up, and don’t feel embarrassed. When I first started learning Urdu properly, I was told by a lot of people that I was terrible at it, and that I was barely understandable. I used to feel embarassed and immediately stop trying to speak it in front of them, and feel a little unsure of myself. These days I laugh and agree with them, but I don’t stop learning. Language, culture and words will always evolve over time (which is why ‘fleek’ is now an acceptable world, when a few years ago it was a non-existent one), and there are so many opportunities to learn with the internet, media and courses.

Who knows, maybe I’ll learn to speak French properly next?

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Writing on the Wall: Currencies of the World

…all on one board. I found this in a little deli hidden away on Green Street, East London, which the proprietor had displayed on the wall, probably to show the different type of customers and currencies he has come across.

I loved how this looked on the wall, a mish-mash of colours, cultures and odd bits all lined up together to form a small piece of art to catch your eye (and probably to remind you to pay for your food!)

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Gourmet Burgers at Olive & Lemon

The Olive and Lemon is a small bistro-style restaurant which is close-by to my workplace, so friends and I have often ended up there for lunch for a more luxurious lunch. It’s also handy because the majority of the food served is halal, there’s a good range of dishes and they also serve quickly in the lunch hour, being used to a crowd.

I also love the quaint decor of this place – it really lives up to its name of ‘olive and lemons’ with citrus trees scattered around, boxes of herbs and olives, mis-matched buckets and baskets of flowers hanging around the walls.

(Excuse the bad quality of my photo, I only had my mobile phone to take pictures which isn’t the best!) You can see that the decor really creates a warm atmosphere, which is even more beautiful in the summer should you want to sit outside.

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Here’s what we actually opted for the last time I went with some work friends – I went for a grilled chicken burger with chips, my friend had the ‘Chef’s Special’ burger (which, when we asked what it was, were told it was just ‘mindblowing’ – it turned out to be a lamb burger) and another two of us opted for chicken and falafel wraps.

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I’m not sure how flattering the pictures are, but the food was actually quite nice, and reasonably priced – not to mention the big portions. The burger I got was pretty big with a lot of salad and seasoning, and was decently cooked (the ‘Mindblowing’ burger was apparently not that mindblowing, but reasonable!). We also got huge sides of salad and chips with our food which was great for what we paid as well, which was around £5-6 each.

I love finding small spots which are

While the Olive and Lemon isn’t exactly a high-end restaurant, it’s not your average chicken-and-chips shop either, they take care to make each dish appetising and most of it feels quite healthy. I also loved that a lot of dishes reminded me of food I’ve tried in Greece and Turkey, which really adds to the Mediterranean feel they have.

Good grub for a lunch-time break, and a nice place to sit around with friends for a chat – and if you tell them you’re on your break, they’ll bring your food out quicker too!

Dishoom: A Spicy Chai You Need To Try

A BOMBAY CAFE IN LONDON

The original Bombay Cafes have almost disappeared. Opened early last century by Zoroastrian immigrants from Iran, their faded elegance opened all: rich businessmen, sweaty taxi-wallas and courting couples. Fans turns slowly. Bentwood chairs were reflected in stained mirrors, next to sepia family portraits. Students had breakfast. Families dined. Lawyers read briefs. Writers found their characters.

I recently visited Bombay Cafe Dishoom, Shoreditch branch,  which has been on my list of restaurants I’ve wanted to visit for a few year now. There a few branches open all over London now, and I’ve been told by a few friends who have been to this place how great this place is, so I had high expectations of this place. My friends and I booked a lunch to go one weekend to experience some culinary (and visual) delights, and were not disappointed.

Dishoom harks back to an older era which mixes chai in metal cups with fusion dishes and art deco and art noveau decor; there’s random railway signs (which remind me of old Bollywood films from my childhood), funky bits of clocks and machinery, sepia-coloured family photos and gorgeous fabrics and flooring, all mixed together for an old-timey but very friendly atmosphere. There’s nothing pretentious about this place at all, and the staff who work here are just as friendly.

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The best thing about this place is it’s eccentric decor and the way everything seemed to come together – everything is placed together in a mix-and-match way without feeling cluttered or over-crowded at all, and there’s plenty of seating for the customers.

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When we wear seated, we were giving metal cups and a water jug, with condiments and pretty plates. One of the things which really stood out from this restaurant was these plates, which were laid out with small personal stories on each one, in patterns and swirls and which added a really nice quirky touch. It really tied in with the history of the restaurant and gave a way of making us feel part of the restaurant’s Story and how it works.

Of course I have to comment on the food, which is the initial reason we came. Dishoom apparently does a brilliant breakfast, which I have yet to try but we came for a (slightly late!) lunch and loved what we had. Our meal was pretty traditional in its cuisine, but there was plenty of juicy flavour and variety, and there’s something special about each dish. The rotis (traditional chappatis/round bread) were huge and delicious, not like the usual naans you get in standard restaurants but something closer to what my mum makes, and the drinks were traditional South Asian drinks – no coke or Pepsi here, you’ll find what is served in a normal Bombay Cafe.

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And what meal is complete without tea and dessert? I loved the Dishoom take on some traditional desserts – the ‘Memsaab Mess’ and ‘Guju Chocolate Mousse’, combining traditional English desserts with an Eastern touch. I also loved the drinks menus – there’s seven types of chais alone, each with their own dash of unique flavour.

And of course I must mention the signs in this place – they’re humorous and to the point – it’s nice to be reminded sometimes not to sleep in the toilet!

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I love the way there is a juxtaposition of old style glamour with modern retro decor, everywhere you turn you’ll see wooden chairs and screens mixed with painting, odd bits of machinery on display, from the welcome counter at the front door to the ground floor bathrooms and bar.

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Like it’s name, (‘Dishoom’ is the sound you used to get in old Bollywood movies when heroes threw a punch, think ‘kapow!’), this restaurant packs quite a punch and certainly lives up to its name. I loved my visit here, for both the food and the style of this place, and it’s great when the visual experience you get is just as good as the food. I’m already planning to come back soon, and have recommended it since to about three people who went and said they loved it too. Maybe I’ll try another branch next time, Convent Garden maybe?

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My Local Lane: Street of High Fashion

I thought I’d try a writing challenge this week, which is about ‘blogging your block‘, that is, about the area we all in live in. I don’t often spend a lot of time wandering around my neighbourhood, especially because I tend to rush home from work, or jump on buses and trains all the way home.

Every now and the20140402_201545n I’ll stop to dawdle in the local shops, particularly the ones which display and sell beautiful Pakistani and Indian style outfits – beautifully draped saris, elegant maxi dresses, blingy abayahs and lovely embroidered shirts which come down to your ankles.

I’ll admit it, I’ve always been a bit of a diva when it comes to clothes. I like having a wardrobe of beautiful things, and I especially love my ‘desi’ wardrobe, that is, my clothes which are more on the Asian-influenced. And I also reluctantly will admit that I probably have too many clothes (somewhere in the world, a Bollywood star is crying and doesn’t know why).

Nevertheless, the Lane that I live near is chock-full of Asian shops with Indian and Pakistani style outfits which are always worth an ogle (and perhaps stepping into the shop for a moment or two doesn’t always hurt either!)

And there’s the flashes of jewellery displayed carelessly all over the display cabinets, draped along luxurious velvet and self-printed silk, beautiful gold-plated rings, jewelled necklaces and stone-embedded purses.

These days, there’s a veritable land of fashion shops lining almost every other doorway, all with  beautiful clothes, blingy jewellery and pretty scarves which all have their own styles and influences. It’s lovely looking through the window glass at the beautiful things (although these days, the more beautiful they are, the less I can afford them) and seeing the vibrant colours.

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I suppose it’s important to me because when I was a child, these shops weren’t there, and the fashions and styles were completely different. When I was a child, my mum used to take myself and my sisters to the local fabric shops to buy several yards of cloth to stitch herself on her sewing machine (which she still has!) and we’d always have the same generic style of stitched kameez (or shirt) with a salwar pyjama (the bottom, pants). Mind you, we still loved it, it was an adventure going to see all the rolls of fabrics lining the shelves while my mum dreamed up our outfits.

These days there are styles which I never imagined wearing – I’ve always worn traditional Pakistani clothes, and I’m always  trying new styles and cuts – but there’s always something else new to look at. I was 22 when I wore my first sari, which was to a close friend’s wedding, and I went for something simple and vibrant (in purple!) These days, there’s every style of sari imaginable, various colours, cuts, embroidery and influences – be it Indian, Pakistani, Bengali or even Western-influenced. When I walk along my local lane of fashion, I’m always getting inspiration, and not just for my wardrobe (although that bulging thing will always keep growing) – it’s a place of art, of beauty, of culture and when you’re fed up of shopping…of food food : )

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Pretty pretty things.