Sunday, May 25, 2008

Driving by 'Rolling Thunder'

After a lovely brunch with some friends yesterday at La Madelaine, we drove into DC to watch Rolling Thunder, the annual gathering and parade of (mostly) Harley Davidsons. We were a bit late getting in. Driving - let alone parking - turned out to be a nightmare. But we did manage to get a few pics from the car.

The parade thunders down from the Pentagon toward Constitution Avenue past the Lincoln Memorial at the top. The soldier you see standing at attention on the median (in a black and white uniform), saluting the riders, is Marine Staff Sgt. Tim Chambers who stood in that position for nearly four hours yesterday, the Post tells me this morning.

The bikes came in all sorts of cool colors and with myriad interesting attachments.

Many bikes flew the American flag and a dark-colored flag for the POWs and those MIA.

The passenger (off to the side on the left) has a mike in her helmet to communicate with the rider. The passenger seat looked so comfy.

Many streets were cordoned off and bikes lined spaces usually occupied by cars.

A cop and a parade participant exchange notes while a photographer looks on.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Guest Post: Homes In My Heart, Padma Venkatraman

After those two long interviews (with some wonderful questions) on Thursday and Friday at Saffron Tree and at Reading, Writing, Wondering it’s nice to have a stop here to write a short guest blog. Thanks for having me, Sujatha!

As I said recently in an interview with South County Independent editor Betty Cotter, I have a lot of homes inside me. And that’s what you’d asked me to blog about – travel, my early life, how (if) that has affected my writing.

I grew up in India. I lived in Chennai (Madras) until I completed High School and I spent many summers in Mumbai (Bombay) in my sister’s home. Chennai and Mumbai are of course the cities where most of Climbing the Stairs takes place. One obvious way living in different places has influenced me is the detail with which I can recollect and thus recreate the ambience of these cities. I can still remember the Jamun tree that grew along the drive in the house in Velacheri where I spent my early childhood, and the ripe fruit really did dye our drive purple in August, just as the tree outside Vidya’s home does at the beginning of the novel.

For my undergraduate degree, I moved to Bangalore – mostly because I was stubborn and I decided that I wouldn’t do engineering or medicine (the two professions that everyone else around me who got excellent grades wanted to do). I wanted to do something for the environment and only St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore had Environmental science as a major.

My days in Bangalore…I met a lot of people, made many friends, enjoyed myself socially. I don’t really remember studying very hard, but my CV indicates that I must have done something right…

Bangalore…when I returned there recently it was such a shock…high rises everywhere…so many lovely old homes destroyed…gridlock…no longer the idyllic place I was sentimental about. MG Road, Brigade Road, Commercial Street…Koramangala…and of course Indranagar HAL Stage II I think, where mum bought a flat…Rotaract Orchards…research at the Indian Institute of Science.

Then, I left India, for the most part, to study abroad, although I did return to work as a researcher on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – the place where my second novel, Island’s End, now under contract to Penguin and scheduled for publication in 2010, takes place.

Where else have I lived? England for a bit, at a very Hogwarts-ish boarding school. A few years ago I met an old friend from there and he said reading Harry Potter had taken him right back to Brockwood Park, the international Krishnamurthi School where I’d spent a few years, both as a student, and later as director and head of Inwoods, the elementary-middle school there. I remember beautiful walks, rolling hills, and mountain climbing trips and hikes to Wales, Cornwall, Dover, Dorset, the Lake District. Maybe I’ll write about it someday, who knows? We’ve had lots of Brits write about India from their point of view, and now we Indian authors are starting to write about the UK…

Germany. Maybe one day I’ll write a novel set here…for adults though, not YA. Why is that? I can’t explain. But if I did write a book set in Germany, I think it would have to be a book for adults not children, not even young adults.

Then, of course, America. The College of William and Mary, where I did my graduate work. The colonial parkway covered with dogwood blossoms. The sparkling waters of the Chesapeake. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where I did post-doctoral work. The farmers market in the middle of the city. Swimming pools on rooftops. Cozy coffee shops. Crazy ambulance drivers screeching past my flat all night long.

And now, Rhode Island. Ocean State sums it up perfectly. Started my life in the ocean state of Tamil Nadu, and now here I am in the Ocean State of Rhode Island… but not quite at my life’s end, I hope! After all, I have the rest of this blog book tour to complete.

Here are my remaining stops:

Tomorrow, Sunday, May 25th, I’ll be blogging on the topic of being a writing mom and finding time to write at Desi Momz Club;

Monday, May 26th, another guest post. Where were the British colonies during WWII? Doing background research for Climbing the Stairs, at author Laura Purdie Salas’s blog;

Tuesday, May 27th. Climbing the Stairs - The process of writing the novel, weaving together the different threads, at the 5 randoms;

Wednesday, May 28th. Oceanography, research and Climbing the Stairs. Making my schizophrenia work to my advantage. My (at least two) personalities. What it’s like to spend your 21st birthday on a research vessel at author Greg Fishbone’s blog;

Thursday, May 29th. What exactly is that dot on the forehead all about? Arranged marriages, Women in India in the 1940’s, Indian marriages today, gender equality issues in Climbing the Stairs, anything else you ever wanted to know about India at author Carrie Jones’s blog; and

Friday, May 30th. The grand finale. Moving to America, Becoming an American, Multicultural writing at author Mitali Perkins’s blog.

And before I forget, if you want to travel to places online that have reviews of Climbing the Stairs, here are some links:


Padma, thanks for stopping by. Best wishes for a fun and successful book tour, and for continued writing success.

Climbing The Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

I have not yet read Padma Venkatraman's debut novel for young adults, Climbing the Stairs. But if the review at Saffron Tree and the synopsis from the book cover flap are any indication, it promises to be a good read.

Fifteen-year-old Vidya dreams of going to college, an unusual proposition for a girl living in British-occupied India during World War II. When tragedy strikes, Vidya and her brother Kitta are forced to move into a traditional household with her grandfather and her extended family, where men live separately upstairs and the women who live below are meant to be married, not educated.

Breaking the rules, Vidya finds refuge in her grandfather’s second-floor library. There she meets Raman, a young man also living in the house. Surprisingly, he treats her like an equal and encourages her intellectual curiosity. But soon it’s clear Raman wants more than just friendship, and when Kitta makes a shocking choice the family cannot condone, Vidya’s life becomes a whirlwind of personal and political complications. Will she be strong enough to survive the storm?

With the lush settings and heady emotions that mark the best Indian literature, Padma Venkatraman’s debut novel is an epic story of love and loss set against a unique moment in history. Readers of all ages will find deep empathy with Vidya as she battles between ideas and emotions while struggling to pursue her dreams.
The author has lived a multi-faceted life, packing what seems to be at least five lifetimes of action, adventure and travel into one still going strong. Tomorrow, the author will guest blog at Blogpourri, and will talk about how her travels have influenced her substantial body of writing. Until then, here are her interviews at two blogs, Saffron Tree and Reading, Writing, Wondering.

Climbing the Stairs is published by Penguin ($16.99) and is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and independent booksellers.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Travel Essay: Washington, D.C.

I’ve never seen so many suits in one place,” declared a friend visiting from Ohio, as we surveyed the packed metro train to Washington for empty seats several summers ago. Suited, booted and stiletto’d locals stood out from the casually dressed, fanny-pack-and-camera-toting tourists.

It is the humble suit that gives the visitor to Washington a sense of the city’s enterprise — the production, not of automobiles or food products or pharmaceuticals, but of laws, decisions, policies, and, not to forget, a scandal or ten.

From a distance, the city is unimpressive. None of the usual landmarks that define large American cities demarcate Washington from its surroundings. There are no shiny skyscrapers signalling the start of its business district or massive steel bridges heralding the approach of its borders. You would have to look really hard to find the smokestacks on top of factories at the edge of town.

Lincoln Memorial from Memorial Bridge

What is recognizable of the city from miles away, appropriately enough, is the dome of the US Capitol—which houses Congress—and the Washington Monument, the “needle” in local parlance, erected in memory of the nation’s first president.

Up close, the city is compelling. Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the capital “of this vast empire”, as he referred to the US two centuries ago, was nothing short of genius. The land he was allocated on the banks of the Potomac alternated between marshy bogs, heavily wooded wilderness and farmland, with a few hilly patches thrown in. What he envisioned was a neatly organized city with broad, tree-lined avenues, parks and grand buildings and monuments befitting the ideals of a new nation. Amid strife and delays—typical of the way Washington does business even now—it took nearly a century for an approximation of his blueprint to come to life in stone, marble and concrete.

In an election year such as this one, Washington and the way it does business are in sharper focus than usual. “Washington insider” is bandied about as an insult as presidential candidates criss-cross the country, claiming the mantle of the “outsider” who will save the country from the clutches of the “special interests that control Washington”.

The US Capitol

What transpires once the outsider gets in is anybody’s guess, but until the dust settles on 4 November and a victor emerges—bloodied and bruised from the ever-lengthening campaign season—voters are bombarded with missives, ads, debates, media interviews and stump speeches purporting to lay bare the machinations of Congress and the White House.

These four-yearly rituals merely scratch the surface—or so it seems in the face of the number of scandals and leaks that erupt with alarming frequency in this city. The leaking of Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the press was one of the latest, but the big daddy of them all is still Watergate. Named after the Watergate Complex—a striking edifice that houses a hotel, shops, offices and luxury apartments—the fiasco brought down a president and has the unparalleled distinction of helping name successive scandals (Monicagate sound familiar?; Lewinsky, ironically, lived at the Watergate).

Numerous paths lead into Washington from all directions, but my favourite is via the Arlington Memorial Bridge. With the majestic Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument at its top, the marble fa├žade of the Kennedy Center and the spires of Georgetown University to its left and the entrance into Arlington Cemetery at its foot, the expansive bridge transports you into town in style.

As you follow the winding road at the top of the bridge, the vast treasure trove of cultural and political history that is Constitution Avenue begs to be explored. The must-see list—the National Gallery of Art, the National Museums of American History and Natural History, the National Archives, the Smithsonian Museums (home of the ever popular Air and Space Museum), not to mention the White House and the Capitol—is so long that days could blend into weeks in trying to do justice to all that is available in this small corner of Washington.

The World War II Memorial

The rest here.

Child Soldiers

Uganda's rebel army has stepped up a campaign of child abductions in the three countries where it operates, according to foreign investigators, humanitarian groups and Ugandan military authorities in the capital, Kampala.

The Lord's Resistance Army, a messianic armed movement that has waged a 21-year insurrection against the Ugandan government, has recently scooped up more than 100 boys and girls, human rights advocates and military officials say. The children are then forced into the rebel army ranks or made to serve as sexual hostages, rights investigators say.

The abductions are being carried out in southern Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic -- three nations where the rebels maintain bases.


The London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said children were being forced to fight in 17 conflicts around the world, down from 27 in 2004.
The rest in today's Washington Post.

Ishmael Beah's memoir of a child soldier (published a year ago) is on my wishlist of books to read. At that time, he appeared on NPR's Fresh Air. He also wrote an essay for The New York Times adapted from his book:
I ran for days, weeks and months, and I couldn’t believe that the simple and precious world I had known, where nights were celebrated with storytelling and dancing and mornings greeted with the singing of birds and cock crows, was now a place where only guns spoke and sometimes it seemed even the sun hesitated to shine. After I discovered that my parents and two brothers had been killed, I felt even more lost and worthless in a world that had become pregnant with fear and suspicion as neighbor turned against neighbor and child against parent. Surviving each passing minute was nothing short of a miracle.