Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Book Review: Brick Lane

Let me introduce my friend Shahnaj: Sylheti origin, South East Kent residing, hijab wearing, fish curry loving, hippie artist. We met at a party at college and I was immediately drawn to her paint splattered jeans and her ethnic jewelry - she was erratic and all over the place, spoke an excited British-English to her friends and a loud Anglified-Bengoli to her family. She was proud of who she was and where she was from, grew up in a predominantly white community as "the only Indian family in Folkestone". And she came from a big stereotypically Bengoli family - father owned an Indian restaurant, mother was quiet and always in the kitchen, lot's of siblings and lot's of in-laws straight from Bangladesh, all under one roof. From the outside, her house looked like any other house on a quiet suburban street, but when the front door opened the smells of freshly ground spices wafted into the street and the chatter of a foreign language with English words thrown in would stop those unfamiliar with the Islam family in their tracks - others just walked on.

I miss my friend Shahnaj. She showed me a culture I was oblivious to, the "Asians" of England. They all spoke English to each other but their mother tongue with their mothers, they knew the insides of Green Street and Southall and they had community gatherings every so often that were filled with music, gossip and gorgeous food. Perhaps I am lucky to have such ethnic looks to have easily blended in the background of Shahnaj's busy household, but I am even luckier to have made such a good friend whose family took me in and showed me what made them different from the Pakistanis, Indians, Sri Lankans and definitely the English. Spending time with them involved dressing me up, forgetting I didn't speak their language and a lot of "Gi Khala" and nodding on my behalf to old aunties who pinched my cheeks - it was always good fun.

I picked up Brick Lane by Monica Ali because I had always seen it on Shahnaj's bookcase but never read it. Upon reading it, I only hoped that it had some good descriptions of Brick Lane and East London and it did far more than that - it painted a beautiful story of a young girl's life and a funny but scarily accurate rendition of living as an Asian in East London.

The book tells the story of Nazneen, a "good Bengoli wife" brought to England to marry Chanu, overzealous council worker who recites English literature at any given moment and teaches his childern about the national symbols of their homeland Bangladesh. Nazneen plays the role of the dutiful wife and mother, sometimes an outsider London but through her Bengoli roots she finds a role in the Asian community of Tower Hamlets. The story goes back and forth between her memories of growing up in a village in Bangladesh and her life as a mother to second generation British Asians. Her pull to her homeland remains with letters from her sister Hasina describing the turbulent life back in Bangladesh and her involvement with a young Bengoli activist who captures her heart.

The story is that of love, betrayal, family ties and the need to belong to a world that any reader could recognise. Ali's descriptions of walking through the neighbourhoods of East London are spot on down to the Indian shop keepers outside their windows and the teenage boys smoking on stairwells. Through her descriptions of London and Bangladesh you are taken to a busy city or the dusty village alike in such a sweet and humble manner. The story is captivating to anyone because of its painfully funny descriptions and sweet story telling nature. Even the events which are somewhat dark are written in such a simple, matter of fact way and Ali shows an extreme comparison between the lives of characters without it seeming so alarmingly disturbing to the reader but hopeful that different lives take different paths.

The characters are charming in their own way: Chanu with his corns and bulging cheeks touches your heart somehow, Shahana and Bibi, the rebel and dutiful daughters, reach out to you by how they become less traditional in times when they don't want to wash their hair with fairy liquid anymore and want to use shampoo. You sympathise with Razia, the chain smoking neighbour in a union jack t-shirt, and her problems with her son Tariq and Mrs. Islam reminds you of the creepy old woman who carries a miniature pharmacy in her handbag and coughs orders to her sons.

The film was released earlier this year, I would have liked to see it and now that I've read the book I think I will duly enjoy it. Monica Ali was picked by critics before her book was even published and for a very good reason: Brick Lane is an enjoyable read and although there is little character progression and the story doesn't come to a big-bang ending, it leaves you feeling light heartened and again, hopeful, for the characters who you could see in real life one day walking down Brick Lane.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Songs that make me cry # 26

Wise Men say
only fools rush in
but I cant help falling in love with you..

Shall I stay?
Would it be a sin?
If I can't help falling in love with you...

Like a river flows, surely to the sea
Darlin so it goes, somethings are meant to be..

Take my hand, take my whole life too
for I can't help fallin in love with you...


I am a sucker for Elvis and UB40 alike - people just don't sing it like they used to.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Summer Sales: Buy Me, Buy Me, Buy Me

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am one for a bargain - I am a woman after all.

The past 2 weeks have been reduction mad, from clothes to furniture and even places like Ashrafs and Yaquby stores reducing kitchen appliances and cameras - everyone's trying to get rid of all their stock in their air conditioned stores (what a way to beat the summer heat!). Soon enough all the high street stores will follow, but what has really kicked the boot are the designer sales happening around the islands… Looking at other people's baskets and bruised arms, here is a quick low down of what you fashionistas should be looking out for…

Villa Moda
50% off Bottega Venetta, Valentino, Marni, D&G, Dolce and Gabanna, and much more…
Damage: Bottega ballet flats for BD113, Bottega bracelets for BD20, Bottega Men's thobe slippers for BD100, Valentino Bags for BD500.
Where: Movinpick Hotel, until the 21st of June.
Worth it? Depends on what you're looking for… When a Marni dress is reduced from BD 800 to BD 400, you still have to think twice - there weren't as many women over the clothes as expected… The shoes and handbags went on Day 1 like hotcakes, but the clothes were still hung perfectly for people to sniff at their still expensive prices… New shipments coming in every so often and a prediction of prices falling towards the last few days…

50% off whatever is left from the massacre (shoes, belts, handbags, tacky accessories)
Damage: Work shoes for BD92, every day clutches for BD 63, nice leather handbags reduced to BD300, a beautiful box clutch for BD220.
Where: Basement of Al A'ali Mall, until the end of the month.
Worth it? The nicest stuff was gone in the first 30 minutes of the sale with women walking out with multiples of handbags on their arms to buy - so whatever left is the real tacky stuff or things that are too bold for anyone to buy.

40% off Paul & Joe, Manoush, Juicy Couture, French Sole and others
Damage: Paul & Joe shirts for BD80, Juicy Couture sweats for BD 60, French Sole ballet flats for BD 30.
Where: Al A'ali Mall, until stocks last
Worth it? If you won't leave your house to the DVD place without your Juicies, stocking up on a few isn't such a bad idea… Because it's not a massive sale everything is still intact with no snags on the delicate pieces and the staff are extremely smiley.

Jimmy Choo
Up to 40% (shoes and bags)
Damage: The cheapest pair of shoes were BD 147, everything else was still over BD200...
Where: Al A'ali Mall, until stocks last…
Worth it? If you only wear Choo's and only where Choo's, then it could be.

Special Mention to: Seventh Heaven 90% Sale, where I bagged two beautiful Stella McCartney dresses and two pairs of shoes, an Alexander McQueen handbag, all for 90% off. The bargains were ridiculous and for three days the exhibition center was filled with men and women digging under mountains of clothes for jeans, shoes, dresses, tops, handbags, you name it… The first day was the worst in terms of clean air to breathe in but the best in terms of bargains and after that the excitement died to a dull buzz. Most shoppers came out regretting not buying enough even after spending hundreds of Dinars - that is a sign of a successful sale.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gymmin' It Up with the likes of Eric Prydz

I used to be the girl who would walk everywhere, so much that it annoyed friends to come out with me because I never wanted to use any form of transport. "It's a nice walk!" I would always protest because I liked stretching my limbs. I used to take the stairs up to my office on the 7th floor and enjoyed going out for a jog in the evening. I think I could still dance all night long so I would classify myself as a generally "active person".

Things have changed since I've come back home - my expanding waistline seems to be more than happy with the absence of any physical activity and low calorie pre-packed lunches. It wobbles its satisfaction ever time I gorge it with samboosas, cake, kebabs and the array of sweets my mother strategically leaves in front of the television when I come home from work. One day I started walking over to my car to drive somewhere for lunch with coworkers without thinking that it was only a 5 minute walk away - they looked at me like I was crazy lazy and that's when I realised that something bad was happening and it had to stop. This was far worse than not fitting into clothes, which had already started happening at this point: this was sloth, and sloth is a deadly sin (according to Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, of course). The obvious solution? To join a gym and get "fit" again.

This was easy - there is a large selection of decent gyms to suit your needs, whether you're looking for a women's only gym or somewhere to go and catch up with buddies while you attempt your "fat man's workout" (quoting my brother). I joined somewhere with a decent selection of machines, a nice pool with soothing music to relax in and a variety of funny characters that I cannot avoid sneaking glances at.

There is the Determined Young Man (DYM) who is clearly obsessed with the gym. He works in a bank/auditing firm/investment company of some sort, your typical 9-6 job, in his early to late twenties and goes to the gym 3-4 times a week right after work. He has the Puma t-shirt, the Nike shoes, sometimes even the iPod arm band. And he has "The Face". "The Face" isn't evident all the time; DYM walks around more than he actually works out because he is continuously comparing his work out techniques with others. "The Face" only comes out when he is pumping iron (because they all do, they all pump iron). He usually has another DYM spotting him, either a coworker or an old high school buddy, who prompts him to push/breathe/bench/or whatever it is they do. Shortly after you can hear a loud grunt which may make you look over and spot "The Face". It is a terrifying look of pure pain and agony where DYM starts shaking as he lifts X kilos of weight before the bar plummets back down to the safety holdings and not on his neck as you would probably fear if you were watching this for the first time. "The Face" is followed by a look of exhaustion and some heavy breathing and an encouraging hetro-pat from DYM 2, who is eager for his turn next to show off his strong Y gene. When these boys are working out, they can only imagine Peter Andre's oiled six pack in the Mysterious Girl video and that's what keeps them going.

There is the Old But Still In Good Shape (OBSIGS), who speed walks on a high incline with a look of boredom on his face. He uses all the weight machines and has friendly chats with other old men about going into the steam room to cool off. They go to the gym regularly but don't beat themselves out, they have their towels around their necks and slip out of the gym as quietly as they slip in. They never make an entrance, never speak too loudly and always spend the exact amount of time in their work out - 20 minutes on the treadmill, 10 minutes on the bike, 20 minutes on various machines and 5 minutes on either side stretching. Clockwork that works. They have a routine that their round wives are secretly jealous of.

There are always a few Gym Socialites (GymSoc's) who go to the gym in their Juicy Couture or Y3 gear, stop to say hello and air kiss friends. Females check their waterproof mascara abilities between sessions and males check the gelled hair. Workouts are never strenuous and sessions are never too long because they always have other engagements. Their bodies, however, are always perfect.

And of course, there must be at least one HULK at any given time (also known as I Only Drink Protein Shakes guys, I Work Out 3 Times A Day guys or Look At My Rippling Muscles/I Put Hercules To Shame guys). You cannot miss these spectacles and most other gym-goers openly stare at them with envy. Their bodies are bulky and the have smug faces when they nod their hellos to other regulars "Yup, I wasn't born with this body, I worked for it…" Imagine something superhero-like: Each muscle is properly defined and their arms seem to spread out from their bodies because they're just so big. They saunter in, rarely ever do any substantial cardio and go straight to the weights to lift what seems to be the weight of a small car. They stare at themselves in the mirror a lot and scope out their competition. They are usually the most talkative people in the gym because they always want to give you tips and watch you fail in whatever task they've given you to do. These are the guys with the closest thing to Peter Andre's oiled six pack in the Mysterious Girl video.

As for me, I fall in the HAPOTT category (Huffing And Puffing On The Treadmill). HAPPOTT's can easily be spotted as the person with the red and exhausted look on her face. You can probably hear her terrible breathing from across the gym and pity her. She refills her water bottle at least half a dozen times and watches the cooking channel during her whole session. She tries to go as regularly as she can, she is friendly to the people who work there but still tries to avoid old acquaintances who give her sympathetic encouragement for trying to keep fit. She is also the one who you will spot at the Dairy Queen drive-thru with a guilty look on her face while she orders sinnly onion rings with extra barbecue sauce. Sympathise with her, at least she tries.

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