Cinema Halls

Cinema Halls

Let me be clear. I hate Bollywood movies. They represent everything I dislike about movies – over acting, escapist stories, suddenly bursting in to song for no reason, formulaic plots, etc. Add in Tollywood, Kollywood, and for good measure Hollywood too. I love Film – capital F. I’ve spent countless hours studying the great Films and my list of favorite Directors – Kieslowski, Welles, Kubrick, Lynch, Coen, Malick, Almodovar – show you where my bread is buttered. 

So it was with more than a little trepidation that I made my way to Hyderabad for the premiere of Panjaa – a Telagu film that was produced by one of our friends and shot partly on the streets of Calcutta. 

The plan was to go to one of the old cinema halls to watch the film with “the people.” I felt this was an inspired idea. So we loaded up in our cars – about 30 of us in all – and headed to the Sandyaa 70mm theatre. 

As we turned into the drive we were suddenly stopped. Thousands of people crowded our car, banging on the hood and trying to look inside to see which “stars” had arrived. I thought to myself “They are going to be really disappointed when I step out of this car…” A couple transvestites tried to extort money out of us so that we could enter. Our driver slowly bumped them towards the entry. Finally we jumped out of the car and were ushered inside. The crowd went crazy. We made our way to the balcony level and as we entered it seemed like we were late for a huge party. Confetti – seemingly cut into money shaped sizes – was constantly being thrown in the air. People were dancing in the aisles, screaming with excitement. 

And the movie hadn’t even started yet. 

Each time the lights dimmed, or another person who “might” be an actor entered, or if someone simply jumped up on the stage and started dancing, the crowd would erupt in to what I can only describe as a “happy rage.” 

Finally the movie started. I was trying to figure out where they could take this – how much crazier could it get? The star of the move is Pawan Kalyan, an actor who is quite popular but has “only” made 15 films – a paltry sum in India cinema where the big stars will have 3 or 4 films a year. 

Despite the film being in Telagu (with no subtitles) and having a translator who ignored me (thanks, Latha) I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Sure, seeing Calcutta on the screen was exciting, and the colors and directing were engaging, but I think the biggest reason was that Hall. The excitement was contagious. When Kalyan suddenly started dancing, I wanted desperately to cheer and jump to my feet like the rest of the crowd – but I was like a child, learning to walk, and sat there most of the time in wonder at the whole experience, unsure of how to particpate. 

During the intermission – when the party didn’t let up at all – it suddenly hit me. THIS, is Indian Cinema. The movies are made – not to entertain someone sitting in their living room with their big flat panel screen or even the person who ventures to the multiplex in the mall. The movies are made for the crazy masses. The people who drive our cars, serve us food, and work construction. Getting these people so excited and letting them escape into a fantasy is the complete goal. And if it works, if you are good at this, then they will see your movie many times over. 

Leaving was the same “star treatment” experience, as we ducked out the door and ran to the cars as the crowds screamed. Standing in line they looked as if they were going to burst in anticipation. Like they hadn’t eaten in days and this movie was a meal that they couldn’t wait to devour. A meal they would want to be spicy as possible.

Face Worms

Face Worms

A few months ago I woke up early in the morning with a funny feeling in my left eye. It itched a bit. So I went to the bathroom and washed my face. Then it started to burn. This feeling passed, and the feeling went back to the mild itch… and I went about my day. 

The next morning I woke up with a slightly puffy left eye, and the burn was back. I went to see a skin Doctor we know, but he wasn’t in the clinic, so I saw and eye doctor – who prescribed some drops – and a general physician, who told me it was a “spider kiss” – a reaction to a spider walking over my face. He gave me some meds and I went back to work. 

The next morning I woke up with a left eye that was swelled completely shut, and now my right eye started to look like my left eye did, two days ago. I continued my meds, as the doctor said it would last for three days. 

Two days later things were worse. Both eyes were swelled and bright red… and starting to puss. I finally met with the skin doctor and the minute I walked in the door he said, “What did you eat?” He went on to explain that I had ingested a worm and was now in my face. That’s right. IN MY FACE!. He gave me a pile of meds and within and hour the swelling was almost gone, but the puss continued to excrete for two more days. I felt so much better, aside from the fact that I had a worm in my face. 

“How does it get out?” My wife asked innocently. I didn’t want to know, but I asked the doctor anyway. “It will just get absorbed in to your skin… it’s no big deal.” Right. No big deal. 

The next morning I woke up with two giant red lines on the left side of my face – they ran from my eye to my mouth, in an arc. It sort of looked like a scratch, but up close it obviously wasn’t. 

I assume that this is some sort of trail that the worm(s!?) made as the migrated, in my skin, from my eye to my chin, but I’m not sure. I was freaked out enough to stop shaving for a few months until a second round of meds from the skin doctor did their job. 

Even today, you can see the lines on my face – a faint discoloration that I assume will be with me forever. Damn you, Face Worm!



My wife recently returned from traveling in China, and I spent the week thinking about my trip there last August. It was a spur of the moment thing. I accompanied about 25 Indian men from Bihar who work at my father’s factory on a week long excursion through Shanghai & Beijing. 6 days passed from the point I was asked “So, you want to go to China” to the day we touched down. And just as suddenly I was back in Kolkata – not sure what hit me. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that outside of my 3 brothers (in law) I can’t name a single person in this picture. Not only was I the “boss’s son” but I was the “foreigner” too. Doors were held open for me, bags carried, and I stood in lots of pictures with an awkward smile on my face – but I’m a little shy and probably came off as a slightly unapproachable to these guys.

I learned some interesting things on this trip – about India. For instance, Indians will NOT eat anything except Indian food. 6 days – 17 meals, all in Indian restaurants. And no, there aren’t that many Indian restaurants and we had to visit several of them multiple times. The one Chinese meal that we had was “Indianized” in a wretched way.

The biggest shock though was the level that China is playing at. Sure, we can look at the numbers and say India & China are in the same league, vying for the  title as a new Superpower, but walk through Shanghai, then go to Mumbai. Spend a weekend in Beijing, then go to Delhi for a few days. The differences are immense. Quality infrastructure, clean streets, really nice modern architecture!

It is clear that “Brand China” sees a huge role for design in its world dominance in a way that India either hasn’t considered or has rejected. Bird’s Nest vs. Nehru Stadium is an obvious target with the Commonwealth Games in full swing, but see the shopping malls, the restaurants, and even the most mundane housing complex – they are all seen as an opportunity to be designed with care and an almost self-conscious realization that the world is watching and taking notes – I just hope India is.

Goodbye, Laura

Goodbye, Laura

The first time I “met” Laura was when I was visiting my sister at her place in Madison. It was a tiny house that the owner had somehow managed to divide into two units. My sister and my brother in law lived in the larger unit – half of the ground floor and all of the upstairs – and Laura lived in an efficiency on the other side of the ground floor. I’ve always had allergies and when I suddenly had an attack – which consisted of sneezing 5 or 6 times in a row – from behind the paper thin walls I heard, “Bless you!” To which my sister whispered, “That’s Laura.” It wasn’t until the next day that I actually met her. Slowly, surely, Laura became a part of all our lives. Even when my sister left Madison, Laura remained. Frequent visits, phone calls, random emails, Laura was always there.

Then it hit. Laura had cancer. It didn’t look good. We all braced for the worst, but Laura, she just plowed right through it. Year after year, we expected the worst and she just kept living her life. Through chemo, constant tests, and surgery after surgery – almost 10 years of struggle – Laura held on and made us all laugh along the way.

This week Laura died. From my sister’s account – she just got tired of fighting, weary of beating the odds time after time and probably overdrawn on her miracle credit limit. I’ll miss Laura terribly, even though I hadn’t seen her in years. It will be hard to feel closure on all of this from halfway around the world, to really comprehend that she’s gone. I can’t stand at her funeral and mourn her loss with all those that loved her. I can’t sit with my sister and cry. I can only read an email that says she died.

These are the things you miss when you move so far away – not the taste of good Mexican food, not the falling snow on your face, and not a live Wilco concert with 3 encores. You miss your family & friends and these singular moments when they need you – or you need them.

Goodbye, Laura. We’ll miss you.

Why I'm Doing this to Myself. Reason 04

Why I'm Doing this to Myself. Reason 04

Last weekend saw the completion – and unveiling – of one of our new projects: Starmark. It is a bookstore / lifestyle store in a nearby mall. This is their 4th store – all of which are located in Kolkata – and we were fortunate enough to get the project. As a lifelong bookstore junky, I was eager to take this work on and see what could be done. The space – even though in a mall – was quite interesting as it was located underneath the cineplex – giving us wildly varying ceiling heights throughout. The previous tenant had done the typical mall project, creating a flat ceiling throughout, painting it white and “dressing” the columns with posters. This was a shame, as the exterior windows were all covered and the interesting ceiling was hidden from view.

So we took a different approach. We wanted to – literally – turn the typical store inside out and upside down. A visit to the Starmark store at South City mall serves as our pushing point. Here they have created a mostly uniform white ceiling and have brown wood floors. Also they have wrapped the perimeter with shelves and graphics – leaving the middle open to views. We made the floor white, ceiling brown – graphics hang in the middle and more walls are added to block your ability to see the whole store in one shot. As you walk through, the vastness unfolds – revealing something new and interesting around every corner. All these devices had to occur without sacrificing the functional needs of the store or loosing their corporate brand along the way.

The project took almost 5 months from beginning to end, and I would say that 75% happy with the outcome (there are always some things that you hate or mistakes that you made or simply things you tried that didn’t work) – which is a pretty high percent for me.

Last Friday was the Grand Opening and I was excited to just stand there and watch as people came into the store and looked around. A few people even approached us and relayed how much they enjoyed the design. All the stress leading up to the opening and the work from the last 5 months disappeared, and it was pure pleasure knowing that I had finished. It feels good to have helped create something that will sit as this sort of object in the city – at least for a while – and acts as a marker of my presence here. “Brook was here. He did this.”

The Help

The Help

One of the hardest parts about living in India for me is having domestic help. Most of my life I’ve been intensely private, so having a stranger lingering in my house 24 hours a day is a bit of a change. Before moving here we wondered if having help would be necessary. In the US we have no problem cooking our meals, cleaning our house, or driving ourselves anywhere we want to go. So we wouldn’t we need those luxuries here, right? 


There are some realities of India at play here: 

1) India is a hot and dirty place. You need your windows open and your fans on just about all day (or you close it all up and run your AC). You have to mop the floors daily and dust all horizontal surfaces or become very comfortable with walking on a layer of dust. 

2) Indian food is time consuming to make and kitchens are not air conditioned. Toiling away in a hot kitchen for a few hours after a day at the office isn’t as fun as it sounds, but my wife still does it very often.

3) Driving in India is hard. Not only are there millions of other cars on the road, but most of them are driven by career drivers who have complete disregard for the actual rules of the road. So if you’re not being cut off by someone you’re probably sitting in a traffic jam for a few hours, not moving. 

So the hiring starts in an innocent manner. Maybe you’ll hire someone to clean everyday. They’ll stop by the house in the morning – on their route of several other jobs – dust, sweep the floor, then mop, and they’re gone in maybe an hour or two. This is pretty cheap too, and definitely worth paying for. 

The next notion is finding someone to wash your clothes. Some people have washers, but that is rare, and i have yet to see a dryer. The norm is washing all the clothes by hand, then hanging them out to dry. You can’t do a lot of clothes at one time this way, so someone usually will do this daily. Once dry, you need to iron the clothes (go ahead, dry something outside once and see how it looks afterward). So everything gets ironed, yes, even my underwear. Often this will be separated into two groups – iron at home or send to get ironed. Almost every neighborhood will have an ironing guy who has a shack and spends his days ironing. Drop the clothes off, and a couple days later, he’ll bring them by all nice and pressed, then, you pay him. The washing person could be the same person who cleans the house or someone new – there are advantages either way. Make it a combo job and you’re dealing with less new people roaming the house everyday and probably can get a discount, but if that person is sick then two jobs don’t get done.

Then you’ll start thinking about the food and getting someone to cook. Often you can find a cook to come in the morning and make all the food for the day, then leave. Finishing their job in a couple hours. You have to know what you want or else be fine with getting something you REALLY don’t want. The amount you pay these people is often little enough that it seems a bit dumb NOT to do it. 

In time you’ll consider getting a person who can clean, wash clothes and cook – a live in maid. Seems ideal, right? Get someone to do all this stuff and the only catch being they sleep on your floor and eat some of your food. What could go wrong? Well, maybe they like to hang out on the corner and talk to other maids about what goes on in your house… Or maybe they see some money lying on the table one day and it disappears… Or you go for vacation and you come back and they’ve disappeared… Basically a lot can go wrong.

Every once in a while we feel we have all of this under control. The food is tasting good, the house is in order, and the clothes aren’t turning funny shades of pink, but more often then not it’s just a pile of frustration. 

It’s easy to get sucked in to the myth of the perfect maid – organized, makes wonderful tea, amateur chef, quiet, and a real bargain too… but I’m starting to wonder if such a person even exists.

Papri Chaat

Papri Chaat

Street food is my weakness. It’s hard enough when I have to walk or drive by a vendor and NOT stop, but when they come directly to my house and stand outside my door ringing their bell (which musically calls to my stomach) I have a hard time refusing. Every day between 5:00 and 6:00 in the evening the Chaat Wallah strolls by our house, pushing his yellow cart, dinging his bell and serving tasty treats. I’ve noticed that he slows down and rings a bit louder at our house, and with good reason. I’m a sucker. There was a couple weeks back in February where I was buying Chaat every day. Thankfully this has stopped, as my growing gut and tightening pants will attest.

Though I love all kinds of Chaat – which is basically Indian Fast Food or snacks – I have completely fallen in love with Papri Chaat. There are as many varieties of Papri Chaat as there are vendors who make it – yes, that’s a lot of variety – however, my Chaat Wallah has the best Papri Chaat of all.

Here’s how he makes it:

- First, a layer of Papri – a flour based, deep fried chip.
- Followed by a layer of boiled potato.
- Then he sprinkles some sort of “cake” like substance – that is pale yellow. No idea what this is, but it absorbs flavor nicely.
- Now come the chutneys – a Tamarind Chutney followed by the deepest red hot sauce I’ve ever seen. He puts a lot on too, spoonful after spoonful, carefully spread evenly over the entire dish.
- Then comes some fried crispy noodle like things
- Topped with cut coconut and coriander.

All this is made with his bare – unwashed – hands and then he finally slips the wooden spoon underneath and hands the plate over with a smile, asking for his Rs.20 (about 35 cents). I go inside, sit at my desk and drift off into heaven.

If you want to try his wares, head on over to BD market after 6pm and look for the guy at the SouthEast corner – he has a mustache, though most of these guys do, so that probably won’t help.



This is Chotu (with my parents). Or rather, this is Anupham Anupam Mahato – whom we refer to as “Chotu” which means small, and standing at under 5′ he certainly is. He’s also the youngest in his family, which consists of his Mother and 2 brothers. Chotu has been working for our family for many years and has developed a wide range of skills. Cooking, cleaning, fixing random things around the house, and is even a very capable substitute nanny when needed. Since we moved here, Chotu has been one of our only mainstays – leaving us briefly to battle malaria. We’ve become accustomed to his moodiness and his food, and often rely on him to watch over our son – who has become very fond of him.

Born in Bihar in a village west of Patna, Chotu originally worked for our family there before shifting to Kolkata. He is often sharply dressed – especially when he’s sneaking out to the park or the mall – and is usually very reliable. I say “usually” because sometimes he forgets things. I may ask him for tea and he’ll go back to the kitchen and never return. He’s also quite clumsy – though this is mostly due to the speed with which he works. He has broken several items in our house while cleaning. One day, after breaking a glass clock, my wife told him, “You’re breaking something every week.” Chotu replied, “No, I break something every other week.” Probably a more accurate assessment and also displayed his somewhat rye sense of humor.

Chotu’s father died several years ago and has left the family strapped with major debt. In all likelihood, this debt is being falsely leveraged by a lending body, however, Chotu’s pride – larger than his name – will not allow him to seek assistance in this. It does however drive him to work very hard.

He is also a very superstitious boy. Just yesterday he refused to kill a rat that is in our house, because he’s been told that if he does, he will not be able to cook well any longer. He said this, and we laughed – he did too – but I’m sure he believes this thoroughly.

We’ve spent most of our time here in India trying to replace Chotu, so he can move on to other work and responsibilities. Ideally he’d be working in our office – running errands and going to job sites – but this has yet to materialize. In the last month we are just now finding those people to replace his daily routine – he still makes the best tea – and hopefully soon we can “promote” him. I’m sure he’ll still stop and play with my son and from time to time I’ll force him to make me some tea, but it’s time for Chotu to build a new set of skills.