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29 June 2008

Maren and Markus on their 25th year together

MY SISTER Maren and her husband Markus are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years of being happily married is a rich achievement, and it gives me pride and joy as a sibling.

To Maren and Markus, I wish both of you all the silver radiance in your unified hearts as you move your lives together into the next 25 years!

FOCAL POINT : Gyles Brandreth, “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”

“OSCAR WILDE and the Ring of Death” (John Murray Publishers, 2008) is the second book in Gyles Brandreth's series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as detective. It is one of the most entertaining books I have read this year, fueled by Mr Brandreth's impressive understanding of the Wilde witticism and the affairs of the turn of the century. It is almost like Mr Brandreth having romped through London at that time with Oscar Wilde himself, and then living to tell the tale.

In the book, Mr Wilde is the toast of London's high society. His “Lady Windermere's Fan” is a critical and box-office success, and his popularity is unmatched amongst the cognoscenti. One evening, at an exclusive “Sunday Supper Club” dinner with such friends as Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker, and Robert Sherard (who also narrates the story), Wilde introduces a parlor game involving a list of people that his guests would secretly like to kill. From the next day onward, each person on the “hit list” dies mysteriously, in the very order with which his or her name showed up during the dinner. Wilde, Conan Doyle, and Sherard begin to investigate independently, especially after failing to enlist the help of Scotland Yard . . . and especially since Wilde's name itself appears on the “hit list!” Their ensuing adventures are as jolly as they are thrilling.

Mr Brandreth's characters stay with you throughout the reading of the book. I like the way that he imbues beauty in every character, even those who Oscar Wilde considers “ugly” (“He is grotesque. Speak to him, Robert. I cannot”) and who Robert Sherard abhors (“He was too charming, too intelligent, too well- and widely-read”). The sensual characters coexist with the virtuous, and they all stand out.

But it is in his profound knowledge of Oscar Wilde that Mr Brandreth shines. I am not sure of any other novelist who can match his ability to drop this much Wildesque one-liners (“It is sweet to think that one day I will serve to grow tulips”) and add-on information (“It's called parsley.” “Correctly known as ‘petroselinum’”). Mix that with terrific wit and story-telling shrewdness, and you have a fun writer and a sensational book.

I do not think that “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Fire” is necessarily part of a series that you read in order. I picked up the book from Kolkata's Starmark Bookstore with no prior knowledge of Mr Brandreth and his murder series, and I did not notice the need to read the prequel. However, I shall move on to the other books. Oscar Wilde and Gyles Brandreth are certainly worth the time.

See more about “Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death”.


Q10 Screenshot

Screenshot of Q10 at work on my laptop

LAST NIGHT, while surfing DailyWritingTips, I came across a new word processor called Q10. It's a freeware with a lovely minimalist layout—only the full, dark screen and the letters, the colors and font of which you can change. I kept mine at Courier to replicate an old-fashioned typewriter and changed the color to light blue (blue refreshes me). Best of all, it has the sound of an old-fashioned typewriter!

I'm now using the writing tool and getting very amused with it. As I write, I'm least bothered about other programs running in my laptop, thanks to the full-screen layout. This makes me much more focused on writing. I might even get to write more posts!

The only downside is that Q10 works only on Windows. I'm not sure if the developers are planning to roll out a version for Linux and Mac. Sorry, Macsters. (You can try WriteRoom instead.)

Try Q10 and let me know what you think. You can download the software here.

SIGHTED SITE : Urbano, Kolkata

DEBUTING AT South City Mall in southern Kolkata is Urbano, an exciting new furniture and accessories destination. I'm impressed with their mix-and-match palette of furniture sets, soft furnishings, adornments, and lighting mostly from Spain, Turkey, and Southeast Asia. It's easily one of the most chic collections that I've seen in Kolkata.

Covering 12,000 square feet of space next to Spencer's Hyper, Urbano has the look and feel of the Met Museum Store. The ceiling is stripped of any finish, painted instead in black to lower the airspace and allow the metal halide and warm white lighting to permeate the entire store.

The adornment section covers the left half of the store and features stark-colored glazed ceramic ware, silk florals, shiny polyester shag rugs, over-sized glass jars, and gilded Orientalia on black and white gondolas. Using techniques of repetition and color grouping, the adornments display is well presented. Because I'm poor at shutting my mouth when it comes to anything pertinent to visual merchandising, I advised one of the owners to remove the massive vase display at the windows to allow an unperturbed view of the adornment section from the mall. He agreed. I gloated.

The right, and larger, half of the store features the furniture collections, tightly grouped to allow an easy navigation around the store. However, Urbano sticks to strongly defined lifestyle themes around every collection. One of the garden sets, for example, is hemmed in by a wooden fence and soft-pile grass-green carpet. In one of the most luscious living room sets in the store, a violin rests on a very low massive wooden table. (It works: I overheard one of the shoppers inquiring if the instrument is being sold.) The loose essential pieces are displayed on airspace shelves with tag lines as backdrop—a technique used extensively by Ikea and the Met Store, but working effectively in Urbano.

I'm most excited about the few lighting pieces. Halogen-lit chandeliers with silver and crystal beads drop from ceiling to floor like spiral waterfalls of iridescent, shimmering balls. An unusual piece is a plain-looking table lamp that seems to have melted, with its diagonal half cut away to rest on the table. The effect is delightful.

The price points are surprisingly competitive to other high-end furniture stores in the city. For example, a five-foot veneered bedroom cabinet with four shelves is worth less than Indian Rupees 5,000 (USD 120), and a full double-door veneered bookshelf is within the range of Indian Rupees 12,000 (USD 285). Not bad, considering the abundance of Malaysian furniture in Kolkata with the same price range.

Visit the store and indulge in a new home living experience in Kolkata.

Lower Ground Floor, South City Mall
375 Prince Anwar Shah Road
Kolkata 700 068, India
Telephone +91 33 2422 8760

Related site: Urbano

28 June 2008

SIGHTED SITE : Artisana, Kolkata

TUCKED AWAY in one of southern Kolkata's inner lanes is a pleasant surprise: Artisana, a 1,000-square-foot showroom stocking some of the most exquisite Bengali crafts I've ever seen. Located on the first floor of a nondescript building off Gokhale Road, there is nothing fancy about its architecture, but never mind: the items on display far outweigh the store design. Vibrantly colored jute bags and table mats hang on rods next to equally colorful terracotta sculptures and leather coin boxes. Fabrics abound, from hand-embroidered kantha (patched cloth) sarees and bedsheets to silk stoles and linen scarves. Delicately drawn fabric scroll paintings, rolled up in a huge bowl, look like diplomas ready to be acquired. In one room, silver filigree jewelry and dokra (cast metal) wares sit side by side. I wonder how they manage to polish the metals: they all gleam!

And then there are masks. There's quite a variety displayed on the walls, mostly wooden and papier-mâché effigies of divinities used by the Chhou dancers of Purulia, West Bengal. In fact, most of the masks on sale have been used in actual festival performances, making their utilitarian value more attractive. The four-foot golden mask of the goddess Durga, displayed on a corner of the showroom, is the largest Chhou mask I've ever seen. I wanted to buy the scarlet papier-mâché mask of the fiery goddess Kali with a crown made of shola (an herbacious plant endemic to West Bengal), but it seemed too fragile to possibly stand my future sojourns.

Artisana is managed by the Crafts Council of West Bengal, a non-profit organization promoting the revival and preservation of the arts and crafts of eastern India. The showroom opened in July 2003 and is run by friendly, knowledgeable volunteers. On my visit, two senior female staffers beguiled me with their graceful Bengali manners and eloquence. They invited me to attend the upcoming Orissa Festival in their store on 4-10 July, even showing me a draft of the marketing poster. Charmed, I must attend that festival.

13 Chowringhee Terrace, 1st Floor (off Gokhale Road)
Kolkata 700 020, India
Telephone +91 33 2223 9422

Related site: Crafts Council of West Bengal

The Bahá'í election process

THIS WEEK, “Interfaith Voices”, an Internet radio program, featured the Bahá'í election process on the basis of the recent 100th Bahá’í National Convention in Wilmette, Illinois. The program describes the feature story as: “Want to Improve Elections? Watch the Baha'is—If it seems like there ought to be a more civil way to run democratic elections, members of the Baha’i Faith say, that’s because there is. The Baha’i election process involves no campaigning, no baby-kissing, and most surprising of all—no money. This year Baha'is held their 100th National Convention in suburban Chicago, and Jennifer Brandel was there to watch the action.”

Listen to the program on Chicago Public Radio.

Related Sites: Interfaith Radio, Chicago Public Radio

23 June 2008

Why are there no umbrellas in Kolkata?

I SPENT the whole evening looking for an umbrella in the city, and I went home finding none.

I can't believe that stores in Kolkata, let alone the more cosmopolitan southern part of the city, do not stock on umbrellas. I first went to the veritable grande dame of department stores, Shoppers Stop, but they have no parasol to sell. I then visited a row of sports houses, and there are no umbrellas. I tried Samsonite: none (which makes sense: if you travel in planes, why need an umbrella?). Then the trendy casual brands around Theatre Road and Elgin Road: apparently, umbrellas are not that trendy. Then finally to Sumangal The Man's Store—yes, Virginia, they do call them these way—where the store manager met me with a quizzical stare. Perhaps it's not man enough to carry an umbrella in Kolkata, ya?

Not that I badly need one, as I still have the blue five-foot manual umbrella from my days in Mumbai. But in Kolkata, you don't need a five-foot umbrella. You need a more compact one, possibly a folding one, to avoid it from getting squished by the massive humanity of the streets. Or avoid it from squishing the massive humanity of the streets.

For a city that literally disappears under the four-month torrent of monsoon rains, not finding an umbrella is almost a crime. Don't the Kolkatans leave the house during the rains? If they do leave the house, how do they manage not getting wet? Or do they actually enjoy getting drenched? At the Tommy Hilfiger store, I asked the sales associate, "Where do you buy your umbrella?”

“I don't have one.”

“How do you leave the house during monsoon?”

“I get one from home.”

“Where did that umbrella come from?”

“From home.”

Not wanting to return to the hospital for hypertension, I decided to give up the search for the elusive umbrella. Perhaps the older bazaars downtown have some fuddy-duddy made-in-China stuff: let me check them this weekend.

That is, if it doesn't rain this weekend!

Welcome back to work

REPORTING FOR work today, I realized I actually missed the office. It's been three weeks since I was away from it—one week traveling around India, the second week crashing in the hospital, the third week recuperating with petrifying boredom at home—and the desk just beckoned. Officemates used my cabin as a meeting room while I was gone, which is perfectly fine considering how ill designed the new office is (there is only one meeting room for the whole floor). But I wouldn't have thought they used it at all: everything's in the right place.

The one thing I love about Indians is their thoughtfulness. While I was in the hospital, each of my officemates managed to reach out: a visit, a phone call, an SMS. Even two senior vice presidents found the time to either call me or send an SMS with his best wishes. It was a blast this morning to be greeted effusively in the office. Another vice president even shared a valuable tip: “Drink only from bottled water from now on, and avoid cut vegetables.”

As a Filipino living without fellow Filipinos in Kolkata, this warm welcome-back from my Indian colleagues makes the trip back to the office so much like going home.

13 June 2008

The doctor made me do it

I WAS admitted to Kolkata's Woodlands General Hospital last Tuesday after a three-day battle against flu-like symptoms: headaches, high fever, chills, loose motions, regurgitation, no appetite, no sleep, dreadful sense of weakness, and hair-pulling (me on mine). The doctor finally decided to get me admitted before I lost all body fluids and hair. Diagnosis: gastroenteritis and respiratory tract infection.

It's my first time to be ever confined, so I wasn't sure if I was prepared for the horror stories of medical tests which I received from my sisters after I broke the news. So far, they haven't been that bad, although the intravenous drips are indeed annoying. And oh, there's that truly disturbing injection which left my skin feeling like the state of the world during the fall of the Roman Empire: red and burning.

(That injection turned out to be some antibiotic that I was allergic to. Bleh.)

This morning, I was taken out of the intravenous drips, but will remain in Woodlands for at least three more days. And I'm able to eat more fully now. The fish tonight, in fact, was quite tasty. Except that it looked like beef slices . . .

06 June 2008

Three stores in four weeks

Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Kandivali, Mumbai, India

IN THE past four weeks, we did the unthinkable: open three big stores simultaneously. Not that I've never done this before (in Manila, I once opened 60 Christmas window displays in four stores in two weeks!), but three big stores with very big VM plans opening within days of each other with a very small VM team is, well, unthinkable.

Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Gurgaon, Haryana, India

Fortunately, that small VM team is the finest in India. They are the ten men and women chosen from close to 300 candidates in the past ten months, and their productivity has proven me so right in selecting them. For the three maddening stores, I gathered all ten of them together in groups and sent them across the land with a detailed battle plan. I stepped out of their way, allowing them to bond with each other, learn from each other, backbite me, and generally mangle my original VM plans for the stores. I stepped into their bliss only to audit their completed work and generally remind them that, hello, I’m still alive and still very much their boss. I didn’t really have to go that far, since I was too dazzled with their brilliant execution to even think of being bossy.

And that is how we did the unthinkable.

Visual merchandising at Spencer's Hyper, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

04 June 2008


SEATED LAST night at the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, I completed a five-hour interview marathon with short-listed candidates for my north India team. What a delight to see how four young men, born in the same generation in the same region, shared different and rather pointed perspectives to my same set of questions! What remained constant was a dutiful devotion to family: one could not relocate to another city since his wife works in New Delhi, while another was taking care of his parents.

I'm always fascinated with the way creative youth speak their minds out, and India is one of the best places to enjoy this. Loud and articulate, with pointed affectations and lilting accents, young Indian men and women always need to get their voices heard. (Read my earlier post about their loudness.) Their convictions sometimes border on being opinionated, uninitiated (it still surprises me to find gender biases) and trivial (there is always something wrong with something—or someone). Call it hollow. I call it fun!

Last night's candidates showed up on time for their respective sessions. Impressed, I was ready to mark such timeliness as a regional trait . . . until the fifth guy failed to show up. Not wanting to spoil the interview momentum, I waited at the lobby. I left after an hour, seething: he never showed up and never even bothered to call with his regrets. The headhunter heard the fiercest blast of rebuke from me later on. Talk about speaking out and getting heard.