Chromosomally Enhanced and Extra Special

The Austin Half Marathon, Texas. February 2017. The race route had long been closed, the volunteers packed up, and spectators all gone. The half marathon runners had collected their race medals and headed for a celebratory post-event brunch. One person was still on the road, still running the race.

Kayleigh Williamson, 26, crossed the finish line of the 2017 edition of the Austin Half Marathon in 6:22:56, making her the first person with Down Syndrome to complete a half marathon. “I kept going. When I hit the finish line I was proud of myself. My friend got me pretty nice flowers“, said Williamson while speaking to Runner’s World over the phone.

Kayleigh and her mum Sandy had been jogging for years to keep their weight down. Kayleigh had two autoimmune disorders, one of which was life-threatening. She needed surgery to have her spleen removed due to an extremely low blood platelet count. Post surgery and on the road to recovery, once Kayleigh started eating better and resumed running, her platelet count went up but resulted in remission of her Graves’ disease (which causes overproduction of thyroid hormones. Kayleigh is still in remission.)

According to mum Sandy, Kayleigh has always been active – she had joined the Texas Special Olympics basketball team when she was thirteen, and still played regularly, but running was what she loved the most. In 2016, Kayleigh wanted to participate in the ‘Austin Distance Challenge’ – a series of five races that culminated with the Austin Half Marathon on the 19th of February 2017. She managed two out of the first four – the ‘Run Free Texas 8K’, and ‘Run For The Water 10 miler’. A half marathon distance would require a lot more effort. The mother-daughter duo visited RunLab Austin – a facility specializing in biomechanics, gait analysis, and rehabilitation for runners. According to Kimberley Davis, the CEO of RunLab who has been working with Kayleigh since then, “People with Down Syndrome have hyper mobility – they are super flexible in their joints, but find it difficult to do basic movements“. And that is what Davis and Kayleigh worked on for four months before the half marathon – biomechanics, gait and stability training.

When she hit that finish line, I went from being a mother thinking she has to be protected from the world, to thinking she’s a woman who can take on the world“, said mum Sandy after the race. Kayleigh replied with a “toughen up, buttercup“.

Today is ‘World Down Syndrome Day’ – a global awareness initiative that has been backed by the United Nations since 2012. It highlights the facts of what it is like to have Down Syndrome, and how those with Down Syndrome play a vital role in our communities. The date selected is the twenty-first day of the third month – a nod to the uniqueness of the triplication of the twenty-first chromosome which leads to Down Syndrome. 21st March 2018 marks the thirteenth anniversary of World Down Syndrome Day. The focus this year is “how people with Down Syndrome can make meaningful contributions throughout their lives – in schools, workplaces, community, public and political sectors, culture, media, recreation, leisure and sport“.

Which is what makes Kayleigh love running as a sport. “The running community and everyone connected to it has been so welcoming. It has given us a home where it isn’t so easy to find one“, said Kayleigh during an interview with ESPN at RunLab. Down Syndrome is often accompanied with hypothyroidism, sleep disorders, poor muscle tone, anxiety; Kayliegh has Graves’ disease and is pre-diabetic. Sports are not a cure, but they can alleviate these conditions, and also provide a sense of community. In addition to basketball, Kayleigh also swims and has trained in Krav Maga for three years. But counts long distance running as her favorite sport. “Special needs or not, anybody can run. Even if you are not Kenyan. Work with movement and change your mindset“, she says.

water stop
At one of the water stops en route
Nearing the finish line
~Down Syndrome International
~Runner’s World

A Cherry Sinister Murder – Book Review

Title – A Cherry Sinister Murder

Authors – Nancy McGovern and Cyra Bruce

Genre – Fiction, Chick-lit

This is the first book in the “Slice of Paradise Cozy Mystery Series” – a series of culinary mysteries, all set around baking.


“Layered cinnamon and clove-spiced maple syrup with honey-glazed pumpkin in a tall parfait glass. Then mini squares of apple-sage cake, followed by homemade cinnamon-oat ice cream, then a layer of cream. A sprinkling of cinnamon and a squiggle each of maple syrup and honey finished off at the top of the glass. A monster load of work, but worth it. Especially with the semi-baked raisin and grated apple combo between each layer. The Autumnal Pumpkin Parfait – her most favorite dessert ever.”

Faith Franklin loves to bake and aims to use her passion to make a living. She can’t imagine anything better than “kneading and mixing and measuring all day, working in a room filled with the warm, sweet, comforting aroma of baking. Living in her ditzy floral apron. Discovering new treats and making everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside”. Peanut butter chocolate gateau, raspberry and white chocolate brioche casserole, black currant compote with baked buttery brioche on top, peach puff pastry tart with almonds – new recipes and flavor combinations pop into her head randomly, and she’d rather spend all her time trying them out. As much as Faith loves to bake, she knows nothing about marketing or decorating or health and safety paperwork, and this has kept her from setting up her own place and venturing into baking professionally. Her mum is an editor of fiction books (the baking gene having skipped a generation), while her grandma runs a tea room near the beach in Florida. Grandma Bessie loves to bake but her present apprentice isn’t very good at the job, and she asks if Faith would be willing to take up the task.

“Bake when I’m happy, bake when I’m sad. When I feel like the world’s falling apart, the first thing I reach for is a mixing bowl.” Faith can’t let go of her dream job, even if that means relocating to Florida, along with her pet kittens – Cirrus and Nimbus – the fluffy little rain clouds. Faith settles in comfortably at work. The tea room, originally titled “Bessie’s Café”, is changed to “Slice of Paradise”, and Faith revamps the menu and works on all sorts of desserts to serve along with the hot beverages. The area where the café is located is called “Paradise Point” (from where the series gets its name) – The beach one way and the food section on the other side. There are several other vendors, each selling different food and drinks. When Grandma Bessie was running the place, she served mostly cakes, whereas Faith has added on cupcakes and éclairs and various other new items in addition to cakes. This does not go down well with another vendor Joanne, who runs a cupcake café, and feels outsider Faith is threatening her business. The vendors are called for a meeting one day and the two women have a tiff. To prove that she isn’t jeopardizing Joanne’s work, Faith decides to send her a box of her own cupcakes that evening, to show how different their baking styles are.

The next morning Joanne is found dead. The autopsy reports reveal she was poisoned. Poison that was found in a cherry on a cupcake. And Faith’s box of cupcakes in the room and her previous day’s altercation with Joanne, cause all accusations to fly towards her. Faith doesn’t even like cherries and her cupcakes didn’t have them. Where did they turn up from? And filled with poison that too. The rest of the story takes us through how the cherry sinister murder unfolds.

This was a light read I had picked up in between heavy, serious books, and didn’t go into it with much expectations. The writing isn’t that great, the dialogues are amateurish, and the entire murder is solved in a very juvenile manner – it was surprising that it took two authors to come up with this.

What I did like were the food descriptions – the scenes of Faith baking and her teaching the apprentice Laura are all food-filled and dessert related. Something that made this stand out from other food fiction books was the description of cooking processes. When the authors talk about using super long spoons, or the seriousness of sugar burns, it comes across that the book has been written by someone who actually bakes and has not just created a story around baking. Also, the scenes depicting Cirrus and Nimbus – the balls of fur aka rain clouds – are fabulous. Again, the descriptions revealing the authors have actually lived with animals and understand the intricacies of their behavior, which is very different from someone just liking animals. (Many animal-related books have not been able to capture such details).

Chick-lit is not my genre, though I love baking and animals and those two parts stood out for me. But as a murder mystery, this was a very juvenile attempt. It doesn’t build up any suspense, and the conclusion was bland, which is very ironic since it is the first book in a series. It doesn’t make me want to read the rest from the Paradise series, unless like this one, it is used as a filler in between heavy or serious books. One of the characters nicely states, “I’ll be having myself a sweet tea and one of your crazily delicious cappuccino cupcakes while I put my feet up and read my book”, but this isn’t the book to waste sweet tea and cappuccino cupcakes on. I would rate this somewhere in the middle. It isn’t a bad book – it serves its purpose as a light read, and someone who likes fluffy fiction might enjoy this thoroughly.

Rating – 2.5/5 (I marked this as a 3 on Goodreads since I couldn’t put in a decimal.)

Bol de Gram – Weekend Kitchen Experiments

A few weeks ago I had attended an East Indian Food Festival. The East Indian community is considered to be among the original inhabitants of the city of Mumbai (along with the kolis). They were known as the ‘native Christians’ in the 18th Century, and were among the earliest residents of the islands of Bombay, Salsette and Thana. They lived in territories controlled by the Portuguese, before the latter handed over the islands to the British as dowry for the wedding of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II. The East Indians speak a dialect of Marathi that is different from the one spoken in the rest of the state of Maharashtra. (The vocabulary is said to be a mixture of 70% Marathi and 30% Portuguese). The community’s customs – especially the cuisine – have heavy Portuguese influence. The visit to the East Indian Festival got me interested in their traditional cuisines, so today I tried out one of their dessert preparations – Bol de Gram.

Bol de Gram incorporates eggs, sugar, butter and semolina, along with coconut and chickpeas, and rose water and nutmeg for flavoring. The recipe requires overnight fermentation of the sugar, butter, eggs and semolina mixture. Since I tried it on a holiday, I did the mixing in the morning, and continued with the rest of the preparation seven hours later in the evening. Grated coconut and cooked and mashed chickpeas were added to the morning mix, along with the rose water and nutmeg. The entire mixture was then baked for about fifteen minutes. (The mixing and baking don’t take time; the fermentation time needs to be considered if you do decide to try this out.) The baked product had a cake-like consistency and texture, and tasted yum. 😍

The baking dish I used was too large for the amount of batter, causing the slices to flatten out.
The batter does not rise while baking, so it can be filled higher up in the dish.

The link below features the original write up from my visit to the East Indian Food Festival that got me curious about the community’s cuisine.

When Running Gives Way To Riding

I’d Rather Be…

Running is one activity that always comes to mind when I’m stuck indoors at work or at home, and rather be pounding the pavement outside. This picture, however, was taken when I was actually at a run – an outstation marathon event that took us through the Nilgiri Mountain Range in South India. I was anyways there to run, but the sight of this row of bikes made me want to rather be motorcycling. The bikers had ridden down from another state and happened to stop at the same hotel we were put up at post run for breakfast. Being a marathon runner and accustomed to covering long distances on foot, I’ve always wanted to try out long distance riding – I have gone for a couple of shorter distance rides, but these were all day trips. I would love to do a long distance, cross country motorcycle ride and that has been one of my long term goals.


Second Thoughts – Book Review

Title – Second Thoughts

Author – Navtej Sarna

Genre – Non-fiction

9th March 2018 (3)

I love books about books! You get introduced to new titles and new authors, or new books by authors you’ve already read before, as well as recollect books read years ago, or those you meant to read but forgot about and now that they’re in front of you, you can’t help picking them up. In “Second Thoughts”, Navtej Sarna introduces us to “literary pilgrims” – people who fall into any one or all of the categories below.

~Plan trips around places mentioned in books
~Travel to places where authors lived, visited frequently, worked at, or are buried in
~Visit local bookstores while on holiday
~Meet authors
Sarna is a travel writer cum bibliophile who has combined his profession and passion and travels around the world following his favorite books and authors, and getting acquainted with new ones on the way. This journey came about from “a desire to understand the mind of the writer and the process of literary creation. A curiosity to know what influenced the great characters and stories of literature, what part of reality was turned into fiction, or how successful fictional figures walk into real-life situations“. Travelling to unusual places is anyways part of Sarna’s job, which he has in turn converted to literary travel. His agenda involves carrying the right book in his bag wherever he goes – Baburnama to Kabul, Lost Horizon to Leh, Lermontov to Moscow – along with a journal to take down notes as he chases down famous literary haunts, pubs, or even graves.
Some of his engagements have been directly with his subjects – over drinks with Mario Vargas Llosa and Khushwant Singh, talks by Paul Theroux and Ian McEwan followed by conversation, or a walk in the garden with Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Other trips have been more tangential – a trip to Moscow to visit Tolstoy’s estate or to Hemingway’s house in Florida, the café in Cairo’s Tahrir square where Naghib Mahfouz had breakfast for decades, the lobby in Chelsea Hotel that Jack Kerouac frequented in New York, or Wodehouse’s school in Dulwich – now turned into a library, complete with his pipe, typewriter and personal books. The third kind of literary endeavors have been sourcing out book shops in each trip, and collecting books, like mementos, from around the world. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, and Boston to Bangalore, Sarna has hunted down bookstores and picked up books wherever he has been.
This is a fabulous collection of essays as Sarna takes us through his bookish life – travels all over the globe while following the footsteps of his favorite writers, personal interactions with so many of them, and when he isn’t travelling, just sitting beside his bookshelves and fondly recollecting which corner of the world each book came from. He calls his books the “travellers on my bookshelf” and they are what inspire him to be footloose and gather more “friends”. “The scholar sits easily with the humorist, the sharp eye gives a crucial edge to lyricism, the pungent jibe is softened with sudden sympathy“. He quotes Byron who called travel a “spiritual necessity” and considers him the “king of travellers on my bookshelf“.
“Second Thoughts” is Sarna’s tribute to the great masters – Michael Ondaatje, Truman Capote, Anton Chekov, Amos Oz, Omar Khayyam, and many others all feature here. The title itself is borrowed from a Jerome K Jerome book. A treasure trove for book lovers – each essay is filled with book titles and trivia about writers. I came across many books and authors I hadn’t read, along with new titles of authors I had read before, and a lot more books already read that fondly came back to mind and made me want to read them again. My only grouse is that there were hardly any women writers featured, with the exceptions of Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova and Rebecca Skloot. The bulk of the book comprises male writers, but the collection is still extraordinary. The cover is brilliant – a cheerful yellow reflecting the joy books brings to our lives. Give this one a go – it is a wonderful book to have in the personal library as well.
Rating – 5/5

Birthday Bookathon – Yearly Reading Goals

As part of my birthday reading goals, I had set out to read books from around India – one from each of the twenty nine states and seven union territories – a way of travelling around the country through books. I started on the 14th of November (my birthdate). One-third into the ‘Birthday Bookathon‘, these were the books completed in the last four months.

~ Breath of Fresh Air – Amulya Malladi (Madhya Pradesh)
~ Onaatah – Paulami Duttagupta (Meghalaya)
~ My Kumaon – Jim Corbett (Uttarakhand)
~ Poonachi – Perumal Murugan (Tamil Nadu)
~ Zorami – Malsawmi Jacob (Mizoram)
~Ghachar Ghochar – Vivek Shanbhag (Karnataka)
~Fence – Ila Arab Mehta (Gujarat)
~Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains – Antonia Kent (Arunachal Pradesh)
~The Sixth Finger – Malayatoor Ramakrishnan (Kerala)
~The Siege of Warwan – G.D.Bakshi (Jammu & Kashmir)
~ Korma, Kheer and Kismet – Pamela Timms (Delhi)

Ten states and one union territory down; nineteen states and six union territories to go in the next eight months. I’m trying to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry, however, most translated works comprise fiction. Will try and bring in more variety in the next few months.

This is the link to the original blog post I had written when I started the readathon.

Friday Fun with Paper Quilling

The Wonders of Pineapple Perfumed Gum. The “crafty” weekends continue with some paper quilling. Realizing I had run out of glue to stick the strips, this “flavored” one had to be picked up on an emergency basis. I didn’t have much hope from the “pineapple gum”, but the quilling didn’t turn out that bad after all. Have a look! I didn’t have any design in mind – started from the center and kept adding all around and branching out. Someone turned it the other way round and said it looked like a butterfly. What do you think? It hasn’t been framed yet, though this is how I have displayed it for now – somewhere between a bouquet and a bell.

6th March 2018 (1)

6th March 2018 (2)

Mambo in Chinatown – Book Review

Title – Mambo in Chinatown

Author – Jean Kwok

Genre – Fiction


“On my way to the studio, I kept tracing an advanced mambo step in my head as I walked through the Chinatown streets. It was swivel swivel hold, hop freeze, …did I come out on the left or right leg? I started to mark the combination on the pavement. It was the right! I looked up to see a Chinese lady staring at me. She closed her mouth, gathered her bags and ran away as if I were a crazy person. It wasn’t easy to do mambo in Chinatown.”

Charlie Wong is the daughter of a dancer and a noodle maker, but she has neither the grace of her mother nor the dexterity of her father to be skilled enough to pursue what her parents did. Charlie’s mother was a soloist in the Beijing Ballet Company but Charlie never showed any interest in dance as a child, and reluctantly learned Tai Chi instead from her mother. Now at twenty two years old, she washes dishes at a local restaurant and hasn’t seen much beyond the Chinatown area in Manhattan where she grew up. Charlie and her sister Lisa are second generation Chinese immigrants and their whole world revolves around their small apartment in Chinatown. A few days a week, Charlie assists at a neighborhood Tai Chi class conducted by her godmother. Aspiring to amount to something more than a dishwasher, Charlie applies for a job as a receptionist at a dance studio. She’s terrible at clerical work, but the staff decide to put her Tai Chi experience to use and let her take a beginner’s ballroom class one evening – a few coordinated moves that she can manage, to sort out the mess she herself created with the mismanaged schedules. Somehow the students connect with her “non-dancer” approach to teaching and the class is a success. But her repeated mistakes at work cannot be overlooked – she is fired as receptionist and hired as a trainee dancer. The Avery Dance Studio is a popular dance studio with several branches all over the country, the Manhattan studio being the most sought after one, where the best dance coaches from around the world are invited to teach, and the best professional dancers are produced. (Owners Adrienne and Dominic being well known and highly respected in the ballroom dance world.) Now Charlie is determined to do well, having finally found a job she’s good at. But she cannot tell Pa – he knows nothing about Western dancing, or anything outside  Chinatown for that matter. And then Lisa falls sick, her symptoms eerily similar to what Ma had before she passed away.

At it’s core, the book is about ballroom dancing. But the author has beautifully woven many other elements:

~The dilemmas and conflicts of first and second generation immigrants in handling the old versus the new. The father refuses to move anywhere beyond Chinatown, even failing to attend Lisa’s parent-teacher meetings in school, which elder sister Charlie attends instead. The parts of the older relatives holding on to the past while the younger ones look forward to the future are brilliantly written. One example – the plan to send a youngster born and brought up in the US back to China for a spouse is met with much retaliation.

~Eastern versus Western medicine – When Charlie’s sister falls ill, their father prefers to rely on local mystics and spells and potions, rather than take her to a medical doctor. His justification being his reliance and trust on his “own people” in a foreign country.

~The comparisons between Eastern concepts of Qigong and Tai Chi with the Western dances – Tai Chi stimulates the circulation of qi throughout the body. It brings mental and physical balance, just as dance does, both unifying body and soul and keeping one centered. Ballroom dancing is about partner work, but leading and following are not about one person being in control and the other not. It is yin and yang – whoever moves forward leads, the one moving back flows in harmony with the energy and impetus received.

Strictly speaking, the mambo is not a ballroom dance. The protagonist enters into a dance competition featuring all the Latin dances, not just Latin ballroom. The title is derived from the competition which forms an important part of the story. The author being a professional ballroom dancer herself (along with being a Harvard graduate and a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University), the dances are beautifully described. Kwok has sketched out the fluidity of choreographies rather than the technicalities of steps, making this very readable for non-dancers as well. The dances, costumes, shoes have been skillfully elaborated and entwined with the differences in Western and Eastern cultures, making this a wonderful read. Kwok’s brilliance in writing is apparent in the conversational scenes – the broken English spoken by the elders, the fluent English and broken Mandarin spoken by the youngsters have been well depicted, making the narrative very readable for an insight into the immigrant way of life across generations. Give this one a go, whether you like dance or not. This is one of the best fiction books on dance that I have read.

Rating – 5/5