Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Can I Make Your Frandship?...Maybe Your Voifeship?"

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 28th June, 2008)

"It's one of those things that make you wish you wish you were living in the Stone Age. What I mean is, if a fellow in those days wanted to give anyone a letter of introduction, he had to spend a month or so carving it on a large-sized boulder, and the chances were that the other chappie got so sick of lugging the thing around in the hot sun that he dropped it after the first mile," Wodehouse once wrote. If he had lived to see the Orkut and Facebook days, he might have gone on to say, "But these days, e-mailing is so easy a chappie might think it a right rummy thing to do, to dash off the old propos that way."

Not equipped with Wodehouse's literary panache, or a rescuer like Jeeves (although I do have a mother who is beginning to show dangerous signs of bordering on Aunt Agatha-esque behaviour), let me tell you what these musings are all about. So I opened my email one day, expecting offers to buy tickets to exotic locales at half the price, mobile bills, forwards my father has a propensity for sending on a regular basis, reminders to come watch my favourite play at the Royal Opera House four thousand miles away and even assurances that I could enlarge organs I did not possess. But the last thing I was prepared for was this:

Dear

Hope u r fine.

Let me Introduce myself.....

I am (name) working in (company name) as a s/w engineer at (city).

about my parents...My parents are in (city). my father was a sales manager in (franchisee name, company name)...and now he is leading a retired life....and my mother is a house wife.....and have one and only one elder sister , she is married and residing in (city).

then my likes and dislike...to be frank i am very much adjustable to any environment...i think thats y i dont have any dislikes...but l like to make friendship and to enjoy life with them.....

I like animals...especially dog and fish...

i have to be in office from 2.00pm to 10.00pm

then i believe through chat and mails we can understand each other....

nothing more now

if you want anything more...pls feel free to ask me....this is my email id.

and i believe relations are built up through good communication.

I blinked, of course, and then re-read it. This outdid my most bizarre dreams…even the one where I discovered I had given birth to a hen. I had just received a proposal of marriage through a networking site. And, it was complete with a tagline: "Relations are built up through good communication". So now frandship had moved into the territory of voifeship? Why stop with frandship when you can get yourself a marriage and have children who can play with their retired grandfather, housewife grandmother and one and only one aunt? And you can have a dog and fish for pets in your happy family home where you live from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.?

A few months ago, I was pondering how easy it was to figure out everything about a person thanks to blogs and networking sites. But until now, it had never occurred to me that matrimonial websites could be rendered redundant thanks to these. We seem to have already seen the day when you could ask someone, "so what are you up to?" and that person would reply, "oh, I'm just a little bored. Think I'll do some spouse-shopping." "Hey, I've been thinking of doing that myself!" you'd shout, "so, which sites are the best?" "Well, some have these annoying pop-ups that keep pestering you to take up a lifetime membership and asking if you need any help. But some allow you to just browse and then cut to the chase and shoot off a mail when you find something you like."

What I find most disturbing, though, is this: when I showed the email to a friend, he scratched his chin and surmised, "hmmm…but be a little careful when you say yes to a software engineer. Many people who work at call centres call themselves that."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Who is the Coloniser?

(Published as "The Self-Created Oppressor of Colonised Mentality" in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express on 1st May, 2008)

Overheard at the Hanuman temple on Jakhoo Hill, Shimla:

"Aw, that's a pretty dog!"

"Handsome dog; he's a guy."

"Hand-some."

"Yes, yes. And very possessive of us, too."

"Poss-ess-ive."

"Yeah...he doesn't want other dogs near us. And he runs around after his girlfriends."

"Girl-friends."

This conversation was between a foreign tourist and an Indian man walking his dog – she smiled encouragingly, enunciating his "bigger" words with a sort of fascination, while he seemed rather keen to show off his comfort with English to her.

While intellectual debate and international dialogue about subaltan cultures and empires writing back go on, I think the question we need to ask ourselves is: can four hundred years of colonisation work its way into our genes? Should generations born in independent India feel a sense of embarrassment with no cause at all? Why are all of us out to impress tourists, while they feel a sense of patronising goodwill towards us?

For a long time, the impression that "foreigners will spend money" has been imprinted on our minds. But with the MNC- and IT-driven corporate culture, and yuppies in sleek suits and designer clothing walking the streets, surely there should have been a revision of opinion? It is not only the foreigner who will spend money. And yet, when you're part of a group waiting at a food counter, chances are a tourist will be attended to first. The same holds for restaurants in deluxe hotels, and the attention given to visitors in hotel lobbies. Yet, the majority of Indians tip generously, sometimes more than a tourist wary of being swindled.

But what is more troubling is the attitude even the upper middle class of Indians, with their spending power, have. We seem to carry an inferiority complex in our blood – something that makes us a little more polite to foreigners than to our countrymen, something that makes us want to alter our accents mildly and prove to "them" we can speak the English language flawlessly, something that makes us consider tourists more polished than our Indian counterparts (while often, we're comparing foreign hippies with indigenous sophisticated corporate professionals) and something that will never allow us to be happy with the beautiful colouring of skin the tourists are, ironically, trying to achieve.

Over time, and in the absence of an active oppressor, we seem to have constructed an oppressor – a combination of western viewpoints and our own colonised mentality. Somehow, being acknowledged by a voice from the other side of the world means more than being appreciated by our own. While we review horror stories of racism exercised abroad, while we rally behind cricketers who might have flouted these norms, we practise our own breed of racism – directed against ourselves.

I can recall a dinner at a diplomat's house, where a lady told me I didn't speak like other Indians.

"Why, what do other Indians talk like?" I asked.

"Well, your English is good, and you're not rude," she answered, and then enunciated to a couple of Indians who worked with her, "you know, you people in-ter-rupt all the time. And you're agg-ress-ive. You can-not work by in-tim-id-at-ing people." The irony that she was wagging her finger as she said all this did not escape any of us, but none of us said a thing in response. A few hours later, I sat in my room and wondered: will we ever stand up for who we are? Will we stop empathising with a sad little nod, as if pitying poor cousins, when visitors to the country tell us Indians are rude? And will we ever tell them English is a first language to most of us when they slow down or speak broken English to communicate better with us?

That said, I do know one person who made an effort to "squash the coloniser within" as a friend of mine put it – my mother found a novel way of getting her own back. A tourist stopped her to ask for directions. He widened his eyes and said, with accompanying hand gestures, "G N Chetty Road enge?" – to which, she replied, after a pause, "ippadi neyraa poyi, valadhu pakkam thirumbi konjam dhooram nadandha ange irukku." (Translation: "If you go straight down this way, turn right and walk a bit of a distance, you'll find it there.") Apparently, the tourist gave her a blank look for a few seconds and then said apologetically, "uh...could you repeat that in English, please?"


"I'm Sorry, This Seat is Reserved"

Once upon a time, I rode buses everywhere. The singularly most irritating thing would be for you to rush up to grab a seat only to have someone plonk a handbag, towel, handkerchief, piece of paper or baby and claim their seat. I don't ride buses anymore, but that feeling of irritation hasn't stopped gnawing at me. Only, the seats being reserved now are in colleges and offices.

When the DMK first came to power in Tamil Nadu, they went on an anti-Brahmin drive that saw the Mr. and Mrs. Iyers and Iyengars changing their surnames, in the hope of escaping blacklisting by virtue (or not) of their birth. An accident turned into a curse. Now, two controversies rage over the caste issue - the Gujjars and St. Stephen's.

Vasundhara Raje has done one of the most politically correct and most inflammatory things; appeasing everyone, she has granted 5% reservation to Gujjars and another 14% to people of the economically backward but congenitally forward classes. Chances are that the quota for the people of the forward classes will be shelved.

And then there's St. Stephen's - one of the most prestigious colleges in India, lowering its bars so that people with shorter legs can jump over it. Wait, let me correct that analogy - lowering its bar for some people and pushing its bar up to waist level for others, when all of them have the same length of leg.

I finished my graduation from a college that was well-reputed because of the creme de la creme who won its medals for it. Fooled by the reputation, I hadn't banked on the 50% reservation for Catholics, 20% reservation for SC/ST, 15% reservation for Other Backward Classes, 10% reservation for Most Backward Classes, some other percent reservation for the nonexistent sons and daughters of nuns and priests or whatever else. What it boiled down to, of course, was that intelligent people who had none of the advantages of belonging to these "disadvantaged" communities had to fight tooth and nail for their seats, while the "disadvantaged" dullards would waltz in. And then, just in case the syllabus was too much for these "disadvantaged" dullards to cope with, it would be dumbed down further. So my three years of education, under teachers who asked me whether Measure for Measure was written by Shakespeare or Marlowe, and an HoD who said, in response to my question on T S Eliot, "aaal that is naat nusussury from yegzam payint of view, ma" (English Translation: "All that is not necessary from exam point of view, ma" [sic.]), the effort I went to to get a seat in an institution whose repute I would eventually enhance, and the money my family spent on sending me to study were pretty much wasted.

Take a look around an office...you see people of more or less the same wavelength working. You couldn't possibly scan the room and make out which caste or religion or even region who belongs to. And yet, why is everyone harping about the need for reservation? Does anyone care about whether people who don't have access to education get the education they deserve? Does anyone believe this is not a drama structured around increasing votebanks? And do elections matter so much that an entire generation's potential will be wasted, as the quick runners are forced to take two steps back so that the ones with the fictitious limp can overtake them?

So much for undoing the damage wreaked by the caste system!

How to Analyse a Reality Show

It was 8:00 p.m., and I was home with my three favourite companions - pasta, pizza and television. I had to catch up on news, read the papers, work out, wash clothes and wash my house in honour of a barrage of relatives due to descend on me. So what caught me watching "How to Find a Husband" with its gaudy pink hearts and gaudier anchor with still gaudier makeup?

If I told you it was a light bulb...

Well, I will tell you it's a light bulb. Apparently, women go through a compulsion to get married and settle down some time in their twenties, when all their single friends are snapping up the dregs of the male species in the panic of this sentiment. At this point, women will agree to marry anything. Sometimes, when I wash my hands with detergent to remove the moisturiser so I can open cans and wear high heels to fix bulbs so I will spare myself the trouble of dragging a chair over and find myself cursing the gas cylinder for weighing so much when I hoist it up the stairs, it strikes me that indentured manual labour just might be a good idea. Yes, a good idea despite all the times I've told my mother getting married just in case you feel the need for companionship when you're old and alone is like having a mastectomy just in case you develop breast cancer at some point in your life.

Apparently, the idea struck anchor-host-husband-hunter Sally Gray a few years after it struck me. I decided to work out. She decided to find herself a husband. The ten weeks of her hunt have been documented carefully, and you tend to feel sorry for the poor woman and even sorrier for the men she dates, analyses and embarrasses to an audience of mostly single and sometimes (as in my case, relationship theorists).

Another one of these is "Try My Life"...a show where mother and daughter swap lives. Most of these mothers are single parents and most of the daughters are brats. I've seen a couple of these, and I wonder whether they can ever go back to living normal lives once they've seen on television what they really think of each other.

Then there's "Wife Swap"...a means, I think, of families reassuring themselves their mothers/wives don't completely suck, and there are a couple of people who could make life more of a nightmare.

And there's "I Would Do Anything" or something of the sort, where you undertake three tasks, which involve pain, sacrifice and embarrassment and decide to put yourself out there for someone you apparently love to get something they want.

Another show that comes to mind is "For Better or For Worse", where a couple leaves its wedding in the hands of a group of friends and relatives, with a budget of five thousand dollars.

Now, what is more interesting than who watches these shows, is who participates in them. What could inspire you to watch on while your mother/sister/girlfriend cycles up a mountain, eating tonnes of crappy food, gets slammed by tennis balls and then has to strip down to a bikini in front of an audience, just so you can hang out with a NASCAR racer? What would inspire you to switch your family with another one, get into someone else's house and pretend it's yours? What would make a sixteen-year-old girl swap jobs with her mother, and a mother go to her daughter's school to take lessons?

Do we live in such troubled times that we need validation from an international audience before we can look inside ourselves? Do we crave attention so much from the people whom we love that we are willing to draw the attention of television addicts worldwide?

Then again, who makes these programmes? The hunt for TRPs seems to have reached the stage where you would do just about anything to get your show ratings. There's even a show where the producers play private eye, trying to catch people cheating on their partners.

Your relationship is out there for the world to see. The world is watching the private lives of everyone who cares to put it out there. And camera crews are rushing around, competing to deliver the most humiliating, theatrical show they can. A few centuries ago, I believe our forefathers turned to cock-fights, witch-burning, public executions and crucifications for entertainment.

Monday, June 16, 2008

And Now Men Are Hot on Their Own Heels...

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 14th June 2008)

I was struck by the irony of my circumstances on June 8th. I had tickets to Sex and the City, and an hour to kill. So it turned out that a Tamilian girl was sitting in an Italian coffee shop in the north of the country, reading Bhibutibhushan Bandyopadhyaya’s account of his travels in the forests of the east, waiting to watch Everywoman’s story set in Manhattan. But the most incongruous thing I saw that evening was yet to come.

They were a pair of red shoes. With my mind travelling between the banks of the Godavari and the skyscrapers of New York, Manolo Blahnik was occupying a rather prominent spot of his own. So, when these beautiful red shoes with the steepest heels and the most graceful arch I had seen caught my eye, I stared, transfixed. Then, my eyes did a slow tilt upwards, in the style of the opening sequences of the hero-driven movies of the eighties and nineties. When I discovered the shoes ended in a man’s face, I did a double take and stared again. But yes, I was right. Holding hands with another man whom I assume was his partner, this guy, with immaculately shaped eyebrows and the most gorgeous women’s shoes I had seen in real life, was definitely a man above the ankles.

When, I wondered, did we start flaunting our little eccentricities in public? Especially when they bordered on gender issues? Maybe the asymmetrical haircuts of the eighties started it all off. Or maybe it was the bellbottoms and polka dots of the seventies. Or more recently, the metrosexuality of the turn of the millennium. Or, even more recently, the trend of men getting their eyebrows done, and opting to undergo the female initiation ritual of waxing. Whatever it was, they had all culminated in my mind in the sharp-featured, good-looking man with a seven o’ clock shadow and pretty red slippers sitting a few feet away from me.

What Freddie Mercury had brought to television, this man had brought to reality. And he wasn’t even dressing up and sweeping his sitting room floor; he was sitting cross-legged at a coffee shop in a mall. Soon enough, he would get up and draw the eyes of most women to his shoes, and possibly the eyes of most men from his shoes, and cause them to shrink back in horror to discover the feet that had drawn their attention belonged to a man.

With stay-at-home dads becoming less of an exception with each passing day, and hot working moms taking the place of the comfortably plump homemaker, are we on the verge of a role-swapping revolution? Will we see the day when men decide it isn’t enough to watch women in designer shoes, or even make those designer shoes, when they might as well try them on themselves? And if it began with hair and reached up to shoes, what else could it cover?

In my mind’s eye, I saw an array of men catwalking across the floors of the New York Stock Exchange, sitting cross legged in formal skirts at international conferences, comparing Fendi and Louis Vuitton handbags and showing off Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo shoes. All of these have at least one advantage – it would make the task of picking out birthday presents for men a whole lot easier!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Beautiful Game

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.
Bill Shankly, in Sunday Times (UK) October 4, 1981
This has always been my favourite quote. I remember my first football match. Actually, my oldest memories of football involve my father and his friend staying up late to watch the 1986 World Cup on our black and white television, while my mother glared at them from the darkness of my bedroom, where she was trying to make me go to sleep. And every time I showed signs of giving in, the two men would holler or whine from the room next door.

My first football match is from 1994. This was my own match, the one that made me fall in love with football. A golden-haired man grinned and practically flew across the stadium in his trademark aeroplane gesture, while the crowd chanted "Batigol, Bati-go-o-o-o-o-ol, Batigol, Batigol, Batigol!" The man was Gabriel Batistuta. The match was Argentina vs. Greece. Of all venues, it was the United States. But the sky blue and white in the crowd could have made you believe it was Argentina..

Fourteen years down the line, I actually forgot the name 'Davor Suker' when I was discussing Croatia's performance in the 1998 World Cup with a colleague. And then I realised I had hardly watched a football match properly in the past couple of years. And now, trying to make up for last time, I find most of the names on my favourite jerseys are unrecognisable. And some of the names I associated with particular jerseys have now changed them for more lucrative ones.

I feel a sudden sense of nostalgia for the tears on Batigol's face when he scored a goal against Fiorentina for Roma...the club he had pulled from Serie B to Serie A, the club which had erected a bronze statue for him...and the club he was now the enemy of. Then, of course, there was Figo, who was welcomed with brickbats, bottles and even a mobile phone when he made the blasphemous switch from Barcelona to Real Madrid. And then there's Beckham, whose own Mistress of Spices moved him from England to Spain to, thankfully, Hollywood.

In this context, there are very few things more heartwarming than someone like Ryan Giggs, who has never left his team. Then there was the ever-smiling goal-scoring defender Fernando Hierro, who stuck by his side, until they dropped him like a hot potato after a flurry of signings that destroyed the team. The lineup of Raul, Morientes, Zidane, Figo, Helguera, Carlos, Solari, Hierro, Casillas and the other faces that WERE the Real Madrid of the millennium had given way to shiny products like Ronaldo and Beckham, and all of a sudden, surprise, surprise, the club wasn't doing so well. The Raul-Morientes partnership was broken, and Jorge Valdano saw fit to blame all his mistakes on Hierro and Del Bosque. So Hierro was sent away unceremoniously, first to Qatar and then to Bolton. In a context like that, when you serve a club for over a decade only to leave that way, why would you not switch?

The beautiful game has now turned into an auction...where the poetry of football is likely to blend into the machismo of rugby, where the leagues with their characteristics tend to blend into a melting pot, where the defending prowess of Italian clubs, the rhythm of Spanish clubs, the determination of German clubs, the hooliganism of British clubs will all tumble into each other. Thank God for places like Argentina, which can't seem to afford to import diluting elements into the juego bonito played at Boca Juniors and River Plate.

As an aside, though...I can't recall a single world cup which didn't end in tears for me. Why would people get addicted to a game where heartbreak is always round the corner? Maybe because between the heartbreaks, the elation, the ecstasy of being part of a collective conscious rooting for your team is so divine...so filled with pure, unadulterated passion. The beautiful game...yes, Mr. Shankly, it does transcend life and death!

Monday, June 09, 2008

So I Went Shopping for a Relationship, and I Got This Lifetime Membership Thingy…and It Was Nice, but Then the Credit Card Bills Started Pouring In...

(Yeah, I know, my titles don’t make much sense, but they sure get attention!)


Four dreary faces looked down glumly at an even drearier breakfast, when one face made a still drearier statement. Apparently, he had only saved less than a percentage of his last salary. The disclosure animated one of the faces at the table, and she went “so what did you spend it on? A nice gift for the girlfriend?” to which the spender replied, “that’s also there, but she started working long before I did, so she usually foots the bills.” The animated face said, “I agree with that. Why should the guy spend all the time?”


If I had not been caught in a limbo between sleep and wakefulness, and a hangover from writing up to 3:00 a.m. and forcing myself awake at 5:00 a.m., I might have contributed to the discussion. Why do relationships have to involve spending money? Why does everyone get caught up in this cycle of watching movies, eating out, buying gifts and celebrating the tag days created by greeting card companies? My idea of a perfect relationship involves a lot of sitting at home and watching movies and football…which is why my most intimate relationships have been with my laptop and my television. Hell, they take me to football matches, Spain, Argentina, Hollywood, younameit…and they even make me laugh. What more could you ask for?


But somehow, not a single relationship seems to be able to shed its clichéd shackles. Most of the baggage of relationships comes from unreturned phone calls, unacknowleged texts, unfairly split bills…and an insistence that no relationship can possibly be uncomplicated. That no two people can just be themselves when they’re together and enjoy each other’s company. That no one can consider anniversaries and Valentine’s Days insignificant. That relationships have to be a task you need to work at, and not just about fun.


This was running through my head when I watched the last edition of Sex and the City – the movie version of the series that was Everywoman’s story. It made me wonder – do we all have happily-ever-afters? Do we have the potential to create them? And do we screw them up by trying to perfect them, sew together all the frayed ends clumsily, and exacerbate the ladders running through them?


As a relationship theorist (that’s what I call myself; not quite a practitioner in the traditional sense of the word, but a theorist, yes, definitely), I had come to find pleasure in dissecting the complexity of relationships. But an epiphany was always on the horizon, getting steadily bolder. What is wrong with a relationship that involves coffee, football, movies and hanging out at home? Where it feels like it’s just you in a slightly schizophrenic phase, and not two people trying to entertain themselves and each other? Why does everything that comes naturally have to be forced into neat little boxes with pretty little bows and handwritten cards?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

"Would You Do Me the Honour of Becoming My Husband?"

You're right. That just doesn't sound right. It doesn't have a ring to it (no pun intended). But this is something a friend and I were talking about. When you like someone, what exactly do you do? We both decided we always have, and probably always will, bide our time, till the men who've caught our fancies ask us out. Then, a male friend whom I consulted told me he usually waits for women to make the move, because you don't know how women will react when you ask them out, and if they snub you, they'll tell all their friends anyway. When I tried convincing him that women usually say yes to anything when the thing says the right things, he shook his head and said "oh, most women who're worth your time are intimidating! Which is why I kinda prefer the cute little dumb ones!" All right, feminists, pretend I did not quote him. And don't ask me which friend of mine it was.

When I relayed the information to the friend I had discussed the concept of asking out with, she and I wandered to the next topic - collateral damage. While you're trying to put your feminine mystique and what you hope is the sex goddess in you waiting to leap out through your eyes, out there, invariably, there is another guy who sees it and the guy you fancy doesn't quite. So what happens is, all the time you're being your smartest, funniest, beautifullest, won't-she-be-my-wifest self, you're making the wrong person fall for you. And then we realised we're the ones who become the collateral damage.

In order to explain how, I beg permission for a small diversion into my psychiatrist aunt's elucidation of the process. Apparently, women who're looking for a relationship or women who fancy a particular guy give out the same scent as the female of any species in the animal kingdom in heat, searching for a mate. But God being a man decided to complicate our lives by blessing the males of our species with exactly the opposite instincts from males of other species. So when you like someone, you apparently push him away/ scare him away through some random reflection of intensity you're not even aware of.

Now to get back to the situation, you scare off the guy you're hitting on, till he starts eluding you. Then, you look for validation. Which means when Mr. Collateral Damage asks you out, you initially refuse, then falter, then say yes and tumble headlong into a relationship where you are the collateral damage.

Which is why women say yes to anything as long as the anything says the right things.

Which is why most relationships "intimidating women" enter fail.

Which is why women should take matters into their own hands and do the asking out before they become the collateral damage of their confused demureness!!!

Writing

They say writing requires you to put yourself "out there". I think I sort of treat this blog like a peep show. :-)

"Hole in the Wall"

That's what they call ATMs in the UK...I just remembered...hehehehehe...and this is what happens when you have a random conversation with someone like you in the middle of the night!

"I'm Singing in the Rain, Just Singing in the Rain! What a Glorious Feeling, I'm Ha-a-a-a-a-a-appy Again!"

Sometimes, you feel like every aspect of your life couldn't be more wonderful...let me rephrase that...no aspect of your life could be more wonderful. You have a reason to smile before you go to sleep, you have a reason to wake up and go to work, you love your work, you share a wonderful camaraderie with everyone there, you're losing weight although the people at Papa John's recognise your voice now, someone keeps throwing money into your bank account, your writing's getting to the point you call 'prolific', you're back to being flexible (ooh, what an advantage that is!) there's simply nothing getting you down! And then you remember you can finally do that thing you've wished you could do for a couple and a half decades...so you start singing!

People in Noida in and around Great India Place must have thought I was out of my mind, and I probably was. I was Gene Kelly, Peggy Norwood and Julie Andrews all in one - my voice sounds like a cacophonic combination of the three too, methinks - and I couldn't care less that people were stopping to stare at a woman who's screaming, "Let the stormy clouds chase...everyone from the place...come on with the race...I've a smile on my face! I wa-a-a-alk down the lane, with a haa-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-appy refrain...I'm singin', just singin' in the rain!!!!" Nevermind the forty degree sun, nevermind the swearwords I don't quite register, nevermind the disapproving old ladies eyeing my midriff while I jump about, nevermind the catcalls...what a glorious feeling, I'm ha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-appy again!!!! :-)

America, America!!!

One of my earliest memories is of being dragged away from the escalator at the international airport. One of my uncles - my favourite relative since I could choose favourites - was leaving for America. I had just realised in a horrific epiphany when my question "When will he come back?" was followed by a heavy silence that America was not around the corner. It was oceans away, and my uncle would not be back that evening. No one knew when he would come back. Leaving for America was the norm back then. Everyone did it at some point or the other - ideally, before hitting thirty, and obviously, before marriage.

Watching a re-run of "Full House" and catching sight of the Golden Gate Bridge as it must have looked back then, it suddenly dawned on me that that would have been my uncle's first sight of America. In a world where letters were the only means of communication, we would wait every month for a letter from one of the uncles. Three sisters, a niece, a mother, and rather hesitant parents-in-law would exchange calls and pore over the letters, each section of which was addressed to a different person. The nephews would fight over the stamps. The niece, still rather notorious for her devious means of getting her way in the end, would end up with the stamps, through a combination of tears, tantrums, appeals and kisses.

Thinking back to the early eighties, to those moments in time, it brought pangs to me. When my turn came to go abroad, an aunt and uncle were there to receive me in London. I arrived on the same day I left India, and spoke to my mother thrice during the course of the day. We exchanged emails that night. Yet, every call from home would have me panicking about the health of everyone in there...so much so that my mother soon received standing instructions not to call me unless there was an emergency. I would call everyday. Mine was a world in transit. One where my best friends were Iranian, Egyptian, German, Swiss, British, Japanese, Kenyan, Jamaican, Azeri, Pakistani and Afghan. One where we would eat Indian food cooked by Indians, Chinese food cooked by Chinese, Lebanese food cooked by Lebanese, and talk about Sydney Pollack, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Mohsen Makmalbaf, Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iran...well, it was a world where borders merged and grew bolder by asserting their individuality in a bolus.

But back then, when the Golden Gate Bridge looked as it did then, the point was to fit in, not stand out. It was a time Indians had to stop eating with their hands and abandon their accents. It was a time Indian women stopped wearing bindis and sarees and chose trousers they felt rather awkward in and short hair in their place. It was a time when racism was probably seething under the surface and we multi-coloured citizens of the world felt sheepish about it. It was a time when Caucasians didn't have the apologetic guilt complex they, as a race, seem to have now. How bold to have flown out across the sea, with no idea of what would greet one! With no idea of what the Manhattan that Friends, Sex and the City, How I Met Your Mother and a series of other sitcoms have made famous, looked like! How difficult it must have been settling into a house in the middle of nowhere, without Mary Alice Young from Desperate Housewives explaining what suburbia was all about!

And all we gave those people was the blame for the brain drain and the tag of "coconuts". Without thinking about why the coconut grows a hard shell before it falls off the tree.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

“Please note: a refusal to acknowledge the several purposes of this room will be met by contemptuous stares”

(Published as "Restrooms are the Most Happening Places in Offices" in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 31st May 2008)

Having worked in ten organisations, each with vastly different functions, end-products, employees and infrastructure, I was naturally thrilled to find a thread that linked them all up perfectly. Unfortunately, it is not something I can put without a degree of incongruity into my resumé, but it is something that gives my rather psychedelic career a sense of pattern. I am referring, ladies and gentlemen, to the multi-purpose restrooms in offices.

The epiphany came as I wound my way between two women, trying to wash my hands. They were whispering, and moved a micro-inch at a time as I apologised and waited to dispose of the tissue, and then to dry my hands. I had the misfortune of dropping the tissue on the floor while negotiating the tiny crevice they allowed me, which required me to make them move again while I lifted the tissue, and then wash my hands again and then prevail upon them to give me a little more space. It was while walking back to my desk that it dawned on me how many avatars that ten-by-eight room takes.

The Escape Capsule: You’re hunting frantically for someone on a day when everything is out of control, and that person is in charge of everything that is spiralling out of control. You try calling him or her, you run outside in the hope of finding him or her on the wrong end of a cigarette, but no…the person is officially missing. You figure out where s/he has been spending the last hour when s/he makes a sudden reappearance after the commotion is over.

The Smoking Room: For some reason, the forty feet from the restroom to the smoking zone (which translates, of course, into anywhere that fresh air is available to pollute) are more strenuous than the journey from Base Camp to the summit of Mount Everest. Your nostrils are usually assaulted by fumes from cheap cigarettes, and then you walk into the restroom to find someone hastily walking out of a cubicle, where you find a telltale cigarette stub that refuses to get flushed down.

The Eavesdropper’s Paradise: I made this discovery a few years ago, when a colleague rushed up to me and said, “you won’t believe what I have to tell you!” He then went on to tell me his boss was negotiating with a prospective employer. “How do you know?” I asked. His reply was, “oh! I heard it from the horse’s mouth. He was talking to the HR guys from there in the loo!”

The Room of Flirtations: In most offices, smoke breaks are the norm, coffee breaks may be excused, and breaks for telephone conversations are blasphemous. So, when a poor girl has a boyfriend, or a poor boy has a girlfriend s/he needs to keep in constant touch with, where else does s/he go? It would help, though, if these beings in love had mercy on those using the restroom as The Escape Capsule and not as The Eavesdropper’s Paradise. When you want to be alone with your thoughts, which are usually too many to leave you quite alone, you’re quite often subjected to a detailed insight into the love life of a colleague, who either does not know or does not care, that you’re locked up in one part of the eight-by-ten room.

Bitching Central: This, of course, is the most frequent purpose the restroom serves. And gone are the days when two women caught in the middle of a bitching session would pretend to talk about makeup or work. Nowadays, they make it perfectly clear you’ve intruded into their personal space…a point that was made clear to me as I left the restroom on the fateful day which inspired this column, to catch one of them saying, more loudly than required, “I don’t know why people never respect privacy these days!!!”

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