Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Weight of 21 Grams

The final voiceover in a movie said twenty one grams is how much weight we lose when we die. But when other people do, how much of those twenty one grams is passed on to the people they leave behind? It happens to so many of us that the people who make us who we are, are not around when we prove ourselves, when the elements they have inculcated in us shine through. There are times when one wonders if everything is worth it, when the person (or people) to whom it would mean the most, to whom it is due, in a manner of speaking, is (or are) not around to see it.

I think very often of four people. Of them, one was the closest friend I've known, my first best friend, the person who taught me how to read, how to write and how to draw. I thank this person everyday, a decade and a half after I saw her for the last time. My sense of panic, as a school child, with a concrete plan in my head for the next fifty years but not having had the chance to execute anything yet, with bundles upon bundles of notes and piles upon piles of ruled notebooks filled with writings I had promised to show her "when I was ready to", partially stemmed from the horror of realisation she would never see them now. Never see the writings and never see the fame, which, every year, was coming closer. Never see the illustrations I was beginning to take more seriously now. Never see the play of light and shade. Never see me perform on stage, never hear the sound of my salangai or my voice scaling the notes.

When I think of the art of storytelling, the art of holding an audience in one's grip, of measuring the nuances of voice and expression and drama, of creating an atmosphere out of thin air, I think of someone else. I think of someone who used to make my cousins' and my skins crawl with horror while telling us stories from another era. The living room of our ancestral home would transform in our heads to dark dungeons, vertiginous halls, jewel-studded thrones, dense jungles, marshes that could come alive and suck one in, parched deserts, cascading waterwalls, islands that could appear and disappear out of oceans... We would look at each other with suspicion, wondering if a ghost had chosen to take root in one of our souls. The idli, bajji and dosai our mothers laid out for us would pale as insignificant indulgences as our minds dwelt on the battles of another time. I dream now, of performing as a storyteller, of captivating audiences in the same way he did.

That, and so much more. This person was the one who told me I could skate alone, without holding on to walls and taking step by step. I remember the feeling of suddenly being asked to let go of the wall, of being made to loosen my grip, of my hand being grasped by another human hand instead of the bumpy cement. To me, that was a lesson in life. A lesson that, while restraint and control and taking care not to fall are all very well, one needs to take the plunge; one can't feel the ecstasy of sailing through the air unless one lets go of the wall. Sometimes, when I fall down the stairs once too often or twist my foot while trying a complicated dance step, I think I might have taken the lesson too literally, but it's worth it all.

I think of someone else, whose culture I am fare more acquainted with now than when he was around. I remember attempts to make conversation, attempts to draw me into something, and the polite interest with which I listened. I remember certain things latching on to the recesses of my mind, and being sure they would find their calling, and become part of my calling, at some point. Now, I think the time has arrived, but the person who would have been thrilled by it is not around. There are times when I wonder what those conversations, which circumstance and incomprehension and the haziness of the future prevented, would have been like.

And there is yet another, someone who was snatched away far too early, but not quite early enough not to have left an impact. Someone whose bright smile first thing in the morning and whose cheery, "good morning!" on the phone was always outside the realm of understanding of someone who is not quite human until she has downed three cups of coffee. I remember her every time I wear a saree, because I remember the look of disgust on her face when she saw me in a saree, and I remember being forced to change the way I wore it. Now, people tell me I wear sarees well, and I smile, thinking of the woman who taught me how.

So, what, then, is the weight of 21 grams? What is the weight of the guilt that one didn't do all these things when the people whom they would have meant the world to, had seen them? What sort of justice is it for the work of an artist to be exhibited when the artist is no more? For a book to be published when the author is no more? What is the weight of the despondence that that person/people to whom you would dedicate it all, is not there with tears in his/her eyes to see you achieve it all? If one were to go by religious beliefs, and I do, the person's soul would know no attachment to his/her previous birth. Those people are strangers to me now, is what the scriptures say.

I think, though, that when someone means so much to one, when someone has made such a lasting impact on one's life, the partitions of life and death can be transcended at times. That something in the universe, somewhere, would be happy, satisfied, would feel a sense of completion for a moment, when I fulfil the promises I made to the people who cannot see them fulfilled. Maybe a little girl in a playground somewhere would feel an inexplicable bliss for a few seconds. Maybe a teenaged junkie would throw his joint away. Maybe a child taking its first steps would giggle. These people, wherever they are and whoever they are, will, somehow, know.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Loins' Share of the Limelight

(Published as "The Lion is Likely to Have the 'Hardest' Time" in The Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, 20th September, 2008)

"What do you know about golden loins?" someone I have the misfortune of knowing asked, right when I was trying to work my way around a piece on the nuclear deal.

"Excuse me?!"

"The golden loin. What do you know about it?"

At 5:30 in the evening, no journalist wants to think about loins, golden or otherwise. Your carnal instincts remind you of time that could be spent in more fruitful indulgences than analysing what politicians say, while your intellectual leanings conjure up disturbing images of mediaeval chastity belts, what with talk of metal and loins.

"The golden…what…," I managed, with as delicate a balance of cultured civility and stiffness as I could. Brazen questions have a way of rousing one's ladylike prudery.

"The golden loin award."

All right, this was reaching its limits. Whatever one's qualifications for the golden loin award were, they certainly did not deserve to be brought to my notice while I was thinking about the nuclear deal. I met the enquiry with my coolest gaze, only to hear the impatient explanation, "The Wenice Golden Loin Award!"

My heart went out at that moment to Mickey Rourke. Albeit his character was fatefully named Randy "The Ram" Robinson in The Wrestler, the movie which won the Venice Golden Lion Award, his just deserts were not quite the golden loin award. A few months of hoary jokes from the cast and crew must have ensured the money was hard-earned, without the ignominy of being crowned the winner of this particular award, while his colleagues were walking away with Academys and Emmys.

Soon enough, though, Mickey Rourke's plight faded into the background, and the institution of a Golden Loin Award became a topic of interest among me and a couple of friends. We'd designed the plaque in our heads, and were considering the criteria. For instance, should it go to, let's say, a Kamla Devi and a Surender Kumar who'd raised nineteen children? Or should it go to the sixty-five-year-old nomadic tribe member who had managed to have a child at an age when most of her contemporaries were choosing names for great-grandchildren? Or, perhaps, be a tribute to the generosity of the woman who, about a year ago, decided to play surrogate for her daughter and son-in-law? Or, in keeping with mediaeval traditions, go to the Paros of the world, who died without compromising on their celibacy?

At home, though, my attention turned to the rather unfortunately named King of the Jungle. I mean, whichever way you look at it, the royalty of the fauna kingdom doesn't seem to have much of an escape route from innuendo-laden puns. The makers of proverbs haven't been too considerate either. The Italians wisely say, "The lion and the lamb shall lie down together, but the lamb won't get much sleep", while the Africans are more demanding, with "The lion does not turn around when a small dog barks". And for that particular one, I'm sure my Jamaican friend would salute her ancestors. One of the most pragmatic Italian aphorisms goes, "The lion had need of the mouse", while the Gaelic say "the lion is known by the scratch of his claws."

So, however you put it and whichever culture you turn to, the lion's likely to have a pretty hard time (no pun intended here). So it looks like the males of the human species can take comfort from the fact that they have it relatively easier than the lion; while overhearing girl talk does induce a sense of horror in men whose faith in the mildness of the fair sex had hitherto remained unshaken, it can't compare to the torment a lion would have to endure after a bad date. Under the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that the last few Asiatic lions went into hiding after Ajit declared in Kali Charan, "saara sheher mujhe LOIN ke naam se jaanta hai!"

(With many thanks to my friends Moushumi Ghosh and Pathikrit Sen Gupta, brainstorming with whom inspired most of this column)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Communal Harmony Through Sign Language

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 6th September 2008)

"What is kuzhandhai?" a friend of mine, who has recently moved to Chennai from Mumbai asked.

"Child. Why?"

"And the thing you eat with rice is kuzhambu, right?"


"And God forbid you mix the two of them up," her husband, who has always lived in Chennai, called out from the next room, "you don't want to end up telling the waiter you'd like to have a baby."

Visions of a horrified waiter at a '100% Pure Vegetarian Restaurant' being asked benignly to serve up vaththa kuzhandhai to a sweetfaced woman, whose external appearance showed no signs of a propensity to consume the young ones of her species, swam through our heads.

"You South Indians!" my friend said, with a sigh and shake of the head, "po da means one thing, po di means one thing, podi means one thing, podu means one thing, paadu means one thing..."

"Actually," another friend said, contemplatively, "most of those can mean more than one thing, you know..."

It felt good to be on the knowledgeable side. My move to Delhi, having grown up bilingual, and having chosen to learn Spanish so I could make attempts to understand online radio commentary for matches between Boca Juniors and River Plate, was quite gutsy. At the time, of course, I had no clue quite how much an impediment it would turn out to be that my knowledge of Hindi, practical and theoretical, came from a year of overheard conversations in Urdu between my Afghan and Pakistani roommates. My first hint came when my requests for a mirror, in a combination of English and sign language, left me with curtains, a drinking glass and a rather kind gesture from my landlady, who came all the way upstairs to show me the window.

A few months down the line, I forgot the Hindi word for "pickle", and was offered rice, curd, a whole potato, some dough and a ripe mango before I had the presence of mind to call up a colleague and ask for the word. Of course, that meant enduring witticisms about being "in a pickle" for the rest of my career at the company I was working in.

I went on to top all my linguistic underachievements one day, at the canteen. I remember the moment vividly. There was rasmalai, and I couldn't find a bowl for it. So I approached the caterer and said, politely, "bhaiyya, rasmalai ek kachauri mein de deejiye".

"Ji, madam?" he asked, after a long, blank stare, hoping he'd misheard.

"Rasmalai ek kachauri mein de deejiye," I repeated calmly, and then, spying a few bowls at the back, pointed usefully, "vahaan rakha hua hai."

"Katori, madam?" the caterer asked, relieved.

In a country like India, where the dialect changes every few kilometres and the language changes about every hundred in a given direction, I think the solution is, sign language should be made the official one of the nation. Think of the luxury long, boring speeches (or the absence thereof) would offer. What better time to catch up with your friends without being silenced! Of course, the national pastime of interrupting people would take a beating. But one might be able to pull it off – and, the only way to interrupt an anecdote in sign language would result in a fistfight, so all the better.

And think of the impact it would have on the movies! It is too late to reverse the piano roll that signalled a transition to Switzerland in the dream song sequences of the eighties and nineties, but we might just be in time to avoid a retro revolution. Besides, surely the sign language version of "Aashiq Banaya Apne" would have been...umm...what's the politically correct phrase...more pleasant on the ears? And think of the communal harmony that would prevail if we were to communicate with just sign language. If you don't get this, you clearly haven't read the Pope vs. Sardar joke. Well, a Google search should set you straight. Of course, certain political parties might have to disband, but then again, they shouldn't have much trouble raking up other controversies. What I'd really like to watch, though, would be a session in parliament, where politicians attempt to wade through six page speeches with sign language in six minutes. We just might have a lot of athletic parliamentarians at the end of it all, and the Speaker could likely find a place in the annals of ballet history.

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