Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Woh" Begone!

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 16th May 2009)

“My landlords think I’m getting married next month,” a friend of mine whined, “I thought I’d be here for one year and move back to Mumbai, but this recession’s hit, yaar, and I can’t find another job!”

“Resurrect your grandfather and kill him again,” I suggested wisely, “you get another year that way.”

When one has moved from Chennai to Delhi, the first thing that hits one as one leaves the airport is the auto. A Delhi commuter would take that sentence quite literally, but even if one is lucky enough to be physically unharmed, it impacts the iris so hard one could risk colour blindness. To someone used to black-hooded mustard autos, there’s something about lemon-hooded green autos that seems to indicate they’re being sick over themselves. When one has travelled in one, one can empathise with the motion-sickness.

The second thing that falls around one is the impenetrable blanket of language. The air is thick with Hindi, and people like me wade through it with broken sentences recalled from the CBSE Class VI to VIII Third Language syllabus.

The third thing that strikes one is that no one wants to rent out a house to one person. They all want ‘families’.

The last two epiphanies hit me simultaneously, when I found myself trying to communicate with a broker who spoke no English. Thankfully, he eavesdropped on a phone conversation I had with my mother, and told me in thrilled tones that he was Malayali and could understand Tamil. The converse being true, we got into quick secret negotiations as my prospective landlady squinted, “aap log Saauth Indian ho, kya?”

The broker then entered quick secret negotiations with her in Hindi, and then looked at me with a mildly crestfallen expression and said in Malayalam, “they only want a family. Maybe, if you don’t mind a suggestion, you can tell them you’re getting engaged and your husband will join you in a year once you get married. By then, we can find another house.”

So that was how I moved into a five-room house with a terrace and balcony. My parents were asked to encourage the myth when they visited, a duty they carried out after I painted a dire picture of being left homeless in an alien city that spoke an alien language. A couple of months later, I showed my landlords a diamond ring and turned the right shades of red. When they asked for a picture, I told them South Indians considered it unlucky for couples to pose together before marriage. I also sent my fiancé off to the United States to do an MBA, and left my landlords suitably impressed.

Inspired by my story, several of my friends have used the same tactic, but unfortunately, not with the same aplomb. A male friend of mine has resurrected and killed four sets of grandparents, got his fiancée into an accident from which she will take a year to recuperate and found convenient shanis in his horoscope.

Another carried the experiment too far, and even introduced her boyfriend to her landlords. When the relationship soured, and her landlords began enquiring about the absence of “woh”, she solicited my advice and was asked to send him off to do an MBA at Harvard.

Meanwhile, when my landlords ask me about “woh”, I wear the expression of the longing lover and tell them how much I miss “woh”, and how I won’t see him for another year.

The Italian Connection

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, 2nd May 2009)

One of my uncles, who has certified himself as the wisest of his parents’ offspring, often tells me life begins to turn a full circle when one turns forty. So you either begin to count backwards from the age of forty-one or you begin with the tabula rasa of a zero-year-old. Over the years, I have come to believe the aspect of life for which this axiom holds most true is fitness.

My own experiments with fitness have been varied, and have had equally eccentric results. There was a time when my grandmother considered me to be in the pink of health, and I used to struggle sideways through open doors. Then there was a time when my little brother would lift me high into the air and refuse to put me down till I gave him money. (At that time, my grandmother said concentration camps would have rejected me because their work was done anyway, and reminded me wistfully of the happy days when I used to struggle sideways through doors.) The epiphany about fitness came to me at some point in the middle of this journey.

Weighing close to eighty kilograms, I once went to a gym to see if I could bring myself to use the contraptions there to better myself. The members of the gym could be divided into two categories – women in their mid-fifties who made me feel like the sveltest creature to have hit the earth since Ginger Rogers, and teenagers who clearly weighed about twenty kilograms more than I did, and looked self-conscious enough to make me feel confident. My alliance with the gym was broken that day.

A woman I had once worked with told me recently that she and her sixteen-year-old daughter had joined belly-dancing classes. Her daughter had insisted they join different batches, and her husband kept his eyes averted every time the two of them walked in, afraid he would catch a glimpse of pink spandex in place of a cotton sari.“We never had all this when I was growing up, you know,” she said, “these kids are so lucky! I’m not going to miss out on this now!”

It was while I was pondering the question of what brought on this burst of fitness-consciousness in one’s middle age, when one would think one is entitled to sit back and attribute one’s lack of fitness to age, and wax poetic about how one had put tubelights to shame when one was younger, that I had my personal Revelation. The residential complex I stay in had an excuse for a park, with excuses for paved paths. It was on one of these excuses that I saw two women storming along in synthetic salwar-kameez with the dupatta tied around the waist, and white canvas shoes.

“Five rounds,” one of them said, as they passed me, “now I can have this pizza-shizza Sahil keeps ordering.”

“My tenant said they get tired of it by the time they’re in their twenties,” panted the other, “so we can stop all this in some four-five years.”

Selling A Status Symbol

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, 11th April 2009)

First it happened in the movies. And then we all drew inspiration from it. I think ‘Size does Matter’ can be blamed for the phenomenon that hit the Indian movie industry in the nineties:

Only God can Judge Him

The Ultimate Weapon

Man of Action

Come, fall in love…

A Love...that broke all relationships

A Thief…who Stole my Heart

He is not a Man

But while the horrendous taglines of the nineties-and-their-spillover-into-the-millennium could be attributed, like all the other ills of Indian society, to Westernisation, one wonders to what one can attribute the inundation of status messages that carry bulletins on the uninteresting lives of all one’s acquaintances. Thanks to social networking sites and email chat, an idiosyncrasy seems to be turning into an epidemic. From film reviews to synecdoche to self-certified aphorisms, the taglines have festered across genres.

My dislike for status messages, however, has ebbed now that the slowdown has hit. Used in shameless excess, this medium of communication can be a low-cost marketing tool, as well as an incredible money-saver. This perception can be attributed to two brands of acquaintances of mine, who perhaps not coincidentally, fall into the categories that do need to pull their purse-strings particularly tight.

The first to make use of these were The Performing Artistes – musicians, theatre personalities and dancers. Instead of printing out cards and pamphlets, they’ve made the events they’re starring in, their status messages.

“Museum Theatre. 6:30 p.m. 17th February. Be there for the performance of Yadda-Yadda-Yadda, only one day.”

“YMCA Grounds. Our last performance, guys. See you Saturday.”

“Ten D…Party Time. 7:30 p.m.”

“Vani Mahal. First floor. Performing with my guru. Thursday, 4:30 p.m.”

One of them, whose friends and acquaintances know there’s only one forum that will humour him, has taken to just putting down the time of his performances these days.

The other cash-strapped category using this are Corny Couples, who’ve decided to cut their phone bills. So you log in, and find people with random lines like “Really pissed off with you!”, while the other half of the couple writes “Sowwwy” or something equally maudlin. Then the first half’s status message changes to something like “Not listening!”

Now, the question that’s been plaguing me for a while is why people feel the compulsion to use status messages rather than simply chat and spare everyone else the public display of altercation. Especially when someone’s got a status message along the lines of “I hate you!” which makes one politely enquire whether the message refers to the word ‘you’, the misspelt name of someone of Oriental origin, or the world at large, only to be told it is part of a private conversation. You could probably blame it on reality television, some of whose stars have been contemplating the legality of having their deaths filmed. Or you could wax poetic about the tabloid culture, and how the paparazzi drive has inspired couples to start emailing links to their private honeymoon pictures, to everyone unfortunate enough to be on their list of contacts.

Having given up on the cause, I’m now hoping the domino effect will one day seep into Annoying Telemarketers, who seem to have a cosmic connection with one’s sleep pattern. It’s incredible how you’ve just settled into a dream where you’ve got superpowers to be woken up by a bright voice selling you insurance, DVD rentals or credit cards. I long for the day when these people will tack themselves on to your contacts and live happily ever after with status messages reading, “I’m statusing from Galaxy Life Insurance. Would you like to purchase a policy?” or “Good morning, ma’am! How’re you today? I guess you like to watch movies and all? I’m calling from…”

The Best Laid of Make-up, and Men

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on March 28, 2009)

The clamp she was driving at my eyes was disturbingly similar to the one in A Clockwork Orange.

“What’s that?” I asked in a panic, as it was fixed somewhere on my eyelid. Floating in my mind was a horrific cross between stories of Nazi concentration camps where the eyelids of Holocaust victims were snipped off, and memories of an ophthalmologist turning my eyelids inside out during what I know will be my last ever eye examination.

“Eyelash curler,” came the calm response.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had already started playing in my head and the lady doing my makeup for the rare occasion I prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet, turned into the nurse from Stanley Kubrick’s classic.

But that was not to be my biggest discovery of the day. When I got back to interaction with humanity that didn’t remind me of blemishes in the collective conscious of the world, my first question was posed to some men I had relative faith in, to be as in the dark and therefore as amused by my trauma as I was in hindsight.

“Can you believe such a thing as an eyelash curler exists?” I asked.

“Hanh, yeah…I’ve heard of it,” one replied, uninterested, “so…yeah…”

“I’ve seen one,” another said.

I looked at the third, half expecting him to say, “I’ve used one.”

“You’ve never seen one before?” he enquired, with the sort of look I would sport if someone asked me who Diego Maradona was.

Well, nearly as bad.

The incident was a natural follow-up to a trend I should have spotted earlier. Just a few weeks earlier, someone I know was staring intently at my hair. Having been brought up by a father who took a couple of days to notice I had got my hip-length hair cut up to the shoulders when I was in college, I assumed the person in question was trying to figure out what was different about my face.

“I’ve straightened my hair,” I explained, helpfully.

“Yeah…I know,” this guy, who got married a couple of years ago, said, with a frown, “you’ve blow-dried it straight, no, not used an iron? Because…” and he rotated a hand near about his ear to express himself better, “…it’s sort of beginning to curl up at the ends.”

“Dude! Marriage has turned you gay!” I said, in disgust.

I firmly believe, ever since the Star Wars song in Anjali left me with a lifelong fear of ghosts, that incidents that scare one temporarily must be thrashed out with someone else before they leave their mark on one’s philosophies of life.

My intentions were honourable, to this end, when I told a friend, “dude, this guy I know – he got married like two years ago – could make out my hair was straightened with a hairdryer and not a…a…straightening…uh…straightener…”

“Hair iron,” he said, patiently, and then waved an arm in the air by way of explanation, “girlfriend.”

Once, a friend of mine, frustrated after a metro ride during which the women asserted their rights to push and prod him when he slipped into their reserved seats, told me he believes a new movement, Menism or something with a better name, would crop up to rein in women’s advantages. Having been forced to study the history of the several waves of feminism, I know I’m right in sensing a similar pattern. First, men fight to enter female-dominated arenas like the kitchen, and make themselves known as the Jamie Olivers of the world. Then, they figure out more about make-up than at least one woman. Soon, we might come across a crowd of them burning their underwear at a public square, and then we’ll know Menism-or-something-with-a-better-name is here.
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