Saturday, July 25, 2009

Y Mi Mama Tambien!

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 24 July, 2009)

“I have a hundred and thirty books.”


The statement would have warmed the hearts of most parents. But where my mother is concerned, I might as well have said, “I’m pregnant.”

Which is exactly what I said after her unearthly shriek – “Would you rather I said I was pregnant?”

“Well, at least then, we can do something about it! What do we do with your hundred and thirty books??!!! In less than two years?!”

“The thing is, I’m running out of…”

“Don’t EVEN think about it! I have five rooms full of your books here! You marry that bookshop uncle of yours and you can both keep buying and selling books!”

“He’s married,” I said, not without a touch of regret.

The’ bookshop uncle’ in Connaught Place had once had my close friend, and regular partner in my meanderings, wondering whether it was completely wrong for a heterosexual male to have a crush on a slightly overweight man in his late fifties.

“With that slightly overweight man in his late fifties, it’s not,” I’d assured him.

While I wandered off into a daydream about the overweight man in his late fifties, and his fifteen-foot high, thirty-foot deep and fifteen-foot wide haven, a corner of my consciousness was vaguely aware of my mother’s tirade against me, the bookshop uncles who had built my personal library and my packrat friends, from among whom I should choose a husband and build a house for all the rubbish we had collected over the years.

It’s not just printed books I collect. I have a couple of cupboards full of clothes and shoes dating back from when I was a few months old. I have three trunks of newspaper articles covering sporting events of personal significance to me. I have five cartons of schoolbooks, with neem leaves and mothballs scattered over them liberally to keep them insect free. The comforting fact, though, is that I’m not the most obsessive packrat I know.

A friend of mine has a collection including bills, which he staples to his diary. The practice has come in useful exactly twice, when he decided to exchange a broken CD, and when he realised he had bought a book a second time by accident. But from the day he started making money, about ten years ago, he has collected every bill, from hotel tabs to store receipts.

Then there’s the dude who collects movie tickets. His then-girlfriend was moved when they first started out, thinking it was a romantic gesture that he would scribble down her name and his on the back of their movie tickets, and put them away in a visiting card holder. Six years, one child and eight visiting card holders later, she has started crumpling up the movie tickets as soon as the show is over.

Perhaps he should have married this other friend of mine instead. She collects table napkins from the restaurants we visit. And she makes everyone at the table autograph them, writes the date and folds it into her bag. She is rumoured to have had an unpleasant experience at a five-star hotel, where the table napkins were made of cloth.

Another used to write down all the texts she received or sent, along with the sender’s or recipient’s name and the exact time at which the text was sent. Though technologically challenged, she bought a Blackberry recently just so could transfer data directly.

I think we packrats usually flock together to strengthen our conviction that there are stranger compulsions out there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Contemplations of an Indian Lotus Eater

"Do you miss Delhi?"

"Well, I miss Delhi for the food. But I love Madras. This place is so vibrant, has such a peaceful energy about it."

I couldn't quite think of anything to say, so I nodded and cradled the mobile phone. (I'd like to have said 'receiver', but my mobile's about quarter the size of a receiver.)

Maybe it's because I saw a kathakali performance for the first time in my life. Maybe it's because two retards did a wannabe comic act right before, quite incongruously, and one of them called it masakalli, and the other explained the difference between Amitabh Bachchan's son and Anil Kapoor's daughter's pigeon dance, and an ancient dance form from Kerala. Maybe it's because I miss the stage and the audience and the pre-show panic, the pretended last minute rush that infuses lazy afternoons at the auditorium. Maybe it's because I feel things haven't changed for too long. Maybe I miss my kid brothers. Maybe I'm worried I'll hit 30 before I do a solo Bharatanatyam performance. Maybe I'm worried I'll never sing in public.

It's one of those things I do when I'm in a crisis of stagnation. I wait for things to change, and do my research while I wait. I went through this before I moved to London, and I couldn't believe I would get there till I actually did. I went through this before I ran into my future Editor-in-Chief and moved to Delhi. The location shifts weren't the most significant thing about those moves, though. Each of them signified a phase in my life. Every step of the way, I found myself getting closer to who I was in some respects, while moving further away in others.

Delhi was new, and I've often been vituperative in my criticism of its aggression, its laziness, its people, its language and its prejudices - prejudices that have affected me too, and sewn in biases in me that I didn't have earlier. But Delhi is special because it's the place where I found the one thing most significant to me, the one thing that is bringing me closer to who I really am, the one thing that's unlocking barriers inside me, the one thing that is too precious to risk. I've met people I know will stay in my lives forever, just like I did with London. There are corners I have fallen in love with like I did with London. I've not had the luxury of time to bond with the city and make it my own, but I know at some point, it can become mine.

So, I wonder what this restless edge in me wants now. If I decide to move away, I have a plan in mind. That's been my USP since I could think, pretty much. Always have a plan. Maybe that's the reason for my chequered career. Maybe that's how I've done freelancing, print, radio, web, TV, teaching and a tiny little spot of modelling that fortunately, didn't become public. Well, it wasn't exactly a Playboy spread, but filter coffee ads can be a little more embarrassing, I think. Anyway, back to the plan. I know I'll sing and dance and do theatre and write, write, write. Maybe I will even actually put my craving to teach in my old school, into practice. Everyone knew I would become a teacher when I was a kid. The other kids would play House with their dolls. I would play School. I insisted my dad buy me backboards and chalk every now and then - the chalks a little more often because most of them ended up lodged somewhere in my brother's foodpipe. My cousins knew pouring hot water and stamping on my blackboard to ruin it would destroy me, and it did several times over. But I would struggle to finish the portions in time for the exams., set the papers, correct them and give my toppers, medals.

No one thinks I could work for a fifth of what I do now...well, maybe it won't be a fifth, with all the freelancing I could do. But no one thought I would do my post-graduation after I started working, either. I don't know if this is the right time for a switch, and I don't know whether I want a switch. It's one of those times when you drift along, and feel a change in the air. You feel things happening to you, like they do to Haruki Murakami's Protagonist. You don't climb down dry wells or take off into strange woods or start talking to cats or meet a woman who keeps buying you clothes, maybe, but you begin to see a pattern that drives you somewhere.

Growing up near the sea, you learn that standing guard over your footprints won't keep them from being washed away, and having witnessed a tsunami, you realise staying a 'safe' distance from the waves won't always keep you dry. Sometimes, the ice cream is more important than the waves, and sometimes the smell of the brine on the sand is more important than the ice cream.

In Delhi, I found something that knit the patterns of my life into one cohesive whole. The scattered things I had done found some sort of order, where they seemed to bring me closer to my move to Delhi, and what I would come across here. Where everything I had ever liked and everything I had ever done, and the impact each one of those things had had on my personality, found a counterpoint. When you leave a footprint behind, do you turn back every now and then to look at it? Do you come back to find it filled with water? Do you come back to find it altered by the breeze? Do you come back to find it faded? Do you come back to find smooth wet sand where it once was? Do you make a fresh footprint? Do you find it, miraculously, intact? Was it never there? Or what if it was not as intangible as a footprint, and you let go by walking away?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Recession Worries of the Other Kind

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 11 July, 2009)

It all began when Andre Agassi handed over the French Open trophy to Roger Federer. It was possibly because we had just been joking that the runners-up trophy (or should one call it ‘tray’?) was clearly feeling the brunt of global recession, but when I said, “remember how much hair Agassi had when he first came in?”, a pregnant silence prevailed at the other end of the phoneline.

“Yeah,” came the gloomy voice, finally, “people are losing hair faster – in spite of so many products being available to prevent just that.”

It’s true. The world is going bald. And men are even more worried about this breed of recession because the stalks don’t seem to rally, whatever product is released into the market.

I can’t say the preoccupation is unwarranted. I know of a woman who, having said yes to a fairytale proposal on the beach, began to have second thoughts when she caught the beginnings of two potential bald patches glinting in the sun as her fiancĂ© walked down the stairs.

“It was like they were mocking me,” she said, with a shudder, to her friends, “like they were saying ‘we GOT you!’ ”

The marriage stands cancelled.

A gentleman of my acquaintance, having worked for thirty full years, thought he had earned his right to go bald, but his wife had an epiphany when a honeymooning couple they met during a vacation addressed him as “uncle.”

“You’re not going to go bald before our daughter’s wedding!” she said, firmly, and he found himself at a hair clinic. He has been persuading his daughter to get married soon, in the hope the smelly oils and herbs will find their way out of his toilette.

It doesn’t help that the cures range from ridiculously expensive and ridiculously outfitted wigs, to ridiculously expensive and ridiculously styled follicle implants.

“Is this…is this…?” my mother squinted at a popular sports presenter, having caught him on television after a gap of a few months.

“It is,” I said, “hair weaving.”

“Why has he done that to himself? He looks…strange,” she said, with a shudder.

So it’s one of those situations where you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Haruki Murakami doesn’t help matters by coining the politically correct phrase “gentlemen who are follically challenged”, making the victims of loss of hirsuteness feel like they’re in a “special” category.

But I think we should learn to draw inspiration from our Superheroes and see the world as it really is. Ever since Patrick Stewart decided to baldly go where no man has gone before, he has paved the way to distinction for a generation of chrome domes. I mean, look at the age of Superman. Lex Luthor, the bad guy, is bald. Superman has a head full of glossy black hair. Enter Batman with his widow’s peak. The Penguin and the Riddler wear hats that may be assumed to hide receding hairlines. The Joker shows early signs of his green hair pulling back from his forehead. Then there’s Flash Gordon with the fiery eyes, glinting sword and goldilocks. His mortal enemy, Ming the Merciless, has only a mean moustache, stingy beard and tattooed-on eyebrows by way of facial hair. Now, cut to the X-Men. Professor Xavier, the Good Guy, the Founder of the X-Men, the negotiator, the bald dude, versus Magneto, the Fanatic, the crazed fundamentalist, with wavy silver locks.

And the biggest Superhero of our time – Rajnikanth – made a switch from pushing back his forelock throughout his career to drumming his bald pate in Shivaji.

I believe the Universe is trying to tell us fortune favours the bald.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Michael Jackson: A Turn in HIStory

People called him an alien. People called him strange. People called him wacko. People said he had the voice of a girl, the mind of a child and the inclinations of a paedophile. But not one of those people has been able to take away from what he was - a performer in the truest sense of the word.

The tearful tributes are over, the conspiracy theories are alive, and the legend is dead. The world is still coming to grips with the fact - Michael Jackson is no more. He won't auction off his memorabilia, he won't indulge in a tug-of-war over the Beatles catalogue, he won't have any more plastic surgery and he won't dangle babies out of hotel windows.

It's hard to explain what one feels about Michael Jackson. To a generation that was in school during his 'Dangerous' days, he's not the stringy man accused several times of paedophilia. He's the guy with the huge grin, the weird hoot and the indescribable dance moves. From the moonwalk (which everyone learnt with varying degrees of success) to the forty-five degree tilt (which everyone tried with more-or-less uniform degrees of failure), there was something about them that was ungimmicky. Even the Robot was less ridiculous when he did it. Perhaps his dance moves overshadowed his music. Perhaps his personality overshadowed his performances. And perhaps his success overshadowed his talent.

For too long, the media had focused on his skin turning white (does something so obvious require quite so much analysis?!) and his nose disappearing. And now that the man is gone, some newspaper editorials continue to revel in sarcastic swipes at his eccentricities. What does it say about a performer when he hasn't brought out a studio album in twelve years, and tickets to fifty concerts sell out in less than twelve minutes?
The double life Michael Jackson led, what people love about him and what people despise about him, probably have the same root - he was an enigma. Was he black or was he white? Was he a philanthropist or a publicity-seeker? Did he care about the world or live in his own universe? Was Diana Ross his type, or was Macaulay Culkin his type? Was he a singer first or a dancer first? Was he a raging freak or a caring father?
This absolute refusal to be categorised translated into his wide repertoire of songs. It's hard to imagine the guy who screamed, "You know, I'm bad! I'm bad! Come on! I'm really, really bad!" also crooned, "You are not alone, for I am here with you, though we're far apart, you're always in my heart..." The guy who did the 'Thriller' dance kneeled down and drew mud back and forth in 'Earth'. The man who came across as a neurotic basket case while speaking to Martin Bashir, was your regular guy while talking to Oprah. He could make you stare in bewilderment, and wonder what this creature was, or he could rouse your empathy by telling you about the things he overcame to become a star.
A mourner at his memorial service said, "Michael Jackson was often imitated, but never duplicated."
Never have so many people wanted to be someone, and made fun of that someone simultaneously. Never have so many people struggled to place someone each of them could relate to. You could ask the Presidents of the most powerful countries in the world who Michael Jackson was, and they'd know just as well as the guy digging up a drain down your road. The screeches and yelps that could bring a 100,000-strong audience to their feet would melt into the runny-honey voice that could soothe one person lying in bed, to sleep.
We've been lucky to watch some of the greatest names in every field build their careers - we're a generation that has seen A R Rahman, Pete Sampras, Michael Schumacher and a host of other masters of their art walk into their arenas as anonymous debutants and conquer the crowds. But of all the geniuses we've seen, Michael Jackson escapes definition the most...despite arguably being the one most people know of. It would be a cliche to say perhaps that's why he was so intangible, so unbound by convention. The things other people did to him, the things he did to himself, what other people were to him and what he was to other people, made less of a comprehensive whole than a comprehensive collection of parts. And at least one of those parts reached out to at least one of the people followed his career.
Now that he's gone, the people whose lives he's touched in any manner will hope he will be remembered for the depth of his lyrics, the versatility of his voice, the flexibility of his body, the enormity of his journey from the ghetto to the consciousness of everyone on earth and the uniqueness of being Everyman.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sambaar During Eye Surgery

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 27 June, 2009)

We’re a cult.

We call ourselves the Prudish Eaters.

The least thing can make us want to stop eating. It’s not that we don’t enjoy our food. While I often say I don’t particularly care what I eat, I think it’s a defence mechanism my Prudish Eating has found for itself. When I’m more-or-less confident I won’t be forced to visualise something repellent, I indulge myself in chocolate and cheese to a fault – so much so, a friend of mine whom the waiters at coffee shops automatically put my plate in front of, once called out, “yeah, it has to be the fat guy who ordered lasagne and hot chocolate with whipped cream on it! The iced tea has to be for the girl in leggings!" and swapped places with me, fuming, while the understandably dumbstruck waiter watched.

Maybe it’s because we enjoy particular kinds of food so much that we can’t handle anything unpalatable – metaphorically, of course. I often attribute it to growing up in a family of doctors. At weddings, my mother and aunts and great-aunts would indulge in conversations about the minutiae of eye surgery, while most people were focused on complimenting each other’s jewellery and saris.

“But laser surgery is completely safe. The eye is open all through, and the laser just cuts through and sets everything straight,” I remember one of them saying during breakfast at someone’s wedding, “some more sambaar, please!”

The brinjals on my banana leaf had begun to look singularly unappealing.

“God, I hope it’s not cut anyone’s optic nerve so far!” another relative would laugh, and suddenly, the idiyappam on my leaf would become inedible.

Then there’s dinner at home. As a schoolchild, having earned a home-cooked meal after a hard day’s work, I would be about to dig in, when the telephone would ring.

“Hello?...Yes?...Oh! How many times has the baby...?" (Yes, that ended with an unpalatable task.)

I think everyone at home was thrilled when my mother was gifted a mobile phone and would disappear to conduct her conversations with patients, the highlights of which involved the number of times certain bodily functions were performed, and the consistency and colour of the products of those.

It is the Curse of Prudish Eaters that we’re haunted all our lives by people whose natural propensity is to talk of Consumption-Stoppers.

One of my fellow Prudish Eaters had the traumatic experience of having lunch with an environmentalist and a former resident of Mumbai. Her lunch partners found common ground in the open drains of Mumbai, and the smell that lingers around Mulund. “There was Manchurian,” was all she could manage when she stumbled out, and looked for solace in me, “there was Chinese food…and they spoke of open drains in Mumbai…”

Another Prudish Eater friend of mine lost twenty-five kilograms in a year.

“So, what have you been doing?” I asked him in amazement, when I met him after a gap of eight months.

“Not doing. Not doing,” he said, miserably, “it’s my roommate. He walks about brushing his teeth when I’m having breakfast. I throw away bread and cereal everyday.”

But a reporter friend of mine scored one for our cult. He had pulled an all-nighter for his organisation during a particularly gripping murder case, and his reliever walked in as he was eating breakfast.

“Oh, it’s so annoying, I had to do a live report on the case all morning,” she said, bleary-eyed, “you know, I don’t even get time to brush my teeth.”

“I don’t want to know, please,” he said.

“No, but seriously, I haven’t had a bath in two days,” she insisted.

“That explains the smell,” he said, getting up to throw away his breakfast, in a manner reminiscent of Leonides of ‘300’ fame.

I believe she’s never mentioned skipping her ablutions since.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.