Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Case of the Argumentative Indian

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 10th January, 2010)

Perhaps it happens at the time of birth – when a cluck of crooning relatives crowd us, saying “oh my God! How adorable! S/he looks exactly like you!!!” We stare back, wrinkled, pink, beady-eyed, bald or stringy-haired, as determined to contradict their expression of admiration as they themselves are to humiliate a woman who has just spent about a day pretty much pushing a watermelon out of a straw.

It is in our genes – we are addicted to pointless arguments, and we are compulsive exhibitors of convincing insincerity. These two qualities meet perfectly under one bracket – the human conviction that dead air cannot be good for anyone’s health.

There’s something about the concept of companionable silence that we as a species cannot grasp except in scripted audiovisual media, where camera angles and piano notes scream out the subtext. Leave two acquaintances in a room with no celluloid around, and one of them is bound to turn to the other and say something like:

“This feminism concept is very strange to people of our generation, ma. I’ll tell you this – howmuchever a girl studies or earns, she will not be truly happy until she has a home to look after.”

“Don’t you think the BJP would have done a better job of handling the Maoist menace than the Congress?”

“The minimum age difference between the boy and the girl must be ten years for a good marriage. What do you think?”

You could point out that Madonna and Guy Ritchie got divorced, or that girls are happiest when their mothers are looking after their homes or that if any party had handled any menace well, it would not be there today, and gratify your interlocutor and yourself. But on occasion, a combination of misanthropy and lethargy motivate the marginally less human of us to resist the cravings of our fellow-fauna, and a sadistic impulse forces us to agree with them.

“You know why child marriages were there in the olden days?” says Family Friend Uncle, “because all sorts of longings take place during adolescence. If you stifle them and have a late marriage, your body and mind get affected.”

“Yes, Uncle, all my divorced friends got married when they were adults.”

Family Friend Uncle looks startled, nods and makes another valiant attempt.

“Sometimes, beyond a certain age, you might not even be able to procreate.”

“And if you don’t have children by a certain age, it increases the risk of some types of cancer for women, no, Uncle?”

Family Friend Uncle sighs, nods and switches subjects. “Nowadays, people are running after money. You have a well-paying job and you are proud of being a workaholic. What is all the money for?”

“To keep your family happy, fulfil your own needs. But then we never find the time for it. True.”

Family Friend Uncle sighs and gives you up as a poor cause.

The second genetic defect we carry is rather harder to work on, though. We’ve all told each of our friends on her wedding day that she’s the most beautiful bride we’ve ever seen, and have never been able to stop at “oh, my God!” and allow for awed silence when presented with the day-old products of these unions – fine, ‘ugly babies’ is less convoluted, I know.

For my part, I try to stick to the truth and leave it open to interpretation. For example, every resignation letter I have written contains a promise that my attachment to the company will remain unchanged, and having worked in ten organisations, I know I have kept my word.

A Kink in the Amour

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, on January 3rd, 2010)

Scene 1:

“Well, you gotta work all the muscles in your body, honey,” drawls the sexpert, to Oprah, flashing a miniature dumbbell – the most memorable of several other contraptions in her secret drawer which was on display for Oprah’s hundreds of millions of viewers. When Oprah states the obvious and gets a laugh out of the studio audience, the sexpert says, “aww, I had a bit of a tough time explaining these to officials at the Chicago airport.” “Yeah…I’m sure they were in a real big hurry to let you go,” says Oprah, “no…I mean that!” An impressionable eleven-year-old gawking at the television can think of another country that’d be in a real big hurry to let her go…and can never look at dumbbells again without remembering the incident.


Scene 2:

Seven years later, an eighteen-year-old and her friends are at a shop famous for stolen goods and pirated DVDs, hidden away in Chennai’s most popular shopping area. Our buddy behind the counter piles a stock of the former as a shield, before showing us the latter (it was a time of turbulence and suspicion, the police were sending out their best men on raids). He quickly shoves away the pornographic movies he unearths, embarrassed by the presence of three women. The mountain of thongs that were his shield, however, is exempted as a possible cause of bashfulness. A few minutes in, a middle-aged woman peeps hesitantly into the store and mumbles, “uh…ladies panties…” The storekeeper points at the pile of fluffy, copper blue, strategically orificed, stringy things on the counter, garnished with DVDs titled “Lord of the G-Strings”, “Buffy the Vampire-Layer” and “Gangbangs of New York.” The woman stares at the pile, back at him, at us, at the pile and is gone with a shriek.

This is why Indian men take such long showers and Indian women don’t get manicures too often. This is why “my phone is on vibrator mode” still makes us giggle, and everyone in the adolescence-menopause range lives in terror of being caught round-handed by a parent/spouse/child. This is why the few tree-lined streets in Indian metros have cars parked under them all evening, and the many haystacks in Indian villages have bullock-carts wobbling inside them. ‘Sex toys’ are banned in thought, word and deed, and so we have little choice but to use ourselves, household implements and each other as substitutes.

Let’s say we broke our shackles metaphorically so we could do so literally – let’s say we had Roleplay Pride Parades, armed with handcuffs, uniforms (this would have the added advantage of representing those sections of the society that can’t speak for themselves – the police, domestic help, the religious celibate etc.), rabbits (‘Sex and the City’ has been on TV since 1997, you’ve got to get that!) and flashlights (oh, well, they DO pronounce it that way in most parts of the country, you know) and got the men in robes, capes and wigs (dude, I meant judges!) to give kinkiness a nod…

Now that the only things on earth that live up to the ancient Vedic principle of doing favours expecting nothing in return have found legal acceptance, we would have to look for ways to circumvent society.

“Saar!” an airport official would make a smart salute, having discovered a pair of handcuffs in a traveller’s cabin baggage.

“Waat is this, madoon?” the same official would bark, pulling out a curiously-coloured thing from a woman’s purse.

“Uh…my…uh…son’s battery-operated balloon. It…inflates, NEVER deflates, and uh…can change shape to a feather…sigh...” or “Can’t you see? My daughter’s toy rabbit! Should I check it in?” should get you out of that one.

Then there’s the helpful-mommy-in-law crisis.

“I cleaned my son’s drawer. You young people are so useless!” she would say fondly, “I found a torch without a bulb, so I threw it away!” And there goes your husband’s bonus (India’s import duty hasn’t changed yet) which did do everything and spared you the trouble.

And then come the helpful neighbours who want to know why a nurse’s uniform, a Batman costume and a Princess Leia bikini are on your clothesline.

“Freelancing,” might not quite be convincing enough.

A Spock of Trouble

(Published as 'A Friends Episode and a Spock Haircut' in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, on 26th December, 2009)

“Hey, we’re all in the same place for once – let’s talk!”

“Uh…I’d rather watch forty-two minutes of sarcastic remarks, sorry.”

Speaker 1 was my brother and Speaker 2, me. Every time I’m home for a vacation, my family starts feeling guilty about watching too much TV, and decides to take it all out on me – by compulsively spending quality time ‘talking’. But the problem with everyone in a family being in a different field is that all of us strike each other as boring. The only thing we really have in common is what we watch on TV.

My grandmother and my dad trade opinions on ‘Kolangal’, my mother and one of my brothers argue over whom Dr. Gregory House should be dating, while my other brother and I fight over my preference for ‘Seinfeld’ over ‘Friends’.

At some point, we figured watching our respective sitcoms on the TV (or computer – oh, come on, it’s not illegal if you buy the official DVDs!) makes a lot more sense than ranting about them during quality time. And while there’s a sanctimonious group that calls it ‘the idiot box’ and refuses to watch it when they can walk in the park instead, I believe the television is instrumental in creating a collective conscious.

For example, it’s much easier to explain to my mother why everyone who has an affair is not scheming and villainous.

“Ma, you like Dr. Wilson, but he has affairs.”

“Okay, he has affairs, but he’s a good friend to House, and yes, he lies to his wives, but he’s nice to everyone el…oh.”

And “Ma, stop acting like Bree!” is a much more effective way of getting her off my back about picking my clothes off the floor than “I’ll do it later.”

My brothers convince my grandmother that every girl they bring home isn’t a potential bride with, “Patti, we’re like Thols and Abi, okay?”

And it’s not all in the family either. At one point, people who’re in and out of dysfunctional relationships wanted to know why the ones in long-term and apparently functional relationships don’t get married – but now, oh, they suppose it’s a Ross-and-Rachel kinda thing.

Sitcoms make for better conversation than the weather, real estate, Barack Obama’s Nobel and the state of the economy. They beat family gossip, and hold up a distended mirror to society – better-looking people with the same problems and completely impractical ways of getting over them, making a lot more money for their time than you do.

I’ve known sitcoms to have saved relationships. A friend of mine was dealing with the old-boyfriend-crawling-back-while-current-boyfriend-is-being-a-jerk syndrome, and a re-run of the ‘Friends’ episode where Monica has to choose between Richard and Chandler happened to be on TV when the current boyfriend came visiting. Apparently, it gave him perspective.

So, sitcoms emasculate our men, dramatise our lives, Americanise our language and the more obscure ones allow us to plagiarise their lines. Of course, there’s the downside. My landlord’s son started speaking gibberish when his parents decided to fill his life with ‘Colors’. And I believe there are people with diagnosed psychological disorders who only speak the Klingon language. Well, to be honest, I did get rather worried when one of my brothers started making the Vulcan salute and got Spock’s haircut.

But under the assumption that you’re not really as thick as clotted cream, that's been left out by some clot, and now the clots are so clotted, you couldn't unclot them with an electric de-clotter, sitcoms have had a positive impact on your life – while they haven’t completely allowed you to overcome your failure to communicate, they’ve largely removed the necessity of trying to.
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