Saturday, October 30, 2010

Why I Advise People to Break Off Engagements

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 30 October, 2010)

“No, don’t marry him. You’ll regret it.”

My friend’s friend gapes at me. “Are you sure it’s not just cold feet?”

“Yes, I am. It’s not.”

“No, of course it is!” the common friend says, possibly panicked by the prospect of having to star in a five-hour version of this conversation overnight.

“What do you think?” my friend’s friend looks at me.

“You’ll regret it. You could throw a dart and hit something or someone more worthy.”

“No, she’s being sarcastic. She writes humour columns,” my friend is desperate now.

“Remember Bugs Bunny?” I ask, and my friend falls silent.

Bugs the Hallucinating Junkie is the one I credit with teaching me several truths about relationships, all of which I go on to expound to my friend’s friend.

Truth 1: When a woman introduces the man who has bumbled into her life to friends and strangers, you know it’s because (a) she’s been single for a while, and so decided to settle for anything that came her way because she’s too bored to think (b) she knows she’s making a mistake, and is not sure whether she wants to be convinced to go ahead or end it.

Sadly, most of her friends decide instinctive revulsion qualifies as bridal jitters. However, they insure themselves against blame by popping in an ambiguous sentence that serves as a lead-in to the ‘I told you so’ a few months down. Examples are:

You should do what’s best for yourself.

You deserve the best. When you meet The One, you should go ahead.

Aww. It’s all going to be okay. Give me a hug, now.

I heard the adjectives ‘loser’, ‘vacant’, ‘balding’, ‘weird’, ‘shrill-voiced’, ‘wimpy’, ‘dull’, ‘gross’, ‘crazy-eyed’ and ‘repulsive’ after my move to Delhi (and the discovery that a plaque on a door at the IGI Airport was funnier than Bugs – seriously, the name plate read ‘A.S.S.’, possibly short for Assistant Security Superintendent) had engineered a breakup three months later than necessary.

After falling in love with the man who has gone on to become my best friend, I’ve done a pretty decent job of keeping his identity secret. It helps that his name is an Unpronounceable.

Truth 2: Intelligent women usually date dudes of low calibre because of their need for validation, while intelligent men usually marry women with low IQs because of their need for flattery.

At the low-calibre-dating stage, women should acquire a distaste for flowers, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, cheap pink diaries and corny messages by association with the subject. In the life cycle of a silkworm, this is the part where you gorge on mulberry leaves till you want to puke, and then shut yourself into a cocoon. Ideally, you ought to get out before you’re boiled alive.

The distaste-by-association will help you grow fond of men who forget your birthdays, or buy you rings the wrong size after using a rubber band to measure the circumference of your finger under a random pretext.

Truth 3: Disillusionment makes you funny.

My column began with a piece on my first disastrous date with Bugs.

“I’ve read that one!” exclaims my friend’s friend, “I think I could relate to it because this guy cried after watching Jab We Met too.”

“I cried too, but that was after hearing a poorly-rendered narration from Bugs,” I say, as our common friend begins to relax, “so, ideally, you ought to break up before your dude shows up at your door with a rose between his teeth.”

“Maybe you’re right about this one,” my friend smirks, “you were funnier when you were unhappy.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Why a Woman Can't Handle the Driver's Seat

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 16 October 2010)

“I bet that’s a woman!”

That was my pet phrase when I felt like annoying my feminist friends on the road.

Having zipped in and out of Madras for five years, I had comfortably settled into the backseat of all wheeled mobile objects. Which came with the privilege of taunting the drivers.

“Your mom drives!” a friend was fond of saying, every time I clucked my tongue at her for making an awkward turn.

“Yes. Badly,” I lied. The dents in my mother’s car have been engineered solely by the male members of the clan.

Having won my driving licence as an eighteen-year-old, for driving ten feet in first gear without killing the engine or a bystander, I was proof that you needn’t know how to drive to be allowed to, if you could look helpless enough to rouse the chivalry of the driving inspectors.

“Women can’t handle positions of power,” I would say, and smile smugly when a furious friend nearly crashed her car in response.

It’s true that I still wish we lived in times when ladies sang to each other in harems, learnt science and language for entertainment, had maids to fan them, and were authorised to move on to someone better if their spouses were vanquished in war.

But my theories on women and driving were due to change when I made a purchase that took me places.

While I usually use my indicators correctly, reverse in reverse gear and can park, two months and several dents later, I’ve discovered that it isn’t always the woman’s fault that she cannot drive well. The threats are threefold:

The Forty-Minute Aunties: This species teeters off the pavement to check whether you accelerate or slow down. Once you slow down, and they have peered in to ascertain you’re a woman, they decide you can empathise with why it takes them forty minutes to waddle across the road.

The He-Men: This genum may be found in four manifestations – the bipeds who can only ride at a non-right angle to the road, the tripeds who swing either way on a whim, the quadrupeds who don’t use their indicators, whine after they bang your car and shut up when you swear like a sailor, and the pedestrians who wait until you’re two feet away before they lunge across.

The Professional Chauffeurs: Every time you see a car that’s nearly as wide as a bus and shorter than Danny DeVito, you know the guy at the wheel is sponging ten grand off his employer to learn to drive it. Whether it’s making an illegal U-turn, coming at you from the wrong end of a six-foot-wide one-way or being righteously angry when you come face-to-face as they’re trying to overtake a bus, you can bet on these guys to do it with panache. And they all stick their hands out at you in an ambiguous curse for playing by the rule book.

I draw solace from the fact that I have a Voice of Reason who cannot drive and assures me that I’m never at fault.

“Today, a guy overtook me from the left and hit my bumper. I swore at him, though.”

“Maybe you should carry pepper spray and a baseball bat.”

“A fool on a bike ripped the number plate when he was trying to overtake a bus. And then an old man with an L-Board lost control of his Scooty and made a dent.”

“I hope they were both injured?”

“This time it was my fault. I hit the concrete base of an electric box. It was jutting out…”

“No, that’s the municipal corporation’s fault!”

An Unlikely Chain of Events and Wise Versa

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 2 October, 2010)

It’s only when someone starts snoring, and a fellow-passenger glares at you, clearly holding you responsible for the somnolent transgressions of the other members of your party, that it dawns on you.

It crystallises when someone else puts his mobile on loudspeaker and a high-pitched, crackly version of the Gayatri Mantra begins to shake up the airwaves; the fellow-passenger’s look turns murderous.

You are officially on a pilgrimage.

I think it began when someone happened to mention the beauty of one particular idol during one particular darshan on one particular day of the year.

An Innova-load of people had piled on to each other and then hopped on an overbooked train. Two mamis had managed to wrangle ‘Second Class A/C’ tickets for themselves, leaving the rest of us to join a motley crew of mice, cockroaches, labourers and IT executives in what I called ‘Third Class’ till an offended fellow-pilgrim told me it was ‘Second Class Non-A/C’, thank-you-very-much, third class had died with the struggle for Independence.

Since the inception of the journey, my quest for inner peace had radiated outwards till I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted the singer to drone out the snores or vice versa.

“The Versa was nice,” someone else said, startling me into looking up at what I initially misinterpreted as telepathy, “but too many scratches, saar. I sold it off. No rasi.” They both turned to me. “How many scratches on your car, madam? You bought only now, no?”

I smiled noncommittally.

“You will get three or four dents at least,” Mr. Ex-Versa assured me, “traffic-le you can’t do anything. That too, lady driver. Hahaha! Enna, saar, am I correct?”

“Cent percent,” his sympathiser assured him, and they shook hands.

“Madam, are they going to kill Jayalalithaa?” the wife of Mr. Sympathiser asked.

“Ssh!” her husband hissed, “do you want them to arrest you?”

Aiyo, sorry,” she hissed back, “it seems she got a threat letter. I saw it on the news. She has filed a complaint and all. Will they kill her?”

I shrugged.

“Madam, you are a journalist,” Mr. Ex-Versa hissed, “you should know these things!”

“If I did, I might be otherwise occupied,” I pointed out.

Mr. Ex-Versa and Mr. Sympathiser slapped their thighs in a perfectly synchronised move.

“Excellent sense of humour!” Mr. Ex-Versa said appreciatively, “but tell me, will they cancel the Commonwealth Games?”

I shrugged again.

“What do you know, madam?” Mr. Ex-Versa demanded, and then turned to his wife, “do you have Sriram’s Maths paper?”

She obligingly fished out a few pages from her handbag and passed it on to me.

“Read it. Thirty five questions. How are CBSE schools expecting children to finish it in half an hour?” he glared at me.

“Three and a half hours,” his wife corrected and he snapped, “be quiet!”

In a vague attempt not to seem completely apathetic to current events, I accepted the question paper and clucked my tongue in what I hoped was an appropriate response.

Mr. Ex-Versa thwarted my attempt to pass it back, “no, no, read it, madam, and kindly explain the justice in the timing.”

Four sleepless hours later, we dragged ourselves on to the platform.

“Where are the mamis?” Mr. Ex-Versa wondered, as the train trundled off. Suddenly his wife shouted, “there!”

The two mamis were looking sheepishly out of their windows.

“Chain! Pull the chain!” Mr. Ex-Versa screamed.

The train jerked to a stop. Five hours, a tête-à-tête with the police and a fine later, we reached the temple.

“Today, God granted one wish of mine,” one of the mamis beamed, closing her eyes in rapture, “I’ve always wanted to see whether the chain actually works.”

When Faithlessness Takes a Hike

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 27 September, 2010)

Title: Manasarovar

Author: Ashokamitran
Translator: N Kalyan Raman
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs. 225
Pages: 176

Many of us have felt that sense of uneasiness, the emptiness inside that begs for an epiphany. We blame it on our cushy lives, our draconian colleagues, our demanding partners, inflation, media, the pace of life, petty obsessions and everything else our social narrative has taught us. And then we set off on our spiritual quests.

But long before terms like ‘self-discovery’, ‘sabbatical’ and ‘unlearning’ came into common parlance, one man wrote of the deeply personal journeys of two men, spurred by very different circumstances. Ashokamitran, one of the best novelists Tamil writing has produced, has crafted Manasarovar from the inexplicable ache to find the answers one seeks, and drawn the reader into the characters’ struggle to express their dilemmas.

Mansarovar is set at a time when the pilgrimage to the legendary lake was largely banned, as religion had to bow down to politics.

It is the story of the evocative, poignant quest of a ‘middling studio writer’ Gopal, whose life of ordinariness and routine is shattered by a psychotic episode his wife goes through. Gopal’s predicament is interwoven with a leading film star’s fervent despair to find meaning in his existence.

In a note, the translator, N Kalyan Raman says:

The exhortation of ‘move on!’ is often seen as the answer to periods of crisis in the lives of individuals. To move on, away from the cycle of memory and guilt, trust and betrayal, can only be an act of faith.

Within the framework of this narrative – of a studio writer whose experiences and encounters seem to be drawn from Ashokamitran’s own long stint at Gemini Studios, and of an actor who may be loosely based on Dilip Kumar – each line is reflexive, and one doesn’t have to wait for a revelation at the climax. It is remarkable that such complex themes and layered ideas can be conveyed in such simple language.

Perhaps thanks to Ashokamitran’s own lyricism, the translator has been able to retain the dreamy quality of the narrative, choosing words that give root to the diaphanous ideas he plays with.

Certain passages stay with the reader long after he or she has turned the pages. For instance, there is a little vignette where one of the characters, caught searching for something, hastily makes up a story about a ring he has lost. Another character, who offers to help, does find a ring.

An incident which might not be of much import in itself, gains significance in the context of a larger theme – loss and recovery, resignation and hope. In exploring this dialectic, Ashokamitran leaves his most potent ideas floating in the reader’s mind, without being spelt out. When a Muslim heroine is allowed to retain her name, why does a Muslim hero have to assume a Hindu pseudonym? What component of one’s identity is locked in a name?

How much does family matter? Where does duty begin and end? How must one come to terms with the guilt of not supporting his parents because he cannot trace them? How can one find solace, knowing that he did not do right by his children?

The concept of freedom is explored at several levels. Real-life figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Meher Baba are featured in cameo roles. While the first Prime Minister of India ponders over the political correctness of his thoughts, the silent mystic’s promises of a ‘word’ are cast in sharp contrast. As one man made powerful speeches and posed for pictures with a sorrowful smile, another’s features bubbled over with joy as his hand gestures and writing board told the world all he had to say.

Meher Baba, who was once a poet and singer, who claimed to be an avatar of God, finds a parallel in the scriptwriter Gopal, who has lost the plot of his own role in this world. Meher Baba’s ‘The New Life’ quest, resting on the mantra of ‘hopelessness, helplessness and aimlessness’, is echoed in Gopal’s journey.

Nehru, who carried the burden of power and privilege, finds a kindred spirit in Satyan Kumar, screen icon, role model and tortured human being.

The relationship between Satyan Kumar and Gopal is not really an equal friendship. Even as both of them seek out guides, the actor looks up to the scriptwriter, and appoints himself the latter’s guardian.

One is left wondering whether Ashokamitran was subverting the concept of a guru, when all three mentors in the story – a mysterious swami, Meher Baba and Gopal – can only respond to the film star’s devotion by inflicting disappointment on him.

The black-and-white portrayal of women is not unexpected from a book of its time. The demure housewife who lusts after a visitor is a foil to the cinema industry denizen who is a good mother and homemaker; while the one dishes out domestic abuse, the latter suffers it.

The only other drawback is that the writer, in rare cases, takes liberties with facts. For instance, Dr. Zhivago is said to have won a Nobel Prize, which is not awarded for particular novels.

But these minor errors can be easily forgiven in the face of the dexterity with which the author deals with the concept of redemption in less than a hundred and fifty pages. The subtlety of expression and the intricacy of description are captivating.

This book will get you nostalgic for a time when people could drive their cars along the railway platform, right up to their coaches. It will make you wonder whether Manasarovar is a source or a destination. More than anything else, it will convince you that a solitary journey is not a lonely one.

The Vas Deferens Between a Fundamentalist and Teenager

(Published as 'A Boy's Guide to Growing Up', I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated September 20, 2010)

Book title: The Sacred Grove

Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs. 250/-
Pages: 237

If it weren’t for the impeccable English and the fact that twelve-year-old boys spend more time with their Wii than Word, you might well believe The Sacred Grove was written by the protagonist Ashwin.

My propensity to form preconceived notions about a book before reading it let me down big time during this read.

The Sacred Grove,” I sniggered to myself, “it has to be a take on The Secret Garden – it might at least have been better disguised!”

Moving on to a write-up on the author, I thought “oh no, yet another government servant who wants to write fiction to pass the time!”

Well, I had to eat humble pie on both counts. The book has nothing to do with gardens or convalescing boys (though it does have a rather plain girl leaving an adolescent boy quite confused about the morality of having a friend of the icky sex.)

Daman Singh, pictured wearing a demure sari in the slot for the author’s bio, knows a whole lot more about video games, cricket and Pokemon than she would need to qualify for induction into a secret club comprising boys in the eighth grade. She might well get elected its president too.

The book begins with the horror of discovering the reproductive system – how well we all remember the day we walked home from school in a daze, not wanting to look at our parents! – and ends with the horror of discovering India.

The author’s portrayal of an adolescent boy has just the right doses of poignancy and irony. With its graphic descriptions of not-quite-aesthetic biological functions that fascinate a twelve-year-old, the book is not the best accompaniment to a meal. However, Daman Singh shows remarkable sensitivity in looking at the spectrum of issues that troubled all of us at that age.

To begin with, adolescence is pretty much the worst time to have to welcome a little sibling into the world. Between wanting to be treated as his mother’s boy and respected for his individuality, Ashwin also has to decide how to cope with this thoughtless embarrassment his parents have caused him.

As the son of a district collector, the boy faces a rather unique challenge in dealing with the small-town mentality at home, school, as well as the adult world outside. Within this framework, Daman Singh skilfully creates vignettes that stay on in one’s mind long after one has turned the page.

Adults usually forget how much conversation they understood when they were teenagers. They rarely remember that they themselves were broad-minded at that age. Throw in a nosy journalist, a hypersensitive housewife who happens to be pregnant, a diplomat who has overcome the destiny chalked out for the son of a farmer, the saffron brigade, Islamic extremists, and an intelligent teenager, and you’ve got a book in your head.

The author brings out Ashwin’s dilemma as his best friends – the boy who first accepted him as a member of the cricket team, and a driver who coached him, bought him a samosa and gifted him a taviz – become victims of religious prejudice, albeit in different ways.

There are times when one finds oneself brimming over with righteous anger as Ashwin resents being penalised because sycophants use him to cosy up to his father. One empathises with his struggle to reconcile his father’s standing in society with the man’s subservience to politicians, who are half as educated as he is.

Using a matter-of-fact tone, Daman Singh shows a keen sense of observation as she explores the hurt of a daughter whose mother doesn’t want custody of her, the angst of a journalist who has seen too much, the concern of a mollycoddling mother, the passion of a schoolteacher who “doesn’t know where to draw the line” and the shades of a one-time sports champion resigned to matronhood.

While there are occasional slips in the language and stream of thought that remind the reader that the book is not actually an autobiographical piece, they are necessary to bring in perspective. Given that she has worked in the field of rural development for a couple of decades, Daman Singh’s narrative has an authentic ring to it.

You will not regret paying the price of a pizza to pick up this book. The author is certainly one to watch out for.

Tupperware and the Sanctity of Marriage

(Published as 'Earl T. and the Boxes of Bliss' in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated September 19, 2010)

“See, this is how you spot a happily married North Indian man!”

My friend was, and still is, a rather-too-effervescent television product that is notorious for throwing people into uncomfortable situations.

The happily married North Indian man, whom I had just sent a stinker to, was staring at his mail-trail- bête noire and her bubbly friend with a hunted look.

Dabba,” she explained, unnecessarily, pointing at his hot pack, “every man from this part of the country will have to carry a shiny metal tiffin box to show that his wife cares for him.”

“No,” the happily married North Indian man finally managed to cut in, “it’s Tupperware, yaar.”

With the alacrity of a professional model, he fished out the various components that stood testimony to his nuptial bliss, “one for roti, one for chole, one for sprouts, and one for achaar.”

Now beaming, he waved a hand at the spread and offered, “you ladies can try.”

I could hear the ridiculously husky voiceover:

Tupperware – bringing you marital joy and corporate peace

Nine months and two thousand kilometres later, I was to see fresh evidence of the influence of Tupperware. This time, it was four happily married South Indian men at the neighbouring table, who seemed quite thrilled at finding that our table had a similar array of lunch dabbas.

“Tupperware,” one of them said, proudly, as he passed us, “it’s wonderful how well it’s penetrated the world market. We Indians are great!”

“Does that guy think Tupperware is an Indian brand?” I asked, thinking it might be rather presumptuous to laud our countrymen for buying the brand.

“Of course it is an Indian brand. Isn’t it?” one of my lunch buddies frowned.

My snide remark having hinged on a single episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie Bradshaw mentioned Tupperware, I decided to safeguard my indisputability by raising my eyebrows and saying, “duh!!!”

Now that two people had endorsed the brand as Indian, I thought it might well have been a Parsi who decided, sometime in the sixties, that he would start a company to carry lunch for billions of working professionals the world over.

Contemplating that nearly all our visionaries turn out to be Parsi, I ran an online search that assured me it wasn’t an Ehsan Tupper, but an Earl, that started the chain.

This pat on the back from Wikipedia had even a hardcore anti-feminist like me startled, though:

Tupperware created a means for the housewife to maintain her obligations in the domestic sphere of the household while creating an independence from the home in a sociable atmosphere.

But the import of that was made clear only when a friend took to asking me if I wanted to buy any more Tupperware.

“Dude, there are four working people at home. There’s enough Tupperware to start a store,” I said, finally.

“Well, Mom’s started one,” he said despondently, “she’s an agent. Wants to work from home. And I’m forced to volunteer as the head of advertising.”

Tupperware – the leader in claustromarketing strategy.

“It’s not so bad,” he added, after a moment’s reflection, “my dad’s got it worse. She doesn’t see why he can’t take meals in Tupperware when they have their management retreats at his workplace. She says ‘can’t you spot a golden marketing opportunity!’ I think he’s ghost-bought some himself to keep her happy.”

Tupperware – it’s cheaper than alimony!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What I Do When I'm Bored

This happened after a certain someone told me I should 'stick' to what I do best...

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