Sunday, December 30, 2007

The ghost of columns past

The world works according to certain incontrovertible truths that you may not like, but that it is pointless, or at least exhausting, to argue with. Random examples: Four sides to a square, 100 paise to a rupee, three laws of thermodynamics, 2.2 pounds to the kilogram, one partridge in a pear tree, 21 points in blackjack, seven dwarves, a dime a dozen, 52 weekly columns in a year.

If there’s anything more certain than these universal laws, it is that the fifty-second and final instalment of the column will do a Top Ten kind of wrap-up of the year. This is partly because other columnists will be doing the same and you have to compete, and partly because it’s an obvious and easy topic, and when you’re desperately scrabbling to find a subject for what feels like the six millionth time, it’s nice to have one handed to you on a plate.

For people who regularly throw themselves out of airplanes or bring joy and succour to the underprivileged or know other people’s secrets and don’t mind telling them, finding things to write about is not a problem; but it’s less easy if you’ve spent most of your year diligently watching ants and spiders duel to the death between old bills and dead batteries on your desk.

(Watching this, by the way, is a useful insight into power dynamics, and I’m not talking just about the dead batteries. You learn about stalking; about lunging in with deadly speed to deliver a paralytic sting and retreating until it has taken effect; about backstabbing; flushing out prey without ceding your own advantage; and that while ants never give up even while proceeding down the enemy’s gullet, spiders couldn’t care less about heroics as long as their tummies are full. It’s all very reminiscent of family life.)

Either way, every year-end column is under bone-crushing pressure to look back on the year and identify its salient moments. The trouble is that in most cases, the year gone by is exactly like the year before it, and likely to be much like the year coming up. Still, after a bit of thinking, I was able to come up with a list of events and realisations that did really seem like watershed moments in 2007. That they are relevant only to me will be my USP in a welter of columns recapping things you’ve already read about.

1. I travelled to Barbados and St. Lucia in the Caribbean, Spain, France, and Scotland.
2. People you meet at dinner parties are more than willing to talk about what they do; as soon as you ask what they think, they suddenly cross the room in search of someone who will ask them what they do.
3. Siblings and old friends are wonderful things.
4. Christmas is a traditional Indian celebration, as long as it involves gifts; if we could only find a way of commercialising Thanksgiving, we’d do that one too. Maybe in 2008?
5. I rediscovered a number of people I haven’t met in twenty years or more, thanks to Facebook—which also lets you play Scrabble online.
6. More people will comment on an article about chocolate than will comment on an article about social ills.
7. I’ve entered that stage of life when you go to as many funerals as you do weddings and births.
8. A new pair of jeans can make you feel like a million bucks, should you be one of those people who do not actually have a million bucks.
9. Eat fish oil.
10. Just 52 more columns to go next year.

Happy 2008.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Cabbages and kings

On Sunday last I had cocktails with His Highness Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur. Most people call him Shriji, though he is also referred to simply as ‘Udaipaw’, which is totally awesome. He looked quite tired, presumably because just the other day he’d had to smile at four thousand people who’d come to wish him for his birthday. I got the distinct impression that this night he’d rather have been in bed, but he was charming nevertheless, and properly resplendent in a black bandhgala with gold buttons and his famous middle-parted beard.

I was wearing my best, darkest jeans for the occasion, and had neatly combed out my own moustache. But there was so much blue blood, and so many eye-popping jewels, and it was all so intimidating, that I completely forgot to introduce myself as ‘Vasant Kunj’ (which is where I live). I just mumbled “Hi, happy belated,” and then fell back, in a fright, to a spot in the invisible middle distance to which I remained rooted for two hours, while various representatives of the Historic Resort Hotels group flitted by and graciously invited us to visit their properties.

If I do go, it will be rather different from my last big experience with Rajasthan. That was in 1997, when I was driving around the state in a large and dusty Sumo jeep with two dear old friends. We’d pooled in Rs 6,000 each for a grand total of Rs 18,000 that would cover diesel, accommodation, food, sightseeing fees and the odd purchase, in ten destinations over two weeks. Our budget was practically see-through from all the stretching.

We would skid into some fabled desert settlement around dusk, looking like three large dust bunnies, and check into some hole in the wall with unpredictable water and no discernible service, where, for anything between Rs 100 and Rs 1,000, we could pass the night all piled into one room with seriously dodgy sheets.

In Udaipur, the first hotel we tried was so dire that it failed even our unbeatably low standards. We tramped through a great deal of cow dung until we saw a tiny little purple gate in an alley just behind the City Palace. It led to a quite charming hole in the wall with a terrace that looked out over Lake Pichola. We bargained the management down to half-price, claiming persuasively that since we were the only guests, they stood to make either half the money, or none at all.

Udaipur being a romantic city of beautiful lakes and honeymooners, we decided to lavish our one budgeted splurge there, on dinner at the fancy-pants Lake Palace Hotel. We weren’t going to give cheapskate travellers a bad name: we wore clean clothes, deodorised, didn’t scratch ourselves suddenly, didn’t bargain, and were happy, at the end of the evening, to be able to pronounce the hotel “not that great”.

We were all in our mid-twenties, and pretty tough. We happily drove for five hours a day, slept next to flatulent camels on the open sands of the Thar Desert, ate at roadside trucker stops, and walked our feet off in the sun. Still, there’s a limit, and we were fortunate to all reach it simultaneously, down to the second. Standing by a well among the famous frescoes of Mandawa, exhausted, malodorous, we suddenly looked shiftily at each other and blurted, “Let’s go home!”

What a relief. We more or less ran back to the local hole in the wall, threw our stuff in the car, and hightailed it back to the creature comforts of Delhi, where we immediately went dancing.

I like to think that I’m no softie when it comes to travel. On the other hand: been there, done that.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bleak house

I’ve just finished reading The Gathering, which is a bleak Irish family saga from bleak Irish novelist Anne Enright. It’s excellent—clear-eyed without being cold, emotional but not sentimental, fearless rather than brash, a pearl of a book accreted around a dirty little hidden secret. I highly recommend it. The fact that it won the Man Booker Prize this year feels like a personal vindication of sorts, not because of all the help I did not extend to Anne, who hasn’t the faintest idea who I am, but because audiences increasingly seem to reject anything that makes them feel at all uncomfortable, especially if “it’s depressing”, which is usually to say, takes an unflinching look at truth. This seems rather unfair to the book in question.

As one of those readers who absolutely adore depressing, I like to imagine that Enright’s success avenges all the books that regularly get shafted by critics for being depressing, as opposed to poorly written, or badly thought out, or horribly structured. I remember watching Akhil Sharma’s wonderful novel An Obedient Father, seven years ago, crash and burn in the flames of depression-discrimination.

I’d go even further and say that the darker a book, the more I’m likely to enjoy it. Nor do I believe that this confirms me as a literary crazy (I make no claims here about any other kind of crazy). As far as I can remember, none of our really great works of literature or inherited cultural myths are particularly Pollyannaish. They’re about broken hearts, loved ones lost, happiness smashed to bits, abuse and exploitation, murder and suicide, war, abject poverty, crippling disease and disability, natural calamity, exile, brutality, alienation, political oppression, terrifying uncertainty, and hard luck in general.

Take the Bible, for instance—how do you think it feels to get pitched out of Paradise without a stitch of clothing, and be told that the holiday’s over and you’ll now have to slave for your food, and that you’ve blown it not only for yourself but for all of your descendants, everywhere, forever and ever? But you don’t hear people say, “Oh, I didn’t like that Book, it was so depressing.”

Or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both full of the most godawful humiliations and deaths, not to mention rape and duplicity and the kind of equivocation that would give a moral philosopher the shakes? Nobody turns them down for being depressing.

Yet, that’s how many readers react to books that deal with almost any subject you could put under the rough heading ‘real life, warts and all’. While some tortured artist strives to hold a mirror up to nature, readers are busy measuring the quality of the work by how good it makes them feel—and somewhere along the line, we’ve lost the ability to feel good about feeling sad, because being sad seems to be more undesirable today than it has ever been. Literary culture seems to be inclining towards some adolescent desire to deflect discomfort, demanding that while art should move one, it had better move one up the comfort scale, not down.

Unfortunately, as Tolstoy pointed out, happy stories are all boringly similar, while each unhappiness has its own excitingly special character. (Some people will, of course, suggest that Tolstoy said this more elegantly.) If you want shiny happy comfort, get Photoshop and a bean bag. If you want great art, you’ll have to take it to heart, and on the chin.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Spread the joy

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, and so I make sure that at least once a day I ask myself how I can be happy in my brief little life. The deeper answer always seems to fade maddeningly before the more immediate answer, which is, invariably, to scarf a slice of bread richly layered with Nutella.

I refer to the creamy, hazelnut-flavoured chocolate spread that is commonly available in provisions stores, and that people routinely walk right past, despite the fact that it seems to have been created by the best taste buds in paradisiacal kitchens from Valhalla to Vaikunta. It’s as if they’d discovered a source of free renewable energy and made it available at every street corner, but people kept hunting for petrol and complaining about the price. Or as if the Beatles were back and hanging about singing their songs in the local park, and people just kept shuffling past with their iPods plugged into their ears. (Not that anyone younger than twenty-five has any idea who the Beatles are. George Harrison—wasn’t he a friend of Anoushka Shankar’s dad?)

The point is, people are missing out big time. I have found that a spot of Nutella has the same effect on gloom as Kryptonite had on Superman. It also has the same effect on one’s hips as irritation had on the Hulk’s biceps; but, thanks to one of those wonderful evolutionary adaptations that keep the universe going, you can dispel the gloom of gaining weight simply by continuing to eat the stuff. I should add that Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella, is not even paying me to say these things, although I can’t think why.

People love to bang on about how best to feel good. Enumerate all the good things in your life and chant them to yourself until you believe them. Compare yourself to the most unfortunate person you encounter, and gain some perspective on your complaints. Meditate for fifteen minutes every day. Make a list of all the things you like about yourself. Find a purpose and write it down (making lists is crucial to all this happiness-mongering) and refuse to be deflected from it for long.

I fully appreciate that these self-help tactics are good, salt-of-the-earth tips on how to be a happier person. My rational self admires the serious inquiries into the nature and accessibility of happiness by people like Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, who says it’s possible to synthesise happiness; and Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, who claims that an abundance of choices might be paralysing, not liberating, for the human spirit; and French monk and photographer Matthieu Ricard, who says that happiness is a habit.

I strive thataway, I really do. But, being a fairly average creature with little patience for the long hard road full of thorns, I have to confess to a certain sympathy for the direction taken by one Mike, on a website called My Senior Citizen Humor Blog. Mike writes:

“Dr. Phil proclaimed, "The way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started and have never finished." So, I looked around my house to see all the things I started and hadn't finished, and last night I finished off a bottle of Merlot, a bottle of White Zinfandel, a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream, a bottle of Kahlua, a package of Oreos and the remainder of my old Prozac prescription. You have no idea how FREAKING GOOD I feel. Please pass this on to those whom you think might be in need of inner peace.”

Saturday, December 01, 2007

God who?

I like the joke about an insomniac agnostic dyslexic being someone who lies awake at night wondering if there is a Dog. It’s a religious joke, which is one of my favourite kinds, as well as a disability joke, which is not my favourite kind, but which, I have to admit, is still funny.

Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to laugh at a joke about disability or about God; but it takes a much more frightening kind of person to put the writer of the joke against a wall and shoot him or her, instead of looking coldly down their nose and moving on, or coming up with a counter-joke, which one imagines would be the democratic thing to do.

Speaking of jokes, I think it’s very funny that people still think of India as a democracy, when any two-bit organisation masquerading as the servant/defender of some faith or the other can boot people who speak their minds right out of their houses (or, as in the case of poor old M.F. Husain, right out of the country) as well as hold a government to ransom, all over some perceived slight to God. Who, as any good atheist will tell you, doesn’t even exist.

These days everyone is so busy killing or suing everyone else over slights, real or imagined, to one or another of their gods, that they forget what a hard time we atheists have, getting ourselves through the bitter gales of life without anybody to dump on, or at least blame.

Atheism is defined as the belief that even if God did once exist, chances are that He or She would long ago have fired Himself or Herself for incompetence, and drunk Himself or Herself to death on Ambrosial Nectar in some seedy galactic Bar, and this is not a bad thing insofar as it renders the whole Karma and Heaven vs. Hell issues moot, though it also means that anything you suffer will be in the here and now, and not in the safely distant ever afterlife. Atheists get bad press for being irreverent about other people’s gods, when in fact they have to struggle as much as everyone else to keep their faith in moments of crisis, since it would be so much easier to just be able to confess, or believe that someone else will fix everything, or deflect decision-making in the direction of some Book.

Irreverence of all kinds, not to mention free speech, is the basis not just of humour, but also of originality, creativity and thoughtfulness. It seems to be dying a slow and horrible death, if not all over the world, then certainly in this country, while piety and pseudo-piety in their ugliest forms are fed to bursting, grow tall, put on weight and proceed to throw it around, and governments stand around being sensitive to religious sentiments, otherwise known as undesirable swings in voting patterns.

Luckily there are pockets of sanity left in the world, where irreverence is not just allowed but encouraged, even though it sometimes leads to stupid lawsuits. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading the satirical newspaper The Onion, I beg you to haul yourself over to and daily take in such headlines as “Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack” and and “15,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere”, and “Heroic PETA Commandos Kill 49, Save Rabbit”, and “New Oliver Stone 9/11 Film Introduces 'Single Plane' Theory”.

The Onion takes the pants off everyone and everything. It may run satirical headlines and stories, but they’re a lot less offensive than non-satirical headlines and stories like “Cong, Left pass buck on Taslima”.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Sleeping with the enemy

I was surfing the web the other day for my preferred educational and spiritually uplifting material, when I hit a site that was all about embarrassing moments in bed. I have no idea why this site came up under educational and spiritually uplifting material, and I don’t know what was on it because I naturally closed it immediately and washed my eyes out with soap, but it reminded me of a story that would be tragic if it weren’t so ridiculous. It pertains to a moment early in my career, before I knew why it is important not to sleep with your boss.

I would like to say, at the outset, that I am fully toilet trained, and that none of this is my parents’ fault.

So anyway, there I was, sleeping with my boss. It’s not the way it sounds; we were travelling on a low-budget project, so while our male colleague got his own room, it was cheaper for us women to share occasionally during our two weeks on the road. The boss was the mother of a baby girl, and since the baby was just a few months old and breastfeeding, she went where the boss went.

At the end of a rough day of travelling and visiting villages, I collapsed upon the bed with the boss on the other side and the baby in the middle. “I hope she doesn’t wet the bed,” said the boss, by way of apologising for the arrangements, and then we said good night and turned out the lights.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. That night I had the misfortune of dreaming of a beautiful waterfall, next to which I was talking to some people while installed upon a white ceramic potty. The sound of the waterfall and the feel of the potty were so charming, and my bladder felt so full, that I decided to try out a tiny little pee, since it would be masked by the sound of the cataract, and my companions would never miss a beat. I chatted graciously, and peed surreptitiously, until it suddenly seemed to me that something was dreadfully wrong.

I opened my eyes around 5a.m. to find that I had relieved myself—nay, was still copiously relieving myself—in my bed, next to my boss. My nightclothes were soaked, and so were the sheets. I leapt out of bed and galloped wetly to the bathroom to shower and change, trying out and serially rejecting possible conversational gambits. When I emerged, the boss had opened one sleepy eye. “Good morning,” she said. “What are you doing?”

I looked wildly at the infant to see if I could blame her, but it was clear that a creature her size couldn’t possibly have produced what looked like eighty-five litres of urine. There seemed no possible way to maintain my dignity, so I took the first of many difficult executive decisions one has to take in one’s working life.

“I peed in bed,” I said, adding truthfully that this had never happened before. I could see her struggling with her face before she gracefully, and very much to her credit, assured me that this sometimes happened when people were very tired, and she was sure I didn’t do this regularly. Then she ruined it by saying “And there I was, worrying about the baby.”

As if this weren’t a sad enough story, the boss and I eventually had a great falling out. I imagine that if you’re going to fall out with someone, the fewer hideous stories they know about you, the better, but telling this one myself might be my way of telling her, in a blast of withering repartee twelve years later: You can’t fire me, I quit.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Oenophilia 101

Some years ago, my body informed me in no uncertain terms that it had had enough of my nonsense. I raced out of the house and went straight to my physician at the local hospital, elbowing less critical patients out of the way. “Help me, Doc,” I gasped. “I don’t seem to be able to drink anymore.”

She looked a little more pleased than I thought was strictly necessary. Then she told me that sometimes, the body just stops producing the enzymes that help digest alcohol. “It can happen overnight,” she said, fairly gurgling with satisfaction, “to anyone,” she added happily, and then delivered the coup de grace, “but it happens more often to women. Just like that, simply, you wake up one day, and you can’t digest the stuff.”

So just like that, overnight, I took to drinking nothing but wine, and almost exclusively red wine, since everyone knows that that’s positively good for you, bursting as it is at the seams with resveratrol, anti-oxidants, bioflavonoids, vitamins, minerals, and quite possibly an oral form of sunscreen as well as hot stock tips.

But to start drinking wine is to enter shark-infested waters, especially if you think you might belong in the sad quarter of the world’s population called ‘non-tasters’ because their three or four taste buds were long ago beaten to death by cigarettes and green chillies—as opposed to the quarter who are ‘super-tasters’ and can’t open their mouths for fear of having their millions of eager beaver taste papillae leap out and start exploring.

I was at a winery in France some weeks ago, undergoing my first lesson in wine tasting, which was really a simple guide in how to observe the colour and opacity of a liquid, and gauge the general pleasantness or unpleasantness of its smell and taste, but felt a lot like being tutored on how to do long division in your head and then being asked to calculate the trajectory of the space shuttle while a NASA scientist looked over your shoulder.

The world of wine connoisseurship is very rarefied, and can be horribly snotty. The real pros have a truly amazing ability to identify a wine and its vintage by taste alone. But it’s when people start reviewing wines that you can microwave some popcorn, sit back, and prepare to be entertained. I can quite understand that one might detect vanilla and blackcurrent and honeysuckle and chewiness, but when people reach for metaphor, things can get absurd.

There’s nothing quite as personal as taste, particularly when it’s in your own mouth, so I just decide whether I like a wine or not, and that’s all. The Japanese have invented a robot sommelier that analyses food and drink by infrared analysis, and can correctly name the grape variety of a bottle, and add that it’s full-bodied. That sounds like the sort of basic thing I could use, even though the robot once identified a cameraman as bacon. In its defence, we have the word of several competent cannibals that people do taste quite a lot like pork.

The robot can’t be deeply descriptive, of course, but I feel much more persuaded by a review that says “This is a totally excellent wine, try it!” than by one that pinpoints, say, hints of marsupial sweat on the skin of an arabesque, or the prudery of satin slippers languishing in a light winter snowfall. I just won’t pay money to taste hot koalas and wet shoes.

Call me boorish, but for now I’m just going to stick with “I like this one” or “I don’t like this one”. If someone really pushes me, I can always make up something about notes of creamed swan feather marinating in a tragic rhombus.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Party smart

I’m crawling, beaten, towards that time of year when you’re supposed to be all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. At the end of each day you’re meant to fling on your best clothes, paint yourself up to look smokily seductive/blingy/young, paste a grin on your face, and teeter out into the lethal miasma of suspended particulate matter, carbon monoxide and firecracker smoke that is the night air of Delhi, to play cards, or celebrate Diwali, or attend a wedding, or a Christmas party, or a New Year’s party, or drinks and dinner with friends.

The trashy newspaper supplements have a way of using a phrase as if it were a one-word noun, such as the phrase-noun “ourhecticmodernlifestyles”. It’s used as if it’s an absolute value, and a good one, and not to be questioned. This one has a particularly revolting wink-wink, nudge-nudge quality to it. I stayed up until five in the morning doing a report, then I figured I’d drink until seven, after which I went to the gym to fill up the two hours before my nine o’clock high-powered meeting with the Board! The more exhausted and unhealthy I am, the cooler and more successful I must be! I think I feel some chest pain—let’s skip lunch and have another meeting!

It’s a total mystery to me why people sigh with secret pride over how little they slept, and how madly busy they are, and how much they have to do, and how much junk food they eat, and how many hours they spent on a plane that week and how their phone never stops ringing—the one they just upgraded so that they could have phone calls and web browsers and satellite and the hotline to Mars and be in touch at all times.

You would think that in the face of said ourhecticmodernlifestyles, people might find it useful, at the end of a workday, to eat, watch a movie, read something or otherwise relax, and get eight hours of sleep.

The problem is that this city is bursting at the seams with the sort of big, fat, hairy machismo that you associate with a Beverly Hills teenage bimbette, or a certain type of Sicilian underworld thug. And so the result is that going out to dinner is inevitably a matter of leaving at 9 or 9.30 pm, drinking for a few hours on an empty stomach, then stuffing yourself with food somewhere between midnight and 1am, and falling into bed at 1.30am in order to be up around 6am.

The weird thing is that the same newspaper supplements are simultaneously banging on about how important it is to be healthy and in shape. The secret, apparently, is to exercise, practice yoga and meditation, drink lots of water, eat frequent and small meals bristling with fruits and vegetables, have a midday nap, eat your last meal of the day no later than 8pm, and retire at 10pm to get a solid eight hours’ sleep.

It’s called a change of pace; but since that would mean (gasp) modifying ourhecticmodernlifestyles so that they’re not quite as hectic, the next best thing is to gulp antacids like bonbons, pop vitamins and supplements, get the newest concealer for dark circles, and buy clothes that flatter whatever sorry shape you’re in—advertisements for all of which can be found in the self-same trusty supplements.

Here’s my impossible dream: That one day Delhi’s hosts will insist that their guests arrive at 7.30pm, to enjoy one drink before dinner is served at 8pm, following which everyone is welcome to another couple of drinks before saying good night at 10pm.

It beats catching up in the ICU at the age of fifty.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Visiting baby

Last week I met an American nephew of mine for the first time since he was born four years ago. He’s a delightful little chap—shiny of eye, pink of lip, round of tummy, juicy of bottom, and bright as a button to boot. He’s given to saying things like, “I much prefer to eat it off a plate, thank you”, or “I’m frustrated!” and using words like “mayhem” and “fragile”. He’s obsessed with trains, which he can play with all day and night, and with cars, which he can identify by make, model and year. He gives you dutiful but unflinching hugs. He’s very, very sweet.

When he and his parents landed in Delhi late at night, we stopped by to eat dinner with them. Little Sumer was deceptively easy to deal with at first, requiring one only to hold a cushion in front of one’s chest while he ran at it and head-butted it with all his might. When we crawled, exhausted, to the table, we were looking forward to a nice calm meal. But there is no such thing when there’s a four-year-old in the vicinity.

First he knocked over a glass of water, which anyone might have done, and it occasioned nothing more than a mild ‘Oops’ from the gathering. A few minutes later, he experimentally popped a whole teaspoonful of salt into his mouth as people lunged wildly across the table to try to stop him. He looked a little green around the gills and became unusually quiet; then he turned his head at a tragic angle, opened his mouth, and let loose the sort of bright yellow projectile vomit that the demon in The Exorcist could only dream about. The angle was such that it hit a maximum number of surfaces—the plate, the table, the chair he was sitting on, his clothes, and the floor.

His parents barely batted an eyelid, managing to clean up the mess, strip and bathe the child and coo at him while barely breaking their conversational stride. Changed, powdered, and seated at table once more, he announced, “I threw up!” in case anyone had missed it, and then politely demanded a Coke. He picked at the rice, fingered the rajma, and fretted until Coke was poured into a small glass for him in the hope that it would settle his stomach.

Satisfied, he began to sip at his Coke while we gazed tenderly at his little face rising like the moon above the horizon of the table. The next thing we knew, there was a hideous cracking sound. He had, against most odds that I can think of, bitten off a chunk of the glass, and was frozen in an aspect of prayer—head deeply bowed, mouth tightly closed, eyes glazed with concentration, the rest of the shattered glass in his hand. I could only gape at him in slack-jawed admiration, thinking, I want to learn how to do that, but his parents were considerably more agitated, trying to get him to open his mouth, and yelling at him not to swallow, and shaking him by the shoulders so much that the glass dropped from his hand.

This last finally triggered his self-preservation instinct: he opened his mouth, releasing a mouthful of glass and cola to bawl, out of a face screwed up and red with grief and loss, “My Coke! I want my Coke! My Coke has fallen all over the floor!”

I was able to leave for my very quiet, peaceful home about three minutes after this, with a long-standing hunch confirmed: if you want to make a lifetime commitment, buy a house; if you want to experience parenthood, visit someone else’s kid.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The simple life

A quick scan of the newspapers will reveal that the major thing, these days, is to have the right hand-made handbag, made of the skin of Peruvian llamas specially bred on caviar and cream, and encrusted with diamonds, on your arm as you settle into a satin-upholstered seat on your gold-plated private aircraft specially fitted with Swarovski crystal windows, en route to a cocktail party with the Prince of Blah-di-blah in his Crimean mansion, where there will be oysters on the half-shell and where gem-filtered Diva vodka, at $1 million a bottle, will flow like water all night.

It’s called luxury, and it’s what you’re supposed to aim for in your avatar as successful modern Indian, player of note on the global stage, Blackberry in hand and the world at your feet.

Happily for those of us who subscribe to and live on sloth and serendipity, there are still lots of low-budget situations that will give you that feeling of extraordinary luxury, the unbeatable feeling that you’re the king of the world, that there’s nowhere you’d rather be and nothing else you’d rather be doing, and if you died right that minute, you’d have no regrets.

Here’s a list of top ten, in no particular order:

-Cutting away all the white of a fried egg cooked sunny side up and, in a moment marked by the silent flourish of trumpets, popping the whole perfect yolk into your mouth, where it explodes and slides down your throat in a melt of gold, and cholesterol be damned.

-Lying about on a sofa in a quiet room and reading, your toes interlocked with the toes of someone you love, who is lying about on the same sofa, reading their own book.

-Tickling someone until they’re weeping with laughter or, preferably, begging for mercy. Bonus if it’s a child under six years old, or someone much bigger than yourself.

-Drinking a hot cup of tea in a dry house during a violent thunderstorm. This gets better if the windows are open and you can smell the mud. A variation of this is the very excellent sensation of getting completely drenched in a warm summer rain.

-Managing to kick the same little pebble all the way home, with not too much sideways motion. And firmly believing that, because you did, the thing that you want with all your heart to have happen, will happen.

-Lying on your back in cool grass with your eyes closed, with no bigger plan than to nap. Better if it’s on a sunny day that makes the scent of it rise up into your nostrils and coat your brain. Even better if you can hear the occasional bee.

-Cooking a meal from a recipe you’ve never followed before and having it turn out perfectly.

-Dancing by yourself to the oldest, tinniest, most uncool music from the worst decade in music history, which you’re not supposed to like anymore, but you still do, you really do.

-Having a sudden and acute awareness that you and the world are in constant contact, that even air is matter, and that your body, both in movement and at rest, actually displaces the universe.

-Sitting in a chair with the throat of a warm snoozing dog resting on the top of your bare foot. Especially when the dog does that weird chop-licking-and-swallowing thing that makes its throat move a bit.

There are, of course, those cynics who would call this a case of sour grapes. To them I say, sour grapes make the best whine.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Burmese days

For years and years I’ve had my tea as follows: turn off the flame when the water is just beginning to boil, throw in a pinch of Darjeeling leaves, let it steep for exactly three minutes, strain, add barely a teaspoon of milk and a modest spoon of sugar, and stir. I look upon herbal infusions with suspicion, don’t particularly like green tea although I occasionally drink it in the hope that it will magically cancel out all the bad things I do to my body, and positively detest milky tea.

So it amazed me that I became addicted to the thick, gritty red tea sweetened with condensed milk that is served in countless teashops in Burma. It was partly because there was no option, and partly because I developed such a soft spot for Burma that I was willing to overlook the vile teashop tea.

The soft spot was caused by things like the popcorn factory in a tiny town called Hsipaw, in the eastern Shan hills. The popcorn factory consisted of what looked like a rusty old cannon with a pressure gauge attached, aimed into the open mouth of a three-sided thatch hut. They’d throw corn kernels into the cannon, crank up the pressure, run away with their hands over their ears as it began to steam and wobble, and hit the deck when the cannon exploded with an ear-shattering boom, shooting a shower of fluffy white popcorn into the shed to be gathered up and stuffed into sacks.

It was caused by the delightfully chic Star Millennium Café in Yangon, where I went to have a drink with John, a 60-ish relic of a Brit from my hotel who’d checked in four years ago and forgotten to ever check out; and by the Jade Flute discotheque, where the kids danced in their longyis and rubber slippers.

It was caused by the sunset seen from Mandalay hill which illuminated misty gold clouds, the metallic Irrawaddy river, and a huge rectangle formed by small stupas each containing a page of scripture which must constitute the biggest book in the world. It was caused by the ruined capitals of Ava and Amarapura, and by pretty Inle Lake.

It was caused by the jewel-encrusted Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and by the ancient pagodas and palaces of Pagan, where I had the world’s most potent betel nut while hanging off the rear bumper of a jam-packed public jeep-taxi; and by the tiny shrines to the nat spirits in the hills; and by the ubiquitous sight of monks and nuns and abjectly poor citizens making donations of money and their best food to the monasteries.

It was caused by the fact that one man walked me twenty minutes out of his way to a shop that sold the right snacks and one that sold longyis to wear. It was caused by Kyow-kyow, the young man who had a BA in physics but was pedalling us about in a trishaw because that’s what happens when you shut down universities and stamp all over the economy. Kyow-kyow invited us to his home, where we ate a dinner of pork, vegetables, rice and fish while he and his mother and siblings and grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles stood by with solemn ceremony, smoking cheroots and predicting our futures (I was to survive life-threatening tummy trouble in January and live on to be a famous pharmacist; my friend would be a very good baker).

It was caused by a Burmese merchant sailor who, fuelled by Dutch courage, said, “No use discussing politics. Nothing is going to change. People smile a lot, but inside, the Burmese heart is broken.”

That soft spot aches these days, when I read the newspapers and wish that things could change.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The other day my neighbour woke me up with an insistent lean on the doorbell at an hour that I estimated to be just before the dawn of mankind. He doesn’t usually do that, unless he feels like it, so I blundered out myopically in my nightdress. He was leaning over our shared landing, pointing at something white and noisy downstairs, and shouting agitatedly. I went and stood companionably next to him. He looked at me as if I was retarded. “Someone has cut your water pipe,” he yowled over the din. “You’d better call your plumber.”

I retreated into my flat to feel about for my spectacles. When I emerged, the white, noisy thing had horrifyingly resolved itself into a gush of perfectly good water spewing from a pipe-shaped hole in my water pipe, where a section of the pipe had evidently been cut out.

This was quite motivating, so I lumbered off to the phone, glancing at the clock, which read 7am, and called a plumber. “Can you come at once?” I asked, aware that it was possibly even earlier in the day of the plumbing business than it was in the day of the freelance writing business, but compelled to take my best long shot at it. “Yes,” he said firmly, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

My neighbour and a kindly driver helped to temporarily stem the flow of wasted water, which in a city like Delhi is worse than the flow of blood, by tying an old plastic bag over the pipe with some string. Then I sat around and thought sad thoughts about vandals, perpetrators of random cruelty, and other meanies, until I noticed that it was almost 8am.

I rang the plumber back. “But nothing opens until 10 o’clock!” he said. “Then why did you tell me you’d be here in ten minutes?” I asked in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. There was no really great answer to this, so he repeated, “But nothing opens until 10 o’clock!” in the obvious hope that I’d hang up in rage, which I did. The neighbour was on top of things, though, and told me that his plumber was coming anyway in a little while, as well as what I should say to him, and what I should pay him, and what a scoundrel he is.

When the plumber came, he looked at the pipe and, without missing a beat said, “Someone has stolen your water metre.” This is the sort of obvious thing that I would never have figured out on my own, since I don’t think of myself as a person in possession of a water metre. I gazed awestruck at his genius, and wrote out an application to the Delhi Jal Board to please provide me another water metre.

The plumber deposited the application for me, and affixed a new metre to my water connection, tying an old plastic bag over it for good measure. He said, however, that I should rejig the piping so that it runs against the wall, and then he can build a locked box around the water metre, so that it can’t be stolen for resale again.

But if it’s not that, it will be something else. The next morning, I discovered that the lock on the lid of my Sintex water tank had been ripped off, along with the plastic bits that hold the lock in place. While it’s infuriating, I couldn’t blame people who need access to water for doing a little breaking and entering. I hope that’s the case. It would be much more depressing if they just turned out to be in the business of reselling locks.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Highlander capers

As a fairly peripatetic, urban sort of person myself, I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in a small and/or isolated town. I was wondering that again last week, when I found myself in a little twin turbo-prop plane, coming in to land on the Hebridean island of Islay (pronounced Eye-la). We drove from the airport to Port Askaig, from where the ferry makes a five-minute journey across the Sound of Islay to the neighbouring island of Jura (pronounced Jyoo-ra).

Jura is a wild and remote Scottish island, populated by a total of 200 people and 27,500 casks of whisky, which, if you ask me, is a truly excellent ratio of people to fine living. There’s one pub, one shop, one bank that’s open once a week, one newspaper called Jura Jottings, and one 180-year-old whisky distillery owned by Whyte & Mackay (pronounced McEye), which itself is now owned, like most objects in the known universe, by Vijay Mallya.

On Jura there are three peaks colourfully known as the Paps of Jura, over which competitors race every May. There are 6,000 red deer and many, many highland cows (pronounced heyland coos) with fetching fringes falling over their eyes; it is thought that evolution probably selected out their eyes centuries ago, but nobody’s ever gotten through enough hair to actually find out. There are colonies of seals, and apparently a pair of otters for every mile of the 115-mile coastline.

A drive down the fabulous coast of Jura features austere mountains presiding over flats of tawny gorse and heather which run down to a cold and choppy sea so aquamarine and twinkling that it might be the Caribbean. The island’s beauty makes it a good site for the ongoing Writer’s Retreat programme. This is where George Orwell came in 1947, to write 1984 in a beautiful solitude. He almost died in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, apparently the second most powerful in the world, though he lived on to die of TB instead.

The arrival of twelve journalists from India caused a near-catastrophic 16% increase in the human population, but luckily we were just there for the day. Three things really get the conversation going on Jura: whisky, the damned English, and the age-old feud between the McGregors and the Campbells, though you’d think that with 200 people left, they’d try to get along.

At the Kilearnadil cemetery many plague-felled citizens as well as a couple of Knights Templar are interred under grass so thick and soft and springy that I had to lie down in it. Two souls joined up quite recently; one fellow who dropped dead of a heart attack, and three weeks later, his best friend who choked on his food. The latter’s cat Tigger, a plush ginger creature, is now taken care of by the people at the one pub.

Back in Glasgow, Richard Paterson, the theatrical master blender of Whyte & Mackay whiskeys, who has a predilection for flinging whisky into the office carpet and hurling fistfuls of barley across conference tables, insisted that we taste Jura whisky on the pier next to the water from which it is made, in the same bracing air that soaks into the American bourbon and French oak casks. This I did, smiling happily and cretinously into my drink.

Willie Cochrane at the distillery says that when he thinks a cask is “sleeping” instead of actively imbibing the good air of Jura, he administers it a “kick up the arse” by shifting its position. I wouldn’t mind a similar kick if it relocated me to Jura.

Born to run around

A certain stripe of Indian likes to go on about what a great country this is and how he or she would travel the world but would never relinquish that blue passport with the lions on it. This stripe of Indian is usually the kind for whom the system is actually geared; that is, the well-oiled system of contacts and access that bypasses, with a phone call and in a couple of hours, the regular system of gruelling bureaucracy that attends the process of getting beyond our beloved borders.

If you ask me, and probably the rest of India, those lions represent a bunch of incredibly grumpy, flea-bitten beasts whose general purpose in life seems to be to growl and roar at people until they go away and stop bothering them. I can’t figure out what they’re doing on a pedestal.

In the normal system, if you need an additional passport booklet, you have to prove your birth, address and general personhood all over again even though you’re physically in possession of a passport that already attests to those things (via a similar painful process of verification that you’ve already gone through once) and just want some extra pages—because you’ve been so thoroughly vetted by several countries that you’re out of space.

Getting your papers together is a process doubly stymied, because if you’re being guided by a travel agent, he or she is so used to applications being thwarted for stupid technical reasons that they insist on watertight paperwork and will make you run around getting yourself photographed again because your hair was falling slightly over your forehead, or will darkly prophesy your doom because you say you’re married on one form but don’t have a wedding certificate and therefore you should white out your marital status and hide the affidavit which says that you’re married—and so forth.

When you have your documentation, you have to get to the Regional Passport Office at 6am to be at the top of the queue so that when the counter on the ‘backside’ of the building opens, three and a half hours later, you can get a token which will gain you admittance to the hallowed inside—which is just as awful, but at least in the shade. When you collect your passport by hand, you queue up only to be told that you need to be in another line; where, when you get to the counter, it turns out it’s the other line; when you get there, they tell you to go to the other other line.

It’s positively Kafkaesque, and it makes your blood pressure soar.

The bypass system is awesome. Someone in it can make a phone call to a school friend or dinner party acquaintance, and replace an expired passport in a matter of hours; or, at the very least, he or she has fast access to gazetted officers and employs one or more bodies who can be dispatched to a court to get a Standard Affidavit typed up on non-judicial stamp paper by some greasy tout, or to stand in line so that by the time he or she swans in, the bod is holding a place at the top of the queue.

I’d love to see the Indian government give to every child born in this country, on the day that they’re born: a birth certificate, a passport, a voter’s ID number that turns into a card at the age of 18, and a PAN card number, all of which remain constant through that person’s life.

If you’re reading this, you’re an Indian whose voice can be heard, but also, chances are, one of the fortunate bypassers. Why would you raise your voice when you have nothing to complain about?

Eight simple rules

So there I was, gate crashing (as one does) a fancy dinner for a bunch of lawyers who were in the throes of celebrating a merger of firms with double- and quadruple-barrelled names. It was at a beautiful restaurant with a wine list fit to cripple your wallet, and food good enough to set the most frigid palate aflame with desire.

The blokes were in crisply cut suits to match their crisply cut diction; I was in a weird witchy black skirt, a wildly-printed export-reject chiffon blouse filched from a photography shoot, and black sandals which I had earlier brushed against fresh white paint, acquiring the new international ‘zebra’ look. Phrases like ‘international arbitrage’ and ‘the so-and-so Act’ flew thick and fast. I chipped in with stammered mutterings about freelance writing whenever my face accidentally fell out of my trough into the rarefied corporate air, or when I emerged from the wine glass where I spent most of the evening nose-first, sampling the joys of excellent Californian red, followed by something French and fine.

There are a few simple rules to remember when gate crashing formal dinners with lawyers: don’t wipe your nose on the tablecloth even though you are quite aware that that’s what tablecloths were originally intended for; try and look professional by blinking and nodding a lot until you see stars and feel seasick; don’t drink too much or too fast; if you do, at least refrain from playing footsie with anyone, especially if you have fresh white paint on your sandals; don’t indulge in any natural bodily functions such as burping the national anthem even if that’s your best party trick, because you’re not supposed to admit to having any bodily functions for the duration of the gathering; don’t tell lawyer jokes even though there could not possibly be a better moment for them to shine; don’t talk politics; and if you must talk politics, don’t shout at anyone.

It was all going swimmingly. The evening was full of the tinkling sounds of breaking ice, and I was seeing stars and feeling seasick. I enjoyed talking to a nice Dutch gentleman who jets around the world from case to enormous case. Things were so relaxed and friendly that I was even toying with the idea of attempting some lawyer jokes, and I think I would have, except that I can never remember any jokes when I need them.

We sat down to dinner. And then somebody brought up Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and the whole ticklish question of how much he did or did not have to do with the Godhra riots of 2002. Somebody at the table turned out to working for his defence and somebody else said that he could not be held personally responsible. Other people got exercised on behalf of the other side of the argument.

Somehow, talk that had thus far teetered around on the polite stilettos of weather and the relative hotness of Keira Knightley, suddenly put on hobnailed boots and become a strongly-worded discussion on identity, democracy and state-sponsored violence, and then, between one delicately flavoured dish and another, it had escalated into an all-out shouting match across the table—Indians going at it with both guns blazing and foreigners pitching in with steely, pithy international contributions of their own.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that one person kept steering the conversation back to his ex-girlfriend, I believe that things might have ended badly, with soup on the floor and prawns up people’s noses. But what lawyers do best is argue, and it was actually a stimulating discussion; and at the end of it everyone shook hands with a smile. So to the host, if he’s reading this, thank you for a lovely evening.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Beating back the jungle

Life is an avid, persistent thing that tends to burst into being wherever it is given the chance, whether in the rainforests of Sumatra or on the doddering toothbrush in your bathroom that you keep meaning to replace. And, because there is so much of it, it is a simple fact that the beings with the greatest instinct for self-preservation win the survival sweepstakes.

This means that every life form is in the business of trying to elbow every other out of the way in a ruthless competition for space and resources. You have only to stand in a line for something in India to understand what a brutal business that can be: you make the intimate acquaintance of hostile bums and paunches and, crucially, elbows, and if you do not fight back, you will soon be but a smear on the floor that people will stomp over to get to the front of the line before the person at the counter decides they’ve done enough work between tea breaks.

This is also the reason why householding, by which I mean stopping by occasionally to make sure that the roof is still in place, is such a fraught and constant business. All ancient settlers knew this truth: that if you don’t keep clearing the clearing, you can just clear right orf, because life will proceed in its inexorable march all over it, and cover your nice little hut in layers of weeds and caterpillars and fungi. It is therefore vital to make yourself a machete, or at least a hoover, and use it regularly. Push back, or push off.

I’m a bit of a nomad myself. I never seem to unpack completely and put things away in their place. Items absently placed on a nearby surface tend to remain in that exact spot for weeks on end. And I’m quite happy to stick a (fresh) toothbrush in my handbag and sleep wherever I happen to find myself when darkness falls. I don’t mind all that much.

But it makes coming home a bit of an adventure. You never know what lurks behind the bathroom door, or on the mummified veggies in the fridge, or under the toaster. Actually, I just found out what lurks beneath the toaster, and we are not friends; I turned on the appliance until the little creep ran out, weeping and shaking his crisped antennae, and I hope he tells his vile cohort all about it.

The thing is, if you don’t dust and clean and put away and replace and maintain and refurbish and shine up and swab and weed and cook and sweep and clear, you’d better keep that toothbrush in your bag, because it becomes more and more difficult to come home. Things start to look like Angkor Wat, except that nobody will pay you to see it.

So, in a radical move, I’ve decided to experiment with cleaning up, inhabiting the place a bit, pacing the rooms to let the bugs know I’m around, and it’s going to be a showdown if they show up.

For my opening gambit, I refused to be cowed by the black and white exclamation mark of a bit of lizard poo on my desk, which is a reptile’s way of telling you: ‘I was here! Right here, on your keyboard! I’ll probably be back every day!’. I marched up to it with a piece of tissue, briefly thought about whether I could get away with leaving it where it was (how often does one really use the K anyway?) and then took a deep breath and wiped it up.

I’ve taken back my desk. Tomorrow, I’m going to look in the cutlery drawer.

Is that your eye?

On my way out to dinner with three friends the other day, I stopped by my ophthalmologist’s office to check out what the scratchy irritation in my eye was all about. He confirmed the horrible truth. I have become that most feared and reviled of fellow human beings, the one with a homicidal twitch in her watery red eyes: a person with conjunctivitis. I wondered aloud if I should go home instead. He said, “Here, this one is an antibiotic drop, but also take this other thing right away for instant relief so that you can look sparkly and glam at dinner. And don’t tell anyone at the table that you have this. Just don’t share napkins or cutlery.” I love my ophthalmologist.

During dinner, small vicious creatures began to attack my eyes with pitchforks and pickaxes and other pointy, stabbing things. Science has shown that conjunctivitis is caused by tiny malignant beings in pointy hats with talons instead of fingers; in fact, I saw one or two of them launch themselves off my eyelid and land on my friend’s face, giggling quietly and biding their time. Now he has pink-eye too. After that I have been more socially conscientious, washing my hands frequently and following instructions to not share towels and napkins and not touch my eyes.

And I’m staying home. Some people invited me to come to an evening of fun and games at their house this Friday, and I sighed that it was not to be. My cousins called to see if we could meet, and I had to morosely turn them down. My mother wanted to know when I was coming over and I had to tell her that I’m not, though that made me feel kind of powerful.

It’s a new and odd thing, enforced quarantine. Conjunctivitis is just not a polite thing to have around other people. It makes them skittish, and you have only to Google some images to work out why. The lady who cleans and cooks for us glanced at my face and instructed me not to look at her directly for the next two days, and I think she might have been muttering protective incantations under her breath. I can see why; I’ve never in my life seen anything more evil-looking than my own left eye, which surges like a red snooker ball out of its socket. The other one is merely pink, but resentful about having to do a double shift. I can now step out only in cases of dire emergency, and that too only while tolling a small clangy bell to warn the populace of my pestilential approach.

All in all, then, this is not the best time to have to take passport photographs. Nevertheless, I am scheduled to travel, and I need visas, and I had no photographs left, so I had to mingle with society. I shuffled out to the market, tolling my bell. The man at the photo studio recoiled in horror but, to his credit, made the best of a bad situation by asking if I would like to do my hair. I stopped by to collect letters of invitation at a magazine office, where the editor affably asked, after he’d stopped shrieking in fear, “How are you, freak?”

Still, my time will come. I will apply eyedrops every two hours and eventually, in anything between three and fifteen days, step out with perfect, eggshell-white corneas with no need to clap my hands to my face and yowl.

Meanwhile, I can just see the visa officer laughing hollowly and tossing my application in the reject pile, sub-categorised under “Suspected terrorists with biochemical weapons”. He’ll probably get a promotion.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Music to the eyes

I’m not one of those people who always has tickets or passes for every event in town; concerts tend to come and go without my being any the wiser. In any case I’m usually too busy downloading free mus—I mean educational videos, off the internet to actually go.

The most exciting musical event I can remember was the Amnesty International concert that passed through Delhi in 1988 on its six-week world tour, and brought me within a few worshipful yards of Tracy Chapman, Sting, and my then-hero, Bruce Springsteen. I was practically asleep by the time Springsteen came on, but I woke up for long enough to emit a couple of faint hoots of appreciation.

As a college student I set out to watch Morrissey perform in New York, almost exclusively because he was once part of a band called The Nosebleeds, which is the sort of excellent name I would call my own band if I had one. That evening was a disaster because I was surrounded by hulking great hooligans, who pressed forward in one tidal motion towards the stage and almost crushed the breath from my body. I spent most of the concert safely on the sidelines, concentrating on inhaling and getting over my near-death experience.

Also in college I went to a Roxette concert the day before spring break. My friends and I were aware that Roxette was terminally uncool, but we secretly loved them and didn’t want to think about what that meant, and spent good cash that we didn’t really have on second-row seats which made us feel like royalty.

There have been a couple of other gigs, but they’ve all been quite uneventful. In my underwhelming career as a concert-goer I’ve never done anything remotely mad or fan-like, unlike my groupie grandfather who used to follow classical Hindustani musicians from venue to venue to attend their all-night performances in various cities.

The best concert story I know involves a friend of mine who in 1978 jumped onstage during a The Police concert in Bombay and snatched the drumsticks out of Stewart Copeland’s hands, while the security guards became agitated and Sting gratifyingly yelled into the mike, “The Police to the police: f*** off!” He (my friend, not Sting—though, of course, Sting too) features on the video recording of the concert, to the mortification of his children (my friend’s, not Sting’s), and still has the drumstick (Stewart Copeland’s), which his mother (my friend’s, not Stewart Copeland’s) used as a duster.

This week I attended the Vanessa Mae concert in Delhi, bringing my grand total up to the staggering figure of, barring minor shows here and there, maybe five. Vanessa Mae, for anyone who like me had never heard of her, is a woman who looks like the Singapore Girl, but better, and not just because she was born in Singapore. She’s taken the violin out of the venerated but slightly stuffy world of classical music and brought it to the quite interesting intersection of pop, rock and electronica.

These days music is no longer just listened to, but also watched, and a woman who impulsively jumps atop passing cabs, and once delta-glided down from a mountain to perform on the frozen lake at St. Moritz, knows what showmanship is all about. On Tuesday she played with and easily outshone sitaritst Nishad Khan who, for all his virtuosity, is simply not as pretty; and while he sometimes raised his eyes to the audience, this was as nothing to Vanessa Mae’s rock star moves in her blingy high heels. I was mesmerised for a while, but by halfway through the evening I was starting hopefully out of my chair every time she waved at the audience.

What do I know, though; I still like the Beatles.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

No guts, no gory

If, as certain depressive Frenchmen suggested, the only question of any real significance is whether or not to kill yourself; and if your considered answer is that you should, then you might as well bone up on how to do so.

Perhaps you’re chronically down on life. Perhaps you quite enjoy your life at the moment but don’t have children and keep the kind of company whose habits are likely to kill them off soonish, and you’d prefer to quit while you’re ahead rather than tick out your life in the misery of an unattended old age, or be found half-eaten by Alsatians. Perhaps it’s just the unbearable lightness of the coffee they serve on the Left Bank. Whatever your reasons for wanting to leave this vale of tears behind, a good way to begin is to determine the least attractive forms of self-extermination, and then industriously not choose those.

As a first step, I recommend a little book by Christopher Ross called Mishima’s Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend. It’s the fascinating account of the author’s quest to locate the sword used by the celebrated and controversial Japanese writer Yukio Mishima to commit suicide in 1970, using what is far and away my least favourite option: seppuku, also called hara-kiri (or, if you’re a certain kind of provincial roughneck Occidental, harry carry).

Seppuku is a formal and culturally complex form of suicide; it has its origins in the samurai warrior’s unswerving loyalty to his feudal lord, and is tied to the Japanese concept that the belly is the seat of sincerity; to expose your entrails is, therefore, to express your deepest sincerity, courage and honour.

We’re talking quite plainly about self-disembowelment, which is unpleasantly enough achieved by sticking a knife in your own belly and making a cut long and deep enough to spill your entrails on the floor. Then the fellow you’ve brought along as your trusted second performs the duty called kaishaku, which is to say ending your suffering by cutting off your head with a carefully calibrated swordstroke, which should ideally not send the severed item hurtling across the room like a basketball, but instead leave a mere flap of throat skin attached, so that the head topples neatly onto the chest like the deepest of bows.

In Mishima’s case his second, a man called Masakatsu Morita, goofed the decapitation. (If you have a delicate constitution I entreat you to skip this paragraph.) After Mishima had cut his belly very deeply and was crouching over his own guts spilled on the floor, the trembling Morita’s stroke missed its mark not once or twice, but three times—landing first hard across Mishima’s back, then on the carpet, and then crunching through his neck and chipping the blade against his jawbone, at which point someone else in the horrified audience took over and ended the writer’s unspeakable pain, which had caused him to bite almost right through his tongue.

No, seppuku is not for me. Nor is leaping off a skyscraper, or opening my wrists in a warm bath, or jumping in front of a train, or sticking my head in the oven. I’m looking for something as non-violent as possible, which rules out listening to Himesh Reshammiya until the spirit shrivels, or watching television until brain death occurs. I’m thinking of something more enjoyable, like eating myself into a coma or perhaps going out in a blaze of glory choking on a huge piece of sushi.

But it’s more likely that I’ll still be here until the bitter end, thinking about it but not actually doing it. That’s most pleasant of all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Get Shorty

There are certain disadvantages to being petite, which is the polite way of saying ridiculously short. You come to accept that you will go through life introducing yourself to people’s bellybuttons. You hang on your companions’ hems in a crowd, because if you lose each other you’ll never find each other again. When you graduate from college and attempt to buy a business suit for your first job interview, you are directed to the children’s section and emerge looking like one of those Victorian-era toddlers who were dressed up like little men, in teeny tiny formal trousers and jackets.

Parents forget that while you’re still five foot more or less nothing tall, as you were when you were fifteen years old, you are now actually a thirty five year old hag who should be scheduling regular bone density tests, and that you have human rights protected by the Geneva Convention, such as the right to stay out late, especially when you no longer live with them.

But there is also the other side of the proverbial coin, a proverbial silver lining. You can really spread out, sometimes actually curl up in, an economy class airline seat. It takes less time to fall to the floor, so you can get under a table faster in the event of an earthquake. You can pose as someone’s child and cut queues. In a transport squeeze you get to sit on somebody’s lap rather than be sat on. Nobody asks you to help them move house. Your centre of gravity is lower, so you’re likely to do better than average in many situations, such as inside a kayak. And if you decide to skip a class or a meeting, nobody will notice, as long as you send an email putting forward some decent ideas of which you can remind people later.

In this post-9/11 world there is one more important way in which being little is not such a bad thing, and that is in the matter of security checks at airports, cinema theatres and other assorted public spaces. While it’s positively demeaning never to be seen as a threat, I can’t say that I regret never having been cavity-searched in the style to which other people have become accustomed. The worst thing that has ever happened to me was that I was asked to take off my shoes at Srinagar airport, and that was more traumatic for the security officer than for me since I was travelling light and hadn’t packed all that many pairs of socks.

But it’s not as if security officers are all that vigilant anyway. The other day I went to watch a movie at a theatre near you, about which I will say no more than that it’s very popular and would make a first class terrorist target. I’d forgotten that I was carrying a bright red Swiss army knife in my small bag, in addition to a pack of cigarettes. The grim woman who searched my bag took away my smokes without a flicker of compassion, which meant that if I didn’t want to lose my knife I would have to take drastic action. She was diligently searching the zip pocket, and in another second would be seeing red. “What a nice colour your uniform is,” I remarked. She stopped, decided I was too small to bother with, grinned, and waved me through, weapon and all.

She’s lucky that I didn’t go into one of my ideological moods and start trimming my fingernails, or race up to the screen in a suicidal frenzy and poke a hole in it with the toothpick. I hate being underestimated, especially when armed.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Wart itchy sigh?

I’ve been running an experiment on my inner pedant by deliberately leaving out capitals and some punctuation in emails, mobile phone text messages, and instant messages sent over the net, in an effort to see if I can keep up with the changing times, and perhaps even learn to like them.

I still can’t bring myself to write ‘ur’ or ‘gr8’, but I have mastered the art of not bothering to capitalise the first letter of a sentence or of pronouns, and that’s a big deal for a traditionalist.

It speeds up one’s writing time, I find, and should therefore theoretically strain the wrists less; but increased efficiency (where efficiency is defined as achieving the same quality in less time, not necessarily achieving better quality) only creates time and space to do more of the same, and as a result I now have callouses at the base of my wrists where they rest at the foot of the keyboard.

Conclusion: I can only be a teeny tiny bit trendy, but too little to count, and I don’t really enjoy it.

Nevertheless, people who like language enough to be pedantic about it mostly do like to play with it, unless they’re really terminally humourless. These playful sorts will enjoy Howard L. Chace’s Anguish Languish, which was originally published by Prentice-Hall in 1956 and made famous on Sir Arthur Godfrey's radio show.

Chace invented a form of tongue-in-cheek writing meant for reading, based on the concept that since so many words in English sound surprisingly like other completely different words, you could just substitute one for the other, and, as long as you were listening, rather than looking, for meaning, you’d get it. Chace was trying to demonstrate to his students the importance of inflection in speech. It’s meant to be listened to; and the person reading it aloud, focusing on speaking each word rather than on the sounds they make when they flow together, may not understand a word.

Anguish Languish (English Language) included some traditional 'Furry Tells', such as ‘Ladle Rat Rotten Hut’ and ‘Guilty Looks Enter Tree Beers’. The opening couple of sentences from the former goes as follows:

“Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, and fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.”

Chace founded the tongue-in-cheek Society for the Promotion of Anguish Languish (SPAL), and if you haven’t heard of it, you probe bleeding gnaw bother raisin attic zests (probably didn’t know about the reason it exists). Besides the sheer joy of making up these sentences, Anguish Languish gives you, as Chace pointed out, a wonderfully intriguing accent, as if you’ve juice rattan frame fur imparts (just returned from foreign parts). And of course, the juxtaposition of insanely inappropriate words is a barrel of laughs. The chilling bits of the story cause one to fall about in spasms of laughter, whether it’s the ‘lodge, dock, florist’, or Little Red Riding Hood’s exclamation to the wolf: “A nervous sausage bag ice!”

Party derision tutu desist daddy mikes raiders stirrup in pee tension, wander in gifter riders gumbo cirque (part of the reason to do this is that it makes readers sit up and pay attention, wondering if the writer’s gone berserk).

It’s an interesting experiment in how the brain processes language. Another is that, as a widely-circulated text on the internet explained, “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.”

But that’s just way, way less fun.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Death and taxes

The windburn on my ears this week was caused by July 31 as it whooshed by right over my head, faster than a speeding bullet, a mere blur of coattails disappearing around the corner. Every law-abiding Indian knows, of course, why July 31 was a red-letter day: it was Harry Potter’s 17th birthday and time for the final epic showdown with Voldemort, which, by the way, did not disappoint me as it did some grouchy critics who claimed to be bored. Although, to be fair, one could also point out that the action in my life is not exactly off the charts, currently, so it might not take much more than a Sorting Hat to rock my world.

Not that I come over all mental about the Potter books. I don’t much care for a review that starts with the sentence “So Harry Potter dies in the end, but…” or “So Harry Potter doesn’t die in the end, but…”; but at the same time I am not in favour of the attitude recently parodied by the ever-incisive Onion (‘America’s finest news source’) in an article titled ‘Final Harry Potter Book Blasted For Containing Spoilers’.

Oops, as a certain bald and troubled pop singer once said, I did it again. See, this is exactly what caused all the trouble. I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—a bit later than most, but then that’s precisely the burden of my song—and the world around me grew so dim and fuzzy and boring by comparison to Elder wands and doe-shaped Patronuses and Aurors pregnant by werewolves, and the shocking deaths of major characters, that I completely forgot the Muggle reason why July 31 was so important to us law-abiding Indians.

It has to do with a certain sinister Ministry that makes your money Disapparate, and it’s not as if they have to overcome any Gringotts goblins to do it; they just put something very like an Imperius curse on you and wham, you start marching around like a zombie, obediently photocopying receipts and writing out cheques to them in your own hand without a murmur or a question crossing your lips.

A question like, Why? Why do I have to pay taxes? Didn’t I just pay some last year?

That’s right, July 31 was the last date for filing individual tax returns. And I clean forgot, even though I’d been warning myself to remember since May. As soon as I’m done writing this I’ll go and bang my head against a wall like any house-elf who knows she’s been bad.

But I take some consolation in the fact that my badness is quite small on the cosmic scale of wrongdoing—on which, after all, we have to somewhere place Jack the Ripper, and Hitler, and whoever told Celine Dion to keep at it. Because, if the penalty for filing late is one percent on whatever tax you would have paid, I won’t be forking out much more than I would for an autorickshaw ride to the train station.

And before you ask, that’s not because of evasion, but because of my own excellent foresight in knowing that I would be late, and therefore cleverly minimising my losses by earning only the bare minimum required to live this city while still allowing one to occasionally go out for a Butterbeer with one’s friends. So the Ministry will only have a shortfall of a tiny little bit, for a tiny little period, while I get myself organised. It shouldn’t take that long. I’ll just first finish the five simultaneous games of Scrabble I’m playing on Facebook with working people in four different time zones.

Patience, as Voldemort knew, is a virtue.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Road to perdition

We get five newspapers at home but I just use them for my selfish pleasure, taking their Sudokus and crosswords and then, just as they think I’m ready for a commitment, cruelly dumping them to frolic with other, younger publications. Anyway, that’s why it fell to someone else to tell me that the Delhi government is considering imposing a fine on jaywalkers in our glorious city, which to me is clinching proof that the boiling July heat has simply become too much to take in the corridors of power, and everyone there has quietly gone mad.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about the problems that plague traffic in Delhi, the first thing that leaps to mind is not ‘jaywalking’, although it’s true that jaywalkers tend to add more chaos to street traffic already characterised by savage aggression, inconsideration and stupidity.

On a recent flight I was seated between two burly American gentlemen who talked incessantly about how much they drank and benchpressed, but when they told me about their visit to Delhi, their hands began to shake. They asked me if I drive. Yes, I said. How brave you are, they breathed, awestruck. “Or stupid,” one of them muttered after a small pause.

After eleven years on the road I don’t think about it much, but it’s true. All of us who live in Delhi risk dying a violent and messy death on our roads every day, and that only occasionally because of an actual accident—it could just be from being in the driver’s seat, because if I had to pick the one thing that raises my blood pressure to a fatal level, I’d pick the incredible rage that seizes me while at the wheel, placing foam in my mouth, expletives on my tongue and my elbow on the horn. And while much of that is directed at other drivers, at least as much is directed at the bright sparks who plan, implement and maintain the roads.

I would start with a big fat fine on the city for letting hoardings obscure signals, erecting directions to traffic in hopelessly small letters placed far past the point when traffic might actually be able to comply (not that it would anyway, being comprised of said savagely aggressive, inconsiderate and stupid motorists), for allowing encroachment and not providing pavements, for breaking up roads and medians and leaving cement blocks and other debris lying unlit in the middle of busy streets, for allowing herds of cattle to roam unchecked, for unscientifically-built speed breakers without any paint or signs alerting people to their existence, for tolerating a police force that can be seen committing the same driving offences as everyone else and can be bribed out of any spot of trouble, for setting up long and complicated procedures for obtaining a licence, thereby encouraging unqualified drivers to simply buy one from a tout, and for undertaking infrastructural projects that think no more than five years into the future.

As for the motorists, it’s as if nobody told them that it’s not possible for two objects to exist in the same space at the same time without an almighty crunching noise. And they really don’t believe that the rules were written for them, personally. Just the other day I saw a motorist, confronted by a cop for trying to jump a light, leap out of his car and actually box the cop in the face. As they say, Blueline buses don’t kill people; Delhi drivers kill people.

No, it’s not the jaywalkers I’m worried about.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

High infidelity

It is mid-July, it’s very hot, our taxes are due shortly, road rage is killing innocents in Delhi, and we have no idea why some Presidential candidates wear their saris that way. No wonder, then, that the word on everybody’s lips these days is: infidelity.

No, actually, it’s just that the word infidelity is on everybody’s lips at almost all times, and has been so for the last several ice ages, which is as long as it has taken India to concede that if sexuality is incompatible with Indianness, then it is really very difficult to explain why there are a billion of us. And just when you thought it was safe to get into that water, along come the sharks.

Based on a number of spontaneously conducted conversations with quite a wide range of people over the last couple of months, I’ve concluded that close to one hundred percent of humanity is either quite interested in the idea of cheating on their partner, or quite interested in the idea of cheating on their partner again. (The tiny remaining percentage didn’t understand the question because they were daydreaming about a really good presidential candidate.)

I consider myself quite open-minded, but I confess to being quite surprised at just how many steamy currents simmer under the surface of so many seemingly staid marriages and relationships, and how strong those currents are. All I can say is that while I wasn’t raised by Irish nuns in a convent school, and despite being deemed a bit of a wild child in my misspent youth, I’m a little disappointed to find myself on the boring end of a vast and turbulent spectrum.

What I’m not surprised about is that while this spate of illicit activity occasionally has something to do with problems within people’s legitimate relationships, most often it does not: it’s just really a matter of lustful and/or emotional greed (where greed is defined not as excess, but as ‘intense and selfish desire’). If you still buy the popular image of urban India as prudish and reactionary, you’re out of the loop. If you thought that the scenario presented in the recent Bollywood movie Life in a Metro—in which people are cheating even on the people they’re cheating with—was overstating the case, which I did, then think again, or conduct your own secret ballot. And if you haven’t seen the movie: don’t, it’s a snorer.

For those people now yawning and thinking, “tell me something I don’t know,” you don’t fall into my preferred reader profile and should go away now. But for those of you who greet this news with their mouths in a little round o, I’ve got this to say: how would you describe the smell of that coffee?

As an experiment, I had someone I know go through her phone book and, without mentioning names, sum up the love life of each person in it. The results overwhelmingly show that they should either say the vow of fidelity much louder at weddings, because people are not hearing it, or just leave it out of the whole ceremony because it really cramps people’s style. They also show that infidelity is a wonderfully democratic thing, ranging over all kinds of type, sexuality, age, partnership agreement, and so forth.

All it really proves is what one might suspect anyway: that young(ish) urban Indians are as active in the extramarital/extrarelational department as any young people anywhere else, whether Murli Manohar Joshi likes it or not. It puts me in mind of something I recently read in which a father is quoted passing on the torch of human learning to his anguished offspring: “If you want monogamy,” he says unsympathetically, “go marry a swan.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Play it again, Sam. And again.

For most of my life I have been able to concentrate quite fiercely. Whether in class, or doing homework, or playing a game, or watching three movies back to back, or talking to a friend, or coming up with something really horrible to say to my family, I was a lean, mean concentrating machine. Even now I can get so completely engrossed in the morning papers that sometimes, as I read and munch on muesli, I absently also begin to munch on the box the muesli came in, though that’s only because the flavours are indistinguishable. It’s an established fact that every box of muesli is just filled with another box that has been cut up into tiny little pieces.

The problem with people who can concentrate is that when they find something to do they can also keep doing it ad nauseam in a behaviour pattern that isn’t really obsessive-compulsive disorder, but looks a lot like it. It can be a substantive, life-impacting problem if it is a renewable or ever-evolving activity, like Boggle, or playing pool, or gambling. I spent the salary from my first job almost exclusively on pool table charges, transport to get to the pool table, and beer to console myself after the many pool games I lost and celebrate the few that I won. Currently I’m a slave to the morning Sudoku, which I feel I must finish to preserve my self-esteem, but am very bad at, which means I spend a very long time doing it.

The down side, predictably, is overdose. Whenever I stumble on a nice new song I listen to it on a loop until I can’t stand it anymore. When I find a good dish I repeat it until the thought of it makes me want to hurl. And now, quite tragically, this seems to have happened to me with books. Having read through most of my life, pausing only to eat, sleep or say something mean to my family, I have suddenly gone off the stuff. It’s been almost two months since I read anything just for fun, and even longer since I bought a book. Worse, the other day when I was standing in the kitchen trying to remember what I was doing there, my new bookless avatar suddenly sneered to itself, “Books are for people without bodies”, which is hostile and completely untrue and may be just because a physical trainer has been putting me through hoops that leave me unable to actually support the weight of a book in my hands.

This state is new to me, and frightening, and I hope to be rescued from it by the impending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is JK Rowling’s latest novel in the ninety-one part series.

The catch is that if you concentrate manically on many things, you end up in a state of total distraction. It’s a paradox that plays itself out on my desktop everyday, as I turn with complete dedication to whatever happens to pop up at any given time—Skype, Google news, email, Facebook.

About this last: I am completely confused about why you would need to communicate with people with whom you’re already in communication via email and the phone, through yet another mediator. However, it does put your friends’ lives on a ticker tape and is an excellent way to generate and propagate gossip (which scientists recently declared was the human equivalent to picking lice out of your fellow ape’s hair—a necessary and bonding thing). Like the best substances, it is addictive in addition to being useless. My only hope is that overdose should kick in soon.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Out of this world

It’s always entertaining to blur the lines between fact and fiction, to make fact unfamiliar with an injection of fiction, and distort fiction by adding a pinch of fact—or more fiction—and I’m not just talking about journalism.

One of the most imaginative, talented and entertaining proponents of this pursuit is Jasper Fforde, who has been called a writer of comic metafiction. Among other things, he writes about a literary detective named Thursday Next who chases bad elements through a fantastic parallel universe of time travel and general madness in which (real) texts such as Jane Eyre or Martin Chuzzlewit exist in a well-regulated environment, including the department of ‘Jurisfiction’, to protect beloved manuscripts and prevent any disruptions to the plot. His new novel, First Among Sequels is due out this month. I’m betting I’ll be less disappointed in it than I was in Shrek III and Pirates of the Caribbean III—though I still hold out some hope for Die Hard 4.

I’m always gobsmacked by the imaginative powers of writers like Neil Gaiman, who in Neverwhere creates a parallel universe below ours, in which London’s tube stations turn out to be more than meets the eye—there really is an Angel of Islington, and a Knight of Knightsbridge. Douglas Adams’ romp through intergalactic space in his four-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy mixes wild imagination with a goodly dollop of human irony for an interesting take on everything from cricket to rebirth.

My favourite parallel universes, however, must be the ones created by Philip Pullman, who recently won the ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’ honour in the Carnegie Medal’s 70-year history, for the His Dark Materials trilogy, about two flawed children named Lyra and Will upon whom the fate of mankind turn; if you haven’t read it, you have much to look forward to.

Just as unpredictable and exciting are imagined encounters between historical people. Spanish director Ines Paris is making a movie called William and Miguel, about the relationship between Shakespeare and Cervantes in the last few years of the 16th century, a period that is a bit of a blank in historical accounts of Shakespeare’s life. It’s not that he was missing, the film suggests: he was working for the English embassy in Madrid, and the literary giants shared both ideas and a lady love.

A few years ago there was a prize-winning novel called The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, which mixed both approaches, and took advantage of an indeterminate time period in the life of the fictional Sherlock Holmes—the two years between his assumed death and resurrection. Norbu got to construct his own two bits in the hallowed detective’s life, throwing in an encounter with Huree Chunder Mookerjee, of Kim fame, to wonderful effect, so much so that his version of the famous hiatus was even endorsed by Arthur Conan Doyle’s publishers.

There’s no end to the number of imagined interactions I’d love to witness as a fly on the wall. Imagine listening in on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maria Vargas Llosa bumping into each other and reminiscing about why they once punched each other in a cinema hall, starting a thirty-year cold war. Or how about setting up a dinner for M.K. Gandhi and Paris Hilton; I’m not sure what they would talk about most of the time, but they might end with a general agreement about the benefits of going to prison. Imagine having Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields co-teach a Lamaze class. I’d love for someone to come up with a really good tale about what really happened to Subhas Chandra Bose.

It all makes it easier to keep plodding through one’s humdrum life.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

The raw and the cooked

Landlocked, 45°C-boiling, chicken-crazy Delhi has lately taken to sushi and sashimi like a politician to a crooked deal. Raw fish is everywhere, in restaurants like Sakura, at the Nikko Metropolitan hotel, and 19, Oriental Avenue at the Shangri-La hotel, and at Tamura in Vasant Vihar’s D Block market. And if you can’t be bothered to get off your backside in this miserable heat, a sushi catering company called Sushiya will bring it right to your doorstep.

Wouldn’t you know it: just when the newspapers are reporting that even the tuna-crazy Japanese are experimenting with horse and deer meat because the world’s bluefin tuna fisheries are almost gone thanks to the growing popularity of sushi around the world, a country of a billion souls suddenly starts to look fondly at the stuff.

I encountered sushi as a student in America, which embraced the Japanese tradition of raw fish and rice and seaweed decades ago. I remember being blown away by the subtlety of the taste, by the aesthetics of the dish, by the genius of wasabi that goes straight through your sinuses and does an exquisite little tapdance on whatever the saké has left of your brain. If I had to pick two cuisines to live on for the rest of my life, they would be Japanese and South Indian.

Raw fish may not seem like the most obvious thing to voluntarily put in your mouth. But then, if you like food, and have a bit of pervert in you, you can end up putting quite a lot of odd things in your mouth, raw or cooked. The other night I had a Japanese meal with a radio jockey, an actor, and a television anchor. I asked each of them what their weirdest morsel ever had been. The anchor had eaten (cooked) puppy in Nagaland; the actor had eaten (cooked) horse, and I’d eaten (cooked) fish eye, the grossest part of which was finding some stuck in my teeth several hours later.

We went through the raw stuff with not too much difficulty. Raw sea urchin looks and feels very much as if the sea urchin in question couldn’t take it any more and threw itself off a thirty-storey building, or like any food put through the digestive system and expelled in a manner indicative of gastric illness, but it tastes pretty good. The sashimi—raw tuna, salmon, scallops, octopus, squid and prawn—was familiar and delicious, and the sushi roll was uramaki, with rice on the outside and toppings of salmon roe. All that was well and fine.

Then the chef put before us a phalanx of the cutest little freshwater crabs, fried to a crisp while still in an attitude of joyful play. We’d met these crabs, gambolling sweetly in a glass bowl, half an hour earlier, and now here they were, complete with legs, eyes and heart, dead as doorknobs but doing a wonderful job of looking as if I had just laid them all off and their wives and little crab children were now going to starve and I wasn’t even going to pause to take their shells off, but never mind, I must be a good person deep down…

So it took something of an effort to pick one up, ignore the feeling that the tender shell was reverberating with the palpitations of a panicked little heart, and put it in my mouth. But it was so worth it; even though it tasted almost completely like fried chicken, it goes on my resume to make up for the plate of breaded crayfish I once ordered in New Orleans and was unable to eat.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Old Yeller

Not everyone can carry off a yellow car. But someone did, just this past weekend, when my mother sold my beloved old 1997 Zen. She was called Peeli, she was sunflower yellow, and I drove her for eight years before my mother said she was having sleepless nights thinking about breakdowns on lonely Delhi roads, and insisted on getting a new car.

I learned to drive with Peeli, returning from the Automobile Association of Upper India with my licence and setting off on my first solo mission to the perils of Connaught Place with my heart in my mouth. We had many adventures together, in the company of a battered Eicher map with which I navigated the unfamiliar streets of Delhi. I drove her all over town at all hours of day and night, outraced nasty men drivers, gave lifts to the deserving, bashed her up when a cow stepped out on the road and caused a three-car pileup in which she and I were third. I drove her to my first job.

She was far from perfect. Her ceiling peeled off from inside in front of the steering wheel, so for a few months I had to drive around holding it up with one hand, because that was easier than getting it fixed; the speaker wires were loose and made a horrible crackle; the antenna rusted; and the carburettor always needed cleaning so the engine kept dying. The back seat was littered with music cassettes, old bills and papers, the odd bit of forgotten clothing, and books that I read at traffic lights.
She was perfect.

We got a new car in 2005, a silver Zen, but, being a well-adjusted adult, I stipulated that I’d use it only on the condition that Peeli stay with us. My mother sighed in that way she does when she’s reminding herself that I am her child and she loves me, and agreed.

The new Zen had power steering, and power windows, and a back windscreen wiper, and fog lights; when I first took the wheel, I felt like a country yokel come to the big city for the first time. I quickly grew used to my flashy new lifestyle, but sometimes, late in the night, I lay in bed and missed the simple old country ways, when making a U-turn involved a good upper-body workout. After Peeli retired, I liked just knowing that she was around, a well-preserved old lady resting her tyres in the dim coolness of the basement garage, coming out of retirement occasionally when we had guests or when my siblings came to stay.

Then, the other week, I went to Spain, where, in addition to eating vast quantities of fantastic food, I had the profound thought that ‘hola’, pronounced ‘ola’, which is Spanish for ‘hello’, happens to be Hindi for ‘hail’, which in English is also a fortuitous, if archaic, form of hello. Anyway, I called my mother from Spain to ask if she wanted anything from the duty free shops. She said, just like that, “I must tell you that I sold Peeli.” After a slight pause marked by the small sound of my heart breaking, I told her I wasn’t getting her anything from the duty free shops after all. She sighed in her special way, and said, “Don’t make this harder. We have to let go. She’s gone to a very sweet family, and I told them how sad you would be, and they will take very good care of her.”

I have the gentleman’s name, address and telephone number. I asked my mother to let him know that I’m going to replace the front licence plate and keep the original. She sighed in her special way, and agreed.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Emotional baggage

With all my heart, I hate packing a suitcase. Maybe it dates back to when I was eight years old, at summer camp, wondering why my clothes all smelled increasingly disgusting despite regular laundering. When I returned home and unpacked three weeks later, I discovered the sorry remains of an uneaten banana deep in the bottom of my suitcase. Some things leave a scar.

No matter how much I travel, no matter how old and experienced I get, I still hate packing. My mantra has always been: travel light, or suffer. I was the minimalist packer who, like Mr Bean, snapped her toothbrush in half to cut down on weight. I’ve travelled for five weeks off one small knapsack, and only smelled a little bit. But the downside is that I invariably overlook some essential item. When I step out overnight I forget my nightie. At the beach I forget my hat. In the mountains I forget my socks. When I go rafting, I forget my towel. Even if I’m at home and going out for dinner, I forget my house keys. It’s like a rule.

Electronics compound the problem. If the phone made it into the suitcase, the charger didn’t. If the charger did, the adapter plug didn’t. I once lugged my laptop all the way to Seychelles only to discover that it was out of battery and the charger was on my desk at home.

And now I overcompensate by packing too much. Apparently surveys, conducted by crazy people who bother to conduct such surveys, show that women tend to over-pack in order to be prepared for any eventuality from floods to ice age, from slob-fest to a ball at the palace hosted by the Queen herself. And indeed, of late, whenever I travel for work, I notice that my packing is fraught with anxiety of an elderly, feminine kind, prickling with uncertainty about weather and protocol.

It will be hot, so I’d better take some sleeveless shirts, but I’m going onward to a cooler place so I should take a jacket, but that won’t work together, so how about some in between stuff, and I’m a Teva kind of girl but maybe closed shoes will be needed. I only have one pair of jeans, but suppose they get wet? Better take something else, except I don’t have anything else. [Interlude: if time permits, shoot out and buy the first thing that doesn’t really fit; though, usually, time doesn’t permit.] Will I have time to use the laptop? How much of my novel do I expect to get through? Is there a gym? Should I bother taking my sneakers? Will there be a businessy kind of meal?

You know how they pack in the movies—fling open cupboard; snatch suitcase which is mysteriously not dusty and full of old nails; grab handful of unidentifiable cloth and chuck it in while shouting coherently at spouse/lover/family member; slam lid of suitcase, no locks, no tags, no clipping on of the little clips; and stomp out, swinging suitcase to shoulder height? Well, they make that stuff up.

I know a woman who travels almost every month, and who still, every time, is reduced to paralysis at the thought of having to pack; she stands rigidly in one spot while her husband, who is very patient, gently repeats to her: “Remember, the suitcase is not your enemy.” She’s thinking, in her own words: “Should I take my favourite undies because I like them, or the bad ones because I won’t mind if they get lost?”

I hear you, sister.