Monday, December 29, 2008

Good riddance, 2008

Most people I talk to seem to agree that 2008 has been a ratty, perfidious, thoroughly avoidable year, and many of them have sworn never to repeat it. It’s been particularly frustrating because much as I’d like to quietly strangle the thing, hide the body, and move on, I can’t, because some really nice things were interspersed among the many really godawful things.

Petrol breached the $100 per barrel barrier, but mobile phones got cheaper and better. Sarah Palin came perilously close to the Presidency of the United States, but Barack Obama actually got it. The Chinese government cracked down on Tibetan protesters, but democracy came to Nepal and Bhutan. Over 400 sq kms of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica melted into oblivion, but Sariska National Park’s tiger population is looking a bit better. The global economy felt a bit queasy and then suddenly had to be taken to the ER, but we all became just a little more invested in the health of the planet. I lost a grandmother, but gained a nephew, whose facial structure I look forward to discovering whenever it fights its way out of his cheeks.

So there it is: A year I’d rather forget, but must grudgingly admire.

All this wouldn’t be so aggravating if it weren’t for my mother’s voice echoing in my head, telling me how everything and everyone is a mix of good and bad, and nothing and nobody is perfect, and that I’d better learn to take the good with the bad, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater. (She doesn’t think much of my own theory, which is that if the baby’s been in there long enough it’s probably going to be wrinkly and waterlogged anyway so it’s best to throw it out too as a precautionary measure; you don’t want to risk any kind of mould.)

2008 drove me to consult a Tarot card reader for the first time in my life, at a restaurant, greatly encouraged by a glass of wine and a giddy friend. The format was to fork over Rs 200 to a mean-looking lady with green eyeshadow, who laid down the following rules of engagement: You were allowed to ask one very specific question, to which she would answer Yes, or No. I asked if a friend of mine would be all right in the coming months. She flipped a couple of cards open and, scanning the room over my shoulder for more suckers, said, No. Could you explain what the cards mean? I asked. No, she said firmly, if you want explanations, come to my studio and pay Rs 2,000. I thought the whole deal ungenerous at best, and between you and me, wouldn’t be shattered if her fortune-telling business went the way of Lehman Brothers.

All in all, it’s been a hell of a ride. My mother rolls her eyes and mutters things about the mid-thirties, and I tell myself that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, although I really believe that Martin Amis is more accurate when he writes, in a bleak little book on love and gulags called House of Meetings, that “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker and kills you later”.
Let this benighted year, declared the International Year of Planet Earth, the International Year of Languages, the International Year of the Potato, the International Year of Sanitation and the International Year of the Frog, cede to 2009, the International Year of Astronomy and the International Year of Natural Fibres.

I have big hopes for 2009. Here’s to that.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A few good yarns

When I was three years old, my mother stitched me a little orange frock. It had puffed sleeves and a bow, and was possibly checked. I loved this frock with a passion, and via a strategic deployment of tantrums and sulks, contrived to wear it every single day until I grew out of it. It made me feel like the king of the world, thrillingly glamorous and powerful; and indeed, anyone looking at the photographs would agree that I looked very like a fat baby in a cake.

When I burst, Hulk-like, out of the orange frock, my interest in clothes sighed a mighty sigh and died. I climbed into jeans and a t-shirt, and have pretty much stayed that way. So I wondered, as I drove into Jaipur last weekend, whether I might not be a tiny bit bored at the ‘Mantles of Myth: The Narrative in Indian Textiles’ conference organised by Siyahi. The talks are free and open to everyone, and if you want to participate in special events, you can register for a fee.

It was nice to be at the Diggi Palace Hotel. I’m very fond of the place, partly because I threw up spectacularly all over it on my first visit and they never brought it up (so to speak) on any of my subsequent four visits. And also because when you have back-to-back speakers all day, it’s nice not to have to commute. I needn’t have worried about boredom; I was hooked right from Devdutt Patnaik’s pellucid opening talk, on the relationship between fabric and civilisation.

Some of the best speakers included the gifted writer Mamang Dai from Arunachal Pradesh, who spoke about Northeastern textiles armed with a dazzling array of stories and cloths, complemented by folklorist Desmond Kharmawphlang from Meghalaya. Kavita Singh, an academic of shining intelligence and fluency, talked about the subversive social commentary that runs through the textiles known as ‘Pabuji ki phad’, which depict the exploits of Rajasthani folk heroes and are sung about by bard couples known as the bhopu and bhopi.

Designer Wendell Rodericks presented his research of the last many years, tracing Goa’s colonial history though the Pano bhaju, a clever insinuation of banned Indian clothing into Portuguese norms. Jaya Jaitley spoke about namavalis, or Devanagri textiles, which feature verses or god’s name, and have a particular status and ritual use. Prof. BN Goswamy talked dreamily about the delicate Himachali textiles known as Chamba rumals.

There were other fascinating talks, about women’s personal histories in Phulkari embroidery from Punjab and sujni and kantha embroideries from Bihar and Bengal; the tree of life in its varied forms; the Ramayana stories in kalamkari textiles; the Vaishnavite textiles of Assam; the ceremonial pichwais of Srinathji; and Buddhist tangkhas.

The closing session, on the narratives of a nation, featured Lord Meghnad Desai, the eloquent Prof. Dipankar Gupta, and Namita Gokhale. The whole event was capped with a haunting Naga song, Aye Kuzu Le, which is sung to pass on weaving skills to other women, and was performed by a group of Naga women.

Over the course of three days I felt my mind burst, Hulk-like, out of its indifference (a process commonly known as ‘education’). Indian cloth is suddenly not just beautiful, but meaningful. I swear I feel like spinning cotton, re-reading mythology, and reacquiring the Indian textile treasures that lie in museums in Paris, London and New York. I miss the tiny toy loom I had when I was seven, on which I wove ill-fated scraps of cotton and wool. I’m turning over, in my head, notions of tradition, colonialism, citizenship, democracy, and the sacred. I can’t wait for Siyahi’s next offering.

Yes, you should have been there. Next time, sign up.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Horace and Wilfred

The other day I met someone who had recently been in a car accident. She lifted her shawl casually to show me her arm, and the sight of her poor purpled, contused flesh from shoulder to elbow made my stomach turn. It’s true: the body revolts in adrenalized sympathy at the sight of violated flesh. It must be a self-preservation thing. Usually, when you’ve seen a few things like that, you go off the idea of seeing more.

So imagine my surprise when I came across a phrase in a newspaper article written by what we call a ‘senior journalist’ who, you’d think, might have seen a few stomach-turning things, even if only grinding poverty. It went something like: “I’d love for us to have a little war”, so it really stopped me in my tracks.

We’re hearing a lot of that these days in India, occasioned by our newfound passion for wounded indignation in the wake of the atrocities in Bombay. The people who say these sorts of things do so because they don’t actually have to go to war themselves, having cleverly arranged not to be in the armed forces or to live near our borders. They’ve got others to send to war while they spew fire and brimstone about The Enemy over dinner and a movie.

They must be thinking of the video game version of war, in which having opposable thumbs is the only qualification necessary to be on the battlefield. Some of them would faint at the sight of a blister; none of them is likely to ever have to get anywhere near a frontline; and pretty much the only thing they’ve ever shot is their mouth off. They’ve certainly never tried to imagine themselves in a conflict zone.

They possibly think that the clean-cut, whole, healthy young men and women in shiny uniforms look that way all through a war. It’s the same sordid disjunct between propaganda and reality in which the poet Wilfred Owen suffered and made his name. Owen, who fought in the trenches of the First World War, took the idea of the glory of war and destroyed it verse by verse, speaking as eloquently about mental as about physical trauma.

I have never been able to shake one poem of his that I read in elementary school. Speaking of a soldier who can’t put his gas mask on quickly enough, it’s a quiet little piece drenched in bitterness. An excerpt:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The Latin line is taken from an ode by the ancient Roman poet Horace and the literal translation is, It is sweet and right to die for your country.

If you’re with Horace rather than with Owen, if you buy that line, then walk out the door, find the nearest recruitment centre, sign up, and prepare to die gloriously. Don’t send someone else instead.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

TV killed the TV star

You didn’t have to be in Mumbai on November 26 to be suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome today. Life offers very many good, solid reasons to wake up screaming in the middle of the night, but in case you were running out, here’s another one: the excruciating television news coverage of the initial attacks and the three day siege that followed. Everything you knew or suspected about Indian media, compressed into four hysterical days complete with promo montage and jingle.

Our news reporters and anchors provided screechy real-time accounts of exactly who and what was where, and when—terrorists, hostages, armed forces personnel, grenade launchers and helicopters—possibly because the force of repeated explosions and gunfire had knocked their brains clean out of their skulls, leaving them incapable of making the connection between giving the game away and more dead people, though I should mention that this is the charitable interpretation.

They stuck their mikes and cameras into the faces of traumatised survivors and the traumatised friends and family of survivors and non-survivors to screech, “How did you feel when you were locked in your room without food or water with the sound of gunfire and smoke billowing under the door for sixty hours/when you found out your loved one is missing/when you discovered your loved one was dead?” To be fair, that’s standard operating procedure; they always do this in any situation involving human pain, looking for that one maverick who might say, “I feel wonderful, just wonderful.”

They trampled all over the crime scene, providing screechy and wildly astute commentary on how there appeared to be broken glass on the ground. The camera zoomed in on it, presumably for the benefit of millions of viewers who wouldn’t have believed this unless they saw it with their own eyes.

They became outraged and weepy, because for the first time terrorism was targeting privilege, to which most reporters and anchors belong. It’s hard to forget the moment when one reporter came to poignantly startled self-awareness as she hesitatingly recapped an interviewee’s question about why the media were obsessing over the Taj and ignoring all the dead people at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus: You mean, she said, that we in the media tend to identify with our own class?

For that same reason there was a lot of candle lighting and pontificating in the studios about how it’s all the fault of the politicians, when the same media spends the rest of its time engineering discussions not about whether the constitution should be changed to break the politician-bureaucrat nexus that is crippling the country, but about whether A displayed a shocking lack of patriotism by calling B a dog.

They seemed to figure that right then, in the middle of the siege, was a good time to pester the NSG and the police for interviews—though if that was stupid, it was stupider still for those organisations to oblige, instead of having one spokesperson who could coordinate information from various agencies and have a single press conference instead of wasting the precious time of each agency.

We saw incessant coverage of the funerals of the men who lost their lives fighting this crime, but have heard nothing of the innocent victims who lie unclaimed in hospitals. And now we’re hearing the media increasingly cry for war, because why would we learn from the experience of the US after 9/11?

Hitting out is easier than doing the very hard work of self-examination and self-correction that is missing at every level of Indian society. from the law-maker in Parliament to the beat policeman, from the company CEO to the householder. It requires us to put intelligent systems in place, and then take individual responsibility for following them. It doesn’t make for great TRPs, but we might end up with a decent country.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Ask, and ye shall receive

Elections season is back in India once more, and once again we’re going to be treated to a long series of bickering exchanges conducted via press conferences and newspaper headlines. The prospect is nothing if not starkly depressing.

In India, we have in place three ingredients vital to the democratic process: many politicians (sellers), many participating voters (buyers), and many television sets (advertising and trials). Here’s an idea: Why not put them all together in a more deliberate fashion, so that the electorate has a better opportunity to scrutinise its aspiring leaders? Don’t we deserve to examine what we’re signing up for?

At the moment, all we get is the media report of rally speeches, insults and allegations traded between political individuals and parties, and, on the occasional debate show, questions put by journalists which usually fall rather far short of tough or persistent, or are entirely irrelevant to voter concerns.

The problem with most of our existing political fora is that we, the people, don’t get to ask questions. The other problem with our existing political fora is that we, the people, are socialised to be so sickeningly deferent to power of any sort that we think it’s rude to ask questions, and that confrontational questions are beyond the pale. But if we were able to suppress centuries of politesse, it would be nice to have our own chance to ask the questions that matter to us.

Like: How come your government was able to put an Indian flag on the moon but is incapable of building a road that doesn’t melt into dust every few months? Apparently building roads is not rocket science, as they say, and many countries we count ourselves superior to seem to have no trouble with it at all. Why don’t you ask them how it’s done, maybe sign some technology transfer agreements in the road-building department?

And so forth.

At the moment, we all too often let ourselves be fobbed off by replies like “The other government did it” or “We will demand a probe into the matter” or “We are doing our best” or “These things take time” or “That’s an anti-national statement”.

For some reason, Indian voters are willing to put up with much more than they should. Urban voters in Delhi breathe deep lungfuls of foul air and drink deep draughts of poisoned water—where water is available—and don’t seem to connect these conditions to their declining health, the poor nutritional value of their food, and their quality of life. If we do make this connection, we don’t sit up and make a song and dance about it.

We don’t seem to connect the state of civic hygiene—stagnant water, festering rubbish heaps, excretion in the open—with diseases that show up every year and take lives. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that civic agencies fulfil their responsibilities.

We don’t seem to connect the state of road signage and maintenance, and the state of road usage education, with the state of gridlock traffic and accident rates. If we do, we don’t seem to demand that the government find a way to enforce the laws governing how one gets a driver’s licence, and how one drives.

We just don’t demand quality of our politicians, and perhaps if we fussed about it enough, we might get it. I realise that large numbers of people will run, squealing, from this idea, on the grounds that nobody can bear to see more footage of our politicians. But if nothing else, putting them through some quality control questions would allow us to despise them for more informed reasons.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Second childhood

“So,” I’ll ask a long lost friend, “how have you been?” although, if I were a cooler person, I’d say ‘Whassuuuuuup!’ because apparently really cool people are supposed to sound like sneezing donkeys. And here’s what this typically mid-thirties, mid-career person will often reply: “Oh god, I have so much schoolwork to finish before our board exams.”

Now long, long ago, on my home planet far, far away, adults who had completed school and college simply stopped doing homework, just like that, so it always takes me a minute or two of spinning around in circles with my tongue lolling before I’m ready to ask a trenchant follow-up question like: “Did you say homework?”, though if I were cooler I’d say “Whaaaaaaa?!” because if you’re going to be cool you’d better be choking on a hairball.

As a person who has perfected the art of not having children and is therefore in a position of wonderful objectivity, I’d say: Get a grip, people, let the little blighters do their own work. Is it because you really don’t have enough problems in your thinning portfolio and thickening arteries, in your marriage and at work, that you’re dying to lie awake at night worrying about how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit?

But no, today’s parents seem dead keen on doing homework, fretting over math problems and spending hours Photoshopping the cover of the history project, sometimes while the student in question is off relaxing over a few drinks with his or her friends. They bite their nails during their kids’ exams, wishing they could do for them, probably because they studied much harder.

I was beginning to think this parent-child joint homework thing a uniquely Indian trait, when a recent article in The New Yorker opened my eyes. The land of the free and the home of the brave, for your information, is ‘overparenting’ its children in order to—get this—compete with little kids in India and China. How’s that for an outsourcing opportunity? We could be writing college applications for millions of American kids and saving them the three to forty thousand dollars they’d pay IvyWise to do so in the US.

Anyway, I’m here to tell you that doing your children’s homework for them is overkill. My mother just let us be, so much so that I learned early on to forge her signature on the homework calendar that we had to have signed at the end of every day or week, so that I wouldn’t wake her when I left for school in the morning—and I’m doing all right, barring the bank balance and the nightmares.

She was a big fan of John Holt, the famous educator who believed that schools do more to impede than foster learning and the real stuff takes place at home; she earnestly read his books, allowed us to read our own and watch many B-grade movies, never had a clue what I was studying (or not), at wherever it was I went every morning, and sensibly settled down to writing her own book, which allowed us the freedom to grow in the way most natural to us.

That’s a total exaggeration, of course. She and my father attended every PTA meeting they had to, and they dragged my siblings and me off to every museum, gallery, theatre and volcano-top in sight. None of us failed a thing, and all of us became truly odd people. We’ve had our ups and downs, of course—but today she can look at her children in their various life situations and move her lips in a silent prayer of thanks. At least that’s what I thought it was, until I sidled up close one day and heard her muttering, “Damn that John Holt.”

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The One

You know those people who light up the room when they walk in? The ones whose smiles seem to well up from their bellies and whose skins glow with conviviality? The ones who look really glad to meet you, and really enjoy themselves wherever they go?

Well, I’m not one of them. I tend to lighten the mood very much the way a ton of bricks might, and spread about as much joy as a damp sweater. “How are you?” people will ask, and that’ll set me off: I’ll go ahead and tell them how I am, segueing smoothly into how the whole wretched world seems to be. If you’re looking to add fun and games to your soiree, I’m not the first person to call. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to shore up your quota of depressive, broody complainers, my number is—ah, why bother.

And yet, here I am on this Wednesday afternoon, so happy that I haven’t eaten anything all day. I can’t stop smiling. I pushed my hair back just now and I swear I brushed against a halo of tiny birds, hearts, harps, flowers, music notes and smiley faces circling my head. Instead of inducing a powerful gag reflex, it’s making me hum moonily to myself.

It’s because, at long last, we have an outrageously good-looking man leading the Free World. When people talk about JFK being handsome, they’re just being polite. They mean, ‘for a politician’. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is a stunner any way you cut it. He’s young, athletic, and has that sexy thing going where his cheeks blow out gently when he pronounces his bs and ps.

Just kidding (though it doesn’t hurt that he’s gorgeous). My happiness is really because, as my sister said from a bar in Shanghai where she watched Obama get elected and give his victory speech, “He made a pain in my heart, that I didn’t even know was there, go away.” My sister is given to weeping with relief at other equally uncertain outcomes, such as daily sunrise, but I had to agree. The man is inspirational, in addition to be being sharp as a razor and emotionally rock-solid (and hot).

Why? Pitch-perfect psychology. He sticks to the issue, never takes his eye off the ball, acknowledges the need to build consensus instead of trying to tear down the other chap, and could therefore be the best conflict-resolver we’ve seen in a very long time. He’s the prettiest possible embodiment of the best possible expression of globalisation: biracial, shaped by multiple ethnicities, as outward as he is inward looking, well-travelled, well-informed, tech-savvy, acutely aware of the world’s interdependence, and seemingly focused on bettering the world rather than on self-aggrandisement. What’s not to slavishly worship?

I swear I heard one of the CNN anchors sniffle as she pretended to analyse the events in an unbiased fashion. The newspeople couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. Crowds all over the world danced in the streets and drank themselves silly in thoroughly inappropriate time zones. The last time the world got so involved (though in varying ways) was on September 11, 2001.

If you didn’t spend most of Wednesday morning processing a sense of relief, joy, and hope, you’re either dead or brain-dead (there’s a name for that political position, but in the spirit of bipartisanship, I’m not going to tell you what it is). Sloganeering is forever richer for this election. Think of the possibilites: ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Maybe We Could’, ‘You Really Did, ‘We Really Shouldn’t’ and so forth.

People may well always ask each other, as they did when JFK was shot, and when the Twin Towers fell, Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States?

Say cheese

God knows we’re all in need of a few laughs after the tumultuous events of the last fortnight, particularly the incredibly unfunny Raj Thackeray’s rabble-rousing in Mumbai. You know what would really be funny? It would be really funny if all the North Indians, every last one, actually did leave Mumbai, and refused point blank to come back even if he begged, which he would start doing pretty soon. And then there were a lot of unfunny bombs all over the place. And the Canadians had an election, though that was pretty funny in that it went completely and utterly unnoticed.

Then, just when I needed it, the heavens re-aligned and gave unto us a comedy night. I’ve never seen a stand-up comic perform in India, so it was a treat to catch Russell Peters, particularly after spending an hour and a half in traffic trying to get there. (If there’s an easy barometer for just how staggeringly stupid and obnoxious we are as a people, traffic is it.) I’ll say this for YouTube: it may not be as much fun as watching something live, and it drives you crazy if the Net is slow, but there are a lot fewer morons on the way.

There’s something irresistible about a guy who refuses to be nice to anyone, especially people who are trying to be nice to him: Peters picks on people with pitch-perfect skill—large swathes of the peoples of the world, as well as you, old guy back there, and you there, lousy Bollywood actor, and hey, you too there in the fourth row with your hands on your crotch. He makes fun of names, accents, immigrants, cultural habits, success and failure, political stances, histories and sex. (His jokes about sex often provoked, after gales of laughter, a lot of excited chattering in the audience.)

Laughter is one of those complex psychological mechanisms that serve to process internal conflict. So, like all good comics, Peters makes discomfort—from the most obvious broad cultural strokes to the most delicate individual nuance—his field of expertise. If it’s potentially painful, it’s grist to his mill, but in the most constructive way possible. He’s just rude enough to shock, and just pleasant enough to turn the shock to laughter rather than anger. Besides, how can you fail to like a guy whose eyebrows work that hard?

In India, stand-up comedy is, how shall I put it—not all the rage. We’re very good at laughing at other people’s discomfort, but our own goes by the name of ‘our sentiments’ and we are apparently utterly humourless about those. I was quite disappointed that Peters didn’t make fun of our politicians and our religions and our food and our hypocrisies, sticking instead to his largely immigrant shtick. Then I realised that he was just sensibly doing what he knows best.

I’m yearning for someone home grown, who knows us very well, to rise through the ranks of sentiments and start beating up on them with a big smile and the kind of intelligence that is so admirable that you can’t possibly fail to laugh along with it. We have a long, long way to go, if the clips of Vir Das on YouTube are anything to go by.

Veterans of Peters’ show said he’s been better. Still, I emerged from the show with my face and sides hurting from laughter, and the rest of me weak with vestigial giggling. You could do worse than that on an average working night.

Talking about a revolution

I’ve now lived in Delhi as an adult for thirteen years, and can safely say that while I think of it as my brick-and-mortar, tap-needs-fixing, hang-up-my-hat, extended family home, it’s definitely not my political, social, cultural, moral, spiritual, administrative, or any other kind of home. Which begs the question: What the hell am I still doing here? I’ll let you know as soon as I know.

You would think that being around this long might inure a person to some of the more glaring contradictions we live with. But in my deeply complicated thirteen-year relationship with India in general and Delhi in particular, though I’ve come to accept horrifying economic differences as part of life, I’ve simply never been able to wrap my head around some of what passes for normal social interaction. A few basic sample questions:

Why do English-speaking Indians talk about their Hindi-speaking compatriots in English in the presence of said compatriots, assuming that they couldn’t possibly understand English words like “stupid” or “fool” or “these people”, or that they are somehow excluded from literacy in body language and tone; or, worse, that it doesn’t matter if they do understand?

Why, for that matter, do Hindi-speaking Indians talk about their domestic help in their presence as if they weren’t there?

Why do employers of domestic help refer to them as “these people” and “they” even when they’re talking about one person?

When a doorman opens the door, or a car park attendant hands over the key, or a courier person rings the doorbell, or a roadside sweeper stops raising dust to let you walk by, why does nobody look him or her in the eye and say “Thank you”?

Why do poor people automatically defer to and leap to the aid of anyone who looks richer than themselves on the street (say, to change a flat tire, or give directions) and why do the rich automatically expect them to, and why doesn’t it ever work the other way around?

Why are employers paternalistic to the extent of withholding a poor person’s salary until after the holidays because “they’ll only drink it away”?

And so forth. The basic attitudes and common courtesies that should ease human interaction even in the face of vast economic difference don’t seem to count for much in good old India; the rich aren’t terribly keen to examine or modify their behaviour because it’s much easier to lord it over other people and not waste time on niceties like human rights and courtesy.

But there’s only so much beating, physical or psychological, that people can take before something gives way. I’ve wondered for a very long time why the revolution hasn’t yet turned up, but much of me thinks it should. I like to think it’ll be a civil affair, a socio-cultural movement; but I might be able to empathise if they decide to find people like you and me and put our heads on pikes.

That’s why I’m so enjoying The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning first novel about a man from “the Darkness” (as opposed to from the more commonly written-about light of ‘India Shining’), nursed on the usual poisons of poverty and oppression, who breaks out of what he calls the chicken coop, to journey into his version of the “Light”.

It’s deeply sad that this excellent, extremely complex and nuanced novel must be lauded for a ‘different’ view of India (as Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People was); you have to wonder why more people don’t write about this stuff. I highly recommend that you buy it and read it; at the least it will make you think hard about whether your head looks better on your shoulders or on a pike.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

I love you, hic

Like many other people who have emotional range (also called ‘volatile’ or ‘unstable’), I am subject to fits of abject, revolting sentimentality. At times like this I love my friends unequivocally and tell them so in the purplest prose; my colleagues are the bestest in the world and I will clasp their ankles in a death-like grip to prevent them from leaving for a better job elsewhere; dog poo on the road seems unbearably poignant; and life is beautiful so I must hug everyone in it.

I can behave like this all on my own when stone cold sober; throw a little alcohol on top of those coals, and the results can singe your eyebrows. I have never leerily called an ex, or a professional superior to vent long-suppressed abuse; but I have done thoroughly inappropriate things (like text a colleague at 4am saying that I’m listening to a song that reminds me of him, realising only the next morning that given the lateness of the hour and the lack of nuance in text messages, not just his wife but he too might have misinterpreted my utterly innocent geniality. Cringe.)

Most people, though, need to be seriously inebriated to do things like this. They’re often restrained by their friends, who will vigilantly rip the phone from their drunk-dialling little fingers. The same friends will put them in a cab and call to make sure they got home, and come over in the morning with strips of alka seltzer.

But what happens between the damage control and the alka seltzer? That’s right: more damage. Wino gets home, still rollercoasting all over the unregulated markets of his or her emotional life, staggers to the computer, logs in to his or her email, and sends drunken emails that in the morning will make him or her wish that he or she (or the recipient) were dead.

Enter corporate responsibility. Google has decided to do its bit to protect you from yourself, with a piece of tough-love software called Mail Goggles (a name taken from the common expression ‘beer goggles’ to describe the phenomenon of suddenly noticing, after a couple of drinks, that everyone at the bar is sexually irresistible).

Mail Goggles is a late-night digital chaperone that is designed to determine whether you are really, actually sound of mind enough to send the mail you just typed with the tip of your nose and tongue, skipping the letters you can’t find/remember. You know, the one you’re about to send to your lawyer saying that your ex-spouse can have all your money, or the one to your boss saying that you and she would be good together.

Mail Goggles does you the wonderful favour of suddenly taking you to a dialogue box that poses a few quick arithmetic problems. What’s 93 minus 17? 18 times 4? 72 divided by 12? And so on. If you’re sober enough to solve these correctly, you can send your email. If you aren’t, your mail quits and a gloved hand comes through the screen and slaps you a couple of times before crashing the whole programme.

Not really—but it won’t send the mail. The downside is that while the mathematically gifted can raise the difficulty level of the problems, it won’t do what some people need, which is ask, “If a man on an escalator is travelling at 2kmph and a thief comes charging past him at 6kmph, and taking into account a wind speed of 15kmph as they pass, what is the colour of the cashier’s wig?”

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Intelligent design?

A friend of mine called and made a plan to meet as soon as his knee is better. He’s a strapping fellow who, for all I know, could have busted it in a skydiving landing, or while plunging through the jungle on the trail of a tiger, so I asked how it had happened. “I bent down, and then straightened up,” he said grimly. We performed the telephone equivalent of going ‘Ah’ while rocking on the balls of our feet with arms crossed and head respectfully bowed to avoid embarrassing eye contact.

This moment of empathy about the serial humiliations of ageing put me in mind of other avoidable indignities of the flesh. I think the human body is a marvel, but there are things about it that could have been designed better—in some cases, a lot better.

The greatest design flaw is, of course, inevitable death. Even if you grudgingly concede immortality, however, the business of decay seems cruel. Why not just design a body with a certain life span that simply shuts off when time is up? Why not just go from bursting with youth and beauty to fallen down dead as a doorknob in a second, without screwing around with the psychological and physical torture of sagging flesh, melting joints, blunted senses, incontinence and dementia?

(We wouldn’t make the mistake of the Cumaean Sybil, who asked Apollo for immortality but forgot to ask for youth; she lived, but her body shrivelled away until she had to be kept in a jar, and finally there was nothing left but her voice. At the end of it all, her deepest desire was, “I want to die.”)

Even if you sulkily concede lifelong health and beauty, the search for which continues, there are other things that make no sense.

For example, childbirth. Female reproductive biology is, in many ways, an awesome thing. The process of pregnancy does all kinds of incredible hormone-driven things to prep the body for birth, for instance by softening pelvic joints to cushion the strain of delivery. But you have to ask: who or what came up with the idea of a birth canal that is stretchy, but not quite stretchy enough to avoid pain that, on a scale from 1 to 10 where 10 is death, has been described as 9.5? That seems like bad design.

Better design might be the kind plagiarised from the python’s jaw, which actually unhinges itself to allow its mouth to open wide enough to swallow a deer. Or a hormone secreted on the appointed day that turns your pelvic girdle to elastic. I can think of a few women who might welcome a painless three-minute delivery.

Another example: evacuation. I’ve known people who had colostomy and ileostomy bags after intestinal surgery, and I assure you that a couple of spare sphincters would not be out of place on the human body. The colon should come with one or two alternative exits that can kick in should the regular one fail. Placing these extra sphincters is a matter of aesthetics, of course (you don’t necessarily want one in your armpit), and maybe they could appear around the same time as most colostomies and ileostomies become necessary.

There are other things. Who really needs miles and miles of intestines when you could have a short, nutritionally super-absorbent length of pipe? Why couldn’t we have fat deposit itself daily in one small lump on, say, the sole of the foot, instead of in one’s arteries and belly, said lump to be shed at night? There, plop, it would just fall off while you slept.

Evolution, or intelligent design, whichever your poison, has a long way to go.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Collateral damage

Rarely have I been so pleased to know nothing about money and have very little of it; in fact, for the first time in my life I feel quite fashionable. It turns out that tightened belts are really in these days, because of a complicated on-going economic phenomenon called the 'sub-morgue overprime greedypigs catastrophe crisis', which, after a lot of painstaking research and staring at graphs and pie charts, I have finally understood to be completely beyond my grasp.

I do know that it’s important, though, and that people are losing their houses and having to live in their cars, and that the bulls and the bears and the circus emcees are all spending a lot of time trying to work out whom to send to the corner wearing the dunce cap. Apparently consensus is increasingly swinging the way of the sharks, who have so far only said “Here’s the bill, and when you bring us the money, ask us no questions and we’ll tell you no lies,” while crossing their dorsal fins. Or something.

It’s all happening in America, which looks very far away, but remains a powerful global trendsetter—hence the old saying, “When the US economy has chest pain, the rest of the world should consider making some lifestyle changes”. Because of this, and because of incredibly sophisticated modern financial structures that you won’t understand either, called 'globaloid credit intercrunching rack-and-ruin linkations', experts speculate that the current scene of hopeless devastation in the US could very well infect the rest of the world in an unpleasant domino effect that will bite ordinary people’s investments and pensions right in the backgammon.

In anticipation of this nasty prospect the whole world might have to stay up all night seated on the edge of its chair, filling landfill after landfill with chewed-off fingernail parings, recalibrating its economic outlook and trying to trim the household budget by examining non-essential expenditure and asking tough questions like, Do we really need this household?

Luckily, according to a banker I recently met, we don’t really have to worry here in India, thanks to our extremely sensible fiscal structures and policies, which provide what’s called the 'prudent insulation slowpoke Sensex conservative thingy'. Besides, our mortgage habits are tailored by the fact that we tend to live with our parents until we win the lottery or our parents die trying to throw us out, whichever comes first, so our version of playing house-house is quite different.

He was very reassuring, though of course it’s possible that his dorsal fins were crossed under his jacket.

If we were playing the same game as the US, however, we’d be way ahead of it, thanks to our long-standing commitment to maintaining high national reserves of roofless, despairing people at all times.

Very important in this enormous financial cock-up is its bearing on the outcome of the US presidential election. The winning ticket, whether it turns out to be Maverick-Moose or Messiah-Motormouth, will have been elected largely on the basis of the public’s faith in the candidates’ ability to chivvy the bulls into action, pamper the bears, smack the sharks, give back the houses, find Osama bin Laden, restore America’s standing in the world (or at least make up with the Allies), and pay for the doctor’s visits and pills to cure the national dyspepsia and headache.

And that, in a nutshell, is what’s going on this week. I hope you’re keeping up; it’s complicated, but if you can just manage to keep your eye on the ball long enough, you’ll get dizzy and fall over.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Inhalin’ Palin

For the last many weeks I’ve been trawling through the Internet’s vast sea of informational and speculative glop, in search of something that will throw light on the US presidential election. News reports, blogs, essays, cartoons, videos, photos—nothing has been too long or badly-written or biased or foul-mouthed or weird to look through, because I really, really want to know.

I’m looking, specifically, for something that might explain the whole Sarah Palin thing. It’s been the object of a media feeding frenzy for so long, and so much bile has been spent on it, that I should be enlightened, but really, nothing I’ve seen so far has given me anything to work with.

I know, I know. Who are we to ridicule other countries’ candidates for high office when we regularly tolerate criminals, murderers and the sons and daughters of the above just for being their sons and daughters, in our own political offices and institutions?

But like it or not, the whole world has gotten involved with this election, so we really do have to ask ourselves: What on earth do the long-suffering American people see in her?

It’s not her trenchant mind. Look up her three major television interviews (with Charlie Gibson of ABC, Sean Hannity of Fox and Katie Couric of CBS) for endless examples of an extraordinary capacity to spout sentences comprised almost exclusively of Palin-patented phrases, like “put the government back on the side of the people”, “ruffle some feathers”, “get in there and reform”, “I’m so proud of my son/the American people/this great country”, “I killed the bridge to nowhere”, “a maverick team”, and “look for efficiencies”. Also, if I hear the phrase “eighteen million cracks” one more time, I will throw up.

It’s not that she’s fantastically articulate, viz. this sentence from the Fox interview, in response to a question on the economic meltdown: “Well, you know, first Fannie and Freddie, different because quasi-government agencies there where government had to step in because the adverse impact all across our nation, especially with homeowners, is just too impacting”.

It’s not that she’s well-informed, as it appeared from her total inability to work out what in the world the Bush Doctrine is, until the interviewer took pity on her and told her, at which point she bounced straight back into cliché-land. In fact one of her key abilities is to completely ignore the substance of a question, using the fact that the other person spoke as a prompt to trot out the same old fatigued lines. (If you find yourself in need of a laugh, check out the spoof interviews, including Jay Leno’s Tonight Show parody.) What really stumps me is why, if McCain needs to protect her from public exposure and the press, he chose her in the first place.

Conventional wisdom says it was the whole ‘smokin’ hot babe’ thing, since that seems to be her greatest appeal: not just a woman who hunts and field-dresses moose, but an attractive woman who hunts and field-dresses moose. To my eyes Sarah Palin, what with the quasi-beehive balancing precariously atop her head, looks like something out of—which, if you haven’t been there to see yourself in a variety of nostalgia-drenched looks, I strongly recommend. Add to this that grating Mountain-Alaskan accent so excellently lampooned by Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live, and I’m totally at sea.

So, I like to think, is America. If there’s a silver lining to what looks like the worst political joke of the century, it is that the vice-presidential debates should be a real hoot.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Games people play

Two Mondays ago I had a mid-afternoon nap, which is very unusual. I never nap in the afternoon unless I’m sick; even as a little child, I thought of the household’s daily siesta as merely a good opportunity to eat sugar straight out of the sugar bowl for an hour without having to listen to a lot of annoying value judgements. The papers keep saying that naps are good for you, but they bore me, and leave me even groggier and crabbier than usual, which is no good for anyone else.

When I woke from my surprise nap two Mondays ago, therefore, I was at best puzzled, and at worst worried about coming down with the Bubonic plague. Little did I know how bad it really was. “Don’t fret, it’s perfectly normal for portly, middle-aged people to need naps,” said a certain person, whom I will identify only as someone who once gave birth to me.

This torpedo of a statement found its mark straight and true; and so, two Tuesdays ago, I started playing badminton with a friend who, like me, last played when Pluto was still a planet, and Angelina Jolie only had one kid, and Facebook was just a gleam in some college kid’s eye. We pledged to meet on the court at 7am, a time we judged would involve the fewest possible eyewitnesses, and sweat ourselves back into some other shape.

The first thing that happened, twenty minutes into play on day two, was that I twisted my portly, middle-aged ankle and suffered an ungainly collapse upon my portly, middle-aged bum in the middle of the court (though I’m proud to say that I returned the shot from a sitting position even though the shuttlecock was hard to see amid all the little dancing green spots before my eyes).

We naturally couldn’t play the next day, but I bought an ankle brace and learned my lesson. The rule is now that we have to arrive at 6.45am and warm up properly, which allows us to get in not half an hour, but forty-five minutes of play before the sun rises above the trees. (Of course, the sun is just a great big fiery ball-shaped peg upon which I hang my frequent inability to connect with the shuttlecock, which is the most evocatively and disturbingly named piece of sporting equipment in the world; but it works for us.)

Although we have discovered a constant presence in the shape of a guard atop a watchtower overlooking the outdoor court, he appears to be trying to shield his eyes with his hands from the sight of us, so we’ve stopped worrying about him. The court is in a lovely green setting so it is crawling with centipedes, ants, and other bugs; I blithely squash them under my heel, but my partner, who is an altogether nicer person, often pauses play to remove them to safer ground, which is truly wonderful because it gives me time to breathe.

For a few days both she and I suffered the most excruciating muscle pain, but now that we’ve played every day for ten days, interrupted only by ankle-healing and the sports club’s weekly off day, I can tell you things are much better. I’m far better tempered; I go to bed early so that I can feel human when the alarm goes off at 6.20; I don’t drink as much or as often as I would; and I can feel a tiny, tiny little give in my jeans again. I think I’ve finally eased back from the brink of portly and middle-aged to just fat and thirty-something. Phew, that was close.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Thank God it’s Friday—not

To everyone who prayed and fasted on Tuesday to prevent the world from being sucked into a black hole on Wednesday: thanks for nothing. The world didn’t end this week, even though I waited until the end of the day and all the next day too, and I had to write a column after all. Typical. Apparently the unexpectedly nerdy Horsemen of the Apocalypse plan to get into serious universe-ending gear only a year from now, after their Large Hadron Collider has practiced on enough hapless protons.

This irritating state of affairs did, however, mean that courier services continued. Courier delivery people are hired purely for their ability to show up at the precise moment when you’ve lathered up a storm of shampoo on your head, or entered the delta stage of your sleep cycle, or gotten your head and arms irretrievably mixed up in the shirt you were pulling on and are jerking about like a decapitated chicken. That’s what they’re waiting for. That’s when they ring the doorbell, sometimes twice, just to know that somewhere inside the house, inconvenient haste has turned to blind panic.

So I shot out of bed, rinsed my hair, busted out of my shirt, and snatched the door open to find the courier guy handing me Good Times for Everyone: Sexuality Questions, Feminist Answers by Radhika Chandiramani, (Women Unlimited 2008). It’s a compilation of the author’s fortnightly column on sexuality in the Asian Age newspaper, a sort of FAQ on anatomy, sexual preference, sexual health and safety, relationships, and emotional intelligence.

Having read it, I silently but fervently thanked Chandiramani for publishing it, because, besides providing some truly entertaining moments, the questions reflects an abysmal lack of information out there. I’d say that these are not ‘feminist’ as much as ‘enlightened humanist’ responses, and that’s a good thing.

In the foreword Chandiramani writes: “The questions would come in inland letter forms, postcards, heavily sealed envelopes. Most often they were handwritten. Sometimes the ink was smudged. Sometimes it would be a hastily written question on a single sheet of paper torn out of an office pad. Some were in impeccable English, some in faltering English, some had illustrations when the writers did not know how else to explain their predicament.”

This is unfairly poignant: it would be much more fun to laugh at the couple who said that the wife’s clitoris didn’t seem to be ejaculating properly, if they weren’t worried sick about it.

Chandiramani takes the no-nonsense, schoolmarmish-but-sensitive tone of someone who has answered not only those letters but 60,000 calls on the TARSHI sexuality helpline, about size, shape, technique, norm, and a range of mind-boggling misconceptions. “Just remember,” she writes briskly, “you must not rub the clitoris the way you Brasso buttons”, or, frequently, “Please stop listening to your friends, they seem terribly misinformed” or, even more frequently, “Stop worrying”. You can sometimes sense her weariness when she’s debunking, for the 60,000th time, myths about masturbation or some mysterious quantity called “sex power”.

She answers questions about G-spots, how to deal with children and sex, LBGT lifestyles, suicidal impulses consequent to loss of sex power, poor body image, and a host of other things ranging from the airily philosophical to the deeply technical. A list of resources follows, listed by topic and geography.

Those of you looking for a dirty book (not that any of you would ever dream of such a thing), this is not it. But read it anyway, and pass it on; because when nobody around you will address your sexual concerns except your idiot friends, you must have somewhere to turn. You’ll discover that whatever your problem seems to be, it’s not the end of the world.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

On a wing and a brayer

My mother has taken to calling me ‘donkey’. “Hello, donkey,” she says brightly when I pass by, or, “Donkey, could you pass the salt?” when we’re dining, or “My little donkey!” when she’s feeling fond. I asked hopefully if it might be short for Don Quixote, the great tragic dreamer, but she said no, she just meant the obstinate braying beast.

She conferred this name on me not long after a dinner conversation that segued into the realm of god and religion. I spoke in favour of the motion that ‘God is a Construct, a Powerful Psychological Sweetener/Opiate, and the Perfect Instrument for Mass Terrorisation and the Exercise of Power’, and she spoke in favour of the motion ‘Have Some Respect for the Things You Don’t Know’.

It was one of those chats that can easily replace your regular cardiovascular workout: it raises the heart rate, colours the cheek, pearls the brow, and makes you talk a little louder than strictly necessary. I remember a lot of mutual headshaking and eye-rolling and bitter regret that the other person could be so imprisoned in her own misguided views. (Some days later she read Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and began to agree with me; but by then we’d both gotten used to ‘donkey’.)

It just goes to show that there’s nothing like religion to make asses of us all, as has recently been made clear by the events of the last few thousand years and again, if you weren’t paying attention, in Jammu and Kashmir and Orissa. Luckily, as a family we agree that we can scream and shout at each other and call each other the most vile and frightful names until we’re blue in the face, as long as we don’t get physically violent. That is the essence of democratic discourse, after all: protest and argue all you like, but non-violently.

The trouble is that this only works if everyone is on the same page. India would be well on its way to some stripe of democracy, were it not for our rich national surplus in ravening lunatics. We have them in a vast array of stripes and kinds, and since we’re a big place with lots of dissimilar people living cheek by jowl, they’re always very busy: there’s always one more house to burn, one more place of worship to demolish or desecrate, one more exhibition to vandalise, one more book to burn, one more bomb to set off, one more person to rape or maim or kill or all three.

Even that might not stop us from being a democracy, except that every night before going to bed these people must get on their knees and give thanks for the self-serving gutlessness of state and central governments, which put the ‘fun’ back into ‘fundamentalism’ by abandoning innocent citizens to their fate rather than hauling the offenders off to jail or the gallows, and risking a heist on their vote banks.

This is because government and law enforcement agencies are equally communal and undemocratic. Let’s face it: democracy simply isn’t native to humans, who are best known for their appetite for domination, destruction, and death. It has to be taught—at home and in schools, because it works better as an individual attitude than as a state regulation. Fundamental to this education is that a child should be free to choose his or own religion, having been exposed to many; or decide that there is no god, so it’s best to quit smoking and get on a monthly investment plan.

The world looks a whole lot better when it’s full of squabbling people calling each other ‘donkey’ than when one homogenous pack is left stamping on the smouldering corpses of their neighbours.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Games over

I’m reading Pallavi Aiyer’s engaging account of her years in China in Smoke and Mirrors, which reveals astonishing facts such as that there are still people who do journalistic research by making and keeping appointments with other people to obtain and ascertain facts and figures, instead of slouching around on the internet in one’s pyjamas.

But China has been on my mind, and on everyone else’s in the world, just in general. It was with unbounded admiration that I viewed the pure fabulousness of the closing ceremony of the 29th Olympiad in Beijing last week. I know, I know—everyone has had it up to the gills with the Olympics, and for my own part if I hear the phrase ‘coming out party’ one more time, I will break the world record in stabbing someone repeatedly with a chopstick.

But I’m still hung up on one particular facet of Olympics 2008, and that is China’s great contrast with once-great Britain. It’s true that China’s episodes of paedo-impersonation and video tampering during the opening ceremony (in the cause of aesthetics and technical perfection) are now world-famous, but the intensity with which people pounced on these incidents suggests a smidgeon of insecurity.

Well-earned insecurity, as it turned out. I thought that the Mayor of London looked shifty and embarrassed, placing his hands in and out of his pockets and generally behaving as if he had no idea what they were doing there at the end of his arms, as they handed him the Olympic flag.

It became painfully clear why, when the London 2012 presentation came on. I couldn’t believe my eyes when, in the epic ambition and sophistication embodied by the closing ceremony in the Bird’s Nest, the London Olympic organisers produced, with a roll of drums…a bus. That’s right, a big red double-decker bus rolled up to a bus stop where people in flappy coats and hats were waiting, industriously reading newspapers under big black umbrellas. The twist of lime was that the orderly queue you’d expect to board the bus turned into a ravening pack of urban anarchists who threw themselves at the doors.

But then, just when it seemed that London had decided it would seduce the world by showcasing chaotic public transport and bad weather, things got worse: the bus unfurled into a hedge-like construction out of which emerged David Beckham (or his waxen double from Madame Tussaud’s, it was hard to tell which) who propelled a football into the crowd; and a musical act that caused the umbrellas to light up with little swirling lights to help shield the coat-clad dancers from the sweat pouring off guitarist Jimmy Page.

In the spirit of Olympic brotherhood, the four or five hundred million Chinese volunteers in the middle of the stadium arranged their features into an expression of gentle, interested mystification.

I suppose it was better than showcasing the Opium Wars.

This really is Asia’s century. But it’s probably time for all the people who like to talk about India rivalling China to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s all very well to gape like goldfish at the comparative poverty of London’s imagination at the moment, but when I drive down the road in Delhi, I can’t say I’m bursting with confidence about Delhi pulling off a decent Commonwealth Games—the banners for which, you might have noticed, came down months ago and have stayed down as people try their best to forget that we’re on a deadline.

Speaking of Delhi, can anyone tell me where they’ve put the roads?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cops and rubbers

So now there’s an advertisement that uses the word ‘condom’ a lot, advertising a downloadable mobile phone ringtone that consists of the word ‘condom’ sung in cheery harmony. The BBC World Service Trust launched the ad, of course, and it was funded by the Gates Foundation, but the good old GOI cleared it, which is a far cry from the days when the then union minister Sushma Swaraj was flaying soap commercials for posing clear and present danger to our family values.

The sudden lowering of governmental inhibitions must have something to do with the little problem we’re having with our population, which on the upside is swamping the global economy and, on the downside, large parts of the solar system as well. The fact that this condom ad made news headlines is a sorry comment on a country facing an AIDS crisis.

Speaking of family values, I’ve never been able to figure out our position (if you will) on sex. For instance, we’re a country that cannot say the word ‘sex’, or admit that anyone is even remotely sexual, including actors whose profession description, including their totally unironic self-descripton, is ‘sex symbol’. We beat up people who celebrate Valentine’s Day, and form vigilante groups to roam round apprehending and intimidating the sort of people depraved enough to have a… a… (it sticks in my craw)… a party, as happened recently in Bangalore.

Simultaneously we valourize marriage, which is kicked off by a ceremony in which two people stand up in front of a whacking great crowd and announce, in essence, that they’re going to be sleeping with each other regularly. In fact we often marry people off even before they’ve hit puberty, just to make sure that the second they feel like having sex, they have someone to get busy with. This explains how we ended up with 1.1 billion people, but it does not explain why they’re still so coy.

We’re also a country in which, although we have great monastic and ascetic traditions (though these are, globally speaking, sometimes congruent with marriage), not having children is still seen as nothing short of weird. Now that we have cloning technology who knows what might be possible, but the last time I checked, when people implore you to have children, they’re begging you to have sex.

It’s too tiresome to yet again trot out the examples of the Kamasutra and the Khajuraho temples, but when you hear people drone on about our conservative traditions, it’s inevitable. Those drawn and sculpted lovers are doing something indisputably recreational. They’re definitely not thinking about the sacred act of childbirth—or if they are, it really turns them on.

The leviathan is stirring, however. Unmarried people are starting to live together without lying about it or blushing; movie stars are going out with each other in the full glare of publicity, and there’s neither any doubt what they’re up to nor any comment about it; writers are writing about sex—mostly badly, but then that’s the nature of sex writing all over the world; singers are singing about it; columnists are answering questions about it, and the great machine of Bollywood keeps everyone’s hips grinding. In Poona, not too long ago, a seminar on sex was very well attended by lots of middle-aged people who by the lights of many self-appointed guardians of morality should long have forgotten what goes where, and how, and why.

Before we know it we’ll be saying words like ‘sex’ out loud. Until then, you can practice saying ‘condom’ without falling to pieces.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

2008: A Spa Odyssey

It’s an annoying fact of life that rich, famous people who can most afford to pay for things tend to be the people who get the most stuff for free. They’re always being showered with presents and getting offered free stays in resorts and having their bills waived at top-notch restaurants, while the rest of us grubby mortals are busy developing ugly stretch marks all over our budgets.

When they do shell out, however, they do it in style. Once in a while, a grubby mortal gets to stray into this platinum-plated world for free (it’s called ‘travel writing’), and see how the other half lives, and what they do with their untold wealth. Thus it was that last weekend I drove up a hill and into the cool, clean, white-clothed, incense-scented, soothing-music-filled precincts of the Top Class Number One Superduper Bestest destination spa in India, which is called Ananda in the Himalayas.

I think the rich probably have to close their eyes when they climb into the car at Haridwar, just as I had to, in order to better appreciate the unique geological composition of this part of the Himalayan foothills, which were created by the compression, over millennia, of layer upon layer of torn potato chips packets, crumpled plastic plates, empty soft drinks bottles and suppurating piles of other unidentifiable garbage.

But then you leave the big settlements and start to climb, and by the time you turn into the custard-coloured gates of the Maharaja’s hilltop palace, Rishikesh and Dehradun are merely scenic splashes in a painting far below, beside the champagne-coloured ribbon of the Ganga. There’s nothing here but lush rolling hills, mist, and the discreet gleam of Rolexes.

Ananda is a little like a Krishnamurti Foundation school (yoga, quietude, spiritual orientation) crossed with a Four Seasons. You can contemplate the vastness of the cosmos, the relative purity of your body and soul and the harmony of nature while doing yoga in the fresh air, losing weight, getting massaged, sleeping in your beautiful climate-controlled room looking over the valley, soaking in Dead Sea mud, and drinking excellent French wine. I’ve always had trouble deciding what to do with my life, but I was able to establish that this is much more my scene than is shambling around Delhi with my blood boiling and my hair standing on end.

They’re very serious about your health, at Ananda. An Ayurvedic menu is pointedly placed at your table in the restaurant and often gently recommended by the dining staff. But if you insist on indulging, you can choose from a menu of fine food and fine wine. This is important for people like me, who won’t do the difficult thing unless they feel they have a choice. You can eat healthily and spend all day in the spa, using the gym and getting ayurvedic treatments, hydrotherapy, body wraps and beauty treatments, or you can spend all day eating rich foods and sleeping in your room or by the pool—it’s your funeral, as they say, not to mention the funeral of your gigantic hills of cash.

As soon as you cross the line into the fabled land of the rich, of course, your grubby mortal friends turn on you. I told one that I had earlier soaked in a bath of milk, saffron, and rose petals, and that it was dinner time so I should probably head for a shower. “A milk shower?” he asked. “Or are you going to have to slum it with water?” Another said, “What’s in the toilet cistern—white rum?” That’s the problem with grubby mortals: by and large they’re a bitter lot.

With excellent reason.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The jargon juggernaut

Ideas are hermaphroditic and can breed all by themselves, like tapeworms; but the resulting bastards can aspire to legitimacy only upon cross-pollination by other ideas. Thus it is that theories beget theories, and books beget books, and the entire intellectual industry self-perpetuates, always traceable back to some bastard or the other.

Without meaning that the way it sounds, we are increasingly suffocating in hot air. The more carefully descriptive a term, the more education you need to use it, and thus it is that jargon dooms good ideas by making them less, rather than more, accessible. This is inevitable; theoretical activity, devoted to the ceaseless refinement of ideas, is always snagging on the fabric of language, which stands between a thought and its expression. One can’t blame theorists for hissing at each other like adders over the exactitude of a word: it has to be second nature in their line. They would have argued with God about The Word, had they been around early enough.

Still: a rosy-cheeked little idea flies out into the world for the first time, whistling a merry tune. Suddenly, a band of roving thinkers leaps out from nowhere and proceeds to love it — not wisely, but too well. After the dust settles, the poor bedraggled thing picks itself up, clanking under the well-meaning weight of a hundred clauses, parentheses, corollaries, caveats, appendices, red marks, and Post-It notes. It limps home sounding like:

“Sontag’s brand of formalism is radical in the sense that it attempts to focus on the ‘surface’ of the text—its sensual appearance—which is compromised by the archaeological approach of the essentialist search for meaning. In doing so, Sontag abandons almost wholesale the notion of any kind of basic essentialist meaning at all, but does not question, although it implies, the essential serarch and need for meaning, which even the ‘erotics of art’ that Sontag advocates, would have.”

I regret to say that this horrible example was written by someone close to me. Very close. Okay—by me, in an end-of-term college paper for a class portentously called The Play of Interpretation. I haven’t the faintest clue anymore what any of it means. I can only say, in my defence, that this is how we were supposed to write; and I suspect that we threw in all the names and labels we could, in the hope that the professor wouldn’t immediately realise that we’d spent all term playing Trivial Pursuit.

People love jargon. It makes them sound learned and mysterious and exciting. In the economy of power, information is the trump currency, and exclusive information the key to success. The result is that hundreds of millions of students around the world are being drilled in the use of a hundred different sets of jargon, none of which they necessarily understand, and none of which they will use for a day after they leave the ivied cloisters.

The jargon of postmodern theory, in particular, flies around with a lot more energy than understanding. “Mightn’t there be a point where space is at once intimacy and exteriority, a space which, outside, would in itself be spiritual intimacy? An intimacy which, in us, would be the reality of the outdoors, such that there we would be within ourselves outside in the intimacy and in the intimate vastness of that outside?” asks Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature. Thus is a point asphyxiated in the attempt to make it.

All it really takes for a term to become a ‘term’, is a pair of quotation marks. That annoying little hooked V-sign hand action means “the entire history of what this means, which I know, don’t you?” It is best answered with the economical use of a single finger, meaning “I don’t really care, do you?”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Can’t spells won’t

My grandmother, Malti Shukla, had terrible arthritis that turned her hands and feet into a painful ginger-like tangle. She developed the arthritis at the age of fifty, which was when she disagreed with my grandfather about their future plans; he went off to retire in his ancestral home in Lucknow, and she stayed on in Moradabad, where she was in the midst of completing an MA degree abandoned at the age of 18 when she got married. They never lived together again.

She remade her life at an age and time when it was bad form for a woman to do so. She finished her degree, got a job teaching English at the local college, and rented a flat. Being the only elderly woman with short white hair in Moradabad, she was often mistaken for Indira Gandhi, even though she took a cycle rickshaw to work. She found herself having to teach English literature in Hindi, because few of her students spoke English, but she loved it, and her students adored her.

Eventually she gave up her independence to live with her daughter’s family in Delhi, at their request. She had spent her life cooking, tending to her large joint family and staying up all night sewing birthday frocks. In her daughter’s home she could have put her feet up and relaxed, but work was worship for her, and she couldn’t abide inactivity; she took on the task of managing the household and helping to care for the family. She turned her teacher’s skills to cater to the special needs of her grandson Adit.

Even when she was very frail she would sneak off to do the shopping herself, because she liked going out and conducting affectionate pricing battles with the local shopkeepers, and because she loved good food, and was a brilliant cook, and didn’t trust anyone else to get the best ingredients.

She was tough as nails and ground her teeth quite often, but it was her endless reservoir of generosity and love that seduced people across generations. She made everyone feel loved and sheltered and cared for—not just her family, but also her students, neighbours, friends, and random strangers on the train. She made guava jelly and pickle for everyone, never forgot to write a birthday card and post it on time, and had strong views on politics that she didn’t hesitate to express. She smelled of perfume and talcum powder, had the softest upper arms in the world, read poetry, and laughed a lot.

The arthritis progressed; she had cortisone, gold injections, surgeries to implant metal pins to straighten her toes, orthopedic shoes, splints for her fingers. But every day she woke up at daybreak and spent an hour exercising, soaking her stiff hands in warm water and clenching and straightening her crooked fingers for a thousand reps, and rotating all her joints to keep mobility. She was probably the only person in the family who could touch her toes. She refused to concede one drop of life to her disease or her age—her battle cry was “Can’t Spells Won’t”. She went travelling with her beloved sisters in law, took trains and planes to visit far-flung relatives and friends in India and abroad, and kept abreast of everybody’s life. She had implacable willpower, the charisma and social graces of a queen, the guts of a commando, and an unsquashable sense of fun.

A life-long atheist, she always referred to her own death by comically closing her eyes, cocking her head, and sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth. Last Saturday, after two years of heart trouble, surgery and strokes, she really did die, at the age of 82. If there is a god, he’s going to have to shift up.

Monday, July 28, 2008

House help needed

“Let’s go to Parliament on the day of the trust vote,” I suggested to a friend, because I’m all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when it comes to our democratic institutions, even though I’ve been a few times before and should know better. “Okay, and let’s take a suitcase along with bank notes sticking out of the edges, and ask them sotto voce where we should put it,” he said, referring to the brisk trade in Members of Parliament in the days leading up to the vote of confidence in the UPA government.

We chuckled at our own silliness and trooped off to stand in a line roughly five kilometres long, full of other interested citizens patiently sweating and waiting their turn to watch which way the teetering Lok Sabha would swing. Would we have elections now, or a few months from now, an important difference that would impact the life of the nation exactly not at all? The suspense was unbearable.

A young lady in the line behind me was enrolled in the MIT School of Government in Pune, and interning for a BJP party member. “So you want to be a politician?” I asked her. “Oh yes!” she breathed. “Do you believe in what you’re doing?” I asked. “Oh no!” she breathed. I think she’ll be very happy.

Inside the hall, they were debating the Indo-US nuclear agreement, India’s dealings with the organisation known in some southern states as the YIYAYEYA, and the general wisdom of opting for nuclear energy.

Outside the hall, the line didn’t move for ages, and news came round that proceedings had been adjourned because honourable member A, thunderously denouncing the alleged horse-trading of MPs, had been perfidiously reminded by honourable member B that hon. member A had himself offered hon. member B a crore of rupees to vote a particular way, just recently, when hon. member A had visited hon. member B at his permanent residence in jail. No wonder Parliament has such high security: It’s to safeguard the country by keeping all the honour inside.

Not that security was too tight for two bags stuffed with bribe money to really, actually find their way into the august hall of the people, where MPs flung it around the room and screamed at each other so much that the people who decide these things decided to turn off the live camera feeds for a while so that the rest of the country wouldn’t have to throw up their typically modest dinners. My friend’s morning-time joke was, by the afternoon, about as funny as getting stabbed right in the honour.
It’s also difficult to understand why, in an institution where your right to speak and be heard is the basis of the whole institution, our MPs prefer to shout each other down rather than listen and respond. I suppose that when you can’t raise the level of the debate, you raise the volume.

Of course I might be misremembering things, because my time in the public gallery was spent using all of my brain cells to concentrate on not crossing my legs, which is the way that I naturally sit in a chair. Apparently, crossing your legs while you sit up there in utter silence, shows disrespect for the House. They hire people to stand in the gallery and watch, eagle-eyed, for crossed legs, and if you forget yourself, someone will come and uncross them for you, while shrieking MPs drink each other’s blood in the well of the House. If it weren’t for those alert leg people, the country’s dignity would be in tatters.

Everyone should spend a little time watching the proceedings in Parliament. At the very least, it will put any personal problems you have in perspective.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


For years together my sister has been complaining that I never come to visit her, forgetting that her typical evening consists of flying to Paris for a spa treatment and onward to Barcelona for dinner followed by dancing until dawn in Buenos Aires, while mine is spent fashioning a sliver of soap out of lime scraped off a wall, and standing in a tiny trickle of brown water between 7.30pm and 7.31pm in an effort to clean the lice out of my hair before settling down to a dinner of old roti seasoned with dust.

Some of that might be a very little bit exaggerated, but it is completely true that she complains about my not coming to see her. It’s really my loss, because she lives in very interesting places—at the moment, Shanghai. (In the time-honoured tradition of university undergraduates she enrolled in college to study medicine, but graduated with a degree in Chinese language and culture; her profession and personal life have kept her hanging about China and its environs ever since.) Anyway, I have resolved to go and see her this year after the Olympics are over, if I can sell enough little slivers of homemade soap to afford the fare.

Pretty much all I know about Shanghai is that it is a large port city with many gleaming skyscrapers and cheapo labour, and that it has lent its name to the verb ‘to shanghai’, which means to force someone to join up as a ship crew member by underhand means (and in general, by extension, to coerce someone into doing something against their will).

I also know, courtesy a Chinese government website, that “Most people in the city seldom worry about to be robbed when they walk on the streets while burglaries are also not easy to be heard, watched or read from media reports, say nothing of being killed by guns or pistols…Up till now,” adds the website in what looks like a direct poke in the ribs of the Delhi government, “people haven't got the news that foreign women insulted or hurt by criminals in the city. But still try to avoid to those unfamiliar places, such as small dark lanes, and the suburbs of the city. It won't hurt if a woman is accompanied with her colleagues, boyfriend or husband. After all, it is not a city of Eutopia.”

The site nevertheless warns against giving in to the temptations of drugs, gambling or commercial sex, because “Though policemen won't check your room unless they get your permission or have a search warranty, it will be wise enough for you to fence out from those troubles.” I once heard a story about a man who was executed on the spot during a train journey in China for stealing the laptop of a fellow passenger, so apocryphal or not, I don’t plan to get involved with searches, warrantied or not.

I will try and make some extra soap slivers so that I can also visit Beijing, which is the site of the Olympic stadium known as Bird’s Nest, and the Aquatics stadium nicknamed The Cube. These are both brilliant-looking bits of architecture, especially the former, which is at once beautiful and deeply disturbing. But that’s what you have to expect from artist-designer Ai Weiwei, who once curated an exhibition called “Fuck Off” (“Uncooperative Approach” in Mandarin) which included artists walking around town with blood dripping out of plastic tubes implanted in their viens, an artist wearing a diaper and floating down a river in a plastic bubble, and an artist cooking and eating a foetus.

Now that’s what I call a cultural revolution.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Secret service details

Information is power, and everyone wants as much of it as possible. Every self-respecting government in the world maintains an army of spooks charged with gathering intelligence to better serve the public interest. You’re probably familiar with the R&AW in India, the ISI in Pakistan, MI6 in Britain, and the FSB (previously KGB) in Russia.

What you may not know is that the largest and most efficient secret service in the world is a global all-volunteer force known as Friends of Friends (FOF). This vast, shadowy network of elite operatives—and they are all top-notch—elicits or intercepts sensitive information about friends and passes it on to other friends with the code words ‘I’m Sworn To Secrecy, I’m Only Telling You’. There is no greater public interest than in a service providing secrets, so Friends of Friends has evolved to be very good at what it does.

The information flow is so perfect that if it were a formal organisation it would have a Six Sigma rating. Its reach is limitless, since each contact relies on a bank of his or her own contacts, each of which represents an exponential increase in distribution on the previous point of origin. In this viral dissemination of classified, and preferably incriminating information, value is added at every step in the shape of creative embellishment and commentary, often making for a much better item than the original.

The whole thing is quite a lot like Amway, except that unlike Amway it does not suffer from stoppages or database erosion, because each FOF contact genuinely wants to get his or her hands on the product and pass it on, instead of wanting to stab the agent to death. The model relies on the social urge to live vicariously, pass judgement, appear to be closer to someone than their other friends, and, just out of intellectual curiosity, see what happens if you toss a flaming match into a tinderbox.

You might think you’re cleverer than that. You might think you can outwit the whole structure with conflicting information, or even keep things under wraps. But like all intelligence agencies, FOF have their ways of getting things out of you, around the world, and usually even back to you in a much different form, before the week is out. If you happen to be sitting on something that you should really, really keep to yourself, they will scent blood in seconds.

An operative disguised as one of your regular social circle will confuse you into entering an interrogation chamber that looks like a bar, and use their rigorous training in sympathy and affection to make you buy them large vodkas until you can’t take it any more. Believe it, pal: You will break down and sing like a canary, swearing them to secrecy all the while. And when you wake up the next morning they won’t have left any marks on your body, but everyone on the street will be looking at you funny.

It’s no use trying to fight them. But if there’s an upside, it is that in this field of intelligence, information flows democratically in any direction, so it’s quite possible to return the compliment if you’re in the mood for vengeance. Feelings of betrayal often cause the database of contacts to become realigned to the detriment of an offending party (people very seldom drop out of the system altogether).

FOF is always recruiting. The only qualifications required to join up for service are: 1. You must know at least two other people in the world, and 2. All three of you must still be breathing. Of course there’s one more thing, but it’s highly confidential so if I tell you, I’ll have to kill you. Unless you buy me a drink, and promise not to tell anyone else.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Over the rainbow

I’ve seen lots of spectacular rainbows, but have only ever been inside two. The first time was a few weeks ago, when the aircraft I was sitting in flew right through one. My window turned pink and indigo and yellow and green as the Alps drifted by on the other side; the whole thing was so magical that it almost made up for the horrible in-flight service, which consisted of stale chocolate wrapped in soccer-ball foil.

The second time was last weekend, in Connaught Place, when Delhi’s first-ever Queer Pride parade took place. Along and behind an enormous rainbow flag that is the international symbol of alternative sexuality, marched a few hundred people—lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and supportive straights like myself—waving rainbow flags, carrying rainbow signs, and wearing rainbow face paint or rainbow masks.

Given that the average Delhi-ite is given to hissing “Indira Gandhi is out of Parliament!” to mean “Your bra strap is showing—step this way and kill yourself for shame”, the fact that Pride happened this year, and without incident, is a huge step for the city’s gay community. A rainbow-coloured friend had snorted that “We’ve been issued the standard NGO-type low-visibility route [from the Intercontinental hotel to Jantar Mantar],” but as it happened, the two-kilometre walk was anything but quiet: thumping drums, screaming cheers, booming slogans and a lot of self-affirming whistles and hoots made for a happily raucous procession.

The signs read ‘Down With Section 377’ and ‘Heterosexuality Is Not Normal, It’s Common’ and ‘Happy Homosexual’ and ‘Not All Females Are Women’ and ‘Proud To Be Lesbian’. Some people, including one friend who had threatened to come as a seahorse in heels, turned up in jeans and t-shirts; others were flamboyantly sequinned and glittered and eye-shadowed and bejewelled. The self-appointed Guardians of Indian Culture, some of whom were expected to show up in their knickers and prejudices, had stayed home, possibly in their closets. To everyone’s delight, some citizens who encountered the parade asked for a mask (which organisers had made available), so that they could join in without fear. Passersby on buses leaned out with their cameras, befuddled but interested. The cops escorting the march tried to look as bored as they could, and mostly managed not to giggle. I suppose it’s hard to resist a few friendly jokes (“Can I have a drag of your fag?” “Sure, take a poof.”).

There was a particularly happy little cluster around a sign that read ‘Proud to be Bisexual’. Queer Pride is a particularly good day for bisexuals, who are spend their lives caught between a rock and a hard place, seen as deviant by the straight community and waffling or indecisive by the gay community. A man-woman couple, both lapsed homosexuals, groused that erstwhile friends in the gay community wouldn’t talk to them now that they were seeing each other—which, if you think about it, is a pretty progressive kind of discrimination in a city like Delhi.

A few parents marched in support of their ‘out’ children. Most participants didn’t feel the need to conceal their identities, but as the organisers said at the concluding speeches, they were also marching for everyone who isn’t yet ready to come out, for everyone who cannot, and for everyone who chose suicide over oppression. A woman who is out to her friends but not her family, wondered whether or not it was time to tell her mother about her sexuality. “She might have to go on a cruise to relax a bit after that,” she said sardonically.

The five hundred souls who marched last Sunday are the very tiny little tip of an enormous iceberg; hopefully, when Queer Pride 2014 rolls around, they won’t need the signs saying ‘Drop 377’ anymore.

Monday, June 30, 2008

A million little pieces

Mass media confessionals like Oprah are so wildly successful not only because you get to listen to thrilling stories about how someone was made to have sex with the family python and flog their kidneys on EBay to fund the smack habit of their domestic jailers, but because you suddenly discover that your own childhood of having been made to have sex with the family python and flog your kidneys on EBay to fund the smack habit of your domestic jailors, wasn’t so singularly freakish. You realise that your deep, dark secret actually lies plumb along the median of human experience. A great weight lifts from your heart; other people know how you feel; it’s normal. You are not alone.

That’s how I felt as I read an article called ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ by Nicholas Carr, in the July/August 2008 issue of The Carr moans about the fact that long years of using the Internet have changed the way his mind works, most noticeably while reading. He can no longer concentrate on books and long passages; it’s a struggle to stay with what he terms ‘deep reading’. And this is not a new phenomenon: the article describes how emerging technologies—once the printing press and the typewriter, and now the Internet—have, through the ages, seemingly messed with the very circuitry of human minds, reducing attention span, feeding the hunger to move on, lowering the boredom threshold, even as they have tilled new fields of epistemic gold.

Carr hastens to mention that he is not alone in facing this grim decimation of reading ability. With quotes, anecdotes and similar confessions from other literary types of his acquaintance, he puts together a social history of mush-mindedness that has set my troubled soul free by reassuring me that I’m not alone, except that it was a really long article and my eyes kept glazing over.

It was once inconceivable to me to spend a day without reading for at least an hour or two. But I’ve turned from a two or three-books-a-week kind of person to what would be a no-books-a-month kind of person if I didn’t make myself read by promising myself some kind of chocolatey reward afterwards. The long letters I used to write to friends and family have dwindled to four-line emails sent every few months, and while nobody has really complained about this, I like to think that they hurt deep inside. Things have changed, and fast. Whenever I do get through a book, I desperately miss the old times when getting through it was not work, but play of the most riveting kind.

As if an amputated attention span weren’t enough, the Internet has also nailed us with information overload of the most deadly, paralytic kind. I have such a cripplingly clear view of the impossible volume of stuff that I want to read that I don’t know where to start reading, let alone how to write about books, which was once a thing I could do with unflagging interest. The only way out seems to be to fish out, from the self-same benighted Internet, summaries and précis of books one hasn’t read. The Worldwide Web has made secondary-source researchers of us all, trained to make it sound as if we’ve actually read everything we refer to.

If there’s an upside to all this, it is that the concomitant loss of ability to retain anything I read makes for a fresh experience every time my eyes gloss over mid-passage, making it necessary to start again at the beginning. Life in the fishbowl is endlessly interesting if you’re the fish.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Switzerland remixed

One of my favourite comic books is Asterix in Switzerland, in which all the Swiss characters have neat ginger moustaches and wander about with cleaning implements, dusting off everything including the people they're talking to. On my first visit in six years to this notoriously clean country, I'm happy to report that it remains spotless despite the influx of Bollywood film stars and crews (long ago my mother saw Karishma Kapoor sitting in the middle of the road in Montreux, eating chappatis that were being heated beside her on a little portable stove).

Switzerland is the sort of place where everyone is in bed by 10pm. Euro 2008 is happening here, of course, but the most I've seen of it is the odd little sticker saying 'Allez les Bleus!'. The matches must have television audiences, but they're extremely quiet, at least in the little villages of Blonay and St. Légier, which overlook the inverted blue smile of water that is Lac Léman, a.k.a. Lake Geneva, and which look up at the jagged snowy range called the Dents du Midi that hangs suspended in the clouds like a toothy grin.

Of all the things you might expect to see on Lake Geneva—sailboats, swans, swimmers, the odd subversive cigarette butt—possibly the last is a fifteen foot high metal fork standing tines down in the water at the Quai Perdonnet in Vevey. This is the Alimentarium, the Food Museum, before whose entrance they grow twenty types of potato including two blue varieties, and celery, and Quinoa grain. Any questions about where the Alimentarium gets its funding are answered when you walk into the lobby, which is overhung by a vast mobile of food products from Nestle, which is also headquartered in Vevey.

A walk through encompasses the history of food, eating and and renouncing it, interesting taste and smell tests, cooking workshops, the history of chocolate, and the constituents of a balanced diet (which, for reasons I just can't think of, include three cups of coffee a day). One of my favourite items on display is a loaf of bread baked during the famine of 1817. It's half the size of my thumb.

Emerging from the Alimentarium, I decided to sit in the sun on one of the chairs that some clever designer has embedded in the rocks beside the lake. Three people next to me on similar chairs were discussing the menu for a birthday party. One of them said, in rough translation, "Love has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing, but still, come on." It was impressive by the standards of casual conversation and by the lights of the thought I'd just had, which was "Man, my toe hurts." Perhaps being in these lovely surroundings a little longer would have improved the quality of my thinking; after all, just a little further up, the same lakeside path becomes the Chemin Fleuri, where Rousseau once walked.

Food has been a large part of my Swiss experience this time, if you discount the truly dismal servings on Swiss airlines—from a three hour fondue lunch in Geneva's Old Town, to the seafood paella I had during a cooking competition held between several Swiss cantons at the weekly Place du Marché farmer's market in Vevey, to the bread, cheese, meat and wine affairs that constitute most normal lunches and dinners. I expect that when my airplane lands in Delhi next week it will be with a slightly harder bump. I have this dream that suddenly Delhi's markets will fill with fragrant fresh breads and cheeses and the terrific wines of the Valais, all at wonderfully reasonable prices; but I might, as they say, be living in cuckooland.

Uncivil society

Indians are notoriously good at slagging each other off but taking offence when someone else does. I’ve recently been having conversations with foreigners new to Delhi who talk about the lack of civic sense, and I’ve noticed that Indians in the conversation tend to react badly, accusing outsiders of overreacting, or parrying their observations with irrelevant remarks about what a great ancient culture we are, or (worse) how it’s the same everywhere else, or (even worse) what an economic powerhouse we are.

It’s happened to me. When I moved back to Delhi in 1995, I remember having a conversation with a young lady to whom I was introduced at a party, who raised her threaded eyebrows at me and said, “So, what’s up? How do you like Delhi?” Being earnest and not well schooled in the ways of small talk, I told her. “Well, the thing is that nobody seems to have any civic sense in this city.” Her polite smile became rather strained. “When people throw something away, they just drop it right where they’re standing,” I continued. “Or they chuck it out of their car right onto the road!”

Today it wouldn’t really surprise me that her eyes glazed over and she walked away to another corner and studiously avoided me the rest of the evening, but at the time it did. At the time, I just wondered whether she agreed, or disagreed, and either way, why she didn’t seem to have anything to say about it.

But the truth is that there are only two possible ways to live in Delhi: either you insulate yourself from the daily frustrations and eyesores and injustices by erecting what Douglas Adams would call a Somebody Else’s Problem (SEP) field; or by being daily bloodied, and having your sunny temperament shot to bits, by the same frustrations and eyesores and injustices. The people who don’t think Delhi’s non-existent civic sense is a big deal, tend to be people who are insulated from it by a rich layer of money, and armies of people who engage with the city and its denizens on their behalf.

Or they’re perpetrators themselves, like the older gentleman who squeezed his large car in front of mine at a petrol station tire pressure station. I marshalled my courage, got out of my car, and marched up to him. “There’s a line here,” I told him. “Oh, I didn’t see it,” he bellowed, invoking the marketing principle that if you say something loudly enough, other people with mistake it for the truth. “I think you’re incredibly rude,” I croaked, which made him sneer so hard that I was afraid he might inhale his lips.

Reading about the renewed drive to get beggars off the street in time for the Commonwealth Games, I can’t help but wonder what they’re going to do about the other sorts of eyesore. Like the fat hairy fellow with jewelled rings leaning out of his Mercedes to spit paan; or the householder who speaks to his or her domestic staff as if they’re naughty children—or speaks about them in their presence but in English, on the assumption that they won’t understand; or the person who jumps a queue without a shred of hesitation; or the driver who barges up to the top of a driving lane waiting to turn without worrying about the lanes of traffic being blocked behind. And that’s not even getting into the murders and thieving, from petty break-and-enter to the corporate and political crème-de-la-crème.

There is a school of thought that says that it isn’t productive to focus on this sort of thing—why ruin your peace of mind? To which my own response is, I hope I never find myself untouched by it.