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.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Cricket who?

I’ve been dimly aware, recently, of people in big sunglasses being excitable on TV and photographed either weeping or celebrating in the newspapers, and of a fair bit of running about in different coloured shirts. “What’s this IPL thing?” I asked a friend of mine on the phone. There was a long silence. “Are you serious?” he said finally, and I could have sworn there was a little sob in his voice. “I know it’s some cricket thing,” I said, guessing wildly, “I’m just not sure what.”

His trembling voice might have been on account of disappointment in me, or exhilaration at being presented with a bonus opportunity to talk about it. Either way, he launched into a happy jabbering full of words like ‘franchise’ and ‘league’ and ‘carnival atmosphere’ and ‘the future of cricket’—I could almost see him pushing up his big sunglasses—while my brain wandered off in search of words that rhyme with ‘purple’ (there aren’t any).

When he seemed to be done I said, “Hm, you’re right,” which usually covers all the bases, and deftly steered him into his favourite game of which movie star do you like-which movie star do you like. At the risk of being arrested for lack of patriotism, I must state that when it comes to cricket, I can take it or leave it.

This wasn’t always the case—I watched Bodyline as a teenager and loved it, though that had more to do with the pathos of watching women hanging up endless quantities of laundry on washing lines in cold northern mists, and moody cinematography.

In boarding school, where the boys in my class played cricket every weekend, a friend of mine took me on as a personal challenge. “The proper way to watch cricket,” he said, “is to bring a blanket, and a kettle of tea, and a book.” He sat with me in the shade of a tree and explained the rules of a game in progress on the school football field. I didn’t get all of it, and I got through a fair bit of my book and the entire teakettle, but it was enough to kindle my interest. I eventually reached a stage when I would open a beer and watch a game with more than the legal minimum level of enthusiasm. But now, frankly, I’d rather just drink the beer.

So a true fan would consider it a criminal waste that I recently had the opportunity to wander around the Bradman Museum, dedicated to the great Sir Donald (I did gather, in between bouts of Bodyline laundry, that he was a legendary player). The museum is in Bowral, the genteel little town in which he grew up, in Australia’s beautiful Southern Highlands area north of Sydney. It is attached to the neat Bradman Oval (really more of a Circle) overlooked by a pretty mountain, and features a statue of the great man in cricket gear. They’re very pleased to point out that the sculptor mistakenly has both pads buckled up on the same side, a fact that you’d have to be much more interested in cricket than I am, to be moved by.

I have to say, however, that I quite enjoyed the museum: it has a replica of the startlingly small Ashes urn, and many old photos of Donald and his wife, and pictures of spectators standing in the heat at the Bradman Oval impeccably dressed in long dresses and coats and hats, and old cricketing equipment, and a pullover donated by Sachin Tendulkar, and lots of audiovisual cricket gobbledygook, and a souvenir shop where you can knock yourself out. It’s ‘a living centre of cricket’, so if you’re a real fan, you should visit it at some point.

Meanwhile, I’m off to look up this IPL thing.