Saturday, December 26, 2009

Glass half full

There’s some confusion about whether to treat this December 31 as the end of the naughties decade or whether it should properly be next year. Most people seem to be treating this one as the end of the decade, but there’s enough sense in the argument that 01 is the first year of a decade and 10 the last, to dilute their confidence. The result is that there don’t seem to be that many wild and decadent party plans. Many seem to revolve around heaters and blankets and hot chocolate or wine.

Either way, 2009 hasn’t been good to many people I know. They’ve lost parents, significant others, jobs, and—since my cohort is now at the stage of life where catching up is increasing a matter of exchanging lists of current and incipient ailments—health. I don’t see why I should have to listen to this litany of complaints and not you, so here’s an example.

A friend of mine had a pinched nerve in his elbow; three weeks before his scheduled surgery he twisted his ankle and had to wait to recover; not only has his elbow trouble left two fingers in his hand numb, but he also has pain in six joints which may well be a vitamin D deficiency resulting from his incomprehensible decision to live in sunless London, and he now has to take supplementary pills because, being a typical male, he’s frightened of the injections; and so, while in Delhi for his year-end vacation, he has doctor’s orders to sit in the sun for at least an hour a day without sunscreen.

And he’s younger than I am.

At least we’re still able to laugh sheepishly about all this oncoming debility. The day is not far when we’ll be having these conversations with deadly seriousness, incontinent and dribbling in our wheelchairs; but by then I hope to have wheedled, bribed and manipulated my niece and nephew into thinking it’s their duty to change my diapers and wipe the drool from my trembling lips and turn up my hearing aid before playing Leonard Cohen’s sunnier tunes—all two of them—for me.

No, that’s a lie, not to mention impractical, because my woefully inadequate capacity to bribe has been further eroded by the global meltdown and my niece and nephew can sidle out of it on grounds of plausible deniability because I will have no idea who they are.

What I actually intend to do is entrust a friend to shoot me between the eyes the moment I’m incapacitated. (The person I entrusted wanted to know whether he could toy with the moment, like get ready to shoot but then suddenly put it off by five or ten minutes. With friends like these who needs Doctor Death?)

But why be morbid? For my part, I’ve had a good year, despite breaking my ankle in July. I travelled a bit—including, most recently, to the Maldives, which I’m glad I saw before the islands go glug glug, met nice people, and read some excellent books. But the crowning achievement of 2009 has been to return to myself, centred, peaceful and, if I may be allowed to stick my neck out a little while knocking furiously on wood, happy.

Life being what it is, that’s probably a sign that I should brace for a good sock in the jaw in 2010, but, since I’m relaxed and softened up, I’m more likely to just roll with the punches with a retarded grin on my face. Who knows, it might even prove to be a perfectly nice year.

Happy 2010.

New leaves

Well, we’ve hit what Americans call ‘the holiday season’. It’s a time for conviviality and cheer as people bid good riddance to what they almost invariably feel was the worst year of their lives and trustingly welcome what they almost invariably think is going to be a better year. (This is what literary critics call ‘dramatic irony’, but let us not dwell on sorrowful things.)

There are upsides to the holiday season. One of them is that I get to look back at the year and make lists and don’t need to cross anything off any of them, which feels normal and right because it ends up looking just like all the other lists I would make if I were organised enough to make lists.

One of the obvious lists you’d expect from someone who pretends to read books is a list of the books she pretended to have read during the year. But even if I were someone who made lists, mine would be very short, because years of hard relaxing have whittled my attention span down to next to nothing. There was a time when I could spend twelve hours a day reading without superfluous interruptions like eating or breathing; but now, reading a whole book over four months feels like a heroic accomplishment. Just to be perfectly upfront, this is not due to lack of time, but because of aforesaid gnat-like attention span.

By the way, speaking of reading and deficient attention, have you held a Kindle in your hands? I’m not embarrassed to say I’m sorry, I was wrong, the Kindle is a fine invention. Clear screen, easy navigation, beautiful size, and a hell of a lot more wieldy than carrying thousands of books in your knapsack. The fact that you aren’t actually holding a binding with fragrant pages is a small price to pay for the convenience of it.

But just for the hell of it, let me make a list anyway, of books that I have any reason at all to mention. Among the most overlooked books of the year, in my humble opinion, is Amrita Kumar’s Damage, a wonderful portrayal of a pretty twisted mother-daughter relationship. But probably the most overlooked—and I don’t understand why everyone isn’t screaming about it from the rooftops—is Summertime, the third fictionalised autobiography, after Boyhood and Youth, by JM Coetzee (pronounced Kuut-see-uh or Kuut-see, but definitely not Kwetsy). Coetzee has always been one of my favourite writers—bleak as bones and about as sunny as pitch. But Summertime features some of the best writing on love that I’ve ever read, as well as just some of the best writing.

Then there were books that were written by people I know—four such books, which I’m happy to say I loyally read from cover to cover but won’t talk about any more than that, other than to say you should rush out and buy them all.

I loved Solo. I’m not sure how it’s doing, but it deserves to be read and read again. I didn’t like Chai, Chai very much at all. I liked Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Worlds, Other Wonders immensely, and am still dipping into Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet.

The longest list is, as ever, made up of those books I haven’t yet gotten around to reading: Leaving India by Minal Hajratwala, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History.

I’ve got to have something left over to read in the new year before the next crop comes out, after all, and—this is my New Year’s resolution—I intend to catch up on everything pretty soon. Right after I play my turn at Scrabble.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


The little old lady at the café had typical little old lady hair, scraggly but dignified, and little old lady eyes—at once beady and gentle. She was wearing a skirt and a puffy coat and shiny black little old lady shoes. She had a little old lady bag from which she periodically pulled out various little old lady pouches full of little old lady stuff (glasses, tissues, bright blue cell phone, assorted unidentifiables). Her collapsed little old lady mouth shone with a quite classy shade of pearly pink, and her general care over her appearance was of the kind that little old ladies take who might have been head-turners in their day.

She was sitting in weak winter sunlight at a window in a café, and quietly having herself a nice cup of coffee. I waited for her coffee companion to show up. Nobody showed up. She just sat, and sipped, and sometimes looked at other people, but mostly out of the window. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and she was in no hurry. After she was done with her coffee and done looking at the afternoon, she discreetly flashed her pearly pink nail varnish at the staff to ask for the bill; paid it; put all her pouches back in her roomy handbag; said thank you nicely to the waitress; and tottered off to get on with her day.

That’s how I want to be when I grow old, I thought to myself: the sort of little old lady who can take herself out on a lovely winter afternoon and have a leisurely cup of coffee at a café, just because that’s the kind of day it is, and she feels like a bit of a daydream and a bit of a gander at the world. It’s quite likely that I’ll be in little old lady jeans, and I’m very unlikely to have my nails varnished, but essentially she seemed like a good example of the direction I want to take.

Beating the odds in this nasty, brutish and short business of life requires a few indispensible skill sets. People will tell you about some of the important ones—eat healthy, exercise, minimise stress, never leave your ATM card in the machine—but they rarely mention the big one: learning to be alone with yourself. That’s the one people tend to find out about the hard way, when life foists it upon them by killing off a parent, or sending their lover off into someone else’s arms, or giving them a new designation and putting them on a plane to a new job in a new country.

I have no idea whether my little old lady was by herself because she wanted to be or because she had no choice, but either way, she was doing just fine in that textured place we call ‘alone’. She knew how to be there. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about loneliness—the ache that pops your eyes open at 3am and that nobody can like very much but is more or less inevitable once in a while—but about solitude, which is a magical place in which all your interior spirit levels are centred.

We spend so much of our lives amid other people, however, that we don’t make any time to practice being alone (which is the sort of thing that needs lots of practice). Then, when suddenly we are, we fall apart. I know I need more practice; I’m going to remember that little old lady and take myself out to a solitary coffee or movie more often.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A stab at writing

There’s a reason that many writers have odd personalities: writing is such a solitary exercise that you can see why they might eventually go quite postal, or at least start wearing funny hats and divorcing their spouses. I love to look at the Guardian’s online edition where they have a column called ‘Writers’ rooms’, which features a photograph of some one, well, writer’s room, and a short write-up outlining the space and how the person uses it, according to their particular routines, eccentricities and superstitions. It makes me feel very well adjusted because I don’t have, for instance, giant paper fish hanging from the ceiling, or a dessicated crocodile on the wall.

Anyway: it’s solitary, and yet people are not free of the desire for a community. You might have virtual communities like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the US, or Novel Race right here in Delhi, where legions of unsung aspirants to novelistic fame get together online to set writing goals and then compare progress. But I’m not sure how many have real writing communities of the flesh and blood variety. I have heard of a few writing groups, for instance, but can’t be certain that they really do exist, because I’m too solitary and weird myself to join in, even though it’s a moot point whether I qualify as ‘writer’, because I just sit at the dining table pretending to write while actually secretly checking Facebook.

One of the reasons that writers find it difficult to form communities, in my unsolicited opinion, is that when they get together they spend a lot of time trashing other writers—not their work, which is fair enough, but their personalities, lifestyles, clothing, and sexual and other peccadilloes. This is, I suppose, the way of homo sapiens in most professions, and actually forms deeply bonded ‘us and them’ groups that can be effective teams, but in the world of writing it seems particularly difficult to do because the product is so intimately tied to ego. There’s nothing a couple of writers seem to enjoy as much as to get together and character assassinate a third, but then they’re just as likely to stab each other in the back at the end of it all. Three dead people is what you’d get at the end of that.

The cutthroat competition is even more ramped up these days when suddenly every second person you meet seems to want to be a writer (just to clarify, that means the kind with a photo on Page Three cuddling up to a Bollywood celeb, not the kind with a divorce and a funny hat). I met a man the other day who, at twenty-five, is starting work on his second novel; the first was written in between graduate school classes; I half expected him to add, “at night, after writing my university papers, tilling the fields and milking the cows”. (At the same dinner were multiple Foreign Service wives writing books, and journalists halfway through theirs—really, everyone is writing a book.)

So it’s wonderful to occasionally meet a writer who not only enjoys other writers but even seems to want to help them along their way. So far I’ve met exactly two such people, and even they were full of interesting tidbits about other writers, though those tidbits stayed on the right side of the line between information and gossip. Here’s to that, because if you keep dissing everyone else who writes you’ll have nobody left to talk to, and then you’ll end up wearing a wig and furry gorilla shoes and it will be your fault.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eating crow, part two

I have a soft spot for Kumaon that I cannot really explain; these are not the highest or even the most breathtaking hills to be had in this large and lovely country, but they are far and away my favourites. It has something to do, I think, with scale—Kumaon is hardly gentle hillocks, but the Himalaya bares its really serious teeth at a comfortable distance.

Still, some bits are lovelier than others. I’ve always thought of Bhimtal as the dregs of Kumaon, a murky lake surrounded by construction, lying at the bottom of a hill-sided bowl. I’m not saying it’s completely hideous, but my favourite way to experience it has been as a blur on the right as the car drives past at high speed towards higher, prettier places. Nonetheless, this week I’m taking the opportunity to beg pardon of Bhimtal, much as I ate humble pie about Shimla this summer, and admit that it can be quite nice.

Part of why it was nice is that just getting out of Delhi is always such a relief. (There’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of the great blue shadow of the ranges above the plains; I always expect the pleasure and excitement to wear off but it never does.) But it was largely because we were staying with Bunti Bakshi and Bindu Sethi at their Fishermen’s Lodge hotel right on the lake. Frankly, when you’re sitting by a crackling fire with a nice warming beverage, good conversation and Mark Knopfler on the music system, and excellent food and drink on the large, European-style deck overlooking the lake, which is quite blue and pretty after all, it’s hard to be grumpy.

Plus, they drove us around so that we got to see a little bit of the region around Bhimtal, which I’ve never stopped to see before. Sattal is one such place—a series of seven pretty mountain lakes that reflect green trees and blue sky deep in forested hills. You can walk between the lakes through the forest, or go boating in the water that connects six of them. Much of it is on land owned by the Christian Ashram; you can walk to the ashram complex which is crowned by a strange little circular church furnished with nothing but mattresses to sit on.

We sat for a while by the edge of Panna Tal, the emerald shine that is the only self-contained water body among the seven. It’s the site of the tiniest and by far the most beautiful open-air church I’ve ever seen: a series of curved benches by the lakeshore, with a small circular platform and a tiny pulpit (submerged when we were there); the forest behind the congregation and the lake spreading in front, with a small white cross standing on the green hill across the water. There’s nothing but birdsong, breeze, and the smell of leaves and flowers. If you can’t summon up any religious enthusiasm, a cold beer and/or a book works just as well.

We also drove up behind Bhimtal to Jungalia Gaon, en route getting a bird’s eye view of pretty nine-cornered Naukuchiatal lake. From Jungalia Gaon you can fly back down the mountain road on a bicycle, assuming you’re not me. If you’re me, you roll along the downhill bits competently enough, but when the road inclines upwards by a hair, you get off the bike and push it, pretending that that was the plan all along, and that the huffing and puffing echoing through the valley is really just the breeze. Either way, it’s a particularly delicious way to get back down a mountain.

So there you are, I was wrong again. Go see for yourself.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The bane of the thane

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has endured the test of time not only because it is a cautionary tale about when to ignore your spouse, but also because of its poignant lessons in the importance of sleep.

Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep', the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Macbeth moans these lines right after sticking a knife in Duncan, King of Scotland, his royal liege and, worse, his houseguest at the time. Macbeth’s premonition proves accurate; he spends the rest of his nights roaming his ill-gotten palace wretched with guilty, paranoid insomnia. (His wife, the one with the bad ideas, is also up after a fashion, trying to wash her blood-sodden hands, but that’s no consolation to him.)

About the only thing that Macbeth and I have in common, besides a tendency to moan, is that neither of us has been getting much sleep.

I’m a great fan of slumber. I spent most of my childhood and early adolescence snoring, sometimes from 9pm until 1pm the next afternoon, and had no trouble falling asleep. This may or may not have had to do with the fact that I often sneaked some one bottle of my mother’s inexhaustible supply of homeopathic medicines to bed with me as a light, sugary snack. If my constitution today is slightly dodgy, it’s probably because of massive overdoses of Ipecac, Rhus Tox, Nux Vomica, Causticum, Belladonna and other irresistibly named pills. The important thing, however, is that I slept the sleep of the selfish innocent.

My mother, who emerged from a convent education striving to be worthy and who therefore has great trouble sleeping, detests late sleepers. She would sweep into my room at daybreak and snap the curtains back with a noise like a thousand Mongol horsemen galloping across a tin plain, using her special insomniac’s megaphone to let me know that it was 7am and that staying in bed was now officially immoral. When you’ve been up since 3am I suppose 7am feels really late, but if you’re someone who isn’t done sleeping, 7am may as well be 3am and frankly I’m thinking of a dog, and I’m thinking of a manger.

I’ve spent the rest of my life making up for all this painful childhood business by damn well sleeping as much as I can. My friends think of me as a sort of matronly basket case who eats before 8pm to safeguard her digestion, begins to droop around 10pm and sleeps not much later than that to safeguard her energy, and goes for periodic wobbles around the park to safeguard her—oh, scratch that, that battle’s long been lost.

All this is perfectly true. So they no longer know me, because for the last several weeks I have consistently been up all night, indulging in various combinations of conversation, alcohol, Scrabble and wee hours-breakfast. By all that’s holy and right, and also according to past evidence, I should be dead, or at least very grumpy, but instead I spend the day bounding around, energetically making plans to stay out all night again. Will it last, will it not? How long can an engine run on empty? Watch for a black border around this space.

The weird thing is that my mother, who heartily disapproves of this sort of thing, has not once flared her exquisitely expressive nostrils. Part of it, I think, is because she has an anthropological interest in listening to my recap of the strange nocturnal habits of the adolescent middle-aged.

But most of it, I suspect, is because she’s just really pleased that I’m not sleeping either.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Desert draws

So there we were at 4.30am, un-slept and merry, peering cross-eyed into the Rajasthani night at the hill we’d suddenly decided to climb. Atop it is the temple dedicated to Savitri, Brahma’s first wife, who stormed off there when she discovered that comely Gayatri had turned all four of His heads and become the Creator’s second wife. (There’s now a court case in which the Brahma temple priest is demanding that offerings made to Savitri should by right come to Brahma; and the Savitri temple priest says it should be the other way around since Brahma owes Savitri alimony.) Anyway, for some reason, it seemed vital to go and climb this hill. Now.

How to get there? Four kilometres to the base of the climb; no car; very merry. We figured we’d just point our noses at it and walk, but a hotel chowkidar pointed at a patch of desert that looked just like every other patch of desert and said ‘Follow that trail.’ We leered uncertainly at it for a minute, then plunged into the underbrush, armed only with some water nicked off the reception desk, and a bar of Kit Kat. Five hours later—after a forty-minute walk and a brief ride hitched on a jeep, a beautiful lung-busting hour’s climb, a hilltop sunrise, and breakfast with a slightly snappy sadhu named Alu Baba because he eats nothing but potatoes—a camel dropped our shattered corpses back to the hotel, where we crashed out with a smile, and possibly some drool, playing faintly about our lips.

Now, this is the kind of thing I just wouldn’t have been able to do had I not decided to attend the first ever Pushkar Literature Festival, a one-day event organised by Siyahi as part of the weeklong celebrations of the Pushkar Mela, which is admittedly better known for camels than letters.

The festival had little going for it. It’s the first time anyone has attempted a literary festival here. A significant portion of the audience consisted of students who shifted a lot and shared iPod music and giggled (though one girl did tear up with emotion during the poetry session, at which point all her friends lost interest in the stage and devoted themselves to a group hug). Some of the biggest draws on the programme could not turn up—Tarun Tejpal, for instance, was felled by illness.

And let’s face it, an open-air Pushkari amphitheatre is hot, even under a shamiana whose multiple poles were lifted clear off the ground when the wind swelled under the roof, so that the whole thing occasionally began to hop around like a large, nervous, many-legged animal.

And yet, it all worked nicely, with a mix of subject and medium that kept things interesting. Aman Nath gave an illustrated talk from his travels in Pushkar and Rajasthan. Namita Gokhale read from her children’s book The Puffin Mahabharata, complemented by Gafaruddin Mewati’s troupe singing the epic, and journalist and writer Sadanand Dhume reading from his book My Friend the Fanatic a section about the Mahabharat in Indonesia. Scriptwriter Anuvab Pal provided comic relief with his entertaining book, play and movie The President is Coming.

After lunch poet Sheen Kaaf Nizam recited some Urdu poetry. Sathya Saran read, along with journalist Rahul Jayaram, from her book 10 Years With Guru Dutt. Journalist and writer Kota Neelima read an extract from her new book Death of a Moneylender and discussed the politics of reportage with firebrand Aruna Roy. It was wrapped up with Veddan Sudhir telling Rajasthani folk tales to general merriment.

It may not have had the scale or celebrity of Jaipur’s literature festival, but the Pushkar lit fest felt informal, intimate and weirdly charming. That’s the kind of thing that sends you up a hill before dawn. If they had another one, I’d go.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Rolling stones

My friends often accuse me of being a bit on the detached side. While I’m open to criticism, I have to say that after spending so much quality time hanging out and cooing supportively into their ears, I find it a little hurtful that they continue to see through me so easily. I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that they don’t use the phrase my family does, which begins with ‘cold-blooded’ and ends with ‘reptile’.

Detachment is one of those double-edged traits that people have trouble with because it involves a baseline failure to care overly much beyond a certain point. I should say upfront that I’m no Buddhist monk, and my detachment is not as much about spiritual evolution as it is about not giving a rat’s ass, so it’s quite likely that it is the sharper of my two edges that is better worn.

However, contrary to what you might expect, I don’t just go ahead and blame my parents—that’s not a very adult thing to do. I prefer to find a slice of peaceful time conducive to introspection, when I can examine the historical evidence of my life with a tranquil mind, and then I go ahead and blame my parents. It’s totally their fault for hauling me from country to country and school to school when I was young, setting in place both a lifelong tendency to form attachments quickly as well as a lifelong aversion to making them either too deep or too long. Or at least that’s my psychobabble, and I’m sticking to it.

The consequence is that I keep my life above-averagely light, mobile and free of investment. This is, however, a fraught enterprise, because it pokes at all the clefts in my dull little soul: I’m as inclined to nest in domestic comfort as I am to wander the Himalayas besmeared with ash; as tempted to never leave the city limits as to never get off the open road; and as desirous of love as I am averse to commitment.

I know, I know: take a token and get in line, lady. But while most people find their way around these gaps, usually by choosing one side over the other and then sucking it up like well-adjusted human beings, I seem to lack the ability. It’s my parents’ fault.

So I structure my life as sustainably as possible in the circumstances, which is to say precariously, with one foot on either side of the chasm. I shun responsibility such as owning property and taking loans (which turns out to be outrageously easy to do when you have my kind of credit rating), steer clear of fulltime work, don’t make too many plans too much in advance, and spend as much time as possible travelling, to see what it’s like to live in one place. (I never said it was clever.)

There are upsides to being messed up, though, and one of them is that you make a good traveller and passer-through-life because you’re less likely to care enough about where you come from to try to hang on to it or impose it on other people; and at the same time, you’re not likely to care enough about where they come from to want to appropriate it or hang around for too long. And while you like your pals, you won’t necessarily help them move bodies.

So there you are, coated in a slightly toxic but undeniably convenient kind of Teflon, skating along with only inertia and bankruptcy to slow you down as you wheel through the great carnival of life. Not that I care, but what’s not to love?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Truth is beauty, unless it isn’t

There is at least one question that bedevils all relationships, whether they be romantic, platonic, filial or the vastly complicated one you have with yourself (for which I can’t think of an existing word but will propose the one suggested by a smarter friend, ‘autorelationship’): Is this the sort of question that takes so long to get to, what with run-ons and parenthetical clauses, that you’ve completely forgotten where it was going? The answer to which is: That’s the sort of cheap shot that’ll pad out a word count nicely and further alienate hostile readers.

Okay, here’s the question: Is it better to be truthful, or gentle? Is it better to hold up your version of the best mirror to life that you can, or is it better to minimise the pain you inflict, especially on loved ones? When honesty and compassion are mutually exclusive, which do you choose? Will what you do not know, or refuse to believe, not hurt you? And, for the cherry on top, does ‘better’ mean ‘more useful’, or does it mean ‘more meaningful’?

It’s all very confusing. To take a meek example, I’ve previously griped in this space about the problems of book reviewing. If you happened to say you like the book of someone you know, people will assume that you pulled your punches. On the other hand, if you give your writer friend some brutally honest feedback on his short story, he might never talk to you again. How much tough love can a relationship survive—and if it happens to be the autorelationship, will it just reduce you to a pile of quivering dysfunction? Though, really, would you be able to tell that anything’s changed?

Okay, that’s several questions, but I’ve done rigorous research via a Facebook status update that reads: ‘Would you prefer that your friends told you the truth, or what you want to hear?’ In response, my friends said things like, “I’d answer truth but I think that’s what you want to hear” and “Too late for philosophy, of course you don’t drink too much, have another beer!” and “What friends?” and “Truth… although, if harsh, softened with presents” and “Why do they have to tell me things? Can't they just listen adoringly?”

The answer leaps out from the data: I’ve really got to find some new friends.

The best reply, in my estimation, was: “The bare truth...and then help me deal.” People do largely seem to self-report as wanting honesty from the people in their lives, but if reality is anything to go by, their commitment to the project is dubious at best. If you actually give them the truth, they aren’t all that keen on it, or on you anymore. But at the same time, so widespread is this tenuous grip on principle that real honesty, even when it’s positive, hasn’t a chance in hell of being taken as anything but more fakery.

After years of socialisation about the merits of truth-telling, we wash up, gasping and sputtering, on the shores of the real world. In this largely overrated place, my guess is that people who actually spend most of their time being overly honest to other people’s faces are likely to be pretty lonely people, and/or people of whom other people, with fewer scruples, make rough dolls in which they stick big pokey pins. I should know.

So the next time you streak your hair or leave your spouse or proudly show off your new car/book/baby, think about what you’re really asking, and potentially getting, when you say, ‘So what do you think’?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Thimphian week

So there I was stuck in Thimphu, Bhutan, so delirious with fever that I could have sworn that my friends were out bar-hopping rather than sitting by my bedside. But then these fevers make you think the darnedest things; for instance, on the way back from the Bumthang Valley we stopped in a tiny restaurant for lunch, and I’ll be buggered if I didn’t imagine that columnist Jug Suraiya was sitting at the next table. I put it down to the antibiotics and swallowed another paracetamol.

The next day, thanks to the classiness of my companions, we dined at India House with the Indian Ambassador, and not only did I notice that I was seeing Jug Suraiya again, but I also had a long and delightful chat with him. It was obviously time to ramp up the medical attention.

The next morning the doctor ordered me off the trip. I staggered off to the office of Bhutan’s national carrier Druk Air to book myself on a flight home, and, since Druk Air has a vast fleet of two aircraft, was waitlisted. We passed the time with two policemen from the Royal Bhutan Police who drove us around the sights, including a wildlife preserve that features the national animal, the takin—a cuddly cross between a goat and a cow—and fed us chow mein and beer at a restaurant called Musk. (They have a very low crime rate in Bhutan).

That’s where Yeshey Dorji came to meet us. I don’t know what I would have done without him after my friends were gone —probably wander around Thimphu’s bazaars buying the many-splendored wooden penises that the Bhutanese love to string up all over the country. Yeshey had written in response to this column a week beforehand, inviting me to get in touch when I was in Thimphu.

Over the next few days, as I waited for my flight, he took me firmly under his wing. He mysteriously ‘had’ my air ticket confirmed, took me to lunches and dinners, archery contests, and on scenic drives. He even drove me to the airport at five o’clock in the morning. It appeared that he genuinely liked nothing better than to bounce out of bed before dawn and drive around for hours, being nice to itinerant travellers.

NB: Archery. The Bhutanese take this very seriously, and can be found contesting in thick drizzling fog at 6am, each team taunting the other across the field by hopping on one leg and emitting stylised screeches of contempt. The occasional spectator hit doesn’t dampen anyone’s enthusiasm one bit.

Through Yeshey I met Kuenzang, a young newspaper reporter, who stood us some drinks at the cosy Bhutan Times café and introduced me to a bunch of other reporters and editors whose daily struggle to find stories in Bhutan amounts to epic heroism.

And then there was the friend of one of my friends—a strikingly beautiful Bhutanese princess with a razor-sharp mind and a wicked sense of humour, who took me to a great Japanese meal and told unflaggingly entertaining stories. I tried very hard to keep track of how she’s related to whom, but genealogies defeat me entirely (though I do recognise the present monarch and his father, seeing as the incidence of their picture leaves the phalluses in the dust).

When the skies finally cleared and Druk Air was able to take off from the airport in the Paro valley, I feasted simultaneously on the fantastic lunch of spiced sausage and rice and the eyeball-to-eyeball view of the highest Himalaya that drifts by the window.

I asked everyone I met what a resident of Thimphu is called: a Thimphuite? A Thimphian? Nobody knew. But that’s what I was for a week, and I loved it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

When life hands you lemons...

...some people make lemonade. Me, I prefer to whine about it to anyone who'll listen.

The sad truth about travel is that you can't win 'em all. No matter how charmed a life you've led, no matter how prepared you are, every once in a while a journey will turn out to be a dud. So it was with my recent foray into Bhutan, accompanying a friend who is researching a book on this most beautiful of countries. He invited a couple of us along on his mammoth drive from the west to the wild east, scheduled over three weeks. What was to think about? I bought a train ticket to New Jalpaiguri, he picked us up at the station in the canvas-topped Mahindra Classic jeep that he had driven from UP, and off we went, with the top down, our USB drives playing good music, and lots of sunscreen rubbed into our faces.

I'm not a believer in signs, but if I were I'd have been wary: I'd busted my ankle, was fighting a cold, we ran into a storm first thing, and just before I left my horoscope told me straight up that I would be plagued by a series of unfortunate events. You can't really ask for anything more direct.

Five hours' hard driving across the last gasp of West Bengal brought us to the border town of Jaigaon, which in the local language means 'Don't ever come here unless it's really necessary'. We crossed the border into the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing, which in the local language means 'Jaigaon is about the only place that can make us look good', and checked into the Druk Hotel where we scarfed excellent Bhutanese dishes like ema datsi (green chillies cooked in cheese) and pork cooked with radish, along with some of Victoria's finest grapes.

They don't like to let you rattle around Bhutan unsupervised, so they make sure you're up for it by putting you through an incredible set of bureaucratic calisthenics. It took us from 9am until 4pm to get our special permits and vehicle permit to travel beyond the capital at Thimphu. Because of the Thimphu Tsechu festival there wasn't a hotel to be had for the night, so we'd have to drive straight through to Wangdue, a total of nine hours from Phuentsholing. We made one stop at Chukhu for chow mien and beer, and one stop at Thimphu to pick up our vehicle permit at the reception of the Druk Hotel, where they'd kindly also left us some club sandwiches and french fries which we ate like savages standing at the counter. We got to Wangdue at 2.30am, having driven through rain and fog and some terribly beautiful country.

The next morning we took off at noon for what was supposed to be a six hour ride to the fabled Bumthang Valley. This turned out to be more like nine and a half hours what with stops and more night driving and some blood-curdling fog on the Yotong La pass during which I promised that I'd never do a wicked thing again if only I never had to drive though this kind of mountain fog again. We arrived in the strangely wild western town of Jakhar, in Bumthang, under a beautiful moon.

The thing about the Mahindra Classic is that you can be in Bhutan, last of the pristine lands, and never once breathe a lungful of clean air. Maybe it was the diesel fumes, maybe not, but I woke up with such a high fever and such a vicious cough that I had to be taken to the local hospital, where a lad without the faintest shadow of facial hair put me on about 10,000mg of antibiotics straight away. So while the fabled loveliness of Bumthang unfolded outside my window, I lay in bed for two days, sweating and hallucinating. On the third day I was well enough to spend half an hour at the tsechu at Tamshing monastery, and to sit by the Bumthang river for a while, but the drive back to Thimphu the next day brought the fever right back.

The Indian Army doctor we consulted advised me not to carry on my journey in the open jeep unless I wanted to risk secondary infections like pneumonia. Crashing disappointment had to be weighed against the possibility of ruining the trip for everyone later. So here I am, stranded in Thimphu waiting for a flight out, while my friend is halfway to the east already. Not that it's been at all uninteresting, what with princesses, policemen, local journalists, and green plastic praying mantises. But I'll tell you about that next week.

Heaven’s choicest blessings

Weddings are emotional events, and the days and months leading up to them typically times of very special family togetherness. The process of conceptualising, organising and implementing the ceremony, the fact that a son or daughter is going off to start a whole new family, the enthusiastic opinions of pretty much anyone with a mouth and tongue—all of it guarantees a precious kind of bonding and a good deal of blood on the flower arrangements.

I can’t think of many downsides to being in Bhutan this October 3, but there is at least one big one: that I could not be at the wedding of a college friend, one of the most extraordinary and incandescently bright women I’ve ever known. I’m not exaggerating. She majored in some rarefied form of biology; put on dramatic solo recitations of Longfellow to entertain us; composed and sang music; is an outstanding artist; and to this day is a superb athlete who completed a triathlon a couple of months ago.

This totally amazing woman, who is now a reverend, is getting married in upstate New York today. I’ve never met the man who will become her husband later today, but I wish I could take him out for a cup of coffee, sit him down and talk to him about what an amazing person she is, and what an honour he should think it to have her in his life. He knows, of course—everyone who knows her knows—but I’d still like to make sure he understands this well.

The closest I ever get to feeling like a parent is when my friends and relatives get married, at which time I also congratulate myself on having opted out of parenthood, because I’d be terrible at it. For one thing, whenever I stand over a newborn I feel like the Wicked Witch of the East, because right after cooing and feeling pleased about baby’s peerless cuteness, I think, Oh god, poor benighted little soul, it’s going to have to learn so many things, and wake up early to go to school for years and years, and then work all its life, and put up with lots of little cruelties, and suffer various heartbreaks, and then get old and croak. And that’s if all goes well.

Similarly, while everyone is busy beaming at the bride and groom and being thrilled about wedding food and love and other perishable items, I sit there worrying about whether they’ve examined their decision, whether they know what they’re doing, whether they’ve seen the dark side of their beloved, whether they will be treated right, and whether they understand how much sleep children deprive you of.

That makes me well up with worry, and then people misunderstand. I remember bawling years ago because my friend the groom was all grown up and embarking on the wonderful but difficult journey of his own life; but his other friends thought I was lamenting the fact that I wasn’t his bride.

It goes without saying that the urge to protect people from their (often perfectly pleasant) lives is an idiotic, fruitless project, no matter how well intentioned. The whole idea is to let go, and cheer them on from the sidelines even if the race they’re running seems perilous. That’s why the reactions we institutionalise tend to hug the safe shores of platitude. In India, that’s usually the safe shores of incredibly ungrammatical platitude.

So congratulations, Kiri and Marcus, and be happy. I may be stuck on this Bhutanese mountainside when I should have been at your wedding, but let me just say: May Heaven’s Choicest Blessing Fall Upon Happy Couple.

Don’t worry, be happy

There are many things I have striven to do in my life but never managed. One is to write these columns in advance so that I can travel without my laptop. Another is to visit Bhutan, that beautiful, sensible little country snuggled into the north-eastern border of India. One of the main reasons I want to visit is that they are best known for being less concerned with GDP than with what they call GNH, or Gross National Happiness. The king of Bhutan became the first head of state to make happiness an official yardstick of his country’s well-being.

Economists, who run the world thanks to their expertise in keeping their heads mainly up their behinds, think this is laughable at best and disgraceful at worst. But their bluff is increasingly being called as the world asks itself if income, production and consumption are really the best way to measure the health of a society, and begins to consider the possibility of evaluating progress on the basis of a more holistic human experience instead. They call it happiness economics, and while it’s not likely to replace traditional economics entirely, it may well end up being seeing as a legitimate and necessary supplement to traditional measures of a country’s well-being.

We are finally asking, for instance, how much happiness we actually get out of money, and whether health care and education might have a role to play in addition to money. The answers (‘not incrementally much beyond a certain point’, and ‘what do you think, genius?’ respectively) are surprising only if you happen to be an economist. Even French President Sarkozy is introducing a Happiness Index for his country and eschewing what he calls the “cult of figures”.

The idea that happiness may be an important component of quality of life is slowly gaining traction among academics and social scientists, which means that we should soon have reams of dull literature on the subject. There is already a vast such body—a Happy Planet Index, for instance, and a Journal of Happiness Studies. We can finally sleep at night secure in the knowledge that professors at Harvard are diligently ruining happiness by studying the hell out of it.

According to a University of Leicester survey called the World Map of Happiness, Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia, and the eighth-happiest in the world, and frankly, that’s good enough for me. Wikipedia also says that in 2005 survey “45 percent of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 52 percent reported being happy and only three percent reported not being happy…the Happy Planet Index estimates that the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10 percent of nations worldwide, and certainly higher than other nations with similar levels of GDP per capita.”

In his delightful book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner finds himself beguiled by the Bhutanese mindset, though he can’t quite wrap his American head around it. “In a wealthy, industrialised society…we are discouraged from doing anything that isn’t productive—either monetarily or in terms of immediate pleasure,” he writes. “The Bhutanese, on the other hand, will gladly spend a day playing darts or just doing nothing.”

This is obviously the place for me. By the time you read this I will just have driven into Bhutan on a three- to four-week road trip. Weiner writes: “driving in Bhutan is not for the meek. Hairpin turns, precipitous drop-offs (no guardrails), and a driver who firmly believes in reincarnation makes for a nerve-wracking experience. There are no atheists on Bhutan’s roads.” But I don’t care; I expect to be suffused with an ineffable bliss from the moment I cross the border. I’ll let you know when it wears off; watch this space.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Dancing king

It’s not the grey hair and wrinkles and gravity-affected flesh. It’s not even the increasing tendency to spend a convivial evening at a bar talking about mortgages and sluggish thyroids and failed relationships with friends. Those are merely incidental. No, the sure-fire way to feel old is to have the people who were part of your youth die on you. Grandparents, parents, old friends, musicians. Movie stars.

When I first read that Patrick Swayze had cancer I simply assumed that he would beat it. Never mind that pancreatic cancer is one of the most virulent and one of the deadliest. If anyone could survive, surely it was he? He was fit, rich, and had access to the best medical care. Much more importantly, if you were a teenaged girl in the 1980s, he had crossed the line between lucky actor and myth, and myths don’t die, they just get older. When I read this week that he’d lost the fight, I went into instant denial. How could he? How could he just up and disappear, taking my teens with him? He was an icon, and icons have responsibilities. Enduring forever is one of them.

Patrick Swayze—actor, athlete, singer-songwriter and trained ballet dancer—hit the scene with the other bratpackers (including Matt Dillon and Ralph ‘Karate Kid’ Macchio) in The Outsiders, but really made his mark with the unabashed chick flick Dirty Dancing. He wasn’t just a guy with a pretty physique who generously took off his top a lot; he opened our teenaged eyes to the possibility that a fellow could be both average looking and impossibly sexy. He could have big hair and tiny deep-set eyes and an untidy mouth and twirl around on a stage on his tippy-toes and not look even vaguely like a twit.

Of course Michael Jackson, who also took some of my youth with him when he died, was a much greater, more famous, more exalted myth. He was a truly original talent, and there was a Dickensian quality to his life that you might have serialised under the title All of a Twist. There was a riveting pathos to his long fall from king of the music world to grotesque pyjama-clad medical mess who dangled babies over balconies.

But frankly, Michael Jackson existed in the stratosphere. You might have loved his music and thrilled to his innovative dance moves and loved his sparkly gloves, but it was all up there in the clouds somewhere out of reach. I, for one, could never really see myself dancing with him, and never wanted to.

On the other hand pretty much everyone wanted to dance with Patrick Swayze, with or without, but preferably without his shirt on. There’s a reason he was voted sexiest man in the world, and it wasn’t his looks; it was the way he moved and his brooding interpretation of Johnny Castle, dance instructor at summer camp. Everyone wanted him to place their hand against his heart to learn about beat, everyone wanted to look into his eyes and keep the frame, everyone wanted to leap into a pond and have him lift them over his head, everyone wanted to…well, watch the movie.

I just saw it again. Jennifer Grey is as vastly annoying now as I found her then, and not just because she played the lucky lady who actually got to dance with him. But like beloved old music—which includes the film soundtrack—the mere thought of Dirty Dancing me back to a particular, precious time of life. Patrick Swayze did what all those gawky boys in real life failed to: made us feel as if there might be some romance in the world. May he rest in peace.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Q & A

Anyone who has ever attended, in any capacity, a panel discussion or a book launch or talk in Delhi has had to pay an awful price, even when the event is free, which it mostly is because we live in one of the most culturally subsidised cities in the world. (Pay attention, America, those warming strategic ties are just the thin edge of our evil Socialist wedge). It’s like rolling up at the highway toll booth: Did you think this sort of pleasant ride was for free? As illuminating as the speakers or presentation might be, you have to gird your loins for the most dreaded part of the evening: the question and answer session.

Audiences in this city, who ardently believe in free speech unless it hurts their many sentiments, take this constitutional liberty to mean: ‘I have so very much to say, and I’m going to say it whether or not it’s relevant to the stuff you’ve been saying for the last hour, which I paid close attention to except for the bits when my bootlegger/wife/long-lost classmate was on the phone’. A request from the moderator such as “Please restrict yourself to one question” is very much like the sound of one hand clapping. The first question thereafter is typically: “Madam, I will ask only three small questions.” In more acute cases, the offender bulldozes right through Madam’s protests with: “My first question has four parts.”

For a while I thought that this style was the preserve of the greybeards at the very pleasant old age home known as the India International Centre, but soon discovered that the relatively younger folks at the India Habitat Centre are no better. They spend fifteen minutes whipping their arms in the air like tarpaulins in a gale and, when finally called upon, are liable to say, “I don’t have a question. I have an observation.” The observation in question is usually a recitation of their resume, followed by a species of harangue that may or may not be identifiable as a thought, and will almost certainly not be related to whatever event was scheduled in the room.

One of the worst offenders is the motor mouth. This person will be moved to rise from his or her seat to declare, “I have a question and an observation,” before launching into their unabridged life history, and having got that off their chest, they will leave the room. Then there’s the random shouter, the splenetic chap who thinks a book launch is the best place to air some personal peeve when everyone knows the best place to do that is in a newspaper column. For example at the recent launch of a book authored by an American, a gentleman stood up and shouted, “America is not a holy cow, you know! If there was oil in Afghanistan it would be a whole different story!” Quite apart from the fact that it really was a whole different story from the one that had just unfolded, he needn’t have shouted; it was only a very little room.

Still, I suppose that if we did the sensible thing and just fitted every audience member with a remote-controlled electronic gag, everyone would start bitching and moaning about democracy and freedom of speech and how their fundamental rights were being infringed and all that liberal nonsense. What they don’t realise is that I’m not one of those tin pot dictators. I’ve thought this through. We’d only press the ‘Silence’ button (or the emergency ‘Detonate’ button) if an audience poll, by a show of hands, showed majority support.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Rest In Peace

This last year, two friends of mine lost their fathers to Indian healthcare.

In the first case, my friend X’s father was taken to Safdarjung Hospital at mid-day with what they didn’t know had been a cerebral stroke during the night. The doctors yelled at X’s shocked and terrified mother for bringing him in so late, and said that it was her fault that he probably wouldn’t make it. There were no ventilator beds free, so the family was told that they would have to keep his lungs working with a manual ventilator that must deliver shots of oxygen (breaths) at precise intervals.

The family was expected to do this. They and their driver took turns pumping oxygen into X’s father’s lungs as best as they could while they made frantic phone calls searching for an affordable hospital with a working ventilator and available beds. It was not until 10pm that they were able to secure a bed at Holy Family Hospital, through the kindness of a doctor known to the friend of a friend. The doctors at Safdarjung refused to let the patient go except under Left Against Medical Advice (LAMA), and not only refused to provide a ventilator van but also demanded that their manual ventilator be returned—the equivalent of taking the patient off life support—and would not entertain the idea of letting the family pay for a replacement that the hospital could get.

As X contemplated how to acquire a new one from the market, Holy Family’s ventilator van arrived with a doctor to transfer the patient. But by then X’s father was no longer breathing and was in a semi-comatose condition; the damage had been done. A week later, despite the best attempts of the doctors at Holy Family Hospital, he died.

My other friend Y’s father, a heart patient with renal problems, was rushed to the emergency room of the private Artemis hospital in Gurgaon in the evening, with symptoms of cardiac distress. It was the closest to their home, and in the ambulance that came to fetch him the family made a phone call requesting the attention of a cardiac doctor. When they got there, however, there was only a junior resident on hand, who said they’d first have to pay the Rs 50,000 fee. Since they only had Rs 10,000 on them they asked that doctors attend to the patient while they arranged the rest of the money, but it was a couple of hours before he was taken to the ICU, suffering cardiac pain the whole time.

It wasn’t until mid-day the next day that the cardiac specialist showed up. Various procedures were carried out as they should have been, but throughout that evening Y’s mother was not allowed to visit her husband, nor would anyone tell the family what the patient’s condition was. Enquiries revealed that the doctors who were supposed to be monitoring him were eating dinner; when the family called them, they were told not to worry because the patient’s parameters were the same and he was being taken care of. Then, at 2.45am, the doctors suddenly said that the family should go into the ICU because the patient was slipping away; a few minutes later he died.

These stories show up a whole range of systemic diseases that have nothing to do patients. Both families realise that their loved ones might have died anyway, despite everyone’s best efforts. Nobody expects hospitals and doctors to be able to save every life. But we all expect them to try their damndest. We certainly don’t expect callousness and negligence and casual indifference to the family’s feelings, and we don’t expect them to put bureaucracy above life.

Pain is entirely abstract until it happens to you. From the stratospheric heights of policy-making and economic theory, these things happen; but tell that to X and Y and their families, whose worlds stopped turning.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Where’s the party?

The weather is changing, and everyone these days seems to be suffering some sort of illness. The BJP, for instance, is spectacularly unwell. It has spent the last many days in a kind of terrible inner turmoil, shuffling around in mismatched socks, speaking in tongues, pulling out its own teeth one day, its fingernails the next. If an individual displayed the same systems, he or she would be escorted to the nearest psych ward and put on suicide watch. My heart almost goes out to them—almost—as they act out a horrible crisis of confidence that can be summed up by the question, What if we had a party and nobody came?

Strangely, that’s exactly what happened to me the other day. A friend and I decided for purely altruistic reasons, also known as bragging, to put our fledgling cooking skills on display at her house for a few people. I had just stepped out of the house to pick up some ingredients from the market when the skies turned black and torrents of rain drenched me from head to foot. The market roads were filled to the brim in a matter of minutes, with water sloshing around on the pavements a foot higher
The cloudburst lasted for less than an hour, but all hell had broken loose all over Delhi. People had abandoned their vehicles and taken to the breaststroke instead. The car made it to Nizamuddin, where my friend lives, ploughing like an ungainly steamboat through streets that had suddenly become canals. Finally it could go no further, firstly because the water was chest high, and secondly because the streets were festooned with fainting power lines and fallen trees all over the place. I tried a couple of approaches, but was thwarted on all sides by the lake that had formed outside my friend’s house. One car came gurgling through it and as it passed I asked the driver whether the water was getting inside. “Yes,” she replied calmly, and kept going with the impassive face of the seriously traumatised.

I gave up, ditched the car, and hopped onto a cycle rickshaw which was submerged up to the passenger footrest but gallantly floated its way among submerged trees and down the submerged driveway to drop me off, gondola-style, in the garden. My friend lent me some dry clothes, but with the power out and the streets impassable, we simply collapsed into chairs, opened a bottle of wine and proceeded to get hammered by candlelight. At some point it became apparent that our guests’ resolve had crumbled quicker than ours, so three hours later when the floodwaters had receded somewhat, I quietly made my way home in gridlocked traffic.

This is the sort of urban event that makes me think darkly of the revolution I wish would come, when the citizenry will finally stop accepting this sort of thing as an inevitable yearly event. I’m almost sure that there are parts of the world where sudden torrential rain simply drains from the streets into the rainwater drainage system—yes, drains away, just like that. We should make friendly overtures to these parts of the world. We should beg them to transfer this mysterious technology to us. We should put it into place all over India. We could make down payments on it with all the crores of cash recovered from income tax raids in the houses of some of our more unsavoury leaders, and possibly (who knows?) some of our savoury ones too.

At least it wouldn’t matter if the Opposition really did collapse, because our choices in this respect are six of one, or half a dozen of the other.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Slow news week

Monday. Can’t believe I had to wake up again. What’s the point of living in a free country if you have to wake up every day? This is so relentless. Wake up, get tired, go to sleep, recharge, wake up, get tired, go to sleep. It’s like eating, only that’s much worse. Plan, shop, cook, eat, clean up, digest, excrete, get hungry, plan, shop, cook, eat, clean up, digest, excrete, get hungry, plan, shop, cook, eat, clean up, digest, excrete, get hungry, plan, shop, cook, eat, clean up. Oh look, Monday’s almost over. Where does the time go?

Tuesday. What’s so special about Tuesday that barbers won’t work and everyone runs off to the temple? I hate Tuesdays.

Wednesday. There’s been no rain. Drought stalks the land and people are having to sell things, plus, the humidity is awful. They’re having elections in Kabul, and apparently some bombs went off. Sad. This is what they call mid-week hump. If you can get through Wednesday, you can get through anything, that’s what’s they say.

Thursday. Jaswant Singh has written this book about Jinnah and gotten himself sacked. Who cares? Politics as usual.

Friday. Tomorrow is Independence Day. Trust Murphy’s Law to make sure that the national holidays with the most boring speeches are inevitably dry days.

Saturday. Shah Rukh Khan was stopped and questioned at Newark Airport after his name popped up on the computer! We are a-flutter and agog. Who’da thunk it? He’s our biggest star! According to him, he’s even one of their biggest stars! You have to admire the balls of that security officer. Shobhaa De thinks he should get over himself. Should he get over himself? Is he just a film star with a superiority complex, or is he a genuine Symbol for the Oppressed? Is it okay for a country to feel up our film stars in addition to our ex-Presidents, just because it’s a superpower? Whose rules are supposed to apply? Did SRK aim to create a furore, or did his overzealous friends at the Indian Consulate and in the media create one for themselves? Conspiracy theories abound, which is quite exciting. Was it a publicity stunt to remind everyone that he’s still around and that he has a film forthcoming on the theme of outrageous religious profiling? Coincidence? He says he doesn’t mind being stopped, because after all, who is he but a humble nobody, but that they asked him weird questions and he’d gladly stand in line again, and that he doesn’t want an apology. Is he man or saint (and is his hair real or not, and either way, is it dyed)? Hard to tell. The Government of India is going to formally protest the incident. Union Cabinet minister Ambika Soni says we should frisk Brad Pitt in India. We’d all like to, ho ho. Shashi Tharoor supports SRK, whatever that means. But how are we to keep the world safe if everyone keeps getting exempted from the rules? Has our national dignity been irrevocably outraged, or are we a bunch of insecure celebrity-worshipping chumps in the throes of a reality check? King Khan says he’s afraid of rules. Is it okay to worship such a wimp? Arnold Schwarzenegger has invited him to dinner in an attempt to defuse the row. Is nuclear war a possibility? Do we have enough nuclear warheads? What about that whole End User Monitoring Agreement thing? Is his new film going to be sold out?

Sunday. I hate Shah Rukh Khan. And Arnold Schwarzenegger. Plus, I don’t know what to do for lunch. It’s so pointless anyway—get hungry, plan, shop, cook, eat, digest, excrete, get hungry…

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Panic room

Anyone who has ever suffered anxiety attacks, or full-blown panic attacks, knows that there are few more frightening things in the world, other than Japanese horror movies and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responding to the question: “What does Bill Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs Clinton?”

No, anxiety is just no fun. For no apparent reason at all your heart suddenly starts to beat at breakneck speed, bits of your stomach twist and fill with dread, your limbs begin to shake, there’s pain in your arm and you’re faint, the world starts to roar in your ears, a cold sweat breaks out on your brow. You might have these, or a thousand other petrifying sensations that you recognise quite clearly as the Four Horsemen of the Apocollapse. This is it. You’re dying of a heart attack, or a stroke, or something even worse, and the quack in the emergency room is sitting there blowing off his Hippocratic Oath and telling you to “Relax, it’s just anxiety.”

It’s bad enough for adults, but kids who suffer panic attacks or symptoms of anxiety before they’re old enough to know what either of those is, are more likely than others to grow into accomplished hypochondriacs. This is a fact I have researched, and while my sample size is limited (one), it’s reliable (me). And it’s hardly counterintuitive: a twelve-year-old terrified by what feels like a heart attack is very possibly going to grow up to be predisposed to big fears based on little symptoms.

I’m one of these benighted souls, and I can tell you that nothing makes a hypochondriac happier than a new illness to probably have. Terror is, after all, another form of thrill. Or if you want to get all scientific about it, they’re both powered by adrenaline. Sometimes our same old-same old repertoire gets boring, and our families are no longer so likely to look up from their knitting, or to break their empty gaze into the middle distance, when we darkly suggest that our shortness of breath could well be an impending heart attack. So from time to time we like to be able to add something new—SARS, or dengue fever, or chikungunya—to the most recent probable cause of our ongoing demise.

Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus though I keep calling it the H1N1 visa, has arrived just in time, because ankle cancer, based on the itchiness inside my foot cast, had long outstayed its welcome. It (swine flu, not my foot cast) is rampaging around the word, spread by a class of humans I like and admire: travellers. They’ve gone and given a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘globe-trotters’.

Based on all the screechy television coverage and the dire newspaper editorials, based on all the fatalities and the lightning geographical spread, and based most of all on my previous experience, swine flu should be scaring the IV drip out of me. But here’s the thing: I am strangely unmoved. I find myself quite calm. People are getting sick and even dying all over the place, but I can’t detect the faintest stirring of anxiety in me.

It can’t be that it’s because I don’t have it yet, because not having something yet is not really relevant to a hypochondriac’s thought process. It might be partly because when I hear the words ‘swine flu’ I imagine millions of microscopic pink pigs with wings and evil expressions buzzing around like motes of dust, and it’s hard to get upset through the giggles.

I simply can’t explain it. There’s nothing for it but to wonder whether I haven’t managed, through years of stringent disciplinary measures such as and denial and drink, to overcome the most egregious of my phobias.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Party smart

A friend in school once told me that the most active thing he’d ever seen me do was sneeze. I might have spent Games periods hiding in a luggage storage area and reading, but that apart, it was a downright calumnious thing to say, and I held it against him for a couple of decades. But he would enjoy seeing me now when, thanks to a busted ankle, the most active thing I’ve done in a week and a half is wonder if I should think about sneezing, then reject thinking as too strenuous an option.

Since I’m laid up, I decided that I should have a few friends over, and that I should even cook for them. (When the cook took off on his annual summer vacation recently, my brush with starvation caused me to bestir myself to take some cooking classes with a family friend who is a goddess in the kitchen. She is so good a cook, and so good a teacher, that she had me believing that I could pull it off. However, I took no chances and got the cook to make pretty much everything serious, including dessert.)

My mother decided she would mark the event by leaving the house for more salubrious climes. She sailed out with a single, completely sincere instruction: “Have a wonderful time, and if any drunken louts spill anything on my carpets, I’ll be back at 9.30 to kill them.” I reminded her that my friends, most of whom she hasn’t met, are now aged between 30 and 40 and very unlikely to get falling-over drunk.

I said it gently, because I know that her benchmark is the permanent scar in her heart caused by the parties that my brother used to throw when he was in college, for which he would roll up the carpets, take the art off the walls, haul all the furniture upstairs or to the side, and greet his guests with “Hello, all puking outside please” or something like that. My mother would organise kebabs and brownies or whatever, and find them all untouched in the fridge the next day, because by the time dinnertime rolled around, he had deemed his guests unfit to feed. That was then, I said, and by now even his friends would have grown up.

Accordingly a few people lurched in around seven and immediately cracked open the beer and wine and proceeded to get trashed. A few of us began to make vegetarian pasta, which was the only thing I was up to making. One guest chopped what looked like fifty peppers (I was scaling the recipe up and erring on the side of caution). I cut up garlic, someone else soaked the sundried tomatoes. It was a civilised, cooperative effort, punctuated by the odd smoke and a rotating population.

My mother returned at 9.30 as promised, to find six people standing at the stove all waving their limbs, sometimes with kitchen knives attached, and shouting constructive cooking suggestions at once. Someone threw in some vodka, someone tossed in red wine, someone else an indeterminate quantity of beer.

She greeted everyone in her most charming manner, but I could see her third eye darting about here and there in its beadiest avatar, inspecting the place for vomit or boogers or whatever other emissions she suspects middle-aged people of leaving in their friends’ houses. She even sat with us for a while, which was clearly an attempt to get a closer look at the carpet.

But all in all, it was a merry old evening. The trick is to make everyone cook the food, all the while plying them with alcohol so that they don’t notice how bad it tastes. And that, my friends, is what growing up is all about.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fractured verdict

Lodhi Gardens in Delhi is a lovely place, full of trees and birds and squirrels. It’s one of Delhi’s many ‘green lungs’, and in my view one of the prettiest, which is why I stepped off the walking track the other day, trying to get a better look at the pink water lilies growing beside the fountain.

In the normal course of events, people who aren’t hung up on speed, agility and grace often mistake me for a gazelle leaping lightly through the early morning sunshine. So it was a complete surprise to me when I set my foot down, felt my ankle turn under me with an audible crack, and fell to earth with the elegance of a tranquilized buffalo.

In my defence, when you know and like a place, you do not expect it to suddenly try and execute you by opening up yawning chasms under your trusting feet. I examined it as I staggered back up, and it was at least six inches wide and a third as deep; just looking into the abyss made me dizzy.

Actually it turned out that I really was dizzy. This happened to be one of those rare occasions when my mother was with me at Lodhi Gardens. (I was, in fact, following in her footsteps towards the pink lilies, which confirmed to me some of my hunches about the whole following-in-her-footsteps thing.) I put a hand on her shoulder, noting that the world had mysteriously been translated into a set of fluttering green spots rather like the Matrix.

“I heard my ankle cracking, did you hear it cracking? I think I will lie down,” I told her in my best calm voice, to counter a loud ambient buzzing that I knew to be the sound of her panicking, and also because, damn it, it’s more dignified to appear to choose such a position. As my mother shot off to fetch the car, an itinerant lady took up self-appointed guard over me, presumably to fight off Smith and the machines. Nothing happened to me, so she’s probably The One.

By lunchtime the pain was much worse. The doctor held my x-ray against the light. “Just as I thought. See that?” he said. Mmm, I said, scanning the thing wildly. He pointed at nothing and said, “Right there. Your ligament has snapped like a rubberband and you’ve got a hairline fracture of the lateral malleolus.” He said I’d have my foot in a plaster cast for three or four weeks, during which I could not get it wet or put any weight on it, and after which I’d have to hoist myself along on crutches for another three weeks.

The fright of it made me want to pee, and he told me, in all seriousness, that I’d have to hop to the bathroom. I tried it out, and told him this seemed like a very good way to break the other ankle. He thought this was funny, but I suspect he was really laughing because he was about to go to the bank with enormous amounts of my money.

Since then I’ve been hobbling about with a cast and two elbow crutches. Bathing involves a chair, a stool, three towels, and a mighty dip in standards of cleanliness. Walking involves swinging along like an ape through lianas, occasionally stopping dead when I get mixed up about which limb or bit of equipment goes first. Stairs involve a lot of stopping dead. My palms are bruised, my muscle development is terribly skewed, and I can’t drive.

They say a little enforced inactivity is a good thing. I would really enjoy putting my feet up, doing very little, and ordering people about, if it weren’t so much like having Independence Day fall on a Sunday.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Here comes the moon

The solar eclipse on July 22nd so captured everyone’s imagination this past week that the news channels actually took a couple of minutes out from yelling about the diplomatic bloopers committed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding Baluchistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, to yell about where one might best watch the eclipse (Taregana, Bihar), when (early in the morning) how (through pinhole glasses) and why (it would be the longest eclipse of the 21st century).

I always wanted to be an astronaut, because I’ve always wanted to meet some aliens outside of my family; but just because I was better at punctuation than at math, they wouldn’t let me into ISRO or NASA. This blow and the subsequent course-correction to my career that became necessary did not completely kill my interest, and I remain eager to know about stuff that happens in space. Whether it’s Jupiter suddenly developing a hole the size of the Earth, or the toilets on the International Space Station getting clogged, I’m watching and listening.

So I was extremely excited about the total solar eclipse on Wednesday. It would be thrilling to watch this rare and utterly beautiful phenomenon, especially since the next one this long one is scheduled for 123 years from now, by which time I might well be busy and forget. The band of totality, which is what they call the area on earth that will experience the full eclipse, didn’t include Delhi, but we’d get a partial eclipse. It was all going to start at the crack of dawn. It was important to get some sleep.

So on the evening of the 21st, I made sure to have an early vegetarian dinner while watching The Matrix, which I never seem to tire of; I read in bed only for an hour, which is all I can take at a time of Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos anyway, because after every paragraph or so my eyeballs start skidding around over the names of various Afghan warlords and the titles of various politicians and officers; then I turned out the light.

And it was worth all the preparation. In the morning I woke up, shambled out of bed, had an excellent plate of fruit for breakfast, read the newspapers, and then headed for the optimal position from which to view the eclipse: in front of the television. That’s where they always have the best view and the best pictures, best of all at the best time (i.e. throughout the day). Some of the pictures were taken by people on a Rs 80,000-a-seat flight specially chartered to follow the eclipse. I love those people!

Part of the reason I didn’t make more of an effort is that I doubted that a partial eclipse in cloudy skies over Delhi would match up to my last experience, which was a total solar eclipse on a completely clear day over the silhouette of the mighty Borobudur stupa in Central Java. Okay, that was in 1983, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Who could forget—we drove from Jakarta to Borobudur, got those silly glasses, watched the moon pass slowly over the face of the sun, watched Bailey’s Beads and the corona explode behind that dark circle, saw and heard the birds and other animals get terribly confused and head to bed as night fell in the morning, felt primal restylings of our body hair, and got the t-shirt (which I hung on to for a good twenty years until it was in shreds).

Now that I’m talking about it, I’m sad to have missed the real thing. I must find a calendar that goes up to 2132c.e.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The perfect storm

One of my early defining experiences was a night in Delhi back in 1975 or ’76 when an enormous monsoon storm blew the door to the terrace plumb off its hinges, with the sort of demonic roar and attendant terror you’d expect if your airplane suddenly developed a hole in the fuselage midflight. I was three or four years old, and my parents were out doing whatever parents did in the 1970s—wearing flared pants, I imagine, and clinging to lampposts to counter the lift generated by air blowing through their bouffant hairstyles. Anyway they were out, and they didn’t come back for a long, long time. I developed the certain conviction that they were dead, and spent my time squeaking ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ like a ferret on amphetamines—a rather opportunistic thing to chant given that I was not a believer. Nor, just to clarify, on amphetamines.

The next morning, and ever after, they claimed that they’d merely been delayed by monstrous traffic snarls caused by the rain. I lived in terrified anticipation of the next maelstrom, even though they tried to explain to me the difference between the very rare gale-force wind that had deep-sixed the door, and the common pleasant breeze that might blow at any time. For years thereafter the slightest movement of air sent me rushing to them to ask tremblingly, “Is it a wind or a breeze?”

How I got from this phobic state to all-out adoration of storms is completely beyond me, but I did. Black skies, howling winds, cracking lightning and sheets of rain, trees stripped bare of their leaves, kids flying off their leashes, all this delights me beyond words, especially if I’m indoors, sipping on tea or wine.

I was happy as a pig in muck one evening in the Philippines when a typhoon blew up out of nowhere. Rain like gunfire drowned the city in minutes. The wind whipped the papaya trees to the ground like so many noodles, and threatened to lift the roof off and fly it to Malaysia—a wind so loud that when you stood next to someone and screamed something right into their ear (typically: “Wow, this is really loud”), all they experienced was you getting into their personal space and moving your lips soundlessly.

These days I’m thinking longingly of storms, seeing as how the monsoon is almost over and simultaneously hasn’t yet begun, at least here in Delhi. While Mumbai drowns and Assam declares drought, Delhi has been malingering in a purgatory of insufferable heat and humidity that regularly makes me want to beat myself to death with a straining air conditioner.

Every day for the last two weeks has been a tease—a few more clouds, a bit more wind, a louder grumble in the sky, for just a little longer every day before the sun comes bursting back out and turns up the humidity. Every time I think I’ve caught a glimpse of lightning out of the corner of my eye, it turns out to be just the neighbours, who have been performing mysterious acts of welding on their lawn since the last Ice Age. (I have watched their contractor evolve from Neanderthal to… well, maybe ‘evolve’ is a strong word.)

As I write this, on Wednesday, the sky has finally offered up a tiny little leak, an apology of a rain shower. If by the time this comes out in print this monsoon has regained a bit of lead in its pencil, then bully for us. If not, I’ll keep hoping. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect storm is one that happens.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Gross domestic product

I’ve had the house to myself for weeks now, as all other inhabitants and regular visitors are summering somewhere cooler than Delhi. I didn’t accompany them because, I declared optimistically, I was Leading My Own Life. It would have been perfect except that the general exodus from Delhi took with it the cook, which means that I have had to shift for myself in the feeding department.

Now, I may be a worthless layabout in general, but I’m no slouch when it comes to surviving. I like to mix it up to keep things fresh and interesting. Not for me the rut of daily routine. Over the past many weeks I have not only dragged every friend I have to some restaurant or the other for lunch or dinner, but have also made those of them who still let me in, cook for me at their homes. I have occasionally ordered in from fine-dining establishments such as that place with the golden arches. When none of those options is available (lately everyone’s phone always seems to be switched off or they’re having to travel out of town on short notice, or my wallet looks shell-shocked) I have fallen back on good old self-reliance.

When I head to the kitchen my being is bent on creating not just gustatory art, but also the cleanest, best fuel for the body. I find cooking both enjoyable and therapeutic, especially when my favourite music is playing in the living room and my favourite wine is slopping about in a well-cut wineglass. Plus, it’s cheaper than going out. And I don’t believe in compromising on health, either.

And so, over the weeks I have spent enjoyable, therapeutic time in the kitchen concocting a variety of healthful, tasty meals. High-fibre cereal with a dash of low-fat milk; Nestle Fitnesse with Nestle Skimmed Milk; multinational breakfast food with multinational dairy product; multigrain with protein and calcium, to name a few. And that’s just the basic stuff; I’m leaving out the exquisite nuances one can give each meal by varying the amount and/or temperature of each ingredient (a little more cereal, a little less milk; a little less cereal and a little more milk; the same amount of cereal with a bit less milk… I could go on, but the cool tips and surprises will keep until my cookbook comes out).

Even the finest cook can, however, tire of her own best and safest dish, and decide to take off on the wings of fancy. Thus it was that I decided to make pasta and salad a couple of times. The first time, I threw a bunch of tomatoes in boiling water, flayed them, beat them to a pulp, burned them, and slapped them on top of slightly overdone fusilli—and voila, Pasta a la Emergency. The salad on the side was quite good, except that I think I may have left a couple of worms in the leaves when I washed them by swiping them half-heartedly under the tap, because my stomach hasn’t been the same since.

The second time was much better. I sort of forgot to shop for any stuff to put in the pasta or indeed the salad, but it was fine: I boiled pasta, scraped some butter from the fridge and bunged that in with salt, tipped some oregano flakes on top, and then hosed the bugger down with Tabasco. Yum! I’m thinking of recreating this one when I have people over to repay their hospitality, if they take my calls. They should really come over and see how little domestic support a person can get by with.

They don’t call me Renaissance Woman for nothing.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

It’s the stupid, economy

Just to let all you corporate types know: I don’t understand the economy. Before you go feeling all superior and contemptuous, let me state that I bet I’m not the only one. Recognising that a business paper is probably not the most sympathetic forum in which to complain about this, but pressing on regardless, here’s my confusion. (I’m going to go very tentatively here, making only sweeping generalisations and uninformed pronouncements.)

My tiny little liberal artsy brain understands it thus. The big idea is that we must have ever-burgeoning demand in order to have ever-burgeoning economic growth, on the assumption that growth is the measure of an economy’s, and therefore a nation’s, health. This means we want various sectors of the economy to grow, so that all the people employed in those sectors will get paid more, so that they can buy more, so that we can increase industry to produce more goods and services that people can buy, so that we have ever more sectors on which ever more people are ever more precariously dependent.

Baffling, but okay. The problem is, is anyone coordinating all these sectors in all these countries so that we keep the global health of the planet intact? Doesn’t the present model run out of steam at the point where not only are resources scarce but the planet is also becoming disinclined to support life as we know it, furnished with amenities like drinking water and big blingy handbags?

Say we want cars because auto-making generates lots of jobs, by which people get paid and can buy things. The fact that cars require lots of infrastructure by way of roads and fuel stations and parking and walkways to the parking etc doesn’t enter the calculation. Auto makers simply knuckle down and go hell-for-leather producing as many cars as they possibly can, to make sure that at the end of the year they can show growth in their industry. To a numbskull such as myself, untrammelled growth in the car industry improves our lives in the following way: choked roads, parking hassles, pollution and spiralling health care costs. Doesn’t that sound wrong?

By the same token, the world’s losses are measured in dollar terms. A colossal storm devastates New Orleans or coastal Orissa or Bangladesh, and we shake our heads over the multimillion dollars’ worth of damage that was done. Amitabh Bachchan gets injured in a film shoot and we talk about the crores of advertising he represents. Michael Jackson dies and media goes insane. No, wait, that’s different: the media are insane.

How come money always comes first, before the health, safety and peace of citizens? How come we live in a cesspit like Delhi, where effluent-poisoned water and air ensures that we eat poisonous vegetables, and feel thrilled by the economic growth represented by the newest gadget we’ve got? I suppose it’s a good distraction from the possibility of three-eyed, six-horned babies becoming a common feature of the population.

I’m all for research and innovation which can be put to good use to better people’s lives, but by better life I mean greener grass, purer water, more nutritious and better distributed food, clean air and fuel. I’d be happy to pay the price by wearing the same clothes for longer, keeping my basic phone until it really dies, and taking public transport. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to live with a little bit less.

I can just hear the sound of a thousand eyeballs rolling. What do I know? Mercifully, the only thing I’m expected to get right is grammar and punctuation. Feel free to send me irritated mail about it. I’ll correct it and send it back.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ode to dawn

…Or, How I woke up much too early but didn’t mind a bit.

At 4.37am the first bird calls, a sweet, melodious tweeting that I find hard to resent just because it’s an ungodly hour. About a minute and a half later another call starts up, and then very quickly the valley is echoing with birdcalls, each with its own pace and rhythm and tune, the whole glorious symphony loud enough to wake the dead.

I should want to wring each one of their little tweeting necks, because I’ve only slept four and a half hours. At home in Delhi, a similar but less melodious solo followed by an ear-splitting chorus often wakes me, and even though it’s typically later, I lie in bed thinking purely murderous thoughts about our little feathered friends. Here, instead, I jump out of bed with a smile on my face and turn on the electric kettle to make a cup of tea.

At 4.45am I’m outside, appalled by how much dawn I’ve already missed. There’s a violet flush over the hillsides. The summer solstice is just passed; these days are long and hot even at seven thousand feet, but at the moment it’s cool enough for a shawl. The world looks newly made, and not just because you’ve processed most of last night’s wine. It’s mysterious and cool and a little damp, shrouded in pre-sunrise pearl. The forest is curled up and asleep, folds and ridges and spurs looking for all the world like enormous mounds of broccoli.

Except for the birds, and the rustling leaves, it’s perfectly quiet. What I keep mistaking for a car coming down the road is the sound of the wind in the deodars—a strong, rushing river-like sound. I love being wrong.

At 5.15 the mist nestled in the valleys begins to rise, and resolves itself into a single white streak at the bottom of the blue silhouettes of the Kumaon ranges. Sometime around 5.30 a tiny pomegranate bump appears, but in the wrong spot: it’s coming out of the clouds above the ranges, starting much too high. It rises and swells into a cool pink ball and rapidly becomes a hot pink ball becomes a fierce orange ball becomes the sun. It takes me a moment to remember that although it’s too cloudy to see them, the blue ranges are backed by huge Himalayan snowcaps, invisible except for the fact that the sun has to clear them.

Foliage crackles lightly on the hillside beneath the stone terrace, and I find myself looking around for the yellow spotted line of a leopard’s back until I realise that it’s just leaves crackling under the weight of bees, twigs crackling under the weight of birds. I watch one sharp-beaked, crested bird catch an insect and demolish it nervously while the poor thing kicks and flutters and, I imagine, emits little insect death rattles. Not another soul is up. It’s just me, the mountains, and the ruthless business of nature trying to find breakfast. Who needs toast when you can peck live worms to death?

A pink flush in the sky, aka rosy-fingered dawn, starts to run through a brief, enchanted palette, like an aria in the sky. I don’t blink, so that I don’t miss any of this rapid-fire action that ends much too soon. The sun breaches cloud and mist and quickly turns to white-hot and suddenly the whole thing begins to look much more like your regular sun, heat and all, and the shawl is suddenly redundant, and I’m suddenly hit by the weight of all the hours I haven’t slept.

The magical part is over; I’ve the seen the world safely on its way to today. Time to go back to sleep.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apology to the Queen

I have visited the mountains of Himachal Pradesh several times over the last few years. My destination has usually been the apple orchard country of Kotgarh district, which is tucked away behind a hairpin bend on the road to Narkanda, amid some of the most beautiful spruce forest anywhere in the world. Getting to Kotgarh involves taking the train to Kalka, the railhead at the foot of the hills, and then driving for six hours.

Shimla is at the halfway point of the car ride, and I’ve always taken a dim view of it. In the clear light of day it’s a frightful eyesore, seeping down the hillside like a concrete abscess, From afar, and from the confines of a vehicle, it looks like the sort of joint you should either bypass, or speed through as fast as its monstrous traffic jams will allow; and so all I’ve even done in the Queen of the Hills is pause to pee on it, before fleeing onward. But this fill it-flush it-forget it attitude came to an end last weekend, when I went up to visit a friend who lives there.

It’s on foot that the place comes into its own. I discovered this by virtue of not having my own car, and also by virtue of being in Chhota Shimla, which is a good fifteen- or twenty-minute walk from the shop-lined Mall where one buys groceries.
The house I stayed in was bewitching. The flooring planks filled the rooms with the smell of old wood; the kitchen had the sort of sooty corners that only tough, busy, unfussy people can create and tolerate; enormous windows framed a view of cedar forests; a fireplace had, over the years, become a storage niche.

We would leave this cosy spot to walk for hours every day, including to the Mall, where you will find everyone walking up and down of an evening, because apparently they don’t get enough walking up and down the vertiginous levels of town the rest of the day. On the Mall we browsed identical sweater shops and climbed up to the bilious yellow church at the foot of which people were dancing the nati. We ate American-sized portions of rather good lasagna and pork chops at Combemere (named after the Lord), and had excellent idlis and sambhar with the world’s worst coffee at India Coffee House, and bought hard-boiled eggs from the many, many hard-boiled egg sellers on the street. If you’re going into the hard-boiled egg selling business, Shimla is where it’s at.

Salted hard-boiled eggs, wine, bread, cheese and Nutella consumed over many games of backgammon and chess is hard to beat, especially if a light rain is falling outside. And when it’s clear, you walk out into the forests. If you get tired of the lovely shady forest road that goes up to the ridge, just dive into the trees in another direction—for instance you can take a bus or taxi up to Chharabra, and walk down through fragrant pine and spruce forest to Mashobra, grab a cup of tea at the market, and walk some more to install yourself on a soft patch of forest grass and have a picnic of paranthas, pickle and beer.

The company and the relief from scorching weather in Delhi certainly helped, but it wasn’t just that. I really find myself fond of Shimla’s streets, the phlegmatic gait of its population, and the fact that there might be what feels like a two-thousand-foot altitude difference between the bus stand and your house. Maybe I’m feeling so fond because I was only there for a brief holiday rather than a lifetime, but so what? I take back all the nasty things I’ve thought about it in the past.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The devil’s sweatshop

You know that story about the fisherman and the entrepreneur? The bright young MBA comes upon a fisherman on the beach, drowsing and reading in the shade of a coconut tree, beside his rod and a catch bucket in which there are two measly fish. What a waste of time and opportunity, he thinks, and decides to help the guy out.

“You’re never going to get anywhere like that,” he says to the fisherman. “Why don’t you work harder?”

“Why?” asks the fisherman.

“If you caught more fish to sell, you could save some money,” explains the MBA.

“And then?” says the fisherman.

“Then you could buy a second boat, and hire an assistant.”

“And then?”

“Then, if you continued to work hard, you’d catch double the fish.”

“And then?”

“Then if you keep working hard, you could save more money to buy even more boats and hire even more people. It’s called growing your business.”

“And then?”

“Then you could work hard to catch even more fish to sell, so you could save even more money!” says the MBA irritably, wondering whether this guy even has a brain.

“And then?”

“And then you’d be made—you could retire, go live in some nice place and relax, eat great food, and do nothing much!”

“Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?” asks the fisherman.

Pico Iyer has a lovely essay called ‘The Joy of Less’ in the New York Times (June 10, 2009). It’s on the much-pared down life he lives in Japan following a high-octane career in journalism. “I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack”, he writes; “[…] at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.” He concludes that “happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued” and that “If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies.”

The simple life is something that the world discovered around the time that everyone started to have to clean out their offices. Before the Great Crash of 2008 it just wasn’t done to sit around enjoying your life, choosing minimum rations of work and money for the pleasure of spending your time smelling the daisies. If you weren’t busy—really busy, so busy it gave you ulcers and left you no time to do anything other than work—then baby, you were a waste of space.

Now that things have gotten so pervasively hairy in the world of business that there are few problem-free places left to migrate to, suddenly everyone is going on about how passé all that is, and how they would really much rather have the time with their kids—though I suspect that as soon as the economy regains a bit of colour in its cheeks, everyone will dive straight back into researching which new phone they can now afford to replace their perfectly good phone that works fine.

Meanwhile, as far as I’m concerned, the more of us hanging about not consuming too much, the better for the planet—even if you don’t buy the argument that it could even be good for your soul.