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.