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.