Monday, May 31, 2010

The worm turns

When I’m being rational I know that just exceptionally bad luck. But really, it’s hard not to take it personally.

Last week was my second visit to Bhutan in six months. I was attending this three-day literary festival—on someone else’s dime, which always contributes a certain frisson to travel—and then I was going to do a week of travelling on my own. This was going to make up for the last time when, regular readers of this column may remember, I fell sick on my first night, coughed my lungs out all over Bumthang and Thimphu, and ended up being ordered back home by the Indian military hospital doctor. This time I was hale and hearty and raring to see everything I’d missed.

We took off from Delhi in 41°C heading up to 44°, and landed at the international airport in Paro at 22° in a blessed drizzle. We climbed into the bus and started the forty-five minute journey to Thimphu. I couldn’t stop smiling. There it was all around us, Bhutan, unspeakably lovely Bhutan: ethereal green clefts, scudding iron-grey clouds, pristine air, breezes that you’d sell your mother for. Everything was perfect.

About fifteen minutes into the bus ride I felt the first twinge, a painful spasm in the upper abdomen. Twenty minutes later it happened again, like a fist grabbing my insides and squeezing hard. My belly began to gurgle and twist in a dangerous sort of way. At the hotel I lunged into the bathroom expectantly but nothing happened. We had a bunch of speeches to sit through, so I popped a Digene. Things settled down, but the pain returned soon enough with such intensity that I found myself sweating in a cold evening.

I dragged myself through the festival with frequent doses of Digene, and two doses of antibiotics. On Thursday evening the worky part of the trip was over, the antibiotics seemed to be holding the fort, and I was looking forward to a week of skipping up and down mountainsides with an imaginary scarf billowing prettily in the wind. Everyone else was flying out early the next morning.

That’s when the pain got so bad that I began to beg for a doctor. I was hustled into my jacket and driven to the local hospital through the rain at 10pm with a hot water bottle pressed to my middle. I think I was walked from room to room in search of a bed and a doctor, and am dimly aware that someone had a minor altercation with a doctor who resented being pulled from a critically ill patient to tend to someone who seemed to have a mysterious case of cooped-up gas.

I do clearly remember ending up on an antibiotic drip and two injected painkillers. I reacted to this by involuntarily leaping around on my bed (convulsions, someone said), speaking in sentences that came out as ‘gaaah’ and ‘bleugh’ (incoherence, someone said) and throwing up at regular intervals (gross, someone said). I think my doctor cousin in Delhi was on the phone with various people all night, and I know that it was he who, discovering that a CT scan couldn’t be had where I was, ordered me back home, on an airplane seat that the Indian embassy was kind enough to arrange at the crack of dawn.

The CT scan in Delhi showed that I had—get this—roundworm. After five days of deworming meds and unusually ablutionary vigilance I haven’t yet had the pleasure of spotting the little creep, but the doctor assures me it’s dead as a doorknob, and I’m right as rain.

So, Bhutan. Feels like déjà vu all over again. I know it’s just bad luck, but it’s hard not to take it personally. Take your deworming tablets regularly, children.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The difficulty of being good

The other night I awoke in a cold sweat, clutching my copies of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, and 101 Ways to Make Every Second Count: Time Management Tips and Techniques for More Success With Less Stress. Then I realised that the waking up must have been part of the dream, since I don’t own copies of these books.

That’s when I woke up for real, and the sweating began in earnest. With the shriek dying on my lips, I looked out at the 4am darkness and asked the large, empty space where God should have been: Why? Why didn’t I buy those books? Why didn’t I read them? Why do I for the millionth time in my life find myself in a situation where I have ten days’ worth of things to do and one day in which to do them?

In a low grumble the large empty space replied: Because you didn’t do the ten days’ worth of stuff when you had the ten days. Burn, sucker.

There are people who grow and change and develop themselves throughout their lives with the help of other people, books, maybe some after-work classes in pottery or krav maga. They try to make up for what they perceive as their deficiencies, attempt to rein in their baser natures, work on improving imperfect relationships, put sweat, blood and tears into providing the best possible future for their (typically ungrateful) children, strive to narrow the gap between who they are and who they’d like to be, struggle to become better human beings.

Then there are the rest of us, who remain thoroughly unreconstructed. We’re still stubborn, still lazy, still prefer to lie on the sofa bed rather than smite the day with vigour. We would rather, in times of trouble, give up immediately and reach for the jar of Nutella or the carton of Cerelac (wheat flavour—the others are rubbish); and we’d certainly rather set ourselves on fire than take on any kind of responsibility. Simply put, we are constitutionally and chronically averse to putting up with that with which we would rather not put.

Happily, these failings come with a preternatural capacity to rationalise them away. Some people would call that another failing. I call it an indispensible life jacket in the boiling rapids of life. So I can say, without the slightest sense of dissimulation or sheepishness, that the reason I had that nightmare is that I am stressed by too much work and too little time. Baaaa.

The reason I’m overworked is that I’m off to Thimphu, Bhutan for the first edition of what is envisioned as an annual literary festival, and am therefore writing this column, inter alia in advance. Luckily, Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world, not to mention one of the prettiest. It and I have a short and stormy history dating from last October, when I drove in for what was supposed to be a three-week driving trip, and it drove me out prematurely with a hideous chest infection, but this time I come in peace with no plans of any sort except to take in great lungfuls of clean air.

The weather people have promised a rainy, windy few days. But since I’m from Delhi where the mercury, at 44C, is currently twice as high as in Thimpu, rain and wind are perfectly welcome. The delight of cool weather and green mountains and meals made entirely of chilli and cheese should more than make up for the stress and overwork of the festival. Baaaa.

Too close to home

Among the many questions that overhang married life in India, the one that most intrigued me for a while was on a government document. It asked whether my husband and I were “spindas” (sic). Being of the rootless heathen persuasion, we had no idea what the word meant but decided that it had what can only be called a droll ring. Why look it up and leach all the fun from it? So we closed our eyes, pinned the donkey’s tail on the answer ‘No’, and kept the word. We got a kick out of ambushing each other around a corner and hissing: “Are you or are you not my spindas?” so the other person could reply, for instance, “On Tuesday if it’s raining”; or we might say, as we left the house, “Keys, wallet, phone…oh hang on, I forgot to turn off the spindas.”

Well, perhaps you had to be there.

Anyway, over time I forgot about the spindas, until I came upon it the other day in a newspaper article related to the recent spate of reported honour killings in Haryana and elsewhere. Turns out that “sapinda” (‘spinda’ being, I assume, the pronunciation of whichever Punjabi wrote the form) is a blood relationship of a certain order: five generations of ascent on the paternal side, three on the maternal side. Turns out they were asking, on that government form, whether ours was an incestuous relationship, as defined by a very complicated set of Hindu social rules. It’s a good thing we ticked ‘No’, though until we start having Incest Pride parades I imagine that honest-to-goodness incestuous couples will also tick ‘No’, as will most people at airports when they’re asked if they are vicious international terrorists armed to the teeth and wanted by Interpol—but that’s government bureaucracy for you, imaginative as sofa stuffing.

The other word that popped up from time to time was “gotra”. The priest at our wedding asked us what our gotras were; neither of us knew, though I assume someone older and wiser on both sides dealt with that one. Some years later, when some maintenance men came to fix our inverter while I was alone at home in shorts, they asked me my gotra. I said it was none of their business but that as it happened I had no idea, which they clearly didn’t believe.

But that’s me, the rootless heathen who has done an abysmal job of integrating into India. If I were more in sync with our incomparable 5,000-year-old traditions, I’d know that not being my spouse’s sapinda, and being of compatible gotra, has kept the blood coursing through my veins as opposed to spouting across the floor. Thank you, khap panchayats.

A khap panchayat, for those of you other rootless heathens who may have been living under a rock, is a council of clan elders that governs the affairs of a group of several dozen villages. Among other things, they subtly or unsubtly encourage families to hack to death any of their offspring who might go and marry a gotra or sapinda non-compliant person. They also make life hell for any family that refuses to snuff the life out of their children. The khap panchayats submit that we have them to thank for the fact that we aren’t a nation of cross-eyed, drooling retards with terrible immunity (although a few here and there got away and now work in telemarketing). And some of our young parliamentarians agree.

MP Naveen Jindal is either a snivelling suck-up to his constituents, or a truly principled guy who would uncomplainingly submit his own children to this form of justice—who knows? What I do know is that when he tells them “You deserve praise for promoting Hindu values, culture, tradition and beliefs”, it makes me feel like emigrating instantly. Because those khap panchayats really get my gotra.


Ayatollah Kazem Sedighi should take responsibility for the 6.5-magnitude earthquake that hit Taiwan recently. Sedighi said that immodestly-dressed women set off men, who set off extramarital affairs, which set off earthquakes. This statement set off a young blogger in Indiana named Jennifer McCreight, who set off over 50,000 cleavages around the world in a mock-experiment called ‘Boobquake’ on April 26, which set off the Taiwanese earthquake that very day.

No, of course it didn’t. The Taiwanese earthquake was simply a cosmic reminder that no matter how good your joke is, there’s always a better one out there, the butt of which is you. But Sedighi believes it could have, so why shouldn’t Taiwan leverage his imbecility to pass on the bill for re-plastering their cracked walls?

Boobquake reminded me that time and again, around the world, people have partially or fully disrobed in protest. Lady Godiva is an early historical example, who rode naked through Coventry to protest against the excessive taxes her husband levied. Being an 11th-century aristocrat she ordered everyone to stay at home and shutter their windows while she did this, but she did it. (One unfortunate fellow who watched through a hole and was struck with blindness remains with us as ‘peeping Tom’.)

There’s something about a bit of skin that concentrates the human mind wonderfully on things it would rather ignore. Stripping is often a last-resort tactic to embarrass and shame the target into paying attention, and in recent times it has featured on a regular basis. There’s the Bare Witness movement, which began in the UK in 2003 with naked people spelling ‘peace’ with their naked bodies in freezing weather. Three years ago, 600 people without a stitch of clothing got together on the Aletsch glacier in the Swiss Alps to pose for a human art installation calling attention to global warming.

In 2007 an underground Burmese women’s organisation urged women to “post, deliver or fling your panties at the closest Burmese Embassy any day from today. Send early, send often!” to protest the junta’s repression and crimes against women. The so-called Panties for Peace movement encouraged soiled underwear since, culturally speaking, contact with such an item is about the most strength-sapping trauma a man can undergo.

Last year women wearing blood-soiled underwear marched through Johannesburg to protest the privatisation of water, which would limit access to a basic need. In Tel Aviv bicyclists and roller bladers wore next to nothing to demand safe bicycle lanes and protest a bicycle helmet law; semi-naked English pensioners demonstrated against their collapsed pension schemes (‘2009 and still stripped of our pensions’); activists from the Ukrainian women's movement FEMEN wore underwear made from hygienic masks to protest against the government’s manipulation of H1N1 fears ahead of the presidential election.

This year a bunch of flesh-baring Germans invaded Berlin-Tegel airport to protest calls for full-body scanners following the, er, Underwear Bomber’s Christmas Day attack. The Maldivian feminist movement Rehendhi sent panties to Sheikh Ibrahim Fareed on Valentine’s day with messages like ‘Undies for Fundies’, to protest a rather misogynistic speech he’d given. And every year PETA runs starkers through Pamplona to protest the famous bull run, under the slogan ‘Join the human race’.

In India we’ve had our own share of drama: the famous nude protest by Manipuri women in 2004 against alleged rape by the army; courageous Pooja Chauhan, who marched down the streets of Rajkot in 2007 in her bra and panties to protest ill-treatment in her marital home, and of course, the Consortiumn of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women who sent their frilliest knickers to Sri Ram Sena chief Pramod Mutalik to protest the beating up of women in a pub in Mangalore.

Who can blame anyone—there’s just so much in the world that will get your knickers in a twist.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Blood on the House floor

Earlier this week the Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn, conducted the day’s voting from behind two or three ordinary large black umbrellas held open before him by his security. This was to prevent any further eggs from hitting him, though at least one of the many hurled by members of the house was in yellow bloom upon his quite sharp suit.

This was the genteel part of the episode, though it was somewhat incongruous. I mean, what kind of guard carries a big black umbrella inside a building? For that matter, what kind of parliamentarian brings eggs along to work in the morning? Then it all went to hell. The opposition accused the President of betraying the country’s interests, and an all-out brawl erupted. Honourable fists laid into honourable noses; someone threw a smoke bomb that all but obscured the voting board tally; lots of people bled profusely.

I almost wept with relief.

Then I went online and looked up more reassuring photos—of that time in July 2009, when the honourable members of the parliament of South Korea leapt upon the dais to prevent the passing of a controversial media bill, and attacked each other with screams of abuse, hair streaming with sweat in their efforts to deck rivals and almost tear off their clothes. It is something to watch a delicate, business-suited Korean woman emitting blood-curdling screams as she falls upon/is fallen upon by another with the aspect of a rogue pterodactyl. I checked out Taiwan’s legislators honouring a longstanding tradition of brawling like schoolchildren.

In other words, our elected representatives don’t make the only ugly scenes in the world—though, as a patriotic Indian, I root for ours being the ugliest. Remember the Uttar Pradesh Assembly back in 2006? MLAs stormed the well of the house and then, deciding that this kind of thing was for wallflowers, began to rip out microphones and either club their colleagues over the head or launch them at each other like javelins; they sent furniture flying through the august hall; and they candidly just beat each other to pulp with their bare fists.

Remember the cash-for-votes scandal of July 2008, when BJP MPs ran down to the well and began to throw wads of money around which they alleged served to buy the government votes to survive the no-confidence motion after the Left withdrew support over the Indo-US nuclear deal?

Of course, everyone knows that in that instance, while every party had issued a clarion call to all its MPs, appealing to them to come forth from their hospitals and prison cells, to vote, the man who really swung it for the UPA was the Samajwadi Party’s Kishore Samrite. This guy spent Rs 17 lakhs sacrificing over three hundred animals in a ten-day yagna at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Animal rights activists led a delegation of outraged animals to the Speaker of the house in protest, but I’m not sure that that got anywhere.

Then there was the Maharashtra state Assembly that dissolved into fistfights and hardbound book-throwing in April 2008, apparently because of poor time management that left some people without the time to speak. It ended with cut and bleeding noses and six MLAs being suspended for a year.

There are endless examples, across our great land, of unparliamentary behaviour. All in all, the Ukrainians can keep their silly umbrellas. I’m reassured that if we’re not the only ones, at least we’re the worst. However, while I don’t really mind if our representatives knock each other’s brains out, I just wish they’d leave the furniture alone. We pay for that.