Sunday, August 05, 2012

Tango crack

So last year, while many terribly important things were happening in the world, I began to learn the tango. Please do not ask how this happened, because it involves a love story that ends in Kleenex and vodka and generally reaffirms the mulish transience of the world.

Suffice it to say that, contrary to popular belief, learning Argentine tango is not about mooning around restaurants with Al Pacino while smelling nice. It’s more like months of gruelling practice with people who may or may not smell nice; besides, thinking about how they’re smelling--or, indeed, how you are smelling--comes a distant second to thinking about how not to step on them or get stepped on by them, how not to kick them, how the zarking fardwarks to get out of this move and into the next without going down in flames, and how ‘zarking fardwarks’ is an indispensible phrase in the learning of tango (thank you, Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame).

Anyway, at about the time that Japan was devastated by a horrible earthquake and tsunami, I had my first taste of tango at a class in Geneva. It was like suddenly discovering a little penchant for heroin. I know this because I spent the time between the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and hurricane Irene, which almost tore New York City in half, obsessing about where and when I might have another tango class.

I’m told that Osama Bin Laden got offed, that Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World fell apart, that space shuttle Atlantis made her last sortie, that Libya and Syria went up in smoke, and that Anna Hazare decided to fast unto death (so long as his doctors were satisfied that he was in no danger of actually dying). I was busy walking around in little circles, twitching.

At the end of August, I was finally in a position to attend a weekly class for eight weeks, which stint turned me into a raving and hopeless addict. The US observed the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Pakistan was devastated by floods, the Swiss bank UBS lost a couple of billion dollars in unauthorised trades, Steve Jobs kicked the bucket--all of this was piffle to me. The only thing that really mattered was when and where and how I placed my feet, and whether I was following the lead or jumping the gun.

Back in Delhi, armed with Kleenex and vodka, I emailed various online leads for classes, all of which turned out to be purely notional. Finally I found a class. I couldn’t really afford it, on account of having spent so much time jonesing for tango fixes rather than working. I resolved to steal the money--they could always print more. (Law enforcers: I’m probably joking.) Islamists won the Tunisian election. The world’s population hit seven billion. Americans got arrested en masse for Occupying various places. Kim Jong-Il died. Phooey. I lived from tango class to tango class, subsisting in a sort of wan, cryogenically preserved state in between.

Now I have three tango nights every week. I don’t make plans with family and friends on those nights. I have spent a lot of money I’m not sure how I came by, on trying to find the right dance shoes with a suede or leather sole, a stable heel, an ankle strap, and a bit of padding in the toes. (No luck yet--suggestions welcome.) When I travel on work, my first concern is how much the assignment interferes with my tango schedule. It’s a real problem.

I’m sure I’ll soon spend another column telling you what’s so great about tango; meanwhile I’ll be in class, mainlining.

Dirty rotten Bastilles

My mother has a halo of elegant grey curls, and a nose so aquiline that we’d be able to play LPs with it if we could only get her to hold her head just so. She walks into shops and speaks her need into the air, as if it will magically coalesce into the person required without all the bother of making eye contact and having a conversation. She likes nice crockery, though she tends to lock it up on the grounds that it’s too nice to actually use. And she has been genetically bred to issue orders she expects people to follow without question.

All in all, she reminds me powerfully of the ancien rĂ©gime. That’s that French political system where a bunch of people in powdered wigs and fancy jewels ate cakes and danced while taxing the hell out of, and probably being very rude to, the bunch of starving peasants working their land. Their heads wore bewildered expressions when they ended up stuck on a pike, because their way of being was, to their minds, in the natural order of things.

Today marks the anniversary of the day the music died for those folks. In grade school, when we studied the French Revolution, I did a large sketch of the legendary storming of the Bastille (which was where the powdered wigs liked to imprison bolshy sorts). It was a copy of an illustration in my textbook, in which the sinister unwashed masses of France pour through the smashed doors of the fortress-prison, and it was chaotic and filled with menace. Smoke, rubble, and the rebel yell of a thousand weary hearts acting for a country—an inspiring crucible for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. My history teacher’s voice rang darkly in my ears: “The aristocrats were all gillitoned!” (By which she meant, of course, guillotined.) King Louis XVI, well-intentioned but pretty much detested by the revolutionaries as a symbol of everything that was wrong with the social structure, was gillitoned himself four years after the fall of the Bastille.

Every Bastille Day I wonder why we, in India, haven’t had a French Revolution yet. I mean, we’ve got all the ingredients: starving oppressed peasants, oppressors who wouldn’t see a revolution coming if it stood up and did the tango with them—which it kind of is doing in what we elliptically call ‘the red corridor’—and lots of toupees and talcum powder.

Now you’re going say that we did have a small hissy fit known as the Independence Movement, but really, how long are can we rest on those old laurels? We can proudly claim to have kicked out the evil colonisers, but at some point we’ll have to admit to, and address, the fact that some of us are continuing to give others of us a right royal rogering.

When the revolution does start lapping against the sides of the venerable capital, I’m going to have to hide my mother in the utilities cupboard below the stairs, and trot out the less ancien parts of her history, such as the brief period in her twenties when she, along with her cohort, brandished little red books and sang l’Internationale (oh, the ironies of life). I will no doubt have to hide alongside her, if only to provide her with an attendant. And if you’re privileged enough to be reading this, you should probably clean out a cupboard or two yourself.

India can be a bit slow about some things, but we cotton on eventually. If nothing else, we’ve proven that we like bashing things up. And so, while there’s still champagne and some oppressed sods to pour it, happy Bastille Day.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Nicotine no-no

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who think that smoking is a pitifully stupid, self-destructive thing to do; and those who totally agree and will nevertheless calmly disembowel you if you try to take away their cigarettes
An article by Rory Sutherland, doing the rounds on Facebook, makes the point that people who smoke are always the most interesting. He names Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Bach, Beethoven and Milton as proof that lighting up contributes to creativity. Having a smoke, he says, provides a period of detached, abstract thought; the occasional silence in a companionable smoke keeps conversational banality at bay; and frankly, it helps you work. (All of this gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling that I was downright indignant to realise that Sutherland is merely an ex-smoker hawking the virtues of e-cigarettes.)

In any case, I disagree. His thesis might be true of people who smoke mind-altering substances—that committed charasi Lord Shiva being a case in point—but in any case I’m not one of those people, seeing as how the first time I tried a mind-altering substance, I rushed out of the room into a snowstorm, yelling, ‘It’s so hot I’m going to die’, and then fainted clean away; and the second time I stared at a treetop for four hours, and don’t recall anyone congratulating me on my brilliant conversation.

But we’re talking about people who smoke tobacco, which is vertiginously lower down on the smart scale. I smoke tobacco. (In politically correct language, I “use tobacco”, which is the technical term for “am a disgusting, helpless junkie”.) I can tell you that there is absolutely nothing interesting about tobacco except for its power to make you want more tobacco. Not having it makes you irritable. Having it makes your breath smell like a week-old corpse in a sewer. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and anti-social, and it makes your fingernails turn yellow. And that’s just the healthy part. All smokers graciously concede that it’s just really gross.

I find smoking much more useful as a tool for procrastination and breaking ice with a stranger—Sutherland gestures towards the enthusiastic compassion that smokers display for each others’ addiction—than for kick-starting any creative juices. But smoking is not just good for instant lovefests between social lepers. There is also the nuanced splendour of the many kinds of smokes you can have.

Besides the post-prandial smoke, which works best after strong flavours like onion and pickle, there is the solitary reflective smoke, which burns down to your fingertips before you realise you’re still holding it. There’s the rainy smoke, the glowing tip of which warms you up on an inclement evening. There’s the heartbroken smoke, trailing melancholy plumes as you wipe your eyes with helpless, inarticulate gestures; the angry smoke, which makes snappy sound as you suck the living marrow out of whatever got you mad.

There’s the transit smoke, which shortens the layover between flights and trains; and the five-minutes-of-dead-time smoke as you wait for the cashier to fix the card machine, or the appointment to show up, or the cinema hall to open its doors. There’s the fitness smoke that immediately follows a bout of good immortality-boosting exercise. (This one might be my favourite.) And then there’s the post-coital smoke, in which nicotine bonds with endorphins to make you laugh about the fact that the bed is on fire. In other words, smoking is like a musical instrument through which to express the whole gamut of human emotion.

Of course you shouldn’t smoke—it’s the leading cause of preventable death in the world. But then again, the leading cause of death is life. I’m going to go think about that over the contemplative, remorseful smoke.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Latchkey nation

I’ve been getting that spooky feeling lately, of walking in the door to find that things are unusually quiet. There are signs that someone was just there—soiled coffee cups on the table, still-smoking cigarette butts crushed out in the ashtray—but your hollered hellos go unanswered. You pick up the phone and dial, but that seriously annoying fake-chirpy voice comes on: ‘The number you are trying to reach is currently unreachable. Please try again, or call later.’

It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Where did everyone go? Were they called away to an unspeakable emergency? What if they were kidnapped and/or killed and are currently divided up into several messy suitcases? Why didn’t they leave a note? What am I supposed to do now?

This is how the Government of India makes me feel these days: as if nobody’s home. Where are you guys? Why have you gone AWOL? It’s not that I miss you, exactly, but there’s usually some comfort in knowing you’re around, even if we’re throwing rotten tomatoes and smelly eggs at you.

As things stand I can let myself in like a good latchkey kid, I can cook a little latchkey kid meal of stir-fried onionskin and cucumber peels with a side of eggshells. I can glue my little latchkey kid butt to my desk and finish my homework, and forge your signature on it. I can watch a little latchkey kid adult television, I can make some latchkey kid crank calls, start my own little latchkey lemonade business, and even work on my quite serious science experiment and put my little latchkey kid self to sleep. I’m practiced at all this, since even when you’re around you don’t do much for me. I’ve been perfectly functional, therefore, but I still keep waiting for you to call or come home, or at least send an aunt over to check on me.

I’m beginning to suspect myself of harbouring unrealistic expectations. Maybe wilting by the phone for the calls you’re not making is just not allowing me to move on, and I need to. Maybe I need to harden myself a little. It clearly hurts me more than it hurts you, but who said life was fair? As the days and months tick by, it seems clear that I’ll have to stop expecting you. Unless, of course, there’s some very good reason why you’re absent—and if you’re willing to explain, then I’m all ears; because, really, if we can fix this thing between us, it would be the best solution. I’m aware of how few alternatives there are. Are you very busy doing secret, very important things that are saving my skin? Yeah, sorry, that doesn’t make me feel better.

I should clarify that I’m using this latchkey metaphor purely to see if I can pull an Antonio-Banderas-in-Shrek look on you. Don’t for a minute think that you’re really the boss of me. Basically, I gave you a five-year power of attorney to handle some of my most important systems, and after a spectacular run of cock-ups, you’ve decamped without a word. Who moved my big blue-turbanned cheese? What’s that excitable dude who’s supposed to keep the bank account going even doing? Is anyone going to explain why everything seems to be spinning out of control? Either show up and shape up, and promise not to behave so badly again, or let’s agree that I don’t really need to depute my affairs to you, and we can end this relationship.

I could move out and stop relying on you. But I’m more inclined to just stay right here and change the locks. Powers of attorney are revocable, you know.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Return of the native

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but coming back is a hoot.

A few weeks ago I was in Java and Sumatra on one of those travel-writing assignments that make it worth getting up in the morning. It’s been twenty-five years since I stepped on Indonesian soil, as regular readers of this column may recall—and by that I mean readers of this column when it last appeared on a weekly basis, which was nineteen months ago. Given the pace of life these days, those readers will long since have grown up, gotten married, become disillusioned with their career choices, gotten divorced, had hip replacement surgery, and moved countries to get away from their poxy grandchildren.

So, to recap briefly, Indonesia was where I lived for five years in my adolescence, a time that was golden and wonderful except for the bit where our dog nipped out of the gate never to be seen again, and the bit where I chomped into an apple that had a worm in it, and the bit where I fainted after a gamma globulin shot (gamma globulin being an anti-hepatitis medication rather than the instrument of Mordor that it sounds like).

But as they say, you can never really come back home. For many years I thought that this was just a thing my mother said to me every morning as she pushed me out of the door—she still starts crying when I walk in at the end of the day—but it turns out that it actually means something like Things Change, or You Can Never Step In The Same River Twice, or You’ve Forgotten Your Address Again You Halfwit.

All this is true, but sometimes the new river is close enough. The smell of the terminal at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta whisked me straight back to 1982 and my ten-year-old self, which is a poignant testament to the way in which governments, when they find a good detergent, just stick with it. The smoked glass of the corridors, the iridescent green of the grass outside, the thickness of the foliage, the frangipani flowers hanging heavy on the trees, the scent of clove cigarettes and the occasional exclamation of ‘Aduh!’ were all deeply familiar. Words of Bahasa Indonesia that I didn’t even know I knew magically clarified the signs around the airport. It felt great.

But everything was also undeniably different. I’m now forty, even though I still live like a seventeen-year-old. This was the first time I was smoking in Indonesia. This was the first time in over a decade that I was smoking inside a restaurant (Indonesia is a great country); the first time that I was travelling in a bus that wasn’t a school bus; the first time I went to a discotheque in Sumatra. Most tellingly, though, it was the first time that I felt I had somewhere to return to after the trip.

And that’s what the last nineteen months have felt like: as if I’ve taken a longish trip somewhere else, and now it’s time to go home. The people there may long ago have taken over your cupboard and thrown away your talismanic plastic spoon from that great evening with the false nose and the brief police detention, but you still sort of know where everything is, and there are lots of things you don’t have to explain to the inhabitants, and they know how you like your tea.

This column, now a fortnightly, is happy to be home. Now I wish everyone would stop crying.