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.