Saturday, September 17, 2016

Row, row, row your boat

Because the crew isn’t going to

(Published today in Business Standard)

Do you sometimes get the feeling that the country is like a passenger boat on the open water, in a huge storm, and the power is gone, and all hell has broken loose on board? Massive swells tossing the sea, thunder and lightning, helm spinning wildly? Passengers running around waving their arms and screaming, the crew reeling about drunk and giggly with their hair on fire, the captain hiding in a cupboard in his cabin, sobbing into his hands?

That’s what it feels like somedays, when you read the papers. Kashmir is festering like a wound. Actual people are actually marching around, actually trying to detect beef in biryani. Tamilians and Kannadigas are killing each other over Cauvery River water. Women continue to suffer sexual terrorism. Dalits continue to suffer caste atrocities. The Aam Aadmi Party is steadily losing its MPs and its marbles. Everyone is crawling around on hands and knees from chikungunya and dengue. Officials keep treating dead poor people like a public nuisance.   

So it’s very reassuring to get out of the hothouse, drive up to the hills, and realise, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing—which really does put a dent in many people’s dinners and livelihoods—most of India is just going about its business, whether that’s trying to put food on the table, raise kids, beat the traffic, sell something, or make something to sell. Turns out that our boat is going to weather the storm despite the incompetent crew, because of the hundreds of millions of individuals pulling at their individual oars, to move their individual patch of boat forward. It ends up saving the nation and it’s good exercise.

Speaking of going about one’s own business and good exercise, have you been reading about the Paralympics? Back when the Olympics were all over the news, I got back to exercising regularly, in solidarity with our Olympian athletes who have to fight poverty, lack of infrastructure, official neglect, and organisational disaster. But it turns out that those guys have it really good: they have all their limbs and physical faculties.

You know what’s even more inspiring? The Paralympics in Rio in 2016. The world’s disabled athletes are setting world records that outclass Olympians by some distance, despite the lack of an arm, or a foot, or vision, despite mental disability, despite shamefully little press coverage. None of this has stopped them from doing their own thing, and doing it blazingly well. Here’s the fact that slays: The guy who won gold at the Olympics 1500m run would have made fourth place at the Paralympics 1500m. Our own Paralympians have won several medals—Devendra Jhajharia struck gold by breaking his own world record in the men’s javelin throw. He used the derision he faced for his disability, to light the fire in his belly that turned him into a champion.

All of this makes you feel like lightning should strike you dead the next time you complain about anything, but of course, if you aren’t the kind of champion who can use adversity to build character,  complaining is vital to maintaining your mental health. That’s my line, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, I did get out of the hothouse and drove up to the hills, and realised, afresh, that besides the staggeringly stupid beef thing, most of us can really just go about our business and get on with our lives. And that might be the best thing about the newspapers: they remind you that, at the end of the day, despite the maelstrom and the frankly lousy boat personnel, we remain the captains of our own tiny shares of the ship.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The beat of your own drums

Or, why homeless musicians are a thing

(Published in Business Standard today)

When I was 7 years old, my mother found me at the kitchen table weeping with anxiety because I couldn’t see how I’d ever be able to pay rent. She laughed and said that everything would work out. But my dark foreboding came horribly true. At 44 I’m still at her kitchen table, and she isn’t laughing anymore.

We have lived happily together for years, in a compact that has called for only a little accommodation of each other and even less logistical dependence. We have survived all kinds of delicate interpersonal situations, including a steady chorus of people strongly encouraging her to throw me out—a suggestion that she put aside with some wistfulness. But we have finally reached an intractable place that requires a shakeup.

The problem is my drum set. It’s not going with her sofas.  

I know, right? I tucked the thing so far into a corner of the living room that you need to use an ouija board to catch as much as a glimpse of its softly glowing metal and the handsome shine of its black-painted wood. It’s completely silent as long as I don’t play it, which I don’t while she’s in the house. Not going with her sofas—pfffft! She can be so unreasonable—especially since she is responsible for my buying the thing. That’s right, she’s the one who forwarded me the email from someone who was selling an old but excellent kit, in pristine condition, for the price of three or four posh martinis. Her accompanying message read: ‘In case someone in your music circle is interested.’

How was I supposed to know that that person would be me? Fate is a wondrous, numinous thingyjig that we should trust and respect.

So anyway, I’m house hunting. Turns out nobody wants to rent a flat to an Indian. “Don’t worry, uncle,” the broker told one landlord on the phone, “she’s Indian, but she’s like a foreigner only.” This admirably acute and very annoying statement is what got us in the front door everywhere we went.

One rheumy-eyed nonagenarian landlord smiled and smiled and said I could have the flat for whatever I wanted to pay for it, and he would fix it up any which way, and please when was I moving in. I was about to hand him Rs 10,000 and fetch my suitcase, when the broker murmured, “You’ll have to speak to aunty also.”

Aunty turned out to have a much more investigative streak. 

You will live alone? Yes. You have friends? Yes. Girl friends? Friends of both kinds. They will visit? Yes. They will spend the night? Yes, sometimes.

Her smile faded—and we hadn’t even gotten to the drums. That elderly couple would have been dreamy landlords in that they would never have detected the sound of the drums. I mentally bid farewell to that utterly charming, breezy, leafy flat. 

The broker was apologetic. “These days,” he said, “boys go to girls’ houses and girls go to boys’ houses, but what to do, she is from another time.” Listen, I replied, I’m not going to lie, and I won’t be questioned after I move in, so don’t bother showing me anyplace where the proprietor will have a problem.

I’m a single Indian woman, I have unpredictable hours and overnight guests, I’m stubborn as a mule, and I like practicing the drums. How hard can this be?

So far, the only person who desperately wants to house me on my terms is the broker, but I’m having fun looking. I figure there’s nothing like having your own kitchen table at which to sit and weep over paying the rent.