Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ten percent human

There’s a reason we talk about having ‘a gut feel’.

(Published on January 7, 2017 in Business Standard)

On a recent flight, the man next to me drank six glasses of wine and then asked if he could read my book. I was watching a movie when he asked, so there wasn’t a good reason to say no. Books broaden one’s horizons, even if one is already seeing multiple horizons. It would have been mean-spirited to refuse. But I couldn’t help being irritated, and the trouble with lending a book resentfully is that one is plagued with trust issues. I spent ten minutes spying on him while he thumbed repeatedly and exclusively through the contents, sometimes pursing his lips, sometimes holding his head and blowing out of his nostrils like a horse. Then his meal arrived, and he plunged his right hand into daal while continuing to paw my book with his left hand. This was the last straw.

I popped the headphones out of my ears. “What are you doing?” I said coldly. He looked up through his eyelashes, a la Princess Di. “This is a very surprising book,” he said, and then leaned across the empty seat between us and bellowed, “Who ARE you?” into my face. That’s irrelevant, I snapped. “Well I think this book is irrelevant,” he said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. I reached across and snatched it back. “Read your own book,” I said, as if this was a brilliant comeback. Thus our acquaintance took root, flared briefly, and passed away, unmourned.

The larger point, here, is that I advise you to throw on some clothes, lace up your shoes, and grab your phone to order this book at once. It’s called Gut, by Giulia Enders, and it features chapters like ‘How does pooing work?’ and illustrations of bacteria with smiley faces and capes. If you, like me, are irresistibly drawn to accessibly written books about science, you will thank me, as I thank my friend Martin who pointed me to this one.

I have written about bowel movements in the op-ed pages of this long-suffering newspaper, so it’s not as if my interest in potty is a secret. What is truly baffling to me is why so many other people, barring Bengalis, aren’t as interested, considering that it’s a daily affair that can make you miserable when it goes wrong. But whatever—life is short, miss out if you want to. At any rate, poop is only one angle of that thrilling young field of research, the human microbiome.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the microbiome refers to the unimaginably large numbers of bacteria that have co-evolved to live all over the human body to, mostly, preserve and defend it. If that creeps you out, you might want to digest this: In the womb, you are composed of 100 percent human cells; by the time your microbiome stabilises around the age of three, only about 10 percent of your cells are human. The other 90  percent are bacteria. They began to colonise you the moment you exited your amniotic sac. In the normal course of events you emerge into the world with a protective coating of your mother’s vaginal flora, and go from there, picking up and breeding billions of bugs a minute. About 2-3 kilos of bacteria, or about 99 percent of all your critters, live in your gut, and comprise a large part of your immune system, and what scientists are calling your second brain.

It’s all completely fascinating, and Giulia Enders makes you laugh even as she blows your mind. Do yourself a favour and read it. Just please don’t read it with your hands dipped in daal.

First Christmas

And thankfully the last

(Published on December 24, 2016 in Business Standard)

The first and only time my family celebrated Christmas, I was seven or eight. It was early in our stint in Switzerland, and my mother thought that she would do the whole thing with the tree and the presents and so on, to broaden our cultural horizons. She duly went out ten days beforehand and bought a tree—a teenage sized fir, as firs go, in a pot. Glossy green, not too big, not too small; quiet personality, but with a presence; just right for pre-pubescents to decorate without injury. She placed it in a festive corner behind the television (it was a small apartment, and one needs to be able to see the television), and we awaited the big day with excitement. In our Christmas, we were all the virgin.

Some days later, the tree began to look a bit peaky. A day or two after that, it turned brown from head to foot. Shortly after that it heaved a deep sigh, dropped four-fifths of its needles onto the floor in one whoosh, and expired. Consternation. It turned out that we were supposed to have watered it. But this was our first Christmas, and we weren’t going to give up on our tree just because it had died. What if they’d given up on Jesus just because he had died? 

A couple of days before Christmas, therefore, we dressed up the poky brown stem with shiny balls and gold stars and angels and whatnot. We dressed ourselves up too—I had my hair in a bun, for some reason, and wore an old lady’s grey sweater, and a skirt. It’s amazing that I didn’t develop arthritis. We arranged our presents around the dead tree and settled in for some Christmas cheer.

The whole thing was a fiasco. I broke my mother’s pearl necklace, and when she assumed it was my little brother’s fault, I let her yell at him in an act of cowardice that makes me cringe to this day. I didn’t give anyone presents—though, in my defence, the narrative  suggested that children only rightfully get presents. My father was in a bad mood—though, in his defence, he’d had three children before the age of 30, and the bad mood predated and postdated that Christmas. My mother’s smile careened between chirpy and psycho—though, in her defence, she’d had three children before the age of 26, no experience of Christmas trees, and was stressed out by her sulking husband, her yowling five-year-old, and her eldest daughter who, in my memory, remained barricaded in her room. As her middle child I was largely inconsequential, but when I entered her field of vision, glamorously bunned and skirted up, she managed to remark that I would certainly always have to make my eyes up, “later”.

It was a perfectly dreadful evening, bad feelings fogging around our dead tree, a tinselled skeleton mired in a pot of guilt and regret. It was sort of redeemed by the presents we opened the next day, but very soon thereafter we reached an unspoken family consensus that we should just never attempt to do stylised celebrations ever again—and we didn’t. When it comes to Christmas, much like weddings, other people’s are more fun to go to than one’s own.

The tail end of this year feels much like that evening, to me, and so I feel we’re all about due for a spot of redemption. I have forsworn all religious greetings, but I predict that you’re going to spend Saturday and Sunday eating and drinking, so here’s wishing you a happy weekend.

Tip: If you’re not having fun, you need to start watering your plant ten days ago.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Closet economist

In which I demonetise my wardrobe

(Published today in Business Standard)

The end of the year always triggers my de-cluttering instincts, which are rare, but ruthless. If a baby gets thrown out with the bathwater, that’s fine—the place will be quiet, and I’ll get to eat all the Cerelac. So I spent a good portion of last week weeding out my closet. About 95% of it is rubbish, and of that, I decided to purge 86%. I don’t know if those percentages are exact, but they’re the ones I remember.

As I suspected, I had way, way too much clothing, which you would never know from what I actually wear. I found about 15 lakh crores of things I’m tired of. Things I’m too fat for. Things that I have multiple copies of. Hand me downs. Thirty year old t-shirts. New things that don’t work on me because I’m bad at shopping, which is also why I have so many things I never wear, and hand me downs, and thirty year old t-shirts of which I’m tired. I shoved them all into four enormous garbage bags, and handed them out. About 11 lakh crores of those things, maybe more, will end up in other people’s closets. I can’t remember where those figures come from, but I see them every time I close my eyelids—the point is, I threw out a huge amount, and felt mighty pleased.

But guess what? My closet is still full. First I thought it might be some kind of magical closet, in which I should also consider rooting around for loaves and fishes, and maybe Aslan the Lion. But then I remembered that I’ve done this de-cluttering exercise before, and my closet inevitably refilled with superfluous clothing, as if it has a congenital condition that is fated to assert itself relentlessly. Maybe, I thought, that condition is me.

Yes, I do like to have clothes to wear, should I suddenly choose to wear them. I often keep them around just for that eventuality. I like them to be in available in my closet, so that I can just retrieve them, because it turns out you that there are a lot of places you can’t go unless you have clothes on. I feel reassured that if I have to suddenly dash to the hospital in the middle of the night, or travel to a cold country, or just play dress-up in front of the mirror, I can do that. They’re right there, in my closet! They’re my clothes, after all. But god, they make a huge clutter.

This got me thinking. Could the answer be just to not have any personal clothes at home anymore? Maybe we could just all use a huge central store of clothes, and take what clothes we need for the day, or for an occasion, from there? The problem with that is that when I borrow a warm coat, the central store will know I’m going somewhere cold; and when I want to play sexy dress-up, it will watch me borrow the wig and the lacy panties. It’s not illegal to wear a wig and lingerie, but you may not want other people to know about it. Heck, maybe you don’t want anyone to know that you like yourself a pair of bellbottomed velvet corduroy pants. Would I enjoy my lack of privacy just because nobody else has any either?

That’s a lot of verbiage about something as obvious and necessary as clothes. But I’m merely sounding a friendly note of caution. The thing about closets is, you have to make sure that when you’re cleaning them, other people aren’t cleaning up, and that you aren’t being cleaned out.

Demonetisation PTSD

I dimly remember the days when my money was mine.

(Published on November 26, 2016 in Business Standard)

I have trouble flying—hate it, avoid it. But if your country is going through demonetisation hell, and you’re among the privileged, it’s your duty to not clog up ATM lines unnecessarily. It’s your duty not to stress small businesses by buying on credit (except cigarettes, because, hello). It’s your duty to damn well get on a plane and visit family in a foreign country that feels like home in that there, too, your money is useless.

It’s been 16 years since I was last in Hong Kong, and I’d forgotten how awesome it is. Mountains and sea! Public transport! Dumplings, beef, sesame oil! Gorgeous skyline! Roadworks with no dust or rubble! (This is how you know you’re from Delhi.) But what really blew my mind was the overwhelming banality of cash.

Strike me dead if I’m making this up: Everywhere I looked, people were just whipping money out of their pockets and spending it, as if they had some kind of reliable supply. They behaved as if their government couldn’t possibly say, “We take back the promise printed on the money, it’s all junk except for petrol stati—hospi—seeds for farmers, until November 24—29—December 31—oops, November 24, okay just watch this space and see if you can keep up, because we can’t, terrorism national interest surgical strike masterstroke.” Seeing cash brought up chaotic, disjointed memories of a previous life, and made me anxious and sweaty.

The Peak and harbour are beautiful, but the most spellbinding thing is that when Hong Kongers say, “I’m going to the bank/ATM, back in five”, they mean five minutes, not hours. They just leave home, without even packing water, biscuits, books and a tent. My sister told me that she enters her bank without queuing, wrestling an armed guard, and shouting at the manager while waving a fake wedding invitation card. She said to please not let my mouth hang open like that. Most amazingly, you can withdraw as much of your own money as you like. I’m told the government and reserve bank don’t impose an arbitrary, changeable withdrawal cap based on their favourite sun sign that day. People’s blithe, free access to their own money brought tears to my eyes, and gave me restless dreams.

Back in Delhi after these confusing few days, the PM was crying and laughing, not in a good way. He conducted a poll on public sentiment that made the public laugh and cry, also not in a good way. The Finance minister said both that a) demonetisation is going brilliantly, and b) it’s the Opposition’s fault. The changing rules no longer matter, because nobody can keep them straight, and discretion has taken over. Nobody can find the RBI governor, though my cousin spotted a haunted-looking man bearing an uncanny resemblance to him, dressed as wait staff in a restaurant. 

Trauma shrinks expectations. I pack my water, biscuits, books and tent, and take my place in the queues. Every time I get close, cash runs out. But deserted shops, the unnatural abundance of parking spots, my dry bank, the empty ATMs—this entire gigantic shitstorm is now more real and easier to process than Hong Kong’s rash trust in stability.

It’s important, when dealing with trauma, to come to terms with what happened to you, instead of repressing it. To relax, creep under the bed next to where everyone now keeps legal currency, take out your plastic, and stroke it by the light of your smartphone while gibbering openly.

Meanwhile, I now owe the cigarette guy and the kathi rolls guy. But I’m sure that, as patriots, they don’t care, and ticked ‘Brilliant’ on the PM’s poll.