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.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The case of the missing attribution*

*This week, for the first time since its inception in August 2006, Stet was not published in Business Standard's weekend edition (October 30, 2010) . You'll find the likely reason for that in the second-last paragraph of the spiked column, reproduced below.

Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.

Given my own recent battle with the effects of long-haul travel, I have great sympathy for Aroon Purie. Jet lag is the worst. Did you know that sleep deprivation can give you Type II diabetes, heart disease, and plagiarism? It’s a real tiger-nado of a bummer.

Aw, I’m being unfair. It wasn’t Aroon Purie himself who copy-pasted large bits of Grady Hendrix’s Slate article on Rajnikanth into the ‘Letter from the Editor’ in India Today’s infamous southern issue on Rajnikanth. It’s complicated. Somebody sent somebody something and somebody got confused and, well, oops.

Except that it was Aroon Purie: his name is right there at the end of the letter. Allegedly he rarely writes his own editor’s letter—it is generally either drafted or entirely written by someone else, and he makes changes ranging from the minor to the major. The problem is that, no matter who put those words together, the buck stops with the name at the end of the piece. You would think that an editor might therefore either stick to writing his own pieces or care about his credibility enough to check what he’s putting his name to. If he doesn’t, it’s his mistake.

It is therefore ungracious for him to try to publicly pass-the-buck-without-passing-the-buck. If he has seen fit to be credited for lots of editorial letters that don’t ever mention “inputs from Delhi”, he shouldn’t suddenly mention them to explain this one—which, unfortunately, is the one he’s likely to be remembered for.

His weaselly apology tried a breezy, jokey style (“Jet lag is clearly injurious to the health of journalism”) to lay out an excuse that effectively hollowed out the mea culpa. It would have been more worthy of respect if he had said “Dear readers, I have unfortunately lifted half my letter from the editor from Slate magazine, and I’m sorry, and it will never happen again.” If he were truly interested in integrity, he would add, “Also, I’ve been outsourcing my letter from the Editor—what kind of Editor does that?—and that will never happen again either.” As a journalist friend of mine put it, those weekly letters are ghostwritten as if they’re speeches from a CEO, not letters from the Editor.

The total lack of surprise or shock about all this in the journalist community is the best indicator that Indian media is in crisis as far as integrity is concerned. Amongst other crimes such as those listed in the Press Council of India report which nobody in the media wants to talk about, is rampant plagiarism. Nobody in the media wants to talk about that either. It’s not as if ours is the only media in the world with big problems. But when ours is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.

Everyone is human, so screwups are going to happen. Nobody is infallible, nor is anyone expected to be infallible. There are genuine cases of faulty memory and communication gaps and plain sloppiness. Unequivocal apologies can and should be made. But we’re at the point where it has become so commonplace to plagiarise in small and big ways that to many journalists it’s no big deal, and that’s the point at which we’re in trouble. Getting caught is not embarrassing enough yet—the media still mostly chooses to tiptoe around the doo-doo on the carpet, trying to be polite to whoever put it there. When we become a profession that respects itself enough to hang plagiarists out to dry, we will be a profession we can be proud of.

Off the books*

All that the Shiv Sena had to do was to get one its youngest pups to bare his milk teeth and let out a couple of tentative yips, and Mumbai University fell to its knees, gibbering with fear. My chest is fairly swelling with pride in the efficiency of that institution: the Vice Chancellor took Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such A Long Journey, off the syllabus within twenty-four hours of being yipped at about how it is offensive to Marathis and the Shiv Sena.

Of course, the Shiv Sena is not to be trifled with, since its critical mass of brainless morons have always believed that the sword is mightier than the pen, and hold that vandalising property and beating up people is an attractive alternative to all that fussing about with democratic debate. The Sena is by no means the only collection of brainless morons (see the MNS, the Ram Sene, the Bajrang Dal and so forth), but it is one of the most tediously consistent bullies.

The case of Rohinton Mistry is not a call for a ban, merely a specific veiled threat directed at a university curriculum. The Sena’s lawyer says that the notion that the university acted under any kind of duress is merely an assumption. But it’s a fair assumption that if the Vice Chancellor was not under direct political pressure, the university has responded with what Rohinton Mistry calls the ugly notion of self-censorship. That says something horrifying about the effectiveness of intimidation, or the cravenness of our institutions, or both.

Lucky Rohinton Mistry, though. I bet the sales of his book will enjoy a bump on account of this, because there’s nothing as magnetic to most people as a thing that has been deemed inappropriate for their consumption—especially if it is so deemed after ten years of being deemed perfectly appropriate.

The lawyer for the Shiv Sena said, on a television debate earlier this week, that nobody “in the right frame of mind” could possibly tolerate certain passages in Such A Long Journey. This phrase, a brick wall of absolutism, disallows the possibililty of dissent other than on grounds of—what? Inebriation? A bout of melancholy? Childhood abuse? All-out madness?

On the other side, people opposed to the Sena’s stand point out that the “objectionable” critical views of the Shiv Sena in the book are espoused by a fictional character who cannot be equated with Rohinton Mistry. They point out that the book tears into not just the Sena but also the Congress and all kinds of Indians. These arguments are as short-sighted as those of the Sena—yes, the character happens to be fictional, and is not the same person as Mistry, but what if this had been a work of non-fiction by Mistry, presenting Mistry’s take on Maharashtrian politics? What if it had focused purely on one political organisation? Would the Sena then be justified? And would the University cave in?

If the answer to that is yes, then we are indeed the kind of tinpot nation that artists and dissenters of all kinds like to leave skidmarks in as they shoot over the border (though in this neighbourhood that would have to involve getting on a plane). The fact that the Congress chief minister of Maharashta has thrown his weight behind the Sena is disappointing at best, and confirms only that no political party will stand up to a bully and stand up for the freedom of speech.

So I suppose it will be left to the artists and dissenters to keep writing, from wherever they’re writing, and for everyone else to keep reading. One can only hope that the rate of production and consumption remains too high for the tiny-minded to keep pace with.

*Business Standard said that they were uncomfortable using the term "brainless morons" because (wouldn't you know it) the Shiv Sena "could cause trouble for the paper". I told them to black it out, a la censor's pen, to make it clear that they were self-censoring. Unfortunately they changed it to "@&*#$" instead, and did not run that change by me. I wouldn't have approved it because a) it's cowardly and b) it's meant to cover for an expletive, and 'brainless morons' is not an expletive, it's a descriptor.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Ode to jet lag

They say a clear conscience ensures
That despite all that mankind endures
By the harsh light of day,
It will all go away
With those eight healing hours of snores.

That’s why I can’t help but feel cheated—
So much that I Facebook and tweet it
In the wee, wee hours,
As one more night sours—
This jet lag has got me defeated.

GMT plus, oh, five and a half
Is my home—at this point, what a laugh;
By my boggy old sinus,
My body’s in minus,
And the difference is making me barf.

Travellers throughout the long ages
Have known what a journey presages:
You sit on a flight
For what looks like one night
But is really three days in two stages.

The result is this vampiric state,
An endless, penumbra-filled wait
For the sun to emerge
And bring on the urge
To rise just to disintegrate.

More non-incidental effects
Of these intercontinental treks:
And some constipation,
And other stuff much more complex.

It depends on one’s cosmology,
But for me, in this vile symphony,
The most terrible fate
I can delineate
Is being doomed to my own company.

I’d gnaw off my right arm to know
Of a good way to get this to go.
They offer you cures,
From sun shades to scores
Of tablets and potions; but show

Me a man who can shake off this feeling
(Of slowly and painfully peeling
The skin from one’s eyes
As one rigidly lies
Peering up at the inky-dark ceiling)

Before his own body’s decided
That the day that his long flight elided
Is made up at last—
And I’ll show you a past
Master of guff who should be derided.

They say uppers like Red Bull or Pepsi
Might help you to keep you in step—see,
But I hate ’em. Each noon
I collapse in a swoon,
In the python hug of narcolepsy

Each day I try staying up later,
And sleep with my phone on vibrator.
3am on the nose
I shoot out of repose,
As if jolted by defibrillator.

They say alternate carbs and proteins,
Baked chicken one meal, then beans;
You can try melatonin
Or a medical phone-in—
But there just are no good enough means.

Hoping to outwit time lag
Is like waving a karmic red flag.
As much as I moan,
One day per time zone
Is the rate of circadian drag.

So the fact is, dear reader, it’s crazy
To think you can just take the lazy
Way out of this hole.
My much-wanted goal
Remains distant, and fragile, and hazy.

The only available option
Is to implement the adoption
Of patience and rest
And hope for the best
And meanwhile just brew a decoction.

I must live in this temporal band,
And my body sure could use a hand.
But I’ll just have to lump it,
And get out my trumpet,
And cheer on my pineal gland.

At least it’s not getting much worse,
My modern day jet-setting curse.
But sleep-deprived minds
Make bad moves of all kinds—
Like, who wants to read lousy verse?

The Big Apple

The other week I joked that I was tempted to run off and become an illegal immigrant in New York. This week I’m serious. [Note to immigration officers everywhere: This is also a joke, sort of.] Some things about this city have changed—it’s noticeably cleaner and the phone booths that used to stand on virtually every street corner are gone. But I’m sitting in Times Square, using free public wi-fi, and if it’s a little depressing that the capital of sleaze now looks much more like Disneyland, it’s still wonderful.

New York is my ideal metropolis. This is how a city should look and work. Mass public transport, including a fabulously intricate subway that is rarely more than a couple of blocks away and that, by the way, was built in the nineteenth century; street lights that take pedestrians into account; friendly cops who will give you recommendations for where you might find a nice little place to eat; people and food from all over the world; a throbbing night life; and incredibly tolerant people. And if all this means you get a few crazies thrown in for free, so what?

I walked around Ground Zero for a bit, since it’s the precise epicentre of the history of the decade between my last visit and this one, and the defining event of my generation. It’s now a big construction site. (Quite literally next door is St Paul’s Chapel, which famously didn’t suffer even a broken pane of glass, and where people volunteered their time after 9/11 to provide food and massages to rescue workers, festooned with testimonials.)

It’s all quite moving, in the way that these things can be, and yet, a couple of nights later I was in a great little bar called the Stoned Crow, chatting with a native New Yorker who thought that everyone should get over themselves and turn the damn place into a mall, and why was it taking so long to build the new tower and the memorial? It’s good to be in a city where people can separate the law of the land and its founding principles from what we in India are pleased to call our sentiments. (And speaking of great little bars, that’s the other vital component of an excellent metropolis. I wish Delhi would stop thinking that every bar should look like a Greek dwelling with candles in niches.)

Of course New York is the temple of consumerism, but the real pleasure of being here comes entirely for free: the great parade of people from every conceivable country (I crossed Central Park in a pedicab operated by a young Tajik who claimed—dubiously—that there are only a hundred Tajiks in New York, and also that his real job was teaching physics in a university) of every conceivable shape, size, colour and sexual orientation, wearing every conceivable kind of clothing, speaking every conceivable language and working at every conceivable kind of job. I could spend all day, every day, hanging out on the street, people-watching. Joy, thy name is diversity. And although people have tried to persuade me for years that New Yorkers are rude and aggressive, I’ve never found a single one that was anything but pleasant and helpful.

So much as I’ve tried to resist my impulses, I can’t. This is it. Wish me luck as I prepare to move into my hovel inhabited by twelve other illegals from Bangladesh and the Ukraine and start my life over, bussing tables at Dunkin Donuts and dodging the law until I’m able to start my own drycleaning business.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding! Or not.]

New York state of mind

The drive into Boston, Massachussetts from Logan International Airport was notable for one feature: crappy roads. But any smugness I may have felt about that had already been cancelled by the enormous picture on the front page of The New York Times that morning, which showed a stadium in Delhi looking like a bomb site that could just maybe double up as the venue for the swimming competition, if you don’t mind competing in floodwater.

The opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games 2010 will take place in Delhi tomorrow, and I do hope everything goes well, because the CWG needs another fiasco like it needs a hole in the… oh, wait. But really, I’m just saying that.

I remember feeling all het up about the CWG not that long ago, but then, on a wi-fi enabled bus barrelling from Boston to New York down a silky interstate highway, I realised that I now have only a vestigial sense that there was once something, somewhere in the world, that was bugging me for some reason. I’ve been reading occasionally about collapsing beds and fake bombs in stadia and unsightly people being booted out of town, and I’m trying to care, but the sight of fiery fall colours under an iron sky, of concrete canyons, and fifty nationalities in one metro car, is beating outrage hands down.

The closest I can get is a tepid consideration of the schisms that have sprung up between Indians over the whole thing. We were a perfectly integrated country before the CWG came along—and by country I mean, of course, set of Facebook friends—compared to what we have become: cleft into rival camps of Cynics and Patriots. Either you have to hate everything about the CWG, or you have to love it blindly. It’s like the Montagues and the Capulets: you’re either for us or against us. Sick-of-cynicism and sickened-by-jingoism would duel at dawn, except that they’re not talking for long enough to make the appointment.

Being a champion of moderation—if not in my own life then in everybody else’s—I’m going to gently suggest that it’s possible to be fair: cheer the good stuff and jeer the bad stuff. This may be confusing, because it will no longer be possible to think of each other as either unremittingly pessimistic or blindly loyal, but why not give it a shot? Black and white are classics, but grey is such a beautifully textured colour.

The pavements around some parts of Delhi look great, and in some cases when I say ‘look great’ I mean ‘now exist’; parts of the Commonwealth Village and some of the stadia look good at least in the photographs; and the airport is a darn sight nicer than it used to be, stupid carpet notwithstanding. Organisers’ rampantly misused and mismanaged public funds, there’s third-rate construction in several places, and the excuse that it’s been raining is contemptible because our super duper Indian wisdom and science has warned for five thousand years that during the monsoon, it could well rain, so it’s probably best to get stuff done before it arrives.

There, see how easy that was?

But maybe this wishy-washy middle ground is only a side effect of an enthusiasm deficit. Partly, that’s because it’s been an emotionally exhausting haul to Sunday, October 3, and when one is plumb out of time, resignation sets in.

But mostly, it’s because I’m in New York City, and everything in the world pales by comparison. Good luck to the CWG; I’m taking a break from caring.

Born again in the USA

It’s been ten years since I made a trip to the US. The last time, in 2000, I was happily bewildered when they gave me a ten-year multiple entry visa despite the fact that I hadn’t grovelled, foamed at the mouth, nor indeed even asked. Yay, I thought, now I can go over whenever I like, for ten years! No more providing years of income tax returns and months of bank statements! No more feeling, in front of the visa officer, like a waste of space with a shady past despite having a spotless record with no instances of being jailed! I blew a year’s worth of my pitiful salary on that holiday—and of course never went again, on account of never having any money.

By the time you read this, I will be a week into my three-week trip there—this time in the south of the country. The only other time I’ve been in the south was during junior year in college, when three friends and I fled a nightmarish winter in Pennsylvania to spend spring break in the crown jewel of Louisiana: New Orleans. The heart of the action was on Bourbon Street, which at night lights up like a nuclear explosion and leaves visitors looking much as anyone caught in a nuclear explosion might.

Speaking of bourbon, that’s what the first week of my trip is about: a visit to parts of the American Whiskey Trail, which is a tourism initiative of the Distilled Spirits Council of the US. It involves lurching from distillery to distillery in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Going on wine- or whiskey-tasting trips is always a bit of a balancing act—one tries to keep it professional, but one is not all that big-built, and one’s blood volume is easily overwhelmed, and so one cannot guarantee that one will not wind up staggering around like Tallulah Bankhead, who allegedly could go through a bottle of bourbon in half an hour. According to a snippet in The Guardian, her last words were apparently “Codeine, bourbon” before she succumbed to the pneumonia she got from walking around starkers.

The point, though, is that what with the epic civic mess leading up to the Commonwealth Games, and the dengue and swine flu and malaria, and Kashmir, and the fact that income tax officers expect a bribe to hand you your refund, America is suddenly looking like a shinier, happier prospect than it has in the last ten years.

It is, after all, the land of milk and oxytetracycline-free honey. (They do have salmonella problems with eggs, and penicillin in pigs, but nobody’s perfect.) Does it feel much different than pre-9/11? I can’t tell you yet, since I’m writing this before I get on the plane on account of copy deadlines that don’t go well with whiskey tasting. All I know is that it’s a place where people go to seek refuge from whatever hideous combination of civic meltdown, disease and conflict they call home. I can imagine the relief and elation they must feel, those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free, as they sight the Statue of Liberty gifted to America by the cheese-eating surrender monkeys.

I feel a bit the same way myself. I’m seriously considering getting a false moustache and melting into the vast crowd of illegal aliens from south Asia who traditionally drive taxis in New York. I could change the name of the column and start over. Yes indeed; the bright promise of being all that I can be might prove to tough to resist, especially when blotto. Watch this space.

[Note to immigration officials everywhere: I’m kidding.]

How to save the planet?

Bad news comes in threes, they say. In the last few days a friend’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer, another friend has lost her father, and a family has tragically lost a child. If this sort of thing is not actually happening to you, there’s nothing quite like a personal connection to bring it home with the full force of fear, tragedy or loss. There you are, living a perfectly happy life, and suddenly your insides are liquefied by shock, your mouth is dry, and your heart physically hurts. Your throat and eyes fill with tears, your head with questions.

Similarly, you might hear news of a friend’s success and feel the wildest elation. Or, depending on the kind of person you are, the aforementioned shock and horror—but let’s not go there for now.

The point is, you feel for other people. It’s called empathy, and all but the most interesting sociopaths amongst us have it.
In one of the many excellent animated talks on the website of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), economist and political advisor Jeremy Rifkin touches on the emerging science surrounding empathy (his latest book is The Empathic Civilisation; watch the ten-minute video, and also all the other videos, if only for the wonderful art).

In the 1990s, Rifkin says, an Italian laboratory discovered what are called mirror neurons in the brain. In tests, these light up when the subject observes another’s experience, essentially recreating that experience in the subject. In Rifkin’s words, “we’re soft wired to experience another’s plight as if it were happening to us.” The first drive, he says, is not aggression or utilitarianism, but sociability and affection—the drive to belong.

He traces the expansion of that empathic drive through history as technology and other factors shrink time and space, thus enabling empathy across ever-larger communities from tribes to religious groups to nation states. “Empathy is grounded,” he says, “in the acknowledgement of death and the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be.” Is it possible, he asks, to extend our empathy to the whole of the human race, and to the biosphere? Could the ability to do this prove crucial to saving the human species and the planet?

Good question. Then why do we bleed emotionally when someone we know suffers, but are much less moved by the suffering of large, anonymous groups of people? Perhaps some of it has to do with certain kinds of experience being alien to ours. Could an American heiress living in a Manhattan penthouse possibly feel for an Indian living in a discarded sewer pipe—could she go beyond merely acknowledging the injustice, or thinking ‘there but for the grace of god go I’, to really feeling the horror of hunger, discomfort, and insecurity? Possibly not. But could she at least, in her own way, imagine herself into as proximate a situation as possible? As we used to say when I worked at the travel magazine, Let your mind travel; your body will follow.

I’m no scientist, but I’ll stick my neck out and offer the thesis that, too often, lack of empathy—for the daily tribulations of discomfort, deprivation, illness, trauma, and loss—is a failure of imagination. Sometimes it’s an honest-to-goodness lack of experience; for instance, it’s almost impossible to empathise with the pain of jealousy without having experienced it. But more often, it’s a lack of willingness to do the work of finding personal resonance. Perhaps it’s also about psychic limits: there’s nothing attractive about pain, and empathy can be bloodying and exhausting.

But maybe fellow-feeling is the only way to translate need into action. I’d say it’s worth the pain.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Trailing clouds of gory

Ever had somebody’s umbilical cord fall into your lap? This is the sort of thing they don’t tell you about when they’re extolling the joys of becoming a parent or grandparent. Economists have a technical term for this, and that is ‘hidden costs’. Have you ever had a kid tell you that you’re an ugly old woman/man and that you will shortly go blind? That’s what you can expect if you’re planning to have more than one kid. The technical term for that is ‘sibling rivalry’.

There’s a new baby in the family, and she looks like a fuzzy, plump little fruit you could bite into and have delicious pink juice run down your chin, assuming you’d recovered your appetite after the umbilical cord episode. Babies are tiny, beautiful miracles of nature, especially if they belong to other people and you just get to play with them moodily while you’re visiting for a couple of days. As the poet said, “trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” His immortal poem goes on to skip over some other things that lie about us in our infancy, like the nuclear explosion of a bowel movement that can follow a baby’s two-week bout of constipation. For the uninitiated, do not assume that you could not possibly find fallout all the way up the back of the baby’s neck, and also possibly your own.

But there’s no doubt that having multiple children is a joy. They’ll be there to comfort you in your old age, to change your adult diapers and wipe up your drool and steer you in the right direction when you’re trying to walk into a wall, or a stranger’s house. You just have to get past the stage where you’ve brought them up, paid for their college education, and successfully kicked them out of your house.

There are, by the way, no guarantees these days that this will be a successful enterprise. As The New York Times recently wrote, at what I consider to be unnecessary length, kids just don’t seem to want to grow up and get their own place any more. I wouldn’t know anything about that, of course, but I do have this middle-aged friend who writes a weekly column that often features the mother whose house she still lives in.

Anyway, your children will ease you into old age and, when you’ve finally passed on to that great PTA meeting in the sky, they will have each other. They just have to get past the stage where the baby’s two-year-old brother tenderly murmurs “I like it the Baby Aadya” and then tries to poke out her eyes and yank her limbs from their sockets; which is also the stage when her six-year-old sister accuses you of negligence and says that you will become paralysed and your brains will fall out unless you play with her instead.

I’m going to visit my multifarious nieces and nephew at the end of the month. I love them to death, but it’s a good thing that these tender little blossoms grow in someone else’s garden. Some people are good at the endless hard work, selflessness and patience that come with gardening. I’m not saying I’m not one of them. It’s just that I’d rather gnaw off my own arm and slither over a bed of nails through sniper fire.

Plus, I figure that if I catch them young, I can brainwash them into believing that it’s only natural, after changing your parents’ diapers, to change your aunt’s.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Things fall apart

When it comes to Pakistan, it wouldn’t be correct to claim that I’m entirely a dove. This is not because I’m so on top of affairs in that country that I can rattle off good reasons for this wariness—I barely know what’s going on in my own head, let alone theirs—but because I have, through a combination of scanning the headlines and osmosis, developed the general impression that one should trust, but verify. Which is another way of saying that on no account should one believe a word spoken by those double-crossing so-and-sos.

These days, though, my stony little heart goes out to the place. Pakistan is having what you might call a bad hair day, if you were to think of ‘hair’ as ‘everything’ and ‘day’ as many long years, and especially if you were given to epic understatement. You know all those people in the Bible who wander the world being blighted beyond belief? That’s what Pakistan reminds me of these days. Dawn columnist Kamran Shafi put it best in a piece with the self-explanatory title ‘Disaster after ignominy after disaster’. That sort of sums it up nicely. Let me stress that I’m talking here about my stony little heart going out to Pakistan the people, not Pakistan the state.

As if it weren’t enough that the country is generally reviled around the world for nurturing and exporting terrorism, and for diverting war-on-terror money into nefarious alternative projects, and for double-crossing their own allies, and for Kargil, and for stonewalling India on the 26/11 attacks, and for political screwiness that makes us look good, they have now been dealt this monstrous flood, in which vast numbers of people who have nothing to do with the shenanigans of their lousy leaders have suffered death, destruction, and general all-out calamity. That, while one of their preeminent lousy leaders sips champagne in Europe.

And in a situation like that, when your world is falling apart, and your faith in the world is worn a little thin, might you not look to the Pakistani cricket team’s matches in England for a little pick-me-up, since cricket is the other religion you care about? Actually, when you’re burying your children and trying not to drown, you probably couldn’t care less about cricket. But assuming you and your family are on dry ground, saved by luck or circumstance, cricket might be one of the saving graces about being Pakistani.

Did someone say Pakistani cricket? Oh. Er.

It’s not the walloping that the team got in England that we’re talking about, of course, but the marrow-curdling shame of being caught spot-fixing (as opposed to just the fact of spot-fixing, which in this part of the world is perfectly acceptable if you don’t get caught).

If ever there was a country that didn’t need more bad press, this is it, this is it, this is it. If I were a Pakistani, I’d be thinking about last straws. In fact, I’m thinking about last straws even though I’m not a Pakistani. It’s not a case of schadenfreude. I really do think they deserve better than what they’re dealing with. When a country is on its knees, you figure it can’t get any worse, and then it does. It ends up prone on the floor, and you figure that now it can’t get any worse. And then it does. It’s tragic.

Maybe Pakistan’s stars are just temporarily out of whack. Maybe one can have a bad hair day that lasts a decade, and come out sunny side up. Whatever it is, I wish them the best of luck. They need it.