Saturday, December 30, 2006

Happy New Year

The end of the year always feels like a purification ritual, with all sins of commission and omission cleansed in an antiseptic cocoon of food, alcohol and sociability. You’re forgiven all your trespasses on condition that you make a contract with yourself to stop being such a wanker. I’ll try harder, you hiccup, as the clock strikes the previous year to death. Starting on the first of January I’ll quit smoking, lose weight, get fit, learn to play the saxophone, spend more time with the family, get a real job, be more considerate of my spouse, stop embezzling pension funds.

The concept of New Year resolutions dates back, according to a badly designed website with poor footnoting, to ancient Babylonian spring celebrations about 4,000 years ago. It’s now a beloved ritual, but the whole idea is widely held to be a bit of a joke since most people crack under the pressure within a few weeks, like those who mean to quit smoking; or within a few days, like those who decide to spend more time with the family. The most popular resolution in ancient Babylon, by the way, was apparently to return borrowed farm equipment; so there’s an idea for those who want to go really traditional.

Ploughs and threshers aside, it’s silly to think that just because you’re starting afresh on what you think of as a clean slate, you will get around to doing all the things you’ve thus far neglected—an idea beautifully summed up by the satirical newspaper The Onion, which quotes one Matt Tulley, cabinetmaker, as saying: “I'm glad New Year's is coming up. I've been looking for an excuse to finally take care of this gangrenous leg.”

But there’s much to be said for just even announcing that you’re going to try. Frankly, it wouldn’t hurt for nations to come up with some resolutions of their own too. As in other cases it’s pretty certain that it won’t work out as planned, but it’s the thought that counts. I would love to see the Government of India publicly proclaim their aims for 2007. If I were them (and thus far they have doggedly refused to include me) I’d start with the following:

I will play sustainable development-sustainable development instead of politics-politics.
I will take the long-term view for the good of the country, and not the short-term view for the good of the next election.
I will be responsive to the citizenry.
I will not throw furniture around in Parliament.
I will lose weight.

It’s not as if this is a one-way street. The citizenry must do its bit too, and here’s mine:

I will be a responsible, law-abiding citizen with a small carbon footprint.
I will dedicate a few volunteer hours every week to work for the underprivileged.
I will live my life in a harmonious balance of mind, body and soul.
I will not procrastinate.
I will lose weight.

At the same time it is important to fix achievable goals, so in addition to this wishlist I have prepared a number of more reasonable resolutions, as follows:

I will not write any more columns about my teeth.

Yes, it’s a difficult time of year. Scientists record huge spikes in world levels of guilt and lip-service. But we must all grind on en masse, resolving away, because as Abba said way back in the 1980s in a depressive song called 'Happy New Year': even though the dreams we had before/ Are all dead, nothing more than confetti on the floor, still, May we all have our hopes, our will to try/ If we don’t, we might as well lay down and die.

Happy 2007.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

All I want for Christmas

…is my two front teeth, as the song goes. For now I have a temporary denture filling in the space left by an extraction which was performed consequent to certain unwholesome dental events outlined in a previous column. But it’s a little loose, so sometimes in the course of eating a sandwich I will suddenly notice my fake front teeth embedded in it, which is startling, and makes the sandwich too chewy.

But while I certainly hanker after a permanent bridge, there is another thing I’d like, if Santa is listening and can hear anything over all the Christmas jingles echoing around the world. And that is a permanent remedy for writer’s block, which is one of the severest and most debilitating forms of constipation known to mankind.

I’ve tried everything: watching television, cleaning the house, lots of lipstick, exercise, meditation, change of scene, various musical backgrounds, yoga, screaming, stamping on my laptop, sending my laptop for repairs. What will eventually break the spell is a matter of maddening unpredictability. Sometimes, at the end of a six-hour torture session at a café, during which I’ve fruitlessly spent thousands of rupees on food and fortifying beverages, four hundred words will suddenly gush out in the space of a few little minutes just as I’m beginning to shut down my computer, as if the world is trying to tell me that there’s no point trying too hard.

I hope his little elves will find a way of sticking this gift into a stocking. By the way, have you noticed the little elves wearing fur-trimmed red hats with pompoms, and selling xmas paraphernalia on the streets? It would be less surreal if it weren’t traffic lights in New Delhi, and if the elves didn’t look so postcolonial, and if it weren’t so darn warm. And while the sight is weird, it as nothing to the sight of Akshay Kumar in a Santa suit doing a Jingle Bells bhangra on television.

My favourite Santa, though is the Dutch one David Sedaris describes in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (which is a book everyone should read). He’s much more interesting than the fat old fellow with the compulsive laugh.

The Dutch Saint Nicholas is very thin, used to be the bishop of Turkey, and now resides in Spain. He arrives in a boat, transfers to a white horse, and travels, according to the natives, with “six to eight black men”, though nobody seems to have any idea why—it seems that the black men used to be personal slaves but, following a political climate change, are now just good friends. Earlier on, Saint Nicholas and his friends also used to kick bad children and beat them with a switch, but in these kinder, gentler times, they just pretend to kick them. If the kid is a real monster, though, they stuff him or her in a sack and take him or her back to Spain, presumably for more beatings/pretend kickings.

Anyway, if it turns out that all the Santas have better things to do than help me out with my deadlines or beat me with a switch, I won’t be too upset, because I already have at least one nice present. Someone emailed me an Advent Calendar, counting down to Christmas. The first slide is a pious cartoon of jolly houses and Christmas trees and reindeer and stars and Santa and what not. The other twenty-four slides show young men of wondrous build, photographed in poses symbolic of the fact that they left their clothes somewhere else. It is very restful to the eyes, and, if you ask me, displays the right kind of holiday spirit. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The joy of cooking

One of the many things they don’t tell you in college—even though they know in advance—is that when you graduate, they stop feeding you. One moment you get three square meals a day, no questions asked, and the next, you’re passed out from hunger in front of the cafeteria doors and they’re stepping around your twitching remains.

The summer I graduated, I lived in an apartment near Philadelphia with some friends. At first all was well because one of us could cook and everyone else shopped and cleaned. But eventually the cook moved out. The stress of ordering pizza put a stop to the cleaning, so, like lotuses in the proverbial muck, we learned to rise above the ring of green slime in the bathtub and the ants in the kitchen sink. This too worked fine for a time. However, the day inevitably came when I discovered that I was the last remaining, near-broke occupant of a highly toxic apartment, and that it was lunchtime.

Determined to take this on the chin, I tottered to the phone and called my cousin in Baltimore. “Chicken curry? Are you sure you want to start with that?” she said. I wrote down her shopping list and in the supermarket, where it turns out they don’t keep recipe ingredients all in one place, bought the stuff that I could identify: chicken, garlic, onion, and yoghurt. At home, my cousin seemed reluctant to believe that they didn’t have any cinnamon or cardomom, but she patiently talked me through the cooking.

It wasn’t a brilliant meal, but it was much better than starvation. I could make it with skeleton ingredients, it filled me up, and it impressed the hell out of my American friends. I ate chicken curry twice a day for two weeks, and then decided that my future lay in India, where every part of daily feeding, except the actual process of digestion, can be outsourced.

Despite my best efforts, however, there have been stretches in the last ten years when I’ve had to shift for myself. In those moments I developed a frank fear of vegetables and spices. Their aspect at the point of purchase is unfamiliar and often unlabelled (zucchini, cucumber and squash are all just long green things to me) and their behaviour on the fire is openly subversive. Okra shrinks, lentils expand, salt makes things watery, and everything burns the second I step out to watch Friends. Even fruit is treacherous. If it weren’t for the kindness of a passing stranger in the market place, I’d still be checking the ripeness of mangoes by shaking them near my ears.

Fear keeps me docile and sheeplike. My grandmother, who is a gifted cook and micromanager, handwrote and photocopied her recipes, and bound them into little books. As we climbed, turn by turn, into the leaky little buckets we were pleased to call our own lives, she slipped us each a copy. Her recipes say “First peel the ginger” and “Step back because it will splutter”. It makes me feel looked after, and supervised, and safe.

If today I can occasionally even enjoy cooking, it is because through that little book I feel her ferociously competent presence at my elbow. It makes me a bit braver; if not enough to get creative, then at least enough to work from memory rather than by cleaving to the paper. I still call her and my aunts a lot with questions about potatoes and flame size, but my heart races less.

Of course, even my grandmother forgot to tell me what happens when you heat oil in a pan that still has a little water in it. Even today, somewhere in Bandra, there is an apartment with a nasty smear of grease on the ceiling.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

NaNoWriMo: Your word counts

When it comes to the business of living, some people naturally take charge and reach for the stars, while other people need a smite in the fundament just to get out of bed. It is much the same with deadlines. Some people handle them with ferocious efficiency, breaking tasks down into manageable, well-paced units, and other people spend all day taking personality tests on the internet and then fall into a foamy-mouthed panic at the eleventh hour. Both methods work. I wouldn’t want to judge anyone just because I’m 44 percent evil, 28 percent sociopathic and ‘somewhat likely’ to not have a soul.

On balance, though, compulsive procrastination makes a poor partner to ambition, certainly to writerly ambition. It is simply not physically possible to produce a novel at the last minute, even if you spend all your other time practicing very-fast typing. All writers will confirm this, as they bend over their lonely screens playing WEBoggle and composing smutty limericks. It is one of the great failures of evolution that those who most need to put in steady effort are often those least equipped to do so.

And that is why NaNoWriMo is so important. This hilly acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, an annual international event tailored for anyone, anywhere, who still believes in the inherent goodness of writing a book that will almost certainly sink without a trace.

The point is to aim to generate at least 50,000 words—the length of a short novel—within the thirty days of November. In the course of writing an average 1,667 words a day you will probably piss off your loved ones and get Repetitive Strain Injury, but on the bright side, your novel only has to begin, not necessarily be completed. Nor does it have to be a great novel. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be comprehensible. Nobody will actually read your opus unless you ask them to. At the end of the month you just submit your manuscript for an automated word count verification and if you’ve hit the magic threshold you receive a certificate of achievement that says something like, ‘Good Job!’.

To think this foolish is to miss the subtle genius of it all. There’s an excellent reason why NaNoWriMo has grown from 21 participants and six winners, eight years ago, to 79,813 participants and 12,948 winners this year, and that reason is: misery loves company.

Chris Baty, the host of the event, cannily identified the two greatest hurdles in the writing process—starting, and the obstructive tendency to edit oneself into paralysis. NaNoWriMo overcomes both issues by creating a community of fellow-sufferers which, to paraphrase the website, diminishes pain by distributing it; and by creating a reward system that values quantity over quality. The knowledge that thousands of like-minded souls are similarly pledged to thrash around in the cold wastes of self-motivation can spur the drooliest couch potato to action. And the absence of judgement is a great stripper of editorial inhibition.

Baty is the author of a book of tips and advice titled No Plot? No Problem!, the gist of which, as far as I can make out, is to press on, regardless. Do not let such nothings as plot, character, turn of phrase, plausibility, or even viability, distract you from the delightful creative rush that comes of worry-free writing.

This gentle way of tricking writers into actually writing instead of sitting around worrying about their WEBoggle scores blows a cheerful raspberry in the face of all conventional literary wisdom. This year the total word count generated by NaNoWriMo was just shy of one billion, most of which should probably remain safely buried far from human habitation. But frankly, that’s an enormous number of happy writers—and how rare is that?—at the traditional Thank God It’s Over party.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Spies like us

“God, I miss the Cold War,” says M dryly in the new Bond movie, Casino Royale. She means that she’s nostalgic for the good old days when you knew which government was doing what, and it was just a matter of one’s own government doing something worse in retaliation, and most of the time the people who got killed were involved in some way.

Today we mostly have crude, barbaric, mass-murdering bomb attacks carried out with a painful lack of discrimination. But the world got to relive the cloak-and-dagger suspense of that earlier era throughout November, as defected Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko lay in a London hospital, dying of an unidentified poison following two meetings on November 1. After initial confusion, it turned out that the ex-KGB officer’s death on November 23 was caused by a rare radioactive substance known as Polonium-210. He’d literally been nuked.

Who dunnit? Why? They’ll get to that once they’ve decontaminated everything in Litvinenko’s wake, and finished answering all the hotline calls to the National Health Service from citizens understandably concerned about nuclear sushi.

Tragic though Litvinenko’s death is, his story is only the entry point to a real-life crime thriller, being published in very tiny instalments in the paper. The chilling sophistication of his murder puts one in mind of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who, in 1978, was poked in the thigh with a poisoned umbrella near Waterloo Bridge; and, with shadowy secret services and oil interests, it has the potential to be a cracker of a tale.

It has also added a frisson to waking up in the morning. Most of us lead very boring lives, and it seems much more adventurous to drink a nice cuppa or catch a quick lunchtime bite when doing so defies the risk of growing a third ear or perishing from cyanide mixed into the restaurant sugar bowl. Many of us suffer from a Walter Mitty complex (after James Thurber’s daydreaming protagonist in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)—a dashingly heroic secret alter ego who lives on a constant adrenaline high in our heads even as our real bodies sit at our desks or do the dinner dishes.

As a kid I used to write fervent notes addressed to my favourite cartoon characters, a quintet of crime-fighting superheroes. The notes said things like, “Come and take me away this evening, I have my costume ready” and I used to throw them out of the window of our third-floor flat at the rate of one a week, in the firm belief that they would one day reach the addressees instead of my sister, who kept finding them and telling my parents. I am going to get the spaceship to buzz her when we leave.

I also used to write down the number plates of suspicious-looking drivers and detailed descriptions of their physical persons, just in case the police wanted me to depose in court. Sometimes (I’m not proud of this) I lurked behind pillars practicing my shadowing techniques, listening to people’s conversations to determine whether they had just come from committing a crime. In the seventh grade, my best friend and I developed a secret script to communicate the particulars of our intergalactic vigilantism. I still use the script, though what with freelancing and all, I have less time to devote to the outer reaches of the Horsehead Nebula.

The awful thing is that bigger and worse things than we can dream up probably go on around us all the time. Who can blame the conspiracy theorists for pointing that out?

By the way, the really bad news is that Polonium-210 exists in fearful quantities in cigarettes.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The tooth hurts

This is a cautionary tale about how jetlag can cause twenty years of painful dental surgery.

When I was twelve, my family landed in Delhi after a sleepless international flight. That morning, in the course of excited horsing around with my cousin, I fell forward off her shoulders.

I wasn’t necessarily a great athlete in those days, but I had reasonably good reflexes, which just then failed spectacularly. Sluggish, confused, perhaps merely in denial, I clutched her t-shirt instead of putting out my hands to break the fall, and I hit the cement floor on my face. I don’t remember whether it hurt. I do remember stumbling to the sink and spitting a frightening amount of blood, and then a lot of screaming and panicked faces.

In about four seconds we were in a car, with my mother holding me in her arms and my aunt holding my left front tooth in her hand, root and all, which I thought was partly really cool and partly really not. The dentist poked me full of painkillers and re-implanted the tooth. In childhood, your body is more gracious about taking back any bits you’ve foolishly tossed out; the nerves grew back and the incisor continued to do honourable service.

But, eight years later, as I brushed my teeth in a college dorm, I noticed a weird rosy colour on the tooth. The next time I was home in Delhi, I visited another dentist (the first one had died). She gasped, took many pictures, and asked if I’d mind if she showed them at an upcoming dental conference, for this was her first case of pink tooth in twenty years of practice. Pink tooth is when the gum starts to reabsorb the tooth, which sounded pretty macabre to me, but she was very excited. She capped it and I went back to college with a less scary smile.

Inside of a year, it had come dangerously loose. The next summer in Delhi, I found myself in yet another dentist’s chair. This gent spent an hour shoving a metal screw into my upper jawbone while he hummed along softly to background music, like some highly-cultured psychopath. I don’t think he gave me enough painkillers. To this day I can’t listen to Enigma without whimpering.

The next year, the pin was loose again. By now my parents were in Malaysia, so in the summer a dentist there performed some horrible operation in which the benighted incisor was finally put to rest (bless its little enamelled soul) and a bridge put in. Further trouble was confined to a recurrent infection in the area of the missing root, which I kept swatting away with antibiotics.

By now I was in my thirties, living in Delhi, working for a magazine, and in the care of a very capable dentist who worries about my teeth almost as much as my mother. One bleary midnight in my dank basement office, I noticed a painful throb just below my nose. The x-rays showed an enormous cyst.

That resulted in a gum surgery so hideous that I can’t bring myself to talk about it except to say that the doctor removed the cap, opened up my gums like the flap of an envelope, dug out the cyst, cleaned up and sealed everything while I mooed with pain. Then he gave me another, nicer cap.

Eighteen months later, the cyst grew back. He called in a second opinion, who concurred that the right incisor, too, must be extracted, and a whole new bridge put in. For a full year I’ve pretended to be too busy to schedule the procedure. But it’s twingeing again, and now I know that my number is up.

Moral of the story: sleep on the plane, idiot.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

On beauty. Or something

Have you seen that one-minute video called ‘Evolution’ doing the rounds on the internet from Dove’s ‘Campaign for real beauty’? It shows a plain, slightly pudgy, sandy-haired woman walking up and seating herself in front of the camera and then being transformed, in fast-forward action, by hair, light, make-up and Photoshop artists, into a glamour doll whose finished face is pasted on a huge billboard advertisement.

The overt message, of course, is that it’s all fake—those flawless complexions, ideal proportions and perfect features that terrorise our self-esteem via all visual media, are just so much bumpf. Hurray!

The optional message is that it’s all fake—which means that the rest of us, too, can look like the million bucks it will cost us, for happiness is merely beauty at a price. Hurray!

Women are sending this clip to each other with a kind of avid fascination, but I’m not entirely willing to bet on which message is making the greater impression.

Like many introverts I grew up with my nose in a book, and so entirely missed the process that socialises people to take some care with their appearance. While this saved me much of the heartache and self-doubt—and boyfriends—of average teenhood, it also ensured that the real world came as a rude shock. (It also explained the mysterious maternal wailing that for years attended my every exit from the front door, which I mistook for parental devotion.) I was forced to amend my quite genuine belief that looks don’t matter, to the indignant position that they shouldn’t matter.

To say that, however, is only to cry over spilt milk. It’s too tedious to cite all the studies that show that the earth’s very axis is tilted in favour of better-looking people, who, despite the fact that they are often assumed to have fewer brains, get hired more easily, make more money, wield greater power, live easier lives, and have more fun. It’s a well-known fact that they rule the world just because the natural human affinity for beauty turns other people’s knees to water.

But this species hasn’t been honing its oldest survival skill throughout the interminable millennia for nothing. We are masters of adaptation, an evolutionary tactic scientifically known as ‘If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em’, which comes with the less-quoted but much-implemented corollary rule, ‘If you can’t join ’em, lick ’em’. Ever since the first cavewoman held a bit of shiny stuff against her skin, ever since an Egyptian noblewoman smeared green mineral paste on her eyelids and bathed in ass’s milk, we’ve been using brain to spruce up brawn, raising the beauty stakes ever higher and forcing the less attractive to play ever-more frantic games of catch up.

We are now at a watershed moment in the history of human hotness. Things are evening out. Between makeup, makeovers and surgery, the ugly and/or insecure have never had it so good, which is nice, because their ranks are swelling with every new magazine issue, television show and movie that comes out. Once upon a time it was sulphite of lead for a lick of kohl in the eyes; today it’s liposuction and Botox. Who knows, facial transplant surgery—now used only in the most extreme medical need—may one day become as casual as a haircut. That’s Evolution too.

I haven’t yet worked out how I feel about all this (though officially I’m appalled). We should know better than to fall for it, but frankly, as long as the world continues to reward style over substance, getting the odd lock highlighted or your nose straightened might not be such a bad option to flinging yourself off a bridge.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

We are never amused

It’s hard to single out one defining national characteristic for a country as vast and diverse as India. However, if I had to pick something truly pan-Indian that cuts across geography, gender, religion, class and occupation, it would have to be our totally humourless status-consciousness.

When Prince William and some friends were recently refused entry to a club class lounge on a ferry because the stewardess failed to recognise him, everyone involved just had a bit of a laugh, including the future king of England, who meekly took himself off to the cattle class bar. The ferry company, far from issuing a formal apology, pointed out quite rightly that if the man was going to travel incognito, he was going to experience a slice of ordinary life.

Things would have been so different had the Prince been one of ours. The stewardess would have known exactly who he was, she’d have thrown someone else out to make space, and she’d have fawned and hovered around him the whole time. If not, he’d have busted in saying ‘Do you know who I am?’, or maybe pulled a gun on her, and, having entered, called his father to fume about how he was snubbed; the stewardess would have been skewered and the company’s top management replaced; ingratiating politicos would have protested in the streets; somebody would have been transferred.

In India, any oversight, confrontation or criticism of public figures, especially if they rate a bust somewhere in the country, or a mention in a textbook, seems to be considered tantamount to insult. Any books, plays, sculptures, paintings, music, audiovisual works or embroidered cushion covers suggesting that they might be fallible are liable to be burned, banned, toppled, defaced, turned off or thrown out, as the case may be. We absolutely love to feel insulted on behalf of our luminaries; we have many sentiments, and they all hurt, and it doesn’t take a whole lot to hurt them.

A few days ago Sharad Pawar, union minister, leader of the Nationalist Congress Party and the president of the BCCI, was shown off the dais (no doubt with unseemly haste) by the victorious Australian cricket team at the Champions Trophy award ceremony; this, after one hapless player had said, ‘Hiya, buddy!’ while receiving his medallion. Unthinking Aussie exuberance might have remained just that, but that the media pounced on this fearful slight to our great civilisation. Was it a nudge or a push? Was it racist? Should they apologise?

Of all the donkeys debating this issue on television, I could muster sympathy only for the single four-footed specimen who also happened to be the only donkey not braying, despite being the only one who had real reason to because it had been painted in Australian colours by NCP members in Mumbai to protest Pawar’s ‘blasphemous’ humiliation. Pawar himself was the only chap who kept his head, and his dignity, brushing off the incident as a mere nothing.

All I can say is that in the outrage department we seem to be willing to work with very little. If you want a really good, old-fashioned insult to get exercised about, consider the case of the Persian ambassador at the court of Shah Jahan. Seventeenth-century diplomacy was an altogether more sophisticated battle of national wits. The entrance to the Emperor’s audience chamber was through a very low wicker gate, which forced any visitor to bow low into the exalted presence; the Persian ambassador, who was clearly chosen for his quick thinking, upheld the status of his own sovereign by entering through the aperture backwards. Now that’s worthy of a response.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

When TED talks, listen

The American higher education system is probably the finest in the world. Nowhere else can you spend four years dabbling in everything from econometrics to medieval architecture, and come out superbly equipped to shout answers to Trivial Pursuits questions from behind the huge pizza in your mouth.

No, seriously, a US undergraduate college is paradise for a non-specialist temperament. If you have no clue what you want to be when you grow up, you get to try out all kinds of fields for two years before choosing a major. And, if you charted your career plan when you were eight, it’s an excellent place to test your certainty. The idea is to broaden your horizons, and with the backing of the world’s best educational resources, it works.

Life being what it is, the degree you earn often has no bearing whatsoever on the work you end up doing. Majors in Victorian studies might end up on Wall Street, and Economics toppers make great radio jockeys. But as our then-President at Bryn Mawr College said, the point of your years there is to “make the inside of your head a more interesting place to be for the rest of your life.”

After my BA I never did apply to graduate school, partly because, in my non-specialist’s view, the ideal education would consist of several BAs instead. I figured I had time for maybe five more, before creeping senility made me unfit to play a decent game of Trivial Pursuit—but I never got around to another BA either. So every now and then I have a strong urge to run back to college as one of those ‘students of non-traditional age’ whom I remember thinking of as sadly earnest drips (I am filled with remorse and take it back).

Circumstances do not permit, however, so now when I have such an urge, I shuffle over to the keyboard and type in Then I put on my headphones, sit back, and enjoy the equivalent of sitting gape-mouthed in a classroom while a particularly brilliant professor presents a particularly fascinating talk consisting of cutting edge thought, in a concise twenty minutes or so. What I actually hear and see might indeed be a lecture by an academic, or else a performance by a virtuoso musician, or the account of a hair-raising journey of exploration, or a piece of interesting research.

The annual TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference in Monterey, California, curated by a Pakistan-born, India-schooled Brit named Chris Anderson, collects about a thousand interesting people for a few days during which they present and exchange ideas. They comprise some of the world’s most skilled and creative minds, and their contributions are recognised and supported with vast resources (like the $100,000 TED Prize, awarded this year to war photographer James Nachtwey, biologist Dr E.O Wilson, and President Bill Clinton).

TED, owned by Anderson’s The Sapling Foundation, puts the best of the talks on the internet as video and audio presentations for the rest of the world to enjoy, at the rate of two or three a week. They take a while to download, but they’re worth it. Listen to Malcolm Gladwell on the business secrets of spaghetti sauce; or teenager Eva Vertes, who is changing the course of cancer research; or professors Dan Gilbert and Barry Schwartz on happiness and choice; or Ben Saunders on his solo expedition to the North Pole; or Sir Ken Robinson on creativity…

If TED is new to you, as it was to me, you’re in for a treat. Watch all the talks, and keep track of new posts. If you’re going to be stuck with yourself forever, you may as well make it fun.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Immaterial Girl, Man of Steal

The amazing things that people do for love are matched only by the amazing things they do for money. In the love department, a recent example is Sadhvi Riddhishri, the young Jain woman who spontaneously combusted in her ashram room in Amaravati. An eyewitness reported seeing a flash in the window, and people rushed in to find the Sadhvi gone and only a Sadhvi-shaped pile of ashes and bones on the floor. It’s a miracle, cried Jain devotees, and began to worship it.

The police, who tend to be more cynical, uncovered the prosaic truth: the nun’s flamboyant exit from this life was merely intended as a smokescreen for her entry to a better, less celibate world. Consumed by a burning desire for an old flame, a boy named Rajnikant, she was shrugging off this mortal coil in order to slip into something more comfortable.

There’s something endearing about that, and it’s not just the pleasure of making bad jokes. The lovebirds were only trying to spare everyone the shame of a dropout; they did it interestingly; and they fessed up before the whole thing got out of hand. Her lover has been quoted as saying, presumably with a straight face, that they came clean to the police because things had become “too hot to handle”. At the end of the day it was a silly bit of theatre by a couple of kids who felt sparks flying, and how can you stay mad at them for that? I say good luck to the two of them.

As for money, history does not lack for any type of charlatan, imposter, swindler or cheat. As in every other area of expertise, bad behaviour is a matter of pride; those who pull off the baddest behaviour, with the most panache, for the highest stakes, are the ones we admire most (and not terribly secretly), even as we tut-tut and throw away the key.

For instance, one has to appreciate the élan of Czech conman Victor Lustig, who, in Paris in 1925, got away with selling the Eiffel Tower. It would have been an admirable enough caper just once—but he did it twice.

Lustig and his partner-in-crime, Tourbillon, got hold of stationery from the Ministry of Posts, which was responsible for maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Posing as an official, Lustig called six scrap dealers to a meeting, told them that the French government had picked them for their eminence and discretion, and swore them to secrecy. The thing was, he said, the Eiffel tower was falling apart. The government had to pull it down, but since the monument was so beloved, it was all very hush-hush. The very special gentlemen, by now deeply flattered, were being invited to submit tenders for the 7,000 tons of scrap metal that would result from the demolition.

Lustig awarded the bid to one André Poisson, whom he had picked as his mark, and masterfully followed up by demanding a bribe to ensure a smooth deal. This confirmed to Poisson that he was dealing with a bonafide government official, and he handed over a banker’s draft.

Lustig instantly shot across the border, laughing all the way, and waited for the uproar—but it never came, because Poisson was too ashamed of his own gullibility to report it. Unable to believe their luck, Lustig and his partner went back to France and sold the Eiffel Tower again. This second hapless businessman did report them, and they had to flee. But they were never arrested, nor did they ever tell anyone how much they made.

And if Lustig is known as the greatest—not worst—confidence trickster of all time, it’s only because a small part of all of us wonders how much we’d get for Rashtrapati Bhawan.

Superheroes we need

Sometimes, on dark days when life seems to be spinning out of my hands, I feel the lack of a really useful masked crusader. Someone like Superman makes for good entertainment, but would be of no use to me; in an ideal world, superheroes would have powers perfectly adapted to our specific needs. Here are some superpeople I’d like to have on my side.

WANDERWOMAN: Muscled beauty descended from a line of matriarchal recovery agents. Flies around throttling parking lot attendants until they give you five bucks change for your tenner, and say sorry for arguing about it. Superslogan: Talk to the hand.

SCOOPERMAN: Gloved garbage vigilante whose tiny planet was disastrously bumped off course by a coke can tossed out of the space shuttle. Turns chronic insomnia to productive use by cleaning houses by night. Can’t sleep during the day either, so spends it hunting down people who throw stuff out of moving cars and hanging them off buildings by their ankles. Superweapon: Hoover.

BAHTMAN: A caped, free-ranging globalist who makes world currencies available to Indian travellers in any quantity without the whole Thomas Cook, RBI cap hassle. Has worked to improve the informal tourism sector ever since he watched his parents get mugged and murdered by a would-be traveller low on Euros. Stands on street corners buying high, selling cheap. Superlogo: Imbalanced scale with smiley face.

SNIDERMAN: Detects increased levels of rage or humiliation in people who will only think up a good comeback the next day. Speeds to their side and delivers withering repartee on the spot. Supermotto: Take that.

LADIESMAN: Comes over with lots of booze, listens, commiserates, and encourages you to lie back and watch chick flick DVDs while he presses your feet and does the laundry. Superpower: He’s supersensitive. Sometimes works as a team with TOYBOY, though the latter is very busy.

SUPEREGO: Clones your body and takes on any duties your id doesn’t want you to, including social obligations. Attends weddings, family dinners and office meetings on your behalf and nobody is any the wiser, except that you seem engaged and charming instead of restless and bored. Superperk: Will also handle any apologies you owe but can’t bear to make.

HANDYMAN: Cannot ignore a distress call or postpone a response, because when his home planet was destroyed by seepage, his elders left him a note warning against the dangers of procrastination. Has the ability to be in several places at one time and can turn parts of his body into any kind of mechanical tool. Diagnoses problems accurately and produces replacement parts whether or not the markets are closed. Superjingle: …And it stays fixed!

METAMORPH: A nebulous creature who will fill out any form, and fast. A sort of supersecretary who travels from pillar to post faster than a speeding bullet. Processes all paperwork, stand tirelessly in queues, and scares the hell out of bureaucrats. Works without being seen or heard, and files the results neatly. Supertool: Rubber stamp that shows whatever it needs to.

CIRCUIT: A live wire of a fellow who swoops down from the sky in a flash to replace fused light bulbs or repair the northern grid. Suffered the childhood trauma of seeing his motherboard melt, and cannot stand electrical sloppiness. Loves to host power lunches for the other superfolk. Nevertheless has a secret dark side: wakes in a cold sweat from a recurring nightmare in which he’s suddenly forgotten which wire goes where. Supercostume: Rubber chappals.

THE INCREDIBLE BULK: The most popular superhero of all time—he does the exercise, you lose the weight. You eat, he gets fat. Supernews: You can supersize it.

Festivals, fun and games

Diwali will shortly be upon us again. It was once my favourite festival in the world, because it was the world’s most aesthetic: there’s nothing to match a city emerging out of a moonless night garbed in millions of tiny twinkling flames. The idea of a king returning to a kingdom so bejewelled was positively thrilling.

Then diyas got replaced by bulbs, and sparklers by volcanic smoke-spewing anaars and ear-splitting bombs. Now we get tarted up in gaudy strobing lights, and the air, never in the pink of health, becomes a toxic swamp, and heart patients keel over from the shock of sudden loud noises. Diwali has become another way in which Delhi expresses its brash, unaesthetic self.

But then, people all over the world are peculiar or horrifying in one way or another, and when they’re in the mood to celebrate, whether over a major religion or over a drink, they are capable of all kinds of things—some interestingly odd, others just plain odd.

In the Italian town of Ivrea, they hurl oranges at each other every February. It all goes back to a 12th-century aristocrat who liked to steal and deflower brides before their wedding day; that was known as jus primae noctis (law of the first night) or droit du seigneur (the lord’s right), and is one of the reasons the medieval period is so, like, over. Eventually one such fed up virgin bravely beheaded the old goat, inspiring her fellow-citizens to mutiny. The orange fight, which ends on Shrove Tuesday, represents the stoning of the aristocrat’s guard. Developing world sensibilities might cringe, but the oranges are the excess from the harvest and under EU agreements would have to be destroyed anyway. The Spaniards have a variation on this theme, throwing overripe tomatoes at each other every August in Buñol.

Then there are the annual wife-carrying championships in Sonkajärvi, Finland, every July. This too celebrates a libidinous baddy, the 19th-century hoodlum Ronkainen, who stole sleeping women from their bedrooms and hoofed it to the hills to ravish them. Today’s participants have to carry a female partner of at least 17 years and at least 49kg, down a rough track in exchange for her weight in beer. The Finns also have contests in sauna-sitting, mosquito-swatting and mobile phone-throwing, which would explain the great success of Nokia.

The famously proper Japanese let the whole libido thing hang out, quite literally, at the Hounen Matsuri, or fertility festival, celebrated in March at the Tagata Shrine at Komaki. It involves getting good and drunk on free sake and then parading a highly realistically-carved 8ft-long wooden phallus through town on a float carried by men all aged 42 (because it’s an unlucky number and this apparently helps), followed by smaller phalluses carried by ladies all aged 36 (same reason). Along the way, people who want healthy babies rush up and caress the tips.

The world also celebrates life by cow-tipping, parrot-shooting, and cheese-rolling. There is no end to the weirdness. But the most outlandish fun I’ve ever heard of has to be the sport of dwarf-tossing, in which a suitably padded and helmeted person of alternative height serves as the projectile in a distance-throwing competition. This one originated in the bars of Australia and the United States, though the UK apparently excelled at it. As you can imagine, this little game did not last long, even though a disgruntled dwarf named Manuel Wackenheim appealed against the UN human rights committee ban on it, which he said deprived him of his livelihood.

So as I make my way through another festive season, expletives choking in my throat, I’ll try to think positive: better to have to be an unwilling participant in Diwali than in Cotswoldian shin-kicking.

Where have all the flowers gone?

I would imagine that Indian florists are struggling to meet unprecedented demand for their wares in the wake of the film Lage Raho Munnabhai. If you haven’t heard of this movie because you’re deaf, dumb and blind and live under a small rock in the Thar Desert, it has given fresh currency to Gandhian principles of peaceful protest and conflict resolution, under the simplified but powerful rubric of ‘Gandhigiri’. A nation fed up with its own ways is showing budding interest in an alternative way of life.

The movie has got everyone recalibrating the way they deal with negativity. Untold millions are giving up time-honoured traditions of knee-jerk violence, and choosing to look on their sworn enemies as unwell people in need of tender loving care, as the celluloid Gandhi advises the protagonist to do. The Shiv Sena is sending roses to the Varanasi police force; students are sending get-well-soon emails to Arjun Singh, and it is rumoured that even Sushmita Sen sent a cactus to Aishwarya Rai.

I, too, want to send flowers to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, to let it know how badly I feel about whatever infirmity has led to the urban planning catastrophe that is Delhi, and to the devil’s choice between short-term individual livelihoods and collective long-term survival which we are being forced to make today. The poor dears have also been caught unawares by dengue fever, which has sneakily broken out at exactly the same time as it does every year. The MCD’s credibility is currently lower than the public platelet count. It definitely needs some love.

Saying it with flowers means finding the right blossoms, so I have composed a pithy bouquet of two very special flowers. The first is a Titan arum, or Amorphophallus titanum, (which roughly translates as ‘gigantic shapeless penis’ for reasons that a brief glimpse makes clear). Growing to a height of ten feet, it is the world’s largest unbranched inflorescence, or cluster of flowers. The other is the Titan’s very famous cousin, Rafflesia arnoldii, which has a diameter of one metre and a weight of eleven kilograms, and is the world’s largest single true flower. They are a sight to behold.

There’s just one small thing, which is that both flowers are characterised by an overpowering stench of decomposing flesh—in Sumatra they’re called ‘bunga bangkai’, or ‘corpse flower’. Everyone gags, and some people fall to the ground in a dead faint. I hope that this won’t detract from the message that I care.

Nobody said that Gandhigiri is easy, and indeed I’m finding it hard to turn over my new leaf, because these wonderful expressions of fellow-feeling grow only in the rainforests of Sumatra and Kalimantan, and are moody about coming into flower (they bloom unpredictably, and only for a week, so pollination is a bit of a hit and miss affair). People sometimes travel deep into the forest only to stare sadly at nothing; those who are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, stand in queues, and pay good money.

If I do manage to make up my bouquet, it remains to be seen whether the Corporation appreciates how thrillingly rare these flowers are; and whether it twigs on to the underlying message of love and hope. If it uncharitably chooses to believe that it is being flipped a floral bird, or being told that it stinks, well, I’ll have to remember that it’s feeling a bit off-colour. Anyway, from what I understand of Gandhigiri, the point is to make the gesture even if—nay, especially if the recipient is ungrateful, so I’ll keep looking.

Going for broken

If I had any doubts about the advent of the leisure society, they were put to rest the other day when I watched a chap on television blow a marshmallow out of his right nostril into the mouth of his buddy across the studio. The anchor got on his hands and knees, measured the distance from despatch to receipt on a big ruler painted on the floor of the set, and declared a new world record of 16 feet 3.5 inches.

The studio audience burst into excited applause. The world champions punched the air and hugged. The anchor’s voice broke with feeling. Everyone was really very thrilled and proud. A lot of money had gone into the show, which had nice lights, sharp suits, and upbeat music. It was probably an old taped episode, but the emotion was fresh.

This kind of thing, obviously, throws up knotty questions. How far can I blow a marshmallow out of my nostril? How many feet is average? What if I fail? Is a marshmallow more aerodynamic than a piece of popcorn? How much would I have to pay a friend to be catcher? It really got me thinking about meditation, which is the process of watching one’s thoughts and feelings in order to master them and be freed of them, but then the next event was about an old lady who has the largest number of tattoos of any senior citizen in the world, so I watched that instead.

But as long as one is interested in the excitingly improbable, it’s fun to tune into the Delhi Traffic Police. Their website ( is full of informative trivia, such as that if your intestines happen to fall out, you must stuff them back in and clap a wet cloth over the lot, else they tend to dry out.

Anyway, according to a news report, the Delhi Traffic Police is going to spend Rs 45.65 crore on setting up pedestrian push-buttons at traffic lights, city video surveillance, interactive road information, dedicated lanes, and other fancy stuff involving “high-capacity servers, plasma screens, scanners, interface and other sub-systems for access to digital maps”.

It’s all in the service of the Commonwealth Games, which are apparently going to double as the national revenge on that Dutch diplomat who plainly talked rubbish. Delhi may be in a state of decrepitude just at the moment, but in 2010 we plan to knock the moisture-wicking socks off our sporty guests, and any foul remarks right off their forked foreign tongues.

It all hinges on finding that one brilliant way of fixing each thing, like—off the top of my head—getting the MCD to in fact remove garbage. Or convincing people who jump red lights that they should not jump red lights, or least not those equipped with push-buttons. Or extracting god-promises from all motorists that they will stop driving into oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road on the assumption that putting their beams on bright is fair enough warning—actually we could begin with a pinky promise from all Delhi Police vehicles on that one. I imagine that the new plasma screens will cause people to immediately start sticking to their lanes.

There is also much to be said for good contingency planning, like having lots of spare push-buttons on hand to replace those wrenched off by the push-button mafia which, if it doesn’t yet exist, is no doubt organising busily as we speak.

On the other hand, who wants to be a wet blanket? We may well end up with a beautiful push-button-rich city. I look forward to that, but for now I just have to nip out and steal some bulbs from the streetlights.

The penile code

His open letter to the Indian government appealing against Section 377 of the IPC is perhaps the worst piece of writing Vikram Seth has ever produced, but the most courageous. His recent appearance on NDTV’s We The People, in which he said that he was gay, or at least partially gay, was even more so: if it takes a lot to come out to one’s own loving and supportive family, think about what it takes to come out to a billion hypocritical prudes who reproduce like rabbits but are scandalised by sleeveless tops, let alone sodomy.

The case against 377 put forward by organisations like Naz Foundation and NACO is primarily couched in terms of public health: a law that drives homosexuality underground makes it difficult to educate people about safe sex. This seems a valid and relevant argument, but mainly a strategic one, since it’s harder for the government to ignore the terrifying HIV/AIDS crisis currently staring India in the eyeballs than to giggle over the irrelevance of a few limp-wristed activists.

At the end of the day, however, the argument is about a citizen’s constitutional right to equality and privacy. Assuming that the parties directly involved are agreeable to it, where I put what in whom is really none of Parliament’s business; consensual private sex between adults, whether heterosexual, gay, bisexual, lesbian, or otherwise, is a personal choice that does not impinge on anyone else’s rights. That its legality should depend on the vague barometer of ‘public morality’, filtered through the electoral jitters of our politicians—those paragons of public morality—seems, at best, absurd.

If public censure is the benchmark, then plenty else should qualify as criminal behaviour: intercaste marriage, women in short skirts, non-missionary heterosexual sex, having children out of wedlock, choosing not to have children, getting a divorce, remarrying. And if the benchmark is public sanction or tolerance, then lots of other things should be not just legalised but celebrated, including casteism, dowry, child labour, and child marriage.

The constitution of India is designed to protect fundamental individual rights regardless of what the neighbours have to say about it. Lawmakers have taken the lead before, on principles of human justice, to protect oppressed and marginalised constituencies such as women and children, without waiting on public morality. They also pass plenty of bills that do not necessarily reflect public opinion (note: pay hike to self). Why, then, this pussyfooting around people with non-traditional sexual orientation? They exist in large numbers, whether one likes it or not, and face a social battle every day. Why should the law make it harder?

The other day one particularly cold-eyed sympathiser to the cause of scrapping Section 377 opined that the government will never act unless people take their cause into the streets. In the west, he said, no substantive piece of legislation has ever been passed without huge popular agitation. Even though it’s a lot easier to say when one is heterosexual and not subject to social stigma, and even though you shouldn’t have to shout about your sexual orientation from the rooftops unless you really want to, there is something to this. The fight for visibility and equality—whether of race, gender, sexuality, religion—is never easy, and particularly not when you’re being asked to put your privates on parade, but the particularly high stakes of doing this in Indian society only reflects the particularly great need to do it.

In the first Gay Pride parade in India in 2003, a few dozen people walked around Calcutta telling people who they were. By some estimates, they represented about fifty million other men and women in India. What we’ve got now is government stonewalling activism; it’ll be interesting to see if activists end up Stonewalling the government.

Up in smoke

People who still smoke are widely held to be morons, either because they’re educated and should know better, or because they’re not, and don’t. They populate large swathes of the planet, including most of Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East, but as the world becomes more health-conscious they are becoming an increasingly embattled lot. In the United States they have largely been legislated out of existence, though a few remaining specimens can sometimes be discovered gibbering behind small pieces of furniture.

One of the most trying situations for today’s smoker is to be on an airplane, which combines the world’s highest levels of boredom with the world’s lowest tolerance for smoke and fire of any sort. Back in the day this was not so; even as recently as six years ago, I was on a flight from Switzerland to India via Turkey which was delayed in Istanbul; facing restive passengers, the crew simply moved all the smokers to the rear section of the craft and begged us to light up. And nobody up front complained. Those were the days.

Now there is hope in sight for smokers who need their nicotine fix even while travelling. If German entrepreneur Alexander Schoppmann has his way, committed smokers (and they’re all committed) will soon be able to travel internationally again without losing their tempers. Assuming that Schoppmann can drum up his investor pennies, Smokers’ International Airline, or Smintair, is scheduled to take off in March next year. Its two leased Boeing 747s will fly only between Dusseldorf and Japan, both of which have large smoker populations, but it’s a start.

The whole idea sounds a little kooky, and a look at the Smintair website compounds the impression. Under the professional-sounding dropdown labelled ‘Thoughts’, Schoppmann presents his mission statement in typically eccentric wealthy European style, excerpted here warts and all: ‘I'd like to take the opportunity to clear one of the biggest lies floating around everywhere in the World:
"Second Hand Smoke (SHS, a.k.a. ETS, Environmental Tobacco Smoke) damages your health".
The WHO (World Health Orgaisation) confirms in all of it's studies concerning the subject, that ETS has not even a statistcally relevant effect on the non-smoker's health! If you want to go deeper into the subject, without prejudice, please refer to following link: You will be more than surprised of the amount of facts and neutral proof. By the way, did you know that the NAZIs also sported a huge Anti-Smoking campaign? Yes, they did and the one we experience now, frightningly, carries exactly the same insignia.’ (Sic to all that.)

You have to take your hat off to the man’s enthusiasm for smoking, and I have nothing but sympathy for the hardships faced by smokers, but he sounds, to use a colourful English expression, mad as a bag of frogs. Speaking of which, I can’t help but feel a bit paranoid myself when I read, that ‘the renowned technicians of LUFTHANSA will maintain and repair our aircrafts on all service intervals specified by BOEING with only original parts allowed during the process.’

Only original parts? What the hell does everyone else use?

On the other hand, Schoppmann intends for there to be only first (€ 10,000 return) and business class (€ 6,500) seats, and for the cabin crew to be very pretty and wearing uniforms that will be redesigned every two years to keep them fashionable, and he plans to spend three times as much as anyone else on every passenger’s nourishment, and he claims that non-smokers are not only welcome but would actually benefit from Smintair’s smint-fresh cabin air, which costs more but is better for your health.

That should reel them in.

Crocodile Dun-die

Of all the kisses that followed, none has ever quite matched up to my first. I was ten years old. My family lived in Indonesia at the time, and my classmates and I were on a school field trip to the Jakarta zoo where every day, at lunchtime, they would let the baby orangutans out to play.

As the teacher led us into the enclosure I saw a little rotund fellow in a corner giving me the eye. We stared at each other for a moment and then he made his move; he walked across the enclosure on his knuckles with a sort of weary three-martini look, jostled through the crowd of other apes and kids, walked right up my body, put his arms and legs around me and then, shyly closing his eyes, planted a long and tender kiss on my neck.

I was in love with all animals anyway, back then, but I went through a whole range of emotion with that little ape, starting from the zoo-goer’s usual, slightly patronising appreciation when I first saw him, to an amused horror (tinged with some real fear) when I realised he was heading for me, to a frozen thrill when he jumped into my arms, to flat-out infatuation when we kissed—because of course I hugged and kissed him back, on the top of his head, and stroked his wiry orange fur, and felt like a million dollars.

There’s nothing quite like physical proximity to an animal to bring every cell in your being alive with primal chemistry of all kinds. Anyone who has been on a jungle safari knows the heady, addictive fear you feel when a tiger strides out of the brush and growls at you; or when the wild tusker you’ve been trailing in the jeep suddenly whirls and looks you right in the beady eye. You have been warned: Mind the species gap. And yet, you can’t stop trying to get closer.

Those extreme feelings are perhaps what drove Steve Irwin, the so-called Crocodile Hunter from Australia who made a career of getting in the face of every dangerous creature he could lay his camera team on, and who lost his life this week to the toxic barb of a stingray while on a diving expedition.

Nobody who watched him negotiate poisonous snakes and snapping crocs could fail to appreciate the man’s enthusiasm for his subject: wildlife, the environment, and conservation. I have spent hours watching Sir David Attenborough huff and puff and whisper his way around the natural world, and I’ve spent hours watching Steve Irwin stomp and leap and shriek and manhandle his way through it, and there’s no question that Irwin was by far the more passionate and entertaining television presenter of the two. On the other hand, Sir David is alive and well and pushing 81.

I’m not sure that I’m shocked, as so many were, by the fact that Irwin once fed a crocodile while holding his one-year-old infant under one arm; and I’m not sure I believe, as Germaine Greer does, that he traumatised all the creatures he filmed. But the thought did cross my mind, more than once, that a lot of Irwin’s focus might have been on hitting his own emotional highs rather than on the laws of the natural world. It seemed to me that nobody could be so cavalier with wild creatures and not, one day, get his comeuppance.

And yet, I like to think that if he’d known he would die suddenly, Irwin would have picked going the way that he did—dramatically, and at the business end of one of the creatures he loved—over dying of old age in his bed.

My Phair lady

If there’s anything more far out than the whole Pluto-is-a-planet-is-not-is-too controversy, it’s the sweet story of the christening of the ninth object from the sun. The star of the show is a dark Horsehead of a woman called Venetia Burney Phair, who sounds like someone on Harry Potter’s Quidditch team but is in fact an unassuming Englishwoman who, at the tender age of eleven, knew her Roman and Greek mythology and her solar system enough to upstage the Royal Astronomical Society.

Venetia and her grandfather Falconer Madan, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s Potions teachers but was really the retired Bodleian librarian, were sitting at breakfast one drizzly morning when he read her the news item in the Times about Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Planet X at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona.

Venetia was reading Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable, and she had been on a nature walk at school that laid out the planets to scale. The class walked away from a sun two feet in diameter drawn on the blackboard; 41 paces later they put down canary seed-sized Mercury; 77 paces later, pea-sized Venus, and so on and so forth, to a golf ball representing Saturn, 1,019 paces away. At this point everyone got tired and gave up and trudged back to school, but Venetia had worked out that it was dark and cold past Saturn.

So when her grandfather mentioned that they hadn’t yet named the new planet, she thought about it for a few seconds and said, What about Pluto? Madan fell about in admiration and shot off the suggestion to his friend Herbert H. Turner, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s really peripheral friends but was in fact a former Astronomer Royal.

Turner, in turn, sent a telegram in mid-March to Vesto Melvin Slipher, who sounds like one of Harry Potter’s enemies at the Ministry of Magic but was actually the director of the Lowell Observatory. On May 1 Slipher announced the official adoption of the name Pluto, causing Falconer Madan to lavish a full five quid on his granddaughter. (There is some scepticism about whether Venetia was really the first person to come up with the name Pluto, but most people agree that even if she wasn’t, hers is the most charming story, so there.)

Venetia grew up to become an economics teacher, and married one Maxwell Phair. She lives in Epsom, England, and gives occasional quavery interviews to NASA among others. The lovely thing about her is her stodgy refusal to glamourise her part in history. In later years, when asked how she chose Pluto, she said she chose it because it wasn’t taken yet. When asked if she chose it because the first two letters honour Percival Lowell, who predicted a ninth planet, she said no, she didn’t realise or appreciate that at the time. When asked how thrilled she is to be the only person alive to have named a planet she said, “you don’t just go around telling people that you named Pluto…but it’s vereh nice for me.”

It’s nice, therefore, to know that she has an asteroid named after her (the 6235 Burney) and that the New Horizons probe currently on its way to Pluto is carrying a scientific experiment called the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter, which one hopes is more useful than it sounds and has nothing to do with mouldering undergraduates.

Venetia would buy one of those “Honk if Pluto is still a planet” bumper stickers if she were the sort of person who bought bumper stickers. But while non-planets don’t get named after Roman gods, the International Astronomical Union—facing rock-bottom popularity these days—has decided to keep the name Pluto, and that seems only Phair.

Troubled waters

There was a great cartoon during the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. The United States had been caught red-handed selling arms to their archenemy, Iran, to supply weapons to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. As public outrage shook the White House, Ronald Reagan flatly denied the whole thing and tied himself into knots before finally coming clean. The cartoon shows a wooden-faced President saying, “I never sold bows and arrows to the Indians, and I’ll never do it again.”

My teenaged soul, which came from the era of pinafores and bonnets, had a hard time processing the fact that, after the exposé, nothing happened. I waited eagerly for them to announce that they were replacing the iniquitous creeps in power with immediate effect. The days trickled by. Reagan stuck around, everyone forgot about it, and elections were held on the regular schedule. A shocking realisation dawned on me: People in power can do terrible things and lie about them to the whole world; and when they are caught it is possible that they will, rather than die of shame, keep going as if nothing ever happened. Even more shockingly, so will their constituents.

No matter how much water has since passed under the bridge, no matter how many political scandals come and go, it still stuns me that people in public office behave so brazenly and so often; and that this has no consequences for them.

Recently another elder statesman put himself through some very impressive contortions. (Were the Iraq oil-for-food letters forged? Were they cut-and-pasted? Did he write them at all, or just sign blank AICC letterheads and leave them lying around for devious forgers and/or cut-and-pasters, as any responsible leader would do? Did the CIA write them for him? Haven’t you ever written a letter of recommendation that you never wrote?) The whole thing reinforced the idea that, for some people, disgrace is just a word.

Then there are others of us who spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid shame. This, too, can sometimes be taken to a quite ridiculous extreme.

Earlier this week I was in the very remote Zanskar valley, in Ladakh. For those of you who don’t know where that is, you fly to Leh and spend a couple of days there listening to your body shout at you for depriving it of oxygen, then point the nose of your car west and keep driving until your fingers begin to decompose on the steering wheel. You know you’re there when you fall into a really cold river.

Actually, I fell in because we were on a rafting expedition on the Zanskar river and a big wave flipped the raft. That’s all part of the sport and the trip itself was spectacular. Unfortunately, I ended up stuck under the raft, and whatever direction I thrashed in, there only seemed to be more raft. As the seconds ticked by I realised that this was it; I was drowning, I was going to die in these beautiful brown-grey waters slicing through the soaring canyon walls.

Near-death experiences concentrate the mind wonderfully. As I flailed, the image of my mother came floating into my head, berating the organisers of the trip in her best icy voice (or, worse, in her irrational screamy voice) for what was patently not their fault. The personal humiliation I experienced at the thought of my own parent being unfair to someone on my account created such a rush of adrenaline that I thrashed one last mighty thrash and emerged, gargling and hyperventilating, into blessed sunlight and air.

Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

Stet of mind

So many people have asked about this that I’m going to put it down right here in black and pinkish-yellow. ‘Stet’ is a proofreading term for ‘let it stand’, from the Latin stare, to stand. In the verb form it means ‘to ignore an alteration or correction made on a proof’, or ‘to write an instruction to ignore such an alteration’. As a noun it refers to a written instruction to ignore such an alteration. This column is called Stet because the editor said it’s supposed to run as it is, even though it will probably be unintelligible. He meant the column, not the name. I hope he’s feeling silly.

Stet is perhaps more technical a term than many, and it’s understandable that not everyone would know it. Nevertheless, it is also true that a surprising number of people hang about shuffling their feet and wondering what a word means, when they could simply crack open a dictionary and find out for themselves. I’m not passing judgement; some people are just afraid of thick books. (Try, you big babies.) The more plausible explanation, however, is that they aren’t as interested in language as they are in other basic skills, like sex and violence.

Say what you like—to each his own, different strokes for different folks—but the sad fact is that too many people simply never push themselves to become the fine obsessive-compulsive language extremists they could be. They’ll trot out all sorts of stuff about left brain versus right brain, then they’ll ask how much it really matters if they wrote it’s instead of its, and they will end up shouting at you to get out of their office; but as any supportive coach will tell you, if a misplaced apostrophe doesn’t turn your stomach, you’re just not trying.

Sticklers for language are often viewed as nitpicking crazies who should get a life. There is something to this. Sometimes a little voice in their own head tells them to get a life, but the other little voices usually drown it out. The question is, where would art be without neurosis? I’ve heard that many people never sneak out at night and drive around town correcting billboards with a giant pencil. What is with these people? Where is the fire in their belly?

On the other hand, if you’re going to be a stickler, do it right. Some years ago, a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves made a big splash in the publishing world. It was a strident protest against what the author, Lynne Truss, saw as a depressing slide towards illiteracy in contemporary culture. Since it was all about the history of the comma and the rules governing semicolons and suchlike, and since it featured no sex or violence whatsoever, it came as a complete shock to everyone when the book shot to the top of the charts. One was tempted to conclude that Truss was wrong, and that people do harbour a deep respect for punctuation.

Except for two things: one, the book was riddled with dozens of the same horrible errors it so passionately denounced; and two, aside from the few party poopers who pointed this out, nobody noticed. It kept flying off the shelves, into rave reviews and into the collections of people who no doubt placed it next to other self-help books they never use, including Thick Books: From Fear to Empowerment in Ten Healing Steps.

On the upside, those of us who care about stuff like this are still lonely and broke, which gives us lots of time to work very hard. There’s always a silver lining.

The foetal position

Take any big human concern. How large is the universe? Is coffee good or bad for you? How do people born without a brain or a heart live on to fight elections? The fact is that after years of hard work and rigorous positivist enquiry into this sort of thing, scientists often wind up scratching their heads in the dark, right beside all the woolly English majors whom they loathed in college. The English majors got there much faster, and in a much better mood, by sloth, lust and greed, and usefully spent the extra time plagiarising sonnets to impress their dates. That alone justifies keeping university English departments functional despite widespread opposition to their existence.

No, wait, that wasn’t my main point. My main point was, I was right about babies. It turns out that scientists—the same ones who conclusively say that fat people live longer, and then that thin people live longer, and then that actually it’s not clear but funding has moved elsewhere—it turns out that these same unreliable people who have thus far idealised the mother-child relationship, are finally coming round to my much bleaker point of view.

But don’t take it from me, I’m biased and also an English major. Consider the evidence. First we had experiments that indicated that a baby does not cry because it particularly needs anything; it cries because it’s a coldly selfish creature that is bent on making its parents give all available food, love and college money to it rather than to its siblings. Those tiny flailing limbs are merely trying to knock out its brother.

Now we have pioneering research by an Indian doctor in Boston on preeclampsia, a mysterious disease in pregnant women which raises their blood pressure dangerously, can cause kidney and brain damage and occasionally snuffs them out altogether. The results strongly suggest that under their dimpled fat, babies are deadly predators who will not baulk at draining the life from their mothers if it gets them more nutrients. I’m paraphrasing, but the article ‘The Preeclampsia Puzzle’ in the July 24 issue of The New Yorker says essentially the same thing with some footnotes thrown in.

Imagine this: a foetus remodels its mother’s arteries to better filch her blood supply. If that isn’t sinister I don’t know what is, and that’s just in the normal course of events. The new research indicates that in cases where this process is unsuccessful, the baby releases toxins that constrict the mother’s blood vessels and starve her organs, to death if necessary, to feed its own placenta. And this is only one in a whole bagful of unpleasant foetal tricks (see also ‘gestational diabetes’, in which mummy’s little bundle of joy blocks her insulin).

Enough said: read the article. It’s full of phrases like “maternal-foetal conflict” and “alien parasite” and it uses the words “foetuses” and “malignant tumours” in the same sentence.

All of which scientifically explains why it is that little children give so many people the creeps; and why they always act so well in horror movies. Remember the girls in The Shining, and Regan in The Exorcist? Remember the Japanese flick Dark Water?

The truth about children is that when you look into their smooth, solemn faces and unblinking eyes, you dimly sense the ruthless savagery that got them to where they are. Can you really be sure that if you take your eyes off them for just one second, they won’t fly at your ankle and sink their little milk teeth into it? That’s what I’m going to ask my mother when she next tells me that the clock is ticking.

The dating game

Today is 5/8, or 8/5, depending on the house style. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought twice about this, but now that we’re awash in more commemorative dates than monsoon millimetres it’s a good idea to check that one is not overlooking a major national event. Everyone knows that the stodgy practice of calling bad news by its name ended five years ago. If it’s big enough news, you have to use the date instead. However, while the US has only the one catastrophe iconically named 9/11, we get our backsides blown to cinders with depressing regularity. Not only does this end up confusing those of us who have trouble with numbers, but nothing takes the punch out of a concept like overuse.

You may have noticed that the papers have been doggedly repeating terms like 13/12, 24/8, 29/10, 7/3 and 11/7, in the hope that they’ll catch on and become part of our political lexicon. (They refer, respectively, to the attack on Parliament, the Gateway of India bombs, the pre-Diwali Delhi blasts, the Varanasi bombs, and the train explosions in Mumbai—and don’t pretend you knew.)

But somehow none of our numbers, or indeed any numbers anywhere in the world, reverberate with quite the same deathly chill as 9/11. They sound like what they are: wannabes. And we have so many by now that most of us are a bit fuzzy on which is which (thank god that all stock exchange calamities are uniformly known as Black Monday). That’s apart from the technical glitches; in the US, dates are written month/day/year, while in India we write them day/month/year, except when we’re being copycats, which most of the time we enthusiastically are even if it means naming the most recent attack after a well-known chain of convenience stores. All in all, it’s not a nice way to honour the dead.

Put this trend together with the ongoing disaster of 24/7, also known as television news, which treats breaking wind as breaking news and generally makes mountains out of moles, and you end up only a hair’s breadth away from a farcical place in which we might, say, mark 29/3 as the day of the Fashion Week boob that distressed the very fabric of society, judging by the reams of analysis that ensued. Or celebrate 23/7 as the day that the little Prince emerged from his trauma in Haryana to find himself king of the airwaves and Rs 2 lakhs richer in a model village. (No doubt the next time he takes a walk he will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and herds of unicorn prancing around the Fountain of Eternal Youth, their horns impaled with monogrammed napkins that read, “If you only say it loudly and long enough, it will be so”.)

Anyway, as I said, it’s safer to check what day has what particular event attached to it—though the truth is, everyone is more or less equally confused and therefore unlikely to challenge anything you say. You could probably wake up any morning, sneak into a tv studio, get on the air and announce a minute’s silence to remember the victims, and get away with it.
The only importance I can attach to today, besides Marilyn Monroe’s death anniversary and Independence Day in Burkina Faso, is purely personal: 5/8 marks the first instalment of this column. Whether or not the date assumes meaning for anyone else remains to be seen, but the benchmark is obvious: it will depend on how painful it turns out to be.