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 (www.delhitrafficpolice.nic.in/) 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: http://www.thetruthisalie.com. 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 www.dictionary.com, 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.