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 cafĂ©, 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.