Saturday, January 27, 2007

Security blanket

For years I loved Republic Day—the camels; the pomp and ceremony; the uniforms; the marching; the floats; okay, not the floats, but the camels are cool.

It was partly just vicarious thrills. I spent my teenage years imagining myself to be very special and brave, and therefore an excellent candidate for the armed forces’ officer corps. I mugged up the military phonetic alphabet and (for some reason) Morse Code, did forty pushups a day, and yearned to lead a regiment to glorious victory. An army officer relative gamely took me across to a cantonment tailor, who stitched me a set of fatigues complete with Velcro nametag, which I wore a lot. He (the uncle, not the tailor) let me drive a T-72 tank all over a bunch of unpatriotic desert shrubs, and shoot the hell out of enemy cardboard at the firing range. This further fuelled what my family called my delusions, though I like the phrase ‘rich inner life’.

But life is unpredictable. My plans to be tall and brave didn’t really come through, and as it turns out, the army discriminates shockingly against cowardly midgets. Besides, I read Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen’s poetry on the Great War, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, about Vietnam, and lots of other literature on war, and it quickly cleared my head of any glory-of-battle nonsense. So now, although my brother still calls me Genghis Khan and my sister mutters about Napoleon complexes, my uniform just hangs in the closet and makes me feel like a bit of an alpha sierra sierra.

Anyway: around the time I stopped seeing the glamour in needless violent death, I started seeing Republic Day as mostly a huge waste of taxpayer cash preceded by three days of traffic snarls. Frankly, rolling military hardware through the streets of the capital also strikes me as a horribly public display of national insecurity. The floats, for all their endless tedium, might pass as cultural celebration, but what’s with the rockets and the tanks?

I’m the first to admit that my understanding has, over the years, been shortened by millions of brain synapses, thanks to certain nameless grain and grape products. Still, as I understand it, Republic Day marks the transition of a colonial dominion to a republic supposedly governed by the rule of law and elected representatives faithful to a Constitution. There’s a rumour that we won our freedom mostly by non-violent protest. Maybe, then, it would be more appropriate to roll the President, the Prime Minister, judges, policemen, and maybe some of our less pot-bellied parliamentarians through the streets instead.

Plus, this will be India’s sixtieth year of independence, and coming up on a sixtieth birthday is always a good time to take stock, time to identify the things you still have left to do to ensure that you aren’t full of regrets when you croak. The problem is that when you have a lot to feel bad about, you tend to brush it under the carpet and defend, to the point of absurdity, the two and a half things you do have to be proud of. But in the spirit of a sixtieth year bash, maybe we could break with tradition and include some more honest, realistic floats next year, just to remind ourselves.

Let’s do one with a bunch of illiterate, starving children making firecrackers on one side, and a bunch of crooked politicians and businessmen endlessly passing money and halwa around to each other. Or one with a bunch of burning brides on one side, and female deities being adored on the other. And one with a million burning candles before a picture of Jessica Lal on one side, and on the other, a bunch of bones in a drain before a framed empty FIR form on the other.

I wonder whether the foreign dignitaries would still be invited.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Chasing the cut

The typical city-dweller will have, on average, four to five hundred haircuts over his or her lifetime. This statistic, which I have made up based on a meticulous set of wild guesses, is the explosive hidden reason why modern urbanites are always wrecked. People whose nerves are already so frayed that they can barely sleep and breathe at the same time, are hardly likely to relish making four to five hundred extra decisions in their life.

This is why newspapers and magazines spend so much time advising us on what to do with our hair depending on whether our face is oval (perfect, anything will look fab), long (cut off one or the other end, Horsey, preferably with a saw, but at least with bangs), round (hairy brackets for you, Plain Jane), or square (go and kill yourself at once). Sadly, however, the advice is often contradictory and therefore more confusing than helpful.

You might say: forget the salon and the appointments and the annoying barber chitchat—just let your hair grow as it will. Somebody calculated that if you were to forgo professional haircuts your whole life, the money you’d save could buy you a nice car instead. Although, since hair grows at the rate of about half an inch a month, you’d then also have to buy a great big shower cap in which to stuff your twenty-five or thirty feet of hair so that you could see out of the windscreen. (This is an example of what we call ‘hidden costs’.) A laissez-faire policy would be wonderful if only the world were not so cruelly biased in favour of people with sharp hair cuts.

Still, for a great many years, I did just let it be. After a childhood spent at the mercy of my mother, who maintained on me what they called the Cleopatra cut—bangs along my eyebrows and a severe horizontal cutoff around my head at chin level—in my teens I took control and let my hair grow out, though I kept the bangs because my mother had taken a violent dislike to them. I trimmed them with my Swiss army knife, sometimes with the aid of a mirror, whenever they began to get in the way of my eating.

By high school she’d given up, and limply acquiesced whenever, once every year or two, I handed her a pair of scissors and asked her to snip a half-inch off the end in a straight line; if I was feeling reckless and wild, I’d commission a shallow ‘U’. Eventually I tired of even the bangs and lapsed into pure disinterest, wherein everything was allowed to grow out from my head at will, as long as I didn’t have to think about it.

My last trim was in August, during a week-long, bath-free rafting expedition on the Zanskar river which had made an unholy mess of my hair. One afternoon on the river bank, I handed my Leatherman to a friend who, greatly exceeding his brief, lifted whole hanks of my hair and, with six or seven murderous motions, created what he called 'Italian steps'. In the absence of a mirror, I viewed the results in a videocam clip of my back. They seemed fine. According to what everyone assured me was tradition, I gathered the shorn locks, spat on them, and flung them into the water.

Hair, in case you missed this, has simply not been in my repertoire of self-expression. I’ve had a grand total of five professional haircuts in the last fifteen years, and the world hasn’t stopped turning. But now, suddenly, I’m bored absolutely to tears. It’s a brave new year; I feel a dramatic new cut coming on. Maybe a really deep ‘U’.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Word's worth

One of the many things I do not understand about this world is why the English language would need a word like ‘anatiferous’, which means ‘producing ducks’. Beyond a scientific reference to a mother duck, and its clear potential as creative insult (“Wouldst cross me, thou anatiferous popinjay?!”) and euphemism (“Now stepping up to the crease is the anatiferous Sourav Ganguly”), what use could it be? The dictionary was no help at all—it just sucked me into a whirlpool of even more unhelpful obscurities, such as peduncle and cirriped, which also makes for a passable insult, viz.: “Get off of my pizza/wife/land, you peduncled cirriped!”.

Speaking of dictionaries, anatiferous came to me from an article on Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch, Professor of English at Rutgers. Lynch talks about how in the 18th century, lexicography, which had previously focused exclusively on obscure or difficult words like ‘adpugn’, began to take an interest in including and adequately defining the easy, common ones, like ‘take’. He talks about how ‘take’ went from a nine-word definition in John Kersey's New English Dictionary in 1702, to an 8,000-word definition in Dr Johnson’s great Dictionary of 1755.

That isn’t work for the common yob, and one has to admire Johnson’s bloody-mindedness in finishing his oeuvre; it was clearly painful, especially since he had to know that nine out of ten people would make a beeline for ‘adpugn’ and never read a word of ‘take’. In Johnson’s words: “I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquillity, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.” You can’t really blame him for spicing up the job by shamelessly throwing in his own opinions, viz. ‘ruse’, which he called ‘A French word neither elegant nor necessary.’

I’m always up for a bizarre word myself, and elsewhere in Lynch’s article found one that finally names the nameless evil that has been throwing off my personal budget for years: ‘abligurition’, or ‘spending too much on food and drink’.

On the theme of bizarre words for bizarre concepts, I recently came across ‘dermoid’. A dermoid is an ovarian cyst formed from a totipotential germ cell—which is a cell that has the potential to be anything it wants to be, like in the Army. These little toti-potentates can grow into any type of epidermal cell; so a woman could be walking around with a little bouquet of, say, eyelashes, or teeth, or thyroids, in her belly. It seems useful—I, for one, could use extras of all of those things—but it’s pretty odd.

And speaking of extras, almost twenty years ago I had a heated conversation with a friend who opined that feelingless human beings should be bred and stored in freezers to have their organs harvested for people in medical need. I didn’t think there was any way that we could breed feelingless human beings when we couldn’t even get rid of the common cold.

But science is progressing at a frightening clip, and based on recent cultural evidence (movies like ‘The Island’, which foregrounds notable organs such as Scarlett Johanssen’s, and books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, both about shadow civilisations of clones) I’d say that even the mainstream population now thinks of the idea as possible, even if ethically complicated. Already, if you’re rich, and up with the latest scientific research, and have had a baby, and don’t have too many God issues, you can cryogenically store the umbilical cord and placenta, to be defrosted and harvested for stem cells in your offspring’s time of need.

I’d love to see a 23rd century dictionary—what a wealth of bizarre words it would contain. Perhaps it would come pre-loaded in my brain. Dictionaries, after all, have to keep up with life.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Reality checks in

The Wikipedia entry on ‘psychopathy’ quotes Robert D. Hare, author of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised, describing psychopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

This could as well be the Wikipedia entry for ‘writers’. Psychopaths tend to lack empathy, while writers suffer from a surfeit of it, but it’s precisely the ability to empathise with lack of empathy that would make a writer such an excellent psychopath. Come to think of it, this could also be the Wikipedia entry for ‘politicians’, or ‘random neighbours’.

It’s quite likely that many more people than is obvious, live on the knife-edge between ‘nice old grandfatherly sort’ and ‘Hamilton Albert Fish’. If you aren’t familiar with the name, think Hannibal Lecter, without the charm. To appreciate the finer points of the man’s temperament and life one must google him, though I would urge you not to do that around mealtimes.

The world is filled with psychopaths in all kinds of positions, which is why it is such a violent place. Yet, most people demand that the violence be kept from public view, except in its fictional form. I disagree. Fiction is a wonderful insulator (enhancer of comfort and reducer of shock) that doesn’t allow horror to fully penetrate to the soul because, no matter how much it draws on reality, some part of you knows it’s fake. Fiction allows you to experience extreme behaviour and emotion without being scarred or broken by it. I would argue that there are things we need to be scarred by, things that we don’t even register any more, and that we might do something about if it were more in our faces.

I’ve never been rattled to the foundations by a really gruesome or cruel or tragic or depraved book or movie. I remember Exquisite Corpse, a 1996 novel by Poppy Z. Brite, as a brilliant tale about two gay necrophiliac serial killers who eat their victims. Even though Brite drew heavily on the life of real-life psychopath Jeffrey Dahmer, I was intrigued more than horrified.

Of course, truth being ever stranger than fiction, and apparently equally imitative, in 2001 there was the case of “the Cannibal of Rotenburg”, a gay German man named Armin Meiwes, who killed and ate a willing victim, computer engineer Bernd-Juergen Brandes, after they discovered each other and their shared tastes, if you will, on the internet. Among the stories I read about it, the one throwaway line that really gave me pause was that the police officers involved in studying the evidence, including the videotaped ritual murder, were undergoing psychiatric counselling. For them it wasn’t a matter of reading a newspaper report; it was real.

Reality has a way of being much harder to take, and in important ways this is more constructive. I’m not intrigued by Moninder Pandher’s little sexual assault-and-murder operation in Noida, I’m sickened by it. I’m not intrigued by the live beheadings and shootings and bombings I’ve watched on the internet, I’m sickened by them. I can keep my popcorn down through any number of spilt intestines at a movie, but my own stomach turns when a real person gets a real paper cut.

If we were forced to watch real people get hurt, and die, or get killed, or sell their kidneys for a meal, the views and opinions we hold—on capital punishment, on gun control, on who to vote for—would be a good deal more substantive. And who knows, more of us might be moved to step forward and help.