Saturday, March 31, 2007

Let the Games begin

Thanks to a good physical education program in elementary school, I was raised to play and like sports, even though I’m no great athlete and made a less than intimidating quarterback on the soccer field. I once lost my volleyball team the game because I was daydreaming and caught the ball instead of bouncing it back, and I spent most of the games period in boarding school hiding out behind a dorm curtain, drinking tea and reading. But I have no aversion to healthy sweat: I still exercise on most days, play some feeble badminton, go rafting, and get sunburned. At one time I could have sworn that I had a couple of muscles.

Sport is the best training ground for things like fair play, teamwork, spectator etiquette, and the fact that you win some and you lose some. But apparently not so in India. I’m really looking forward to watching New Delhi host the Commonwealth Games 2010. Here’s how it’s going to go.

There is much laughter and fellow feeling among athletes, and between athletes and spectators. For weeks beforehand, the newspapers produce special supplements listing the stars, the managers, the teams, the odds, the facts, and the trivia. Everyone picks his or her favourites and sinks all his or her time, energy and wealth into collecting memorabilia, praying for the subject’s health, and therapist visits to steady pre-event nerves.

The Games begin. The Gambian gymnast stumbles slightly on her final triple somersault landing; we toss broken bottles at her from the stands. The Indian squash player comes in second; we burn his effigy. The Canadian track star comes in a split second after his previous best time; we tear down his Games village hostel room. On one day the Kenyan archer hits the bullseye dead centre because his girlfriend accepted his marriage proposal; we write reams of newsprint on the new deity of archery, make him endorse all our products, invite him to model clothes at a fashion show, and bully the Kenyan government into granting him a lifelong tax waiver. The next day the Kenyan archer misses the bullseye by one handspan (because his girlfriend discovered his lying, cheating ways, and returned the ring); we throw bottles at him, burn his effigy and burn down his Games Village hostel room.

When it comes to sport, India inevitably loves not wisely, but too well. If the Commonwealth Games of 2010 go off without this kind of screechingly stupid behaviour, it is likely to be only because of another of our least attractive national traits, namely our unctuous desire to impress our guests (especially the rich white ones, even if it means herding all the beggars into shelters to ‘clean up’ the streets, or blasting metros through protected areas and ripping out trees).

It really should not be a matter of surprise that the Indian cricket team is composed of men who play cricket, not gods in the shape of the slightly paunchy fellows who appear on television hawking soap or petrol or credit cards. They play cricket like all sportsmen: sometimes well, sometimes poorly. If they won most of the time, that would make them a good team. If they lose much or most of the time, that makes them a middling or poor team.

Frankly, it’s your own fault if you forgot this and had your hopes and dreams crushed. If you happen to be outraged about your money riding on a bunch of losers, it’s your own fault for putting it there. If you want surefire returns, invest in government bonds. The unpredictability of sport is what makes it fun to watch in the first place. Surely, if you knew the outcome of every sporting event to begin with, there wouldn’t be much point in having a match?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Eyes wide shut

A long, long time ago, when books, televisions, movie halls, theatres, cricket grounds, shops and porn sites were merely a twinkle in some ape’s eye, Mother Nature resigned herself to the fact that homo sapiens won’t do a damn thing unless there’s some entertainment value in it. Recognising, also, that humans need to spend a third of their life sleeping in order to spend the other two-thirds goofing off, she introduced in mankind a foolproof way to make sleep entertaining. It’s a trick I still turn to when I’m bored with everything else, and that is: have a nice long dream.

The excellent thing about dreaming is, of course, the complete unpredictability and therefore surprise factor of the results: no preliminary interviews or ads or preview spoilers or endless blog discussions to mess up the story. It doesn’t have to make sense for you to stay hooked. And, in yet another clear indication that every mother can anticipate her child’s greatest hopes and fears, it’s free.

When I was little and dreaming, if I woke up in between, I could restart the dream where it had stopped, just by the sheer force of my desire to know what would happen. This kind of lucid dreaming is a delicate tightrope act between staying asleep and waking up, but I stayed with the story about a rabbit in a forest for two nights running.

Animals featured heavily. In one dream when I was three or four years old, a po-faced man ushered a herd of buffalo into our living room (where they all streamed around the dining table even though buffalos and room both stayed the same size) and then he and my ayah conducted a bad bit of business, in which she gaily traded me in for a hard-boiled egg. It haunted me for years.

What I love about dreaming is the Dali-esque thwarting of all expectation. I remember, in particular, a dream where I was atop an elephant, sightseeing in the city of Lucknow, which was an intricately-woven Persian carpet alive with scurrying rats. Some of my favourite dreams are those endorphin-filled ones in which I ‘take off’ from a step, or a grassy hillside, and fly my heart out.

Of course, with every sort of entertainment you’ll occasionally get a dud, which in my case is the recurring nightmare about being on foot on a tiger- or lion-infested hillside, or the one about the sea level rising slowly but inexorably, into a wall of black water towering over my head. There’s the one in which the aircraft I’m on is taking off and loses power, crashing to earth; and the one in which my mother is chasing me with a knife, and my running legs get heavy and leaden and can’t take the next step…

But it’s not all entertainment: dreaming can also be useful, as in a possibly sanitised story I was told as a child about Francis Crick’s dream leading to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Sanitised, that is, if ‘dream’, here, was an euphemism for ‘LSD trip’.

My own single experience with hard drugs, by the way, happened in a dream—with low lighting and piles of cocaine and a feeling of being thrillingly stretched so that my head was in outer space, among the stars. The scary thing is, when I woke up the next morning, my body was still on the same high and stayed that way for three days. And by ‘scary’ I mean, ‘how great is that, and for free!’.

There are people who cannot remember their dreams, and people who claim they don’t dream (but apparently they do and just can’t remember them). Some say that makes for a more peaceful sleep. I say, it’s a waste of good entertainment.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Warra-warra and do the crossword

A short while after we’d moved into our house, the lady who takes in ironing in the neighbourhood leaned on the bell to inform us that we hadn’t given her any money. After a moment of complex emotion, I agreed that this was true, and gently closed the door. I now know that the word I was searching for at the time was warra-warra.

Warra-warra, I recently read, was the first aboriginal phrase recorded by 18th-century British settlers in Australia, and it means “Go away”. It is a fantastically useful word, particularly on every day of the week, which is when people ring my doorbell wanting money. I feel rude telling them to go away, especially if it’s the Blind School or the Victims of Terrorism camp, but I think that I can probably smile, waggle my head non-committally, and say warra-warra, without upsetting anyone. I will have gotten things off my chest, and, except in the unlikely case that he or she happens to be an actual Australian aboriginal on a whirlwind fundraising tour of South Delhi, my unwelcome guest will back away slowly, assuming that I’m verbigerating.

Verbigeration is what can sometimes comes out of the mouth of a mentally ill person, or of someone whose brain language functions have been affected. It’s a collection of noises that sound like words and language, but aren’t. I think I can do a pretty good imitation, thanks to close surveillance of my two-year-old niece who, as far as I can tell, spends all day verbigerating on imaginary telephones. (I’m sure there’s a different word for the nonsense that children speak, but I don’t know it, and the description is awfully similar. I was a bit worried about her development until I read that Einstein’s parents thought he was going to be slow because he learned to speak so late.)

Not being able to speak, or, more accurately, not being able to express yourself, must be the loneliest, saddest thing in the world, after being George Bush. There are few things as horrifying and cruel as becoming immured in one’s own declining faculties. Watching the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, or the effects of a stroke, is truly excellent incentive to try to keep it all going as long as possible.

As with abdominal muscle tone, so with speech: the conventional wisdom is that if you don’t use it, you lose it. Spend long enough by yourself, without speaking, and you could end up spouting all kinds of crazy garbage (“I know, I’ll be a freelancer!”). Ditto verbal ability. If you don’t regularly make yourself reach for words deep inside your brain and use them, rather than merely read them off a page, you’ll end up thinging the um out of the whatnot, and your children will not know that you wanted them to empty your bedpan, or reinsert the catheter, or whatever. Ditto math: if you don’t do some every day, you’ll never be able to put two and two together, and will be robbed blind. Ditto motion and balance. Sit on your posterior all day watching Fashion House on TV, and when you rise, you will fall over and break a hip.

My aunt keeps herself sharp by doing the daily crossword and the Sudoku. (I think she asks her children for help sometimes, but it’s the thought that counts. Literally.) For my part, since I have little hope for the brain, I’m starting with the body; no more cigarettes, and a lot more exercise. I can feel the effects already: I have a sore throat, and I’ve almost killed four people on the road for driving badly. To everyone who keeps saying it’ll get better, I say: Warra-warra.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Creative license

Accepting his Bafta award for best film not in English, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labyrinth fame said, “I’m far too fat for this kind of excitement… I love England because I can get very drunk and very repressed, and I thank you for that.”

It’s possible that something was lost in translation there, but del Toro’s turned out to be a much better acceptance speech than most. It was also an anachronistic crosscultural moment, in which a foreigner made a joke based on a cultural cliché relating to the host country, and instead of getting the foreign affairs ministers of both nations involved, the audience merely laughed, and the show went on.

But then artists are like that, always getting away with non-traditional stuff, like being fat, yet happy. I was at dinner at an artist’s house the other night, and although he did perfectly normal host-like things such as show us around the place and chat entertainingly, and turn out a meal to die for, he also had a pressure cooker in his kitchen in which he boils hair. That’s the kind of thing you just have to expect. (I discovered to my disappointment that he boils hair not because he’s seriously disturbed, but because he’s also a hair and makeup artist.)

It’s not just a matter of being a little weird. The true artist’s core trait is his or her disregard for social conventions. You can’t push the envelope unless you overcome your fear of judgement, so you won’t be truly creative until you’re truly unfettered by other people’s opinions. And strangely, if you’re on the correct side of the fuzzy line between genius and madman, eccentric and misfit, soul in pain and chronic grump, then people are willing to overlook many things that they wouldn’t under ordinary circumstances. Artists are allowed—expected, even—to be eccentric, badly groomed, ill-mannered, scandalous and rude (not to be confused with losers, who are all of the above but produce no redeeming Art).

Getting drunk a lot, for instance, and/or high, is more or less de rigueur to lower whatever’s left of your inhibitions and get the creative juices flowing, but only if you’re serious about it. In college, where everyone thinks they’re an artist, I tried a joint but had a panic attack, and wanted to try magic mushrooms, but my friend couldn’t find them, and that was about as far as the doors of my pereception would open. That kind of thing isn’t going to cut it. But if you drink whiskey all night while standing on a lion skin and typing, you could be the next Hemingway.

There are risks, of course, as Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Hemingway himself could have told you if they hadn’t all gone and killed themselves. There’s a reason that the phrase ‘doomed to be an artist’ exists. But on balance, it’s a pretty good gig, since you get to do what you naturally love, at whatever time of day or night you jolly well please, assuming you’re any good and do actually love it.

If you don’t love it, you can leave it. One fellow popped out for a smoke about two hours into his first day on an architectural job, and never came back. I did that once, one month into a job, but eventually had to come back for my paycheck and at that point was administered a terrible shouting.

And that is the basic difference between artists and freelancers—a money-grubbing freelancer will always come back for the check.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Earplane air plugs, anyone?

One of the things I love best about my home in Vasant Kunj is that it’s extremely quiet by Delhi standards. The fact that I’m surrounded by trees and can hear birdsong and the breeze reminds me that there’s still something akin to quality of life in this suppurating sore of a city. We’re not in the flight path, we’re set back from the main road enough to not hear traffic, the market is walking distance but not close enough to be disturbing, and our neighbours are, for the most part, too old to be a nuisance (except for one little grandspawn of the devil, upstairs, who likes to bounce his ball inside the house late at night, but I have plans for him). My home is my sanctuary, my oasis of peace and quiet.

So, when a plane suddenly flew into one of my ears and out of the other, the other day, I thought it must be crashing, which would be consistent with my theory on planes anyway. I looked out of the window expecting a searing explosion and towers of smoke, but there was only a little boy picking his nose. And then, a minute or two later, it happened again: another plane roared right overhead like a beast in pain.

Since then, for the last several days, my days and nights have been poxed by the constant arrival and departure of aircraft after aircraft, sometimes nearer and sometimes further, but all much too close for comfort.

Last night was the last straw. I ground my molars to dust trying to ignore the constant roar. I tried to remember that everything, including the urge to homicide, is transient and that this too shall pass. I wondered if someone might still be selling anti-aircraft weaponry at that time of night.

Finally I got up out of bed, turned on the light with an extra pissed-off click, banged open the door, swearing loudly, and went to my study where a pair of orange ear plugs have been festering on my desk since I nicked them off a China Airlines flight in 2005, alongside a human skull in plaster, a Buddha from Nalanda, a framed paper pig carrying a spray of pressed flowers, about a hundred and ten bits of bills and other unidentified paper, and a dental cast which I use as a paperweight (all festering on my desk, not all nicked off the plane). I swore loudly again, put the earplugs into my ears, got back into bed with an aggressive flounce, and burst into tears for good measure.

If I finally got any sleep at all, it was because of those earplugs (made out of some excellent quasi-putty substance that you compress like plasticine and stuff in your ear and hold in place for thirty seconds—they puff up magically and fit like, well, like the inside of an ear).

The next morning I called the office of the manager at Delhi Airport and got someone who sounded as if he might have a martini in his hand and not a care in the world. I asked him whether the flight path had changed, and if so, whether it was a permanent change.

“What do you mean by flypast?” he slurred.

Someone else got on the line.

“Maybe it is temporary,” he said mysteriously. “We have no idea. This is the ATC’s decision.” I demanded the ATC’s number. “They won’t tell you, though,” said the man sadly.

I called the ATC, and sure enough, they said: “No, madam, this we cannot tell,” and hung up.

I’m teetering on the brink of madness. Consider this a cry for help: will someone tell me what’s going on, and if it will ever end? You can contact me in the psychiatric ward of Fortis Hospital in Vasant Kunj; if they don’t have a psych ward yet, they will soon.