Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mobile with wheels

I acquired my first mobile phone in the mid-1990s, which I recently heard a kid refer to, quite seriously, as “the olden days”. I suppose it was a dull and silly time; back then we may not have had to walk three kilometres to school in the dark after milking the cows, as my grandparents had to in the days right after the Big Bang, but we did have to dial up 7,286 times before finally getting connected to the VSNL government server, which disconnected immediately thereafter. My coolest friend at the time had a pager, though he doesn’t like to talk about that.

Anyway, back then I lived alone in Delhi and regularly drove around alone at night, and my parents worried about me, so on one of their visits home from Malaysia they brought me a cell phone. I’m not a gadget freak but I fell in love with it at first sight. It was a bright yellow little flip-open Sony Ericsson with a strip of screen that scrolled left to right and accommodated three words of text at a time, and I thought it was the cutest, cleverest thing I’d ever seen. Since it was intended primarily for emergency use I got a pre-paid connection, but it swiftly became an indispensable convenience.

Of course, it was a stone-age tool compared to my present phone, that technological marvel called the Nokia 2210 which, over and above cutting-edge dialling facilities like buttons, also has predictive text. It makes my life much easier, and has greatly improved the strength and agility of my thumbs. Also, I can reach people, and people can reach me, at any time, even when I’m driving.

Yesterday I was pulled over by a traffic policeman for doing just that. “Licence,” he said, in pithy policing prose. I looked in my bag. “I’ve left my wallet at home,” I said truthfully. “Registration,” he said. “That’s also in my wallet,” I said, making a mental note to tear out my own fingernails with a set of pliers later that evening. “Speak to sir,” he said, pointing to a senior colleague.

The senior was fighting with a lady with dark film on her car windows, whose rather wild arguments against the Rs 600 fine included the fact that she had two children (to which he responded that he had two as well, both with B.Ed degrees). When he was done with her I recapped my thoroughly guilty situation for him.

“Get someone to bring your wallet,” he said. I told him that my husband was playing squash and wouldn’t answer his phone for another half hour, and even when he did, he’d take a while to get here because his own car was in the service station—all of which was true, but sounded made up. You’ll have to wait, he said. Okay, I said. He looked startled and said, ‘You can sit in my chair.’ I declined. Half an hour went by. I remembered I had my chequebook in the car but they said a cheque wouldn’t do; anyway, I didn’t have my licence, so they would impound my car. I asked where and how. “You’ll have to take a receipt, and collect the car tomorrow from the court in Saket,” he said. All my offences would cost me Rs 4,000, and a lot of time.

Right, I said, deeply resigned and making a mental note to tear out my toenails as well, no point my hanging around then, I’ll take an auto home and collect the car tomorrow. Do you really have no money? they asked, and fell to whispering and conferring amongst themselves. “I’m letting you off,” said the elder one abruptly. “But please don’t talk on your mobile phone while driving.”

Yes, sir.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Koffee with Saran: The Shining

I’m thinking of starting my own television celebrity talk show. Admittedly, the odds are stacked against it: I’m not gay, I have no fancy friends and no silicone implants, I hate the camera, and also nobody has asked me. But to let these nothings stand in the way of my dreams would be to indulge in that awful, pre-India Shining, wet blanket realism that is so, like, over.

I know it’s so over because all around me, things are happening that I, in my previous avatar as wet blanket, thought could never, or rather, should never really happen. Politicians fight and win elections and ministries from jail, millionaires don’t pay tax, and we call ourselves a superpower despite the couple hundred million of us who go to bed hungry. By hook or by crook people are shining away in the warm glow of can-do, and I’m not going to be left behind in a quagmire of pessimism.

So, why not my own TV show, since I’m lazy and shy and can’t speak a single sentence in public? Besides, my business plan is foolproof. Step one: Organise a dazzling lineup of all twenty of our A-list celebrity guests, who will agree to appear, as well as uncomplainingly finance the show, after I blackmail them with clips of their least attractive angles and pictures of what they look like before makeup. Step two: The money rolls into my bank account faster than I can spend it. Voila!

So far I only have a working title, but I’m fairly fizzing with enthusiasm. Every second that I seemingly spend staring into space with my mouth open, is actually a second spent with my mind working overtime like a veritable precision machine on the look-and-feel and all the modalities, whatever those are, and the TRP-boosting details.

An all-white set—very Mediterranean, very hip—is my first choice, but might cause the artist lately known as Semi Girebaal to throw a tantrum, so my set will instead be a high-contrast riot of Ivory, Oyster, Silver, Lace, Seashell, Frost, Off-White, Chalk, Pearl, Alabaster, and Young Tooth.

My first guest will be Karan Johar, to whom some might say I owe a debt of gratitude, or at least an apology. He’s an actor, director, producer, screenwriter, awards emcee, Miss World competition jury member, talk show host, one of 250 Global Young Leaders picked by the World Economic Forum in 2006 and speaker at the Wharton India Economic Forum and the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in Delhi. I think he might also be President of India, I’m not really sure. Anyway, when K.Jo King of Koolness appears on my show (which will have a much better introductory jingle than his) I will ask him whether watching the tapes of his show ever makes him want to throw the Koffee Hamper at the Koffee Wall of Fame.

The other person I really want to invite is Poonam, the woman who, according to a recent newspaper report, was Mayawati’s hair stylist, and after the BSP swept the recent Uttar Pradesh polls, was rewarded for her skills with an appointment to the Chairpersonship of one of the country’s manifold Welfare Commissions, which, by the way, has suddenly developed a killer look. I just have to ask Poonam: So this is Mayawati after the makeover? Which is, of course, exactly the kind of sexist, frivolous, brainless question that I can expect to propel my TRPs into outer space.

There’s no shortage of possibilities, so no pessimism for me, because the people who make India proud are the shining.

Oh hey, isn’t that the name of some horror show?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thanks for all the flying fish

Not long ago, a reader emailed to say, “Boy, you sure sound angry.” Some days later my husband asked, in passing, why I was looking so grumpy. And recently, my mother informed me that unless I channel my impotent rage about the state of the nation into some constructive activity, I can look forward to having a heart attack before the age of forty. Life is a great teacher; this time I learned that my mother defines ‘constructive activity’ as ‘an activity of her choice’, in this case, ‘helping her pick new fixtures for her house’.

By the way: funny things, fixtures. It turns out that changing a couple of bathroom taps directly cascades into sink replacement, pot upgradation, drawing-room wall destruction, living-room floor ripping-up, window reinvention all over the house, and green area landscaping. This so-called Domicile Theory, one of the lesser-known cold war-era paranoias, says that shining up the sink tap with Brasso is likely to result in your house immediately turning into rubble for six months before it rises, geriatric-like, from its fall, weaker but older, with new and unfamiliar problems.

Anyway, it seems that I’m no longer the serene, beatific person I was when I was younger and all my bits and bobs worked, brain included. Back then I had the answers to everything, and having no problems of my own freed me up to sort out everyone else’s. I found it very rewarding to go about telling people what was good for them, especially tragically incompetent people very much in need of a helping hand, like parents. It’s really very calming to be fourteen and know everything.

Today I still have no real problems. I have a house, safe drinking water if you discount the odd bit of government-approved cholera, all of my limbs and some of my wits, and I’ve never been busted for human trafficking, or staging fake police encounters, or embroiling my country in a pointless war—but none of this is an impediment to being cross a lot of the time anyway. A friend once gave a mug shot of me to a face reader, who shook his head and pronounced me full of krodh (anger).

Yes, somewhere along the line I’ve turned into someone on a short fuse who swears like a sailor and beetles her brow without even meaning to. I like to think that it’s not just my temperamental fate; that living in a Developing World metropolis has something to do with turning a fairly mild-mannered pacifist into a raving beast in the face of the slightest provocation.

I proved this to myself a couple of weeks ago, when I had the good fortune to find myself on a ridiculously good-looking beach on the island of Barbados, which is lapped on one coast by the Caribbean sea and on the other by the Atlantic ocean. As I washed down a flying fish sandwich with a cold Banks beer and watched a couple of well-muscled Barbadian men play ball on the sand, it occurred to me that the strange sensation on my forehead was an unknitted brow, and the strange muscle twitch on my face was a smile. For ten days I had no reason to frown except to squint at the sea against the sun.

Frankly, everyone seems much happier in Barbados than they do in Delhi, and I think this is because they are big fans of music and dancing, in addition to being fantastically laid-back to the point of institutionalising free rum punch at the airport check-in area. I, too, am obviously much happier in Barbados. We’d only been back a few days before my husband asked, in passing, “Why are you looking so grumpy?”

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Cockpit blues

Being a kid on an aircraft in the 1970s and 80s was great. They gave you puzzles, colouring books and toffees to keep you quiet, and if you were travelling alone, they’d let you hide the geeky ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ sign in your pocket whenever you felt that your ten-year-old dignity was at stake. Best of all, they almost always offered you a cockpit visit, because this was back when fewer kids had guns, and before there was a terrorist hiding in the sole of everyone’s shoes. A few minutes in the cockpit made a ten-hour journey worth every minute, and ensured that I grew up thinking that being on an airplane was the best, most thrilling thing in the world, and kudos to mankind for achieving flight.

Turbulence was but a series of entertaining bumps, and air pockets a delicious whooshing sensation in the tummy. Electric storms were pretty. On occasion when I saw another passenger murmuring prayers and sweating and clutching his or her armrest in obvious distress, I felt great washes of magnanimous pity for the poor laggards in the gene pool.

Around the time I turned thirty, however, the proverbial thing that goes around, came around and bit me in the butt. On a flight between Delhi and Bombay, one minute I was looking out the window and enjoying the dubious inflight service. The next, I became suddenly convinced that all the noises I was hearing bespoke engine failure, wing dismemberment, wheel shredding, navigational error, airplane breakup and general hydraulic, electric and prolific calamity, all of which the pilot was refraining from telling us doomed passengers about because he was himself dead in his seat.

I observed that the air hostesses continued to serve tea in a kind of ghoulish denial of what was happening, and that the other passengers kept snoring or picking their noses as if they simply couldn’t hear the big-wire-that-controls-everything short-circuiting, and the ailerons falling off. I became a gibbering wreck, and when suddenly the engines seemed to shut off, nobody batted an eye. I realised that it was up to me to keep the whole benighted aircraft aloft by shivering and sweating profusely.

Since that day, I have taken only three flights that I enjoyed more than I hated; and paradoxically, those were in a helicopter, a little Cessna, and a hot air balloon, all of which are a good deal less safe than your average passenger aircraft.

Recently, however, I happened upon a kindly pilot who attempted to cure me of my fear by inviting me into the cockpit of his Boeing 747 so that I could see for myself the awesome technology that was holding me safe in 35,000 feet of nothing (which pilots insist on calling ‘air’). I took this as my chance to voice my deepest fears, and get reassurance by a qualified chap.

It’s been fifteen years since I was last in a cockpit, and I have to admit that it was still a great kick, even though it’s a tad disconcerting to see the control yokes moving by themselves, and to realise that you can’t make out a single word of what the air traffic controller just said, and to discover that pilots do in fact frequently bang their heads against the millions of knobs on the overhead panels.

But all in all, my visit did help to reassure me that the people in the cockpit know what they’re doing—which is, apparently, dying of boredom and therefore happy to answer the most foolish of your questions. I’m too embarrassed to repeat it here, but I’m happy to say that the answer is ‘no’.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Lard almighty, is that me?

It’s a terrible shock when a self-described thin person, passing a mirror on the way to the kitchen to grab an insouciant piece of cake, suddenly realises who the fat person was whom they just walked by. Classic reactions follow: shock, denial, anger, depression, resignation; the hallmark of loss. What happened to my thin self? She’s twenty six years old and full of beans, but now she apparently exists only between the ears of the fatty wearing my pants.

If you weren’t brought up to be fixated on the physical it’s even worse, because you’re so unprepared. After years of being told you need to eat more; after years of merrily eating as many helpings of food and dessert as you like, years of drinking as much as you like, staying up all night, and never exercising, it is the ultimate betrayal by one’s mortal coil. Like being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or being on a plane that suddenly falls out of the sky, you think: This cannot be happening, not to me. I’m thin.

And yet there they are, the blind, sluggish rolls that slyly moved in and took root and raised whole families while you weren’t looking, and one day stepped out of the shadows to change the direction and purpose of your life. Because there is no negotiating with these jerks, the only way to fight them is to sweat them off you, and that means hard work and commitment, in exchange for miniscule gains (meaning losses), which are rarely ever sustainable. It means moderation, which by itself can drive you right to the edge of sanity. And it means, above all, knowing that things will never be the same again; you’re past your physical peak, your metabolism is toast, you’re now part of ‘the previous generation’.

It’s all very well for the world to be wary of taking thinness to ridiculous extremes, and banning size zero models and celebrating ‘real’ women with ‘real curves’ in advertisements for ‘real beauty’ and the great wonderful variety of life, and paying attention to the eating disorders that plague people who don’t think they can ever be thin enough. But let’s face it, that only rules out the ridiculous extremes.

Today, everyone is shaping up to approximate their favourite lean role models from Kate Moss to John Abraham. Even the fat women of Mauritania, force-fed from childhood to balloon into 100kg sirens for the benefit of their large-hearted men who value girth as a measure of prosperity and health, are lacing up their sneakers and huffing and puffing their way around the parks and stadia. In a bid to salvage national health, the Mauritanian government is fighting social tradition that sings love songs to fat women, by commissioning catchy songs celebrating slender women, who are currently considered sadly deficient. Reading testimonies about the so-called ‘gavage’, or force-feeding, by Mauritanian women like Zeinabou Mint Bilkhere, Ramla Mint Ahmed, and Neya Mint Ally, who say ‘no more!’ brings up important questions. For instance, why are they all called Mint? (Answer: it means ‘daughter of’. One of the nice side effects of researching fatness is the great amount of trivia one accumulates.)

As I exercise diligently every morning, therefore, in the certain knowledge that bits of my body will react to this with malevolent mwahahaha laughter, I keep my eye on the fact that while I’m not making any male Mauritanian hearts sing with joy just yet, I’m also still looking a lot like the person I passed in the mirror the other day. And the world isn’t big enough for the both of us.

There’s a travel writer in my soup

Living in Delhi is an outstanding reason to travel as much as possible. Sadly, it’s been six months since I went anywhere, so in the meantime I’m making do with reading A Year in the World, in which Frances Mayes swans about the Mediterranean and the British Isles, consuming mind-boggling quantities of vintage alcohol and smelly little cheeses as if nobody told her how much money all this is going to cost. Of course, she’s a well-known travel writer, so it’s quite possible that she did it for very little, or none, of her own money.

A vacation on someone else’s money! Most people consider this to be a contemptible idea. Other people think it’s the cleverest thing since sliced bread; and these are the people who risk the hatred and jealousy of their friends, family and random strangers, to be travel writers. They willingly pledge to listen to the words, ‘Travel writing—how glamorous!’ and to know, to the end of their days, that they always meant, ‘Why don’t you get a real job, you freeloader.’

However, contempt directed at a travel writer is really just a case of shooting the messenger. Many staff writers would genuinely love to be sent off on their magazine’s own budget in resplendent editorial independence, but are briskly told to put a sock in it by the company’s finance directors, who much prefer to be hosted by airlines, hotels and tourism boards. Writers would certainly down tools and march off in an idealistic huff, if they weren’t so busy appreciating the twisted brilliance of being duty-bound to undertake the hosted trips set up for them by the selfless marketing chaps. Back when I worked with a travel magazine, doing a story on the magazine budget meant heaving one’s sweaty self by train in the midsummer sun to climb up into the fort at Gwalior, while graciously accepting an invitation meant being wafted to the Seychelles in a business class seat. Gwalior is a very nice place indeed, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist.

For the travel writer, squalid complicity in the tourism business is balanced with straight-up enjoyment of the job, seasoned with the certain knowledge that, try as other people might to sound indifferent, most will end up reeling in a mist of insane jealousy. The more sadistic travel writer will not be able to resist poking at the wound, parrying the ‘How glamorous!’ comment, with something finely calibrated to hurt, like ‘Well, it’s also hard work, you know. It’s a loooong flight to the Intercontinental Resort and Thalasso Spa on Bora Bora, the pearl of French Polynesia; and business class just isn’t what it used to be.’

Still, I’d say (though nobody will believe me now) that some of the most interesting journeys, in my brief career as travel writer, were the decidedly non-luxurious kind. Top experiences include driving the entire length of the Grand Trunk Road, from Kolkata to the Wagah Border, at the price of having my hands freeze into steering wheel-clutching claws; watching dawn break from a hot air balloon at 8,000 feet over Dewas, MP, at the cost of sleeping in the worst guesthouse in the whole entire world, bar none; and eating as much wazawan food as I could stuff into my body, and then waddling around sufi shrines, in Kashmir, at the cost of my digestive tract. And so many, many more.

Besides, I now know that the worst bathroom in the whole world is at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Leh, Ladakh. And that’s the kind of discovery that makes travel so exciting.