Saturday, July 21, 2007

High infidelity

It is mid-July, it’s very hot, our taxes are due shortly, road rage is killing innocents in Delhi, and we have no idea why some Presidential candidates wear their saris that way. No wonder, then, that the word on everybody’s lips these days is: infidelity.

No, actually, it’s just that the word infidelity is on everybody’s lips at almost all times, and has been so for the last several ice ages, which is as long as it has taken India to concede that if sexuality is incompatible with Indianness, then it is really very difficult to explain why there are a billion of us. And just when you thought it was safe to get into that water, along come the sharks.

Based on a number of spontaneously conducted conversations with quite a wide range of people over the last couple of months, I’ve concluded that close to one hundred percent of humanity is either quite interested in the idea of cheating on their partner, or quite interested in the idea of cheating on their partner again. (The tiny remaining percentage didn’t understand the question because they were daydreaming about a really good presidential candidate.)

I consider myself quite open-minded, but I confess to being quite surprised at just how many steamy currents simmer under the surface of so many seemingly staid marriages and relationships, and how strong those currents are. All I can say is that while I wasn’t raised by Irish nuns in a convent school, and despite being deemed a bit of a wild child in my misspent youth, I’m a little disappointed to find myself on the boring end of a vast and turbulent spectrum.

What I’m not surprised about is that while this spate of illicit activity occasionally has something to do with problems within people’s legitimate relationships, most often it does not: it’s just really a matter of lustful and/or emotional greed (where greed is defined not as excess, but as ‘intense and selfish desire’). If you still buy the popular image of urban India as prudish and reactionary, you’re out of the loop. If you thought that the scenario presented in the recent Bollywood movie Life in a Metro—in which people are cheating even on the people they’re cheating with—was overstating the case, which I did, then think again, or conduct your own secret ballot. And if you haven’t seen the movie: don’t, it’s a snorer.

For those people now yawning and thinking, “tell me something I don’t know,” you don’t fall into my preferred reader profile and should go away now. But for those of you who greet this news with their mouths in a little round o, I’ve got this to say: how would you describe the smell of that coffee?

As an experiment, I had someone I know go through her phone book and, without mentioning names, sum up the love life of each person in it. The results overwhelmingly show that they should either say the vow of fidelity much louder at weddings, because people are not hearing it, or just leave it out of the whole ceremony because it really cramps people’s style. They also show that infidelity is a wonderfully democratic thing, ranging over all kinds of type, sexuality, age, partnership agreement, and so forth.

All it really proves is what one might suspect anyway: that young(ish) urban Indians are as active in the extramarital/extrarelational department as any young people anywhere else, whether Murli Manohar Joshi likes it or not. It puts me in mind of something I recently read in which a father is quoted passing on the torch of human learning to his anguished offspring: “If you want monogamy,” he says unsympathetically, “go marry a swan.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Play it again, Sam. And again.

For most of my life I have been able to concentrate quite fiercely. Whether in class, or doing homework, or playing a game, or watching three movies back to back, or talking to a friend, or coming up with something really horrible to say to my family, I was a lean, mean concentrating machine. Even now I can get so completely engrossed in the morning papers that sometimes, as I read and munch on muesli, I absently also begin to munch on the box the muesli came in, though that’s only because the flavours are indistinguishable. It’s an established fact that every box of muesli is just filled with another box that has been cut up into tiny little pieces.

The problem with people who can concentrate is that when they find something to do they can also keep doing it ad nauseam in a behaviour pattern that isn’t really obsessive-compulsive disorder, but looks a lot like it. It can be a substantive, life-impacting problem if it is a renewable or ever-evolving activity, like Boggle, or playing pool, or gambling. I spent the salary from my first job almost exclusively on pool table charges, transport to get to the pool table, and beer to console myself after the many pool games I lost and celebrate the few that I won. Currently I’m a slave to the morning Sudoku, which I feel I must finish to preserve my self-esteem, but am very bad at, which means I spend a very long time doing it.

The down side, predictably, is overdose. Whenever I stumble on a nice new song I listen to it on a loop until I can’t stand it anymore. When I find a good dish I repeat it until the thought of it makes me want to hurl. And now, quite tragically, this seems to have happened to me with books. Having read through most of my life, pausing only to eat, sleep or say something mean to my family, I have suddenly gone off the stuff. It’s been almost two months since I read anything just for fun, and even longer since I bought a book. Worse, the other day when I was standing in the kitchen trying to remember what I was doing there, my new bookless avatar suddenly sneered to itself, “Books are for people without bodies”, which is hostile and completely untrue and may be just because a physical trainer has been putting me through hoops that leave me unable to actually support the weight of a book in my hands.

This state is new to me, and frightening, and I hope to be rescued from it by the impending release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which is JK Rowling’s latest novel in the ninety-one part series.

The catch is that if you concentrate manically on many things, you end up in a state of total distraction. It’s a paradox that plays itself out on my desktop everyday, as I turn with complete dedication to whatever happens to pop up at any given time—Skype, Google news, email, Facebook.

About this last: I am completely confused about why you would need to communicate with people with whom you’re already in communication via email and the phone, through yet another mediator. However, it does put your friends’ lives on a ticker tape and is an excellent way to generate and propagate gossip (which scientists recently declared was the human equivalent to picking lice out of your fellow ape’s hair—a necessary and bonding thing). Like the best substances, it is addictive in addition to being useless. My only hope is that overdose should kick in soon.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Out of this world

It’s always entertaining to blur the lines between fact and fiction, to make fact unfamiliar with an injection of fiction, and distort fiction by adding a pinch of fact—or more fiction—and I’m not just talking about journalism.

One of the most imaginative, talented and entertaining proponents of this pursuit is Jasper Fforde, who has been called a writer of comic metafiction. Among other things, he writes about a literary detective named Thursday Next who chases bad elements through a fantastic parallel universe of time travel and general madness in which (real) texts such as Jane Eyre or Martin Chuzzlewit exist in a well-regulated environment, including the department of ‘Jurisfiction’, to protect beloved manuscripts and prevent any disruptions to the plot. His new novel, First Among Sequels is due out this month. I’m betting I’ll be less disappointed in it than I was in Shrek III and Pirates of the Caribbean III—though I still hold out some hope for Die Hard 4.

I’m always gobsmacked by the imaginative powers of writers like Neil Gaiman, who in Neverwhere creates a parallel universe below ours, in which London’s tube stations turn out to be more than meets the eye—there really is an Angel of Islington, and a Knight of Knightsbridge. Douglas Adams’ romp through intergalactic space in his four-book Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy mixes wild imagination with a goodly dollop of human irony for an interesting take on everything from cricket to rebirth.

My favourite parallel universes, however, must be the ones created by Philip Pullman, who recently won the ‘Carnegie of Carnegies’ honour in the Carnegie Medal’s 70-year history, for the His Dark Materials trilogy, about two flawed children named Lyra and Will upon whom the fate of mankind turn; if you haven’t read it, you have much to look forward to.

Just as unpredictable and exciting are imagined encounters between historical people. Spanish director Ines Paris is making a movie called William and Miguel, about the relationship between Shakespeare and Cervantes in the last few years of the 16th century, a period that is a bit of a blank in historical accounts of Shakespeare’s life. It’s not that he was missing, the film suggests: he was working for the English embassy in Madrid, and the literary giants shared both ideas and a lady love.

A few years ago there was a prize-winning novel called The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu, which mixed both approaches, and took advantage of an indeterminate time period in the life of the fictional Sherlock Holmes—the two years between his assumed death and resurrection. Norbu got to construct his own two bits in the hallowed detective’s life, throwing in an encounter with Huree Chunder Mookerjee, of Kim fame, to wonderful effect, so much so that his version of the famous hiatus was even endorsed by Arthur Conan Doyle’s publishers.

There’s no end to the number of imagined interactions I’d love to witness as a fly on the wall. Imagine listening in on Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maria Vargas Llosa bumping into each other and reminiscing about why they once punched each other in a cinema hall, starting a thirty-year cold war. Or how about setting up a dinner for M.K. Gandhi and Paris Hilton; I’m not sure what they would talk about most of the time, but they might end with a general agreement about the benefits of going to prison. Imagine having Tom Cruise and Brooke Shields co-teach a Lamaze class. I’d love for someone to come up with a really good tale about what really happened to Subhas Chandra Bose.

It all makes it easier to keep plodding through one’s humdrum life.