Saturday, August 25, 2007

No guts, no gory

If, as certain depressive Frenchmen suggested, the only question of any real significance is whether or not to kill yourself; and if your considered answer is that you should, then you might as well bone up on how to do so.

Perhaps you’re chronically down on life. Perhaps you quite enjoy your life at the moment but don’t have children and keep the kind of company whose habits are likely to kill them off soonish, and you’d prefer to quit while you’re ahead rather than tick out your life in the misery of an unattended old age, or be found half-eaten by Alsatians. Perhaps it’s just the unbearable lightness of the coffee they serve on the Left Bank. Whatever your reasons for wanting to leave this vale of tears behind, a good way to begin is to determine the least attractive forms of self-extermination, and then industriously not choose those.

As a first step, I recommend a little book by Christopher Ross called Mishima’s Sword: Travels in Search of a Samurai Legend. It’s the fascinating account of the author’s quest to locate the sword used by the celebrated and controversial Japanese writer Yukio Mishima to commit suicide in 1970, using what is far and away my least favourite option: seppuku, also called hara-kiri (or, if you’re a certain kind of provincial roughneck Occidental, harry carry).

Seppuku is a formal and culturally complex form of suicide; it has its origins in the samurai warrior’s unswerving loyalty to his feudal lord, and is tied to the Japanese concept that the belly is the seat of sincerity; to expose your entrails is, therefore, to express your deepest sincerity, courage and honour.

We’re talking quite plainly about self-disembowelment, which is unpleasantly enough achieved by sticking a knife in your own belly and making a cut long and deep enough to spill your entrails on the floor. Then the fellow you’ve brought along as your trusted second performs the duty called kaishaku, which is to say ending your suffering by cutting off your head with a carefully calibrated swordstroke, which should ideally not send the severed item hurtling across the room like a basketball, but instead leave a mere flap of throat skin attached, so that the head topples neatly onto the chest like the deepest of bows.

In Mishima’s case his second, a man called Masakatsu Morita, goofed the decapitation. (If you have a delicate constitution I entreat you to skip this paragraph.) After Mishima had cut his belly very deeply and was crouching over his own guts spilled on the floor, the trembling Morita’s stroke missed its mark not once or twice, but three times—landing first hard across Mishima’s back, then on the carpet, and then crunching through his neck and chipping the blade against his jawbone, at which point someone else in the horrified audience took over and ended the writer’s unspeakable pain, which had caused him to bite almost right through his tongue.

No, seppuku is not for me. Nor is leaping off a skyscraper, or opening my wrists in a warm bath, or jumping in front of a train, or sticking my head in the oven. I’m looking for something as non-violent as possible, which rules out listening to Himesh Reshammiya until the spirit shrivels, or watching television until brain death occurs. I’m thinking of something more enjoyable, like eating myself into a coma or perhaps going out in a blaze of glory choking on a huge piece of sushi.

But it’s more likely that I’ll still be here until the bitter end, thinking about it but not actually doing it. That’s most pleasant of all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Get Shorty

There are certain disadvantages to being petite, which is the polite way of saying ridiculously short. You come to accept that you will go through life introducing yourself to people’s bellybuttons. You hang on your companions’ hems in a crowd, because if you lose each other you’ll never find each other again. When you graduate from college and attempt to buy a business suit for your first job interview, you are directed to the children’s section and emerge looking like one of those Victorian-era toddlers who were dressed up like little men, in teeny tiny formal trousers and jackets.

Parents forget that while you’re still five foot more or less nothing tall, as you were when you were fifteen years old, you are now actually a thirty five year old hag who should be scheduling regular bone density tests, and that you have human rights protected by the Geneva Convention, such as the right to stay out late, especially when you no longer live with them.

But there is also the other side of the proverbial coin, a proverbial silver lining. You can really spread out, sometimes actually curl up in, an economy class airline seat. It takes less time to fall to the floor, so you can get under a table faster in the event of an earthquake. You can pose as someone’s child and cut queues. In a transport squeeze you get to sit on somebody’s lap rather than be sat on. Nobody asks you to help them move house. Your centre of gravity is lower, so you’re likely to do better than average in many situations, such as inside a kayak. And if you decide to skip a class or a meeting, nobody will notice, as long as you send an email putting forward some decent ideas of which you can remind people later.

In this post-9/11 world there is one more important way in which being little is not such a bad thing, and that is in the matter of security checks at airports, cinema theatres and other assorted public spaces. While it’s positively demeaning never to be seen as a threat, I can’t say that I regret never having been cavity-searched in the style to which other people have become accustomed. The worst thing that has ever happened to me was that I was asked to take off my shoes at Srinagar airport, and that was more traumatic for the security officer than for me since I was travelling light and hadn’t packed all that many pairs of socks.

But it’s not as if security officers are all that vigilant anyway. The other day I went to watch a movie at a theatre near you, about which I will say no more than that it’s very popular and would make a first class terrorist target. I’d forgotten that I was carrying a bright red Swiss army knife in my small bag, in addition to a pack of cigarettes. The grim woman who searched my bag took away my smokes without a flicker of compassion, which meant that if I didn’t want to lose my knife I would have to take drastic action. She was diligently searching the zip pocket, and in another second would be seeing red. “What a nice colour your uniform is,” I remarked. She stopped, decided I was too small to bother with, grinned, and waved me through, weapon and all.

She’s lucky that I didn’t go into one of my ideological moods and start trimming my fingernails, or race up to the screen in a suicidal frenzy and poke a hole in it with the toothpick. I hate being underestimated, especially when armed.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Wart itchy sigh?

I’ve been running an experiment on my inner pedant by deliberately leaving out capitals and some punctuation in emails, mobile phone text messages, and instant messages sent over the net, in an effort to see if I can keep up with the changing times, and perhaps even learn to like them.

I still can’t bring myself to write ‘ur’ or ‘gr8’, but I have mastered the art of not bothering to capitalise the first letter of a sentence or of pronouns, and that’s a big deal for a traditionalist.

It speeds up one’s writing time, I find, and should therefore theoretically strain the wrists less; but increased efficiency (where efficiency is defined as achieving the same quality in less time, not necessarily achieving better quality) only creates time and space to do more of the same, and as a result I now have callouses at the base of my wrists where they rest at the foot of the keyboard.

Conclusion: I can only be a teeny tiny bit trendy, but too little to count, and I don’t really enjoy it.

Nevertheless, people who like language enough to be pedantic about it mostly do like to play with it, unless they’re really terminally humourless. These playful sorts will enjoy Howard L. Chace’s Anguish Languish, which was originally published by Prentice-Hall in 1956 and made famous on Sir Arthur Godfrey's radio show.

Chace invented a form of tongue-in-cheek writing meant for reading, based on the concept that since so many words in English sound surprisingly like other completely different words, you could just substitute one for the other, and, as long as you were listening, rather than looking, for meaning, you’d get it. Chace was trying to demonstrate to his students the importance of inflection in speech. It’s meant to be listened to; and the person reading it aloud, focusing on speaking each word rather than on the sounds they make when they flow together, may not understand a word.

Anguish Languish (English Language) included some traditional 'Furry Tells', such as ‘Ladle Rat Rotten Hut’ and ‘Guilty Looks Enter Tree Beers’. The opening couple of sentences from the former goes as follows:

“Wants pawn term, dare worsted ladle gull hoe lift wetter murder inner ladle cordage, honor itch offer lodge, dock, florist. Disk ladle gull orphan worry putty ladle rat cluck wetter ladle rat hut, and fur disk raisin pimple colder Ladle Rat Rotten Hut.”

Chace founded the tongue-in-cheek Society for the Promotion of Anguish Languish (SPAL), and if you haven’t heard of it, you probe bleeding gnaw bother raisin attic zests (probably didn’t know about the reason it exists). Besides the sheer joy of making up these sentences, Anguish Languish gives you, as Chace pointed out, a wonderfully intriguing accent, as if you’ve juice rattan frame fur imparts (just returned from foreign parts). And of course, the juxtaposition of insanely inappropriate words is a barrel of laughs. The chilling bits of the story cause one to fall about in spasms of laughter, whether it’s the ‘lodge, dock, florist’, or Little Red Riding Hood’s exclamation to the wolf: “A nervous sausage bag ice!”

Party derision tutu desist daddy mikes raiders stirrup in pee tension, wander in gifter riders gumbo cirque (part of the reason to do this is that it makes readers sit up and pay attention, wondering if the writer’s gone berserk).

It’s an interesting experiment in how the brain processes language. Another is that, as a widely-circulated text on the internet explained, “Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.”

But that’s just way, way less fun.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Death and taxes

The windburn on my ears this week was caused by July 31 as it whooshed by right over my head, faster than a speeding bullet, a mere blur of coattails disappearing around the corner. Every law-abiding Indian knows, of course, why July 31 was a red-letter day: it was Harry Potter’s 17th birthday and time for the final epic showdown with Voldemort, which, by the way, did not disappoint me as it did some grouchy critics who claimed to be bored. Although, to be fair, one could also point out that the action in my life is not exactly off the charts, currently, so it might not take much more than a Sorting Hat to rock my world.

Not that I come over all mental about the Potter books. I don’t much care for a review that starts with the sentence “So Harry Potter dies in the end, but…” or “So Harry Potter doesn’t die in the end, but…”; but at the same time I am not in favour of the attitude recently parodied by the ever-incisive Onion (‘America’s finest news source’) in an article titled ‘Final Harry Potter Book Blasted For Containing Spoilers’.

Oops, as a certain bald and troubled pop singer once said, I did it again. See, this is exactly what caused all the trouble. I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—a bit later than most, but then that’s precisely the burden of my song—and the world around me grew so dim and fuzzy and boring by comparison to Elder wands and doe-shaped Patronuses and Aurors pregnant by werewolves, and the shocking deaths of major characters, that I completely forgot the Muggle reason why July 31 was so important to us law-abiding Indians.

It has to do with a certain sinister Ministry that makes your money Disapparate, and it’s not as if they have to overcome any Gringotts goblins to do it; they just put something very like an Imperius curse on you and wham, you start marching around like a zombie, obediently photocopying receipts and writing out cheques to them in your own hand without a murmur or a question crossing your lips.

A question like, Why? Why do I have to pay taxes? Didn’t I just pay some last year?

That’s right, July 31 was the last date for filing individual tax returns. And I clean forgot, even though I’d been warning myself to remember since May. As soon as I’m done writing this I’ll go and bang my head against a wall like any house-elf who knows she’s been bad.

But I take some consolation in the fact that my badness is quite small on the cosmic scale of wrongdoing—on which, after all, we have to somewhere place Jack the Ripper, and Hitler, and whoever told Celine Dion to keep at it. Because, if the penalty for filing late is one percent on whatever tax you would have paid, I won’t be forking out much more than I would for an autorickshaw ride to the train station.

And before you ask, that’s not because of evasion, but because of my own excellent foresight in knowing that I would be late, and therefore cleverly minimising my losses by earning only the bare minimum required to live this city while still allowing one to occasionally go out for a Butterbeer with one’s friends. So the Ministry will only have a shortfall of a tiny little bit, for a tiny little period, while I get myself organised. It shouldn’t take that long. I’ll just first finish the five simultaneous games of Scrabble I’m playing on Facebook with working people in four different time zones.

Patience, as Voldemort knew, is a virtue.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Road to perdition

We get five newspapers at home but I just use them for my selfish pleasure, taking their Sudokus and crosswords and then, just as they think I’m ready for a commitment, cruelly dumping them to frolic with other, younger publications. Anyway, that’s why it fell to someone else to tell me that the Delhi government is considering imposing a fine on jaywalkers in our glorious city, which to me is clinching proof that the boiling July heat has simply become too much to take in the corridors of power, and everyone there has quietly gone mad.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about the problems that plague traffic in Delhi, the first thing that leaps to mind is not ‘jaywalking’, although it’s true that jaywalkers tend to add more chaos to street traffic already characterised by savage aggression, inconsideration and stupidity.

On a recent flight I was seated between two burly American gentlemen who talked incessantly about how much they drank and benchpressed, but when they told me about their visit to Delhi, their hands began to shake. They asked me if I drive. Yes, I said. How brave you are, they breathed, awestruck. “Or stupid,” one of them muttered after a small pause.

After eleven years on the road I don’t think about it much, but it’s true. All of us who live in Delhi risk dying a violent and messy death on our roads every day, and that only occasionally because of an actual accident—it could just be from being in the driver’s seat, because if I had to pick the one thing that raises my blood pressure to a fatal level, I’d pick the incredible rage that seizes me while at the wheel, placing foam in my mouth, expletives on my tongue and my elbow on the horn. And while much of that is directed at other drivers, at least as much is directed at the bright sparks who plan, implement and maintain the roads.

I would start with a big fat fine on the city for letting hoardings obscure signals, erecting directions to traffic in hopelessly small letters placed far past the point when traffic might actually be able to comply (not that it would anyway, being comprised of said savagely aggressive, inconsiderate and stupid motorists), for allowing encroachment and not providing pavements, for breaking up roads and medians and leaving cement blocks and other debris lying unlit in the middle of busy streets, for allowing herds of cattle to roam unchecked, for unscientifically-built speed breakers without any paint or signs alerting people to their existence, for tolerating a police force that can be seen committing the same driving offences as everyone else and can be bribed out of any spot of trouble, for setting up long and complicated procedures for obtaining a licence, thereby encouraging unqualified drivers to simply buy one from a tout, and for undertaking infrastructural projects that think no more than five years into the future.

As for the motorists, it’s as if nobody told them that it’s not possible for two objects to exist in the same space at the same time without an almighty crunching noise. And they really don’t believe that the rules were written for them, personally. Just the other day I saw a motorist, confronted by a cop for trying to jump a light, leap out of his car and actually box the cop in the face. As they say, Blueline buses don’t kill people; Delhi drivers kill people.

No, it’s not the jaywalkers I’m worried about.