Saturday, September 15, 2007

Beating back the jungle

Life is an avid, persistent thing that tends to burst into being wherever it is given the chance, whether in the rainforests of Sumatra or on the doddering toothbrush in your bathroom that you keep meaning to replace. And, because there is so much of it, it is a simple fact that the beings with the greatest instinct for self-preservation win the survival sweepstakes.

This means that every life form is in the business of trying to elbow every other out of the way in a ruthless competition for space and resources. You have only to stand in a line for something in India to understand what a brutal business that can be: you make the intimate acquaintance of hostile bums and paunches and, crucially, elbows, and if you do not fight back, you will soon be but a smear on the floor that people will stomp over to get to the front of the line before the person at the counter decides they’ve done enough work between tea breaks.

This is also the reason why householding, by which I mean stopping by occasionally to make sure that the roof is still in place, is such a fraught and constant business. All ancient settlers knew this truth: that if you don’t keep clearing the clearing, you can just clear right orf, because life will proceed in its inexorable march all over it, and cover your nice little hut in layers of weeds and caterpillars and fungi. It is therefore vital to make yourself a machete, or at least a hoover, and use it regularly. Push back, or push off.

I’m a bit of a nomad myself. I never seem to unpack completely and put things away in their place. Items absently placed on a nearby surface tend to remain in that exact spot for weeks on end. And I’m quite happy to stick a (fresh) toothbrush in my handbag and sleep wherever I happen to find myself when darkness falls. I don’t mind all that much.

But it makes coming home a bit of an adventure. You never know what lurks behind the bathroom door, or on the mummified veggies in the fridge, or under the toaster. Actually, I just found out what lurks beneath the toaster, and we are not friends; I turned on the appliance until the little creep ran out, weeping and shaking his crisped antennae, and I hope he tells his vile cohort all about it.

The thing is, if you don’t dust and clean and put away and replace and maintain and refurbish and shine up and swab and weed and cook and sweep and clear, you’d better keep that toothbrush in your bag, because it becomes more and more difficult to come home. Things start to look like Angkor Wat, except that nobody will pay you to see it.

So, in a radical move, I’ve decided to experiment with cleaning up, inhabiting the place a bit, pacing the rooms to let the bugs know I’m around, and it’s going to be a showdown if they show up.

For my opening gambit, I refused to be cowed by the black and white exclamation mark of a bit of lizard poo on my desk, which is a reptile’s way of telling you: ‘I was here! Right here, on your keyboard! I’ll probably be back every day!’. I marched up to it with a piece of tissue, briefly thought about whether I could get away with leaving it where it was (how often does one really use the K anyway?) and then took a deep breath and wiped it up.

I’ve taken back my desk. Tomorrow, I’m going to look in the cutlery drawer.

Is that your eye?

On my way out to dinner with three friends the other day, I stopped by my ophthalmologist’s office to check out what the scratchy irritation in my eye was all about. He confirmed the horrible truth. I have become that most feared and reviled of fellow human beings, the one with a homicidal twitch in her watery red eyes: a person with conjunctivitis. I wondered aloud if I should go home instead. He said, “Here, this one is an antibiotic drop, but also take this other thing right away for instant relief so that you can look sparkly and glam at dinner. And don’t tell anyone at the table that you have this. Just don’t share napkins or cutlery.” I love my ophthalmologist.

During dinner, small vicious creatures began to attack my eyes with pitchforks and pickaxes and other pointy, stabbing things. Science has shown that conjunctivitis is caused by tiny malignant beings in pointy hats with talons instead of fingers; in fact, I saw one or two of them launch themselves off my eyelid and land on my friend’s face, giggling quietly and biding their time. Now he has pink-eye too. After that I have been more socially conscientious, washing my hands frequently and following instructions to not share towels and napkins and not touch my eyes.

And I’m staying home. Some people invited me to come to an evening of fun and games at their house this Friday, and I sighed that it was not to be. My cousins called to see if we could meet, and I had to morosely turn them down. My mother wanted to know when I was coming over and I had to tell her that I’m not, though that made me feel kind of powerful.

It’s a new and odd thing, enforced quarantine. Conjunctivitis is just not a polite thing to have around other people. It makes them skittish, and you have only to Google some images to work out why. The lady who cleans and cooks for us glanced at my face and instructed me not to look at her directly for the next two days, and I think she might have been muttering protective incantations under her breath. I can see why; I’ve never in my life seen anything more evil-looking than my own left eye, which surges like a red snooker ball out of its socket. The other one is merely pink, but resentful about having to do a double shift. I can now step out only in cases of dire emergency, and that too only while tolling a small clangy bell to warn the populace of my pestilential approach.

All in all, then, this is not the best time to have to take passport photographs. Nevertheless, I am scheduled to travel, and I need visas, and I had no photographs left, so I had to mingle with society. I shuffled out to the market, tolling my bell. The man at the photo studio recoiled in horror but, to his credit, made the best of a bad situation by asking if I would like to do my hair. I stopped by to collect letters of invitation at a magazine office, where the editor affably asked, after he’d stopped shrieking in fear, “How are you, freak?”

Still, my time will come. I will apply eyedrops every two hours and eventually, in anything between three and fifteen days, step out with perfect, eggshell-white corneas with no need to clap my hands to my face and yowl.

Meanwhile, I can just see the visa officer laughing hollowly and tossing my application in the reject pile, sub-categorised under “Suspected terrorists with biochemical weapons”. He’ll probably get a promotion.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Music to the eyes

I’m not one of those people who always has tickets or passes for every event in town; concerts tend to come and go without my being any the wiser. In any case I’m usually too busy downloading free mus—I mean educational videos, off the internet to actually go.

The most exciting musical event I can remember was the Amnesty International concert that passed through Delhi in 1988 on its six-week world tour, and brought me within a few worshipful yards of Tracy Chapman, Sting, and my then-hero, Bruce Springsteen. I was practically asleep by the time Springsteen came on, but I woke up for long enough to emit a couple of faint hoots of appreciation.

As a college student I set out to watch Morrissey perform in New York, almost exclusively because he was once part of a band called The Nosebleeds, which is the sort of excellent name I would call my own band if I had one. That evening was a disaster because I was surrounded by hulking great hooligans, who pressed forward in one tidal motion towards the stage and almost crushed the breath from my body. I spent most of the concert safely on the sidelines, concentrating on inhaling and getting over my near-death experience.

Also in college I went to a Roxette concert the day before spring break. My friends and I were aware that Roxette was terminally uncool, but we secretly loved them and didn’t want to think about what that meant, and spent good cash that we didn’t really have on second-row seats which made us feel like royalty.

There have been a couple of other gigs, but they’ve all been quite uneventful. In my underwhelming career as a concert-goer I’ve never done anything remotely mad or fan-like, unlike my groupie grandfather who used to follow classical Hindustani musicians from venue to venue to attend their all-night performances in various cities.

The best concert story I know involves a friend of mine who in 1978 jumped onstage during a The Police concert in Bombay and snatched the drumsticks out of Stewart Copeland’s hands, while the security guards became agitated and Sting gratifyingly yelled into the mike, “The Police to the police: f*** off!” He (my friend, not Sting—though, of course, Sting too) features on the video recording of the concert, to the mortification of his children (my friend’s, not Sting’s), and still has the drumstick (Stewart Copeland’s), which his mother (my friend’s, not Stewart Copeland’s) used as a duster.

This week I attended the Vanessa Mae concert in Delhi, bringing my grand total up to the staggering figure of, barring minor shows here and there, maybe five. Vanessa Mae, for anyone who like me had never heard of her, is a woman who looks like the Singapore Girl, but better, and not just because she was born in Singapore. She’s taken the violin out of the venerated but slightly stuffy world of classical music and brought it to the quite interesting intersection of pop, rock and electronica.

These days music is no longer just listened to, but also watched, and a woman who impulsively jumps atop passing cabs, and once delta-glided down from a mountain to perform on the frozen lake at St. Moritz, knows what showmanship is all about. On Tuesday she played with and easily outshone sitaritst Nishad Khan who, for all his virtuosity, is simply not as pretty; and while he sometimes raised his eyes to the audience, this was as nothing to Vanessa Mae’s rock star moves in her blingy high heels. I was mesmerised for a while, but by halfway through the evening I was starting hopefully out of my chair every time she waved at the audience.

What do I know, though; I still like the Beatles.