Saturday, October 27, 2007

The simple life

A quick scan of the newspapers will reveal that the major thing, these days, is to have the right hand-made handbag, made of the skin of Peruvian llamas specially bred on caviar and cream, and encrusted with diamonds, on your arm as you settle into a satin-upholstered seat on your gold-plated private aircraft specially fitted with Swarovski crystal windows, en route to a cocktail party with the Prince of Blah-di-blah in his Crimean mansion, where there will be oysters on the half-shell and where gem-filtered Diva vodka, at $1 million a bottle, will flow like water all night.

It’s called luxury, and it’s what you’re supposed to aim for in your avatar as successful modern Indian, player of note on the global stage, Blackberry in hand and the world at your feet.

Happily for those of us who subscribe to and live on sloth and serendipity, there are still lots of low-budget situations that will give you that feeling of extraordinary luxury, the unbeatable feeling that you’re the king of the world, that there’s nowhere you’d rather be and nothing else you’d rather be doing, and if you died right that minute, you’d have no regrets.

Here’s a list of top ten, in no particular order:

-Cutting away all the white of a fried egg cooked sunny side up and, in a moment marked by the silent flourish of trumpets, popping the whole perfect yolk into your mouth, where it explodes and slides down your throat in a melt of gold, and cholesterol be damned.

-Lying about on a sofa in a quiet room and reading, your toes interlocked with the toes of someone you love, who is lying about on the same sofa, reading their own book.

-Tickling someone until they’re weeping with laughter or, preferably, begging for mercy. Bonus if it’s a child under six years old, or someone much bigger than yourself.

-Drinking a hot cup of tea in a dry house during a violent thunderstorm. This gets better if the windows are open and you can smell the mud. A variation of this is the very excellent sensation of getting completely drenched in a warm summer rain.

-Managing to kick the same little pebble all the way home, with not too much sideways motion. And firmly believing that, because you did, the thing that you want with all your heart to have happen, will happen.

-Lying on your back in cool grass with your eyes closed, with no bigger plan than to nap. Better if it’s on a sunny day that makes the scent of it rise up into your nostrils and coat your brain. Even better if you can hear the occasional bee.

-Cooking a meal from a recipe you’ve never followed before and having it turn out perfectly.

-Dancing by yourself to the oldest, tinniest, most uncool music from the worst decade in music history, which you’re not supposed to like anymore, but you still do, you really do.

-Having a sudden and acute awareness that you and the world are in constant contact, that even air is matter, and that your body, both in movement and at rest, actually displaces the universe.

-Sitting in a chair with the throat of a warm snoozing dog resting on the top of your bare foot. Especially when the dog does that weird chop-licking-and-swallowing thing that makes its throat move a bit.

There are, of course, those cynics who would call this a case of sour grapes. To them I say, sour grapes make the best whine.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Burmese days

For years and years I’ve had my tea as follows: turn off the flame when the water is just beginning to boil, throw in a pinch of Darjeeling leaves, let it steep for exactly three minutes, strain, add barely a teaspoon of milk and a modest spoon of sugar, and stir. I look upon herbal infusions with suspicion, don’t particularly like green tea although I occasionally drink it in the hope that it will magically cancel out all the bad things I do to my body, and positively detest milky tea.

So it amazed me that I became addicted to the thick, gritty red tea sweetened with condensed milk that is served in countless teashops in Burma. It was partly because there was no option, and partly because I developed such a soft spot for Burma that I was willing to overlook the vile teashop tea.

The soft spot was caused by things like the popcorn factory in a tiny town called Hsipaw, in the eastern Shan hills. The popcorn factory consisted of what looked like a rusty old cannon with a pressure gauge attached, aimed into the open mouth of a three-sided thatch hut. They’d throw corn kernels into the cannon, crank up the pressure, run away with their hands over their ears as it began to steam and wobble, and hit the deck when the cannon exploded with an ear-shattering boom, shooting a shower of fluffy white popcorn into the shed to be gathered up and stuffed into sacks.

It was caused by the delightfully chic Star Millennium CafĂ© in Yangon, where I went to have a drink with John, a 60-ish relic of a Brit from my hotel who’d checked in four years ago and forgotten to ever check out; and by the Jade Flute discotheque, where the kids danced in their longyis and rubber slippers.

It was caused by the sunset seen from Mandalay hill which illuminated misty gold clouds, the metallic Irrawaddy river, and a huge rectangle formed by small stupas each containing a page of scripture which must constitute the biggest book in the world. It was caused by the ruined capitals of Ava and Amarapura, and by pretty Inle Lake.

It was caused by the jewel-encrusted Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and by the ancient pagodas and palaces of Pagan, where I had the world’s most potent betel nut while hanging off the rear bumper of a jam-packed public jeep-taxi; and by the tiny shrines to the nat spirits in the hills; and by the ubiquitous sight of monks and nuns and abjectly poor citizens making donations of money and their best food to the monasteries.

It was caused by the fact that one man walked me twenty minutes out of his way to a shop that sold the right snacks and one that sold longyis to wear. It was caused by Kyow-kyow, the young man who had a BA in physics but was pedalling us about in a trishaw because that’s what happens when you shut down universities and stamp all over the economy. Kyow-kyow invited us to his home, where we ate a dinner of pork, vegetables, rice and fish while he and his mother and siblings and grandmother and assorted aunts and uncles stood by with solemn ceremony, smoking cheroots and predicting our futures (I was to survive life-threatening tummy trouble in January and live on to be a famous pharmacist; my friend would be a very good baker).

It was caused by a Burmese merchant sailor who, fuelled by Dutch courage, said, “No use discussing politics. Nothing is going to change. People smile a lot, but inside, the Burmese heart is broken.”

That soft spot aches these days, when I read the newspapers and wish that things could change.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


The other day my neighbour woke me up with an insistent lean on the doorbell at an hour that I estimated to be just before the dawn of mankind. He doesn’t usually do that, unless he feels like it, so I blundered out myopically in my nightdress. He was leaning over our shared landing, pointing at something white and noisy downstairs, and shouting agitatedly. I went and stood companionably next to him. He looked at me as if I was retarded. “Someone has cut your water pipe,” he yowled over the din. “You’d better call your plumber.”

I retreated into my flat to feel about for my spectacles. When I emerged, the white, noisy thing had horrifyingly resolved itself into a gush of perfectly good water spewing from a pipe-shaped hole in my water pipe, where a section of the pipe had evidently been cut out.

This was quite motivating, so I lumbered off to the phone, glancing at the clock, which read 7am, and called a plumber. “Can you come at once?” I asked, aware that it was possibly even earlier in the day of the plumbing business than it was in the day of the freelance writing business, but compelled to take my best long shot at it. “Yes,” he said firmly, “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

My neighbour and a kindly driver helped to temporarily stem the flow of wasted water, which in a city like Delhi is worse than the flow of blood, by tying an old plastic bag over the pipe with some string. Then I sat around and thought sad thoughts about vandals, perpetrators of random cruelty, and other meanies, until I noticed that it was almost 8am.

I rang the plumber back. “But nothing opens until 10 o’clock!” he said. “Then why did you tell me you’d be here in ten minutes?” I asked in my best Hannibal Lecter voice. There was no really great answer to this, so he repeated, “But nothing opens until 10 o’clock!” in the obvious hope that I’d hang up in rage, which I did. The neighbour was on top of things, though, and told me that his plumber was coming anyway in a little while, as well as what I should say to him, and what I should pay him, and what a scoundrel he is.

When the plumber came, he looked at the pipe and, without missing a beat said, “Someone has stolen your water metre.” This is the sort of obvious thing that I would never have figured out on my own, since I don’t think of myself as a person in possession of a water metre. I gazed awestruck at his genius, and wrote out an application to the Delhi Jal Board to please provide me another water metre.

The plumber deposited the application for me, and affixed a new metre to my water connection, tying an old plastic bag over it for good measure. He said, however, that I should rejig the piping so that it runs against the wall, and then he can build a locked box around the water metre, so that it can’t be stolen for resale again.

But if it’s not that, it will be something else. The next morning, I discovered that the lock on the lid of my Sintex water tank had been ripped off, along with the plastic bits that hold the lock in place. While it’s infuriating, I couldn’t blame people who need access to water for doing a little breaking and entering. I hope that’s the case. It would be much more depressing if they just turned out to be in the business of reselling locks.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Highlander capers

As a fairly peripatetic, urban sort of person myself, I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in a small and/or isolated town. I was wondering that again last week, when I found myself in a little twin turbo-prop plane, coming in to land on the Hebridean island of Islay (pronounced Eye-la). We drove from the airport to Port Askaig, from where the ferry makes a five-minute journey across the Sound of Islay to the neighbouring island of Jura (pronounced Jyoo-ra).

Jura is a wild and remote Scottish island, populated by a total of 200 people and 27,500 casks of whisky, which, if you ask me, is a truly excellent ratio of people to fine living. There’s one pub, one shop, one bank that’s open once a week, one newspaper called Jura Jottings, and one 180-year-old whisky distillery owned by Whyte & Mackay (pronounced McEye), which itself is now owned, like most objects in the known universe, by Vijay Mallya.

On Jura there are three peaks colourfully known as the Paps of Jura, over which competitors race every May. There are 6,000 red deer and many, many highland cows (pronounced heyland coos) with fetching fringes falling over their eyes; it is thought that evolution probably selected out their eyes centuries ago, but nobody’s ever gotten through enough hair to actually find out. There are colonies of seals, and apparently a pair of otters for every mile of the 115-mile coastline.

A drive down the fabulous coast of Jura features austere mountains presiding over flats of tawny gorse and heather which run down to a cold and choppy sea so aquamarine and twinkling that it might be the Caribbean. The island’s beauty makes it a good site for the ongoing Writer’s Retreat programme. This is where George Orwell came in 1947, to write 1984 in a beautiful solitude. He almost died in the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, apparently the second most powerful in the world, though he lived on to die of TB instead.

The arrival of twelve journalists from India caused a near-catastrophic 16% increase in the human population, but luckily we were just there for the day. Three things really get the conversation going on Jura: whisky, the damned English, and the age-old feud between the McGregors and the Campbells, though you’d think that with 200 people left, they’d try to get along.

At the Kilearnadil cemetery many plague-felled citizens as well as a couple of Knights Templar are interred under grass so thick and soft and springy that I had to lie down in it. Two souls joined up quite recently; one fellow who dropped dead of a heart attack, and three weeks later, his best friend who choked on his food. The latter’s cat Tigger, a plush ginger creature, is now taken care of by the people at the one pub.

Back in Glasgow, Richard Paterson, the theatrical master blender of Whyte & Mackay whiskeys, who has a predilection for flinging whisky into the office carpet and hurling fistfuls of barley across conference tables, insisted that we taste Jura whisky on the pier next to the water from which it is made, in the same bracing air that soaks into the American bourbon and French oak casks. This I did, smiling happily and cretinously into my drink.

Willie Cochrane at the distillery says that when he thinks a cask is “sleeping” instead of actively imbibing the good air of Jura, he administers it a “kick up the arse” by shifting its position. I wouldn’t mind a similar kick if it relocated me to Jura.

Born to run around

A certain stripe of Indian likes to go on about what a great country this is and how he or she would travel the world but would never relinquish that blue passport with the lions on it. This stripe of Indian is usually the kind for whom the system is actually geared; that is, the well-oiled system of contacts and access that bypasses, with a phone call and in a couple of hours, the regular system of gruelling bureaucracy that attends the process of getting beyond our beloved borders.

If you ask me, and probably the rest of India, those lions represent a bunch of incredibly grumpy, flea-bitten beasts whose general purpose in life seems to be to growl and roar at people until they go away and stop bothering them. I can’t figure out what they’re doing on a pedestal.

In the normal system, if you need an additional passport booklet, you have to prove your birth, address and general personhood all over again even though you’re physically in possession of a passport that already attests to those things (via a similar painful process of verification that you’ve already gone through once) and just want some extra pages—because you’ve been so thoroughly vetted by several countries that you’re out of space.

Getting your papers together is a process doubly stymied, because if you’re being guided by a travel agent, he or she is so used to applications being thwarted for stupid technical reasons that they insist on watertight paperwork and will make you run around getting yourself photographed again because your hair was falling slightly over your forehead, or will darkly prophesy your doom because you say you’re married on one form but don’t have a wedding certificate and therefore you should white out your marital status and hide the affidavit which says that you’re married—and so forth.

When you have your documentation, you have to get to the Regional Passport Office at 6am to be at the top of the queue so that when the counter on the ‘backside’ of the building opens, three and a half hours later, you can get a token which will gain you admittance to the hallowed inside—which is just as awful, but at least in the shade. When you collect your passport by hand, you queue up only to be told that you need to be in another line; where, when you get to the counter, it turns out it’s the other line; when you get there, they tell you to go to the other other line.

It’s positively Kafkaesque, and it makes your blood pressure soar.

The bypass system is awesome. Someone in it can make a phone call to a school friend or dinner party acquaintance, and replace an expired passport in a matter of hours; or, at the very least, he or she has fast access to gazetted officers and employs one or more bodies who can be dispatched to a court to get a Standard Affidavit typed up on non-judicial stamp paper by some greasy tout, or to stand in line so that by the time he or she swans in, the bod is holding a place at the top of the queue.

I’d love to see the Indian government give to every child born in this country, on the day that they’re born: a birth certificate, a passport, a voter’s ID number that turns into a card at the age of 18, and a PAN card number, all of which remain constant through that person’s life.

If you’re reading this, you’re an Indian whose voice can be heard, but also, chances are, one of the fortunate bypassers. Why would you raise your voice when you have nothing to complain about?

Eight simple rules

So there I was, gate crashing (as one does) a fancy dinner for a bunch of lawyers who were in the throes of celebrating a merger of firms with double- and quadruple-barrelled names. It was at a beautiful restaurant with a wine list fit to cripple your wallet, and food good enough to set the most frigid palate aflame with desire.

The blokes were in crisply cut suits to match their crisply cut diction; I was in a weird witchy black skirt, a wildly-printed export-reject chiffon blouse filched from a photography shoot, and black sandals which I had earlier brushed against fresh white paint, acquiring the new international ‘zebra’ look. Phrases like ‘international arbitrage’ and ‘the so-and-so Act’ flew thick and fast. I chipped in with stammered mutterings about freelance writing whenever my face accidentally fell out of my trough into the rarefied corporate air, or when I emerged from the wine glass where I spent most of the evening nose-first, sampling the joys of excellent Californian red, followed by something French and fine.

There are a few simple rules to remember when gate crashing formal dinners with lawyers: don’t wipe your nose on the tablecloth even though you are quite aware that that’s what tablecloths were originally intended for; try and look professional by blinking and nodding a lot until you see stars and feel seasick; don’t drink too much or too fast; if you do, at least refrain from playing footsie with anyone, especially if you have fresh white paint on your sandals; don’t indulge in any natural bodily functions such as burping the national anthem even if that’s your best party trick, because you’re not supposed to admit to having any bodily functions for the duration of the gathering; don’t tell lawyer jokes even though there could not possibly be a better moment for them to shine; don’t talk politics; and if you must talk politics, don’t shout at anyone.

It was all going swimmingly. The evening was full of the tinkling sounds of breaking ice, and I was seeing stars and feeling seasick. I enjoyed talking to a nice Dutch gentleman who jets around the world from case to enormous case. Things were so relaxed and friendly that I was even toying with the idea of attempting some lawyer jokes, and I think I would have, except that I can never remember any jokes when I need them.

We sat down to dinner. And then somebody brought up Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, and the whole ticklish question of how much he did or did not have to do with the Godhra riots of 2002. Somebody at the table turned out to working for his defence and somebody else said that he could not be held personally responsible. Other people got exercised on behalf of the other side of the argument.

Somehow, talk that had thus far teetered around on the polite stilettos of weather and the relative hotness of Keira Knightley, suddenly put on hobnailed boots and become a strongly-worded discussion on identity, democracy and state-sponsored violence, and then, between one delicately flavoured dish and another, it had escalated into an all-out shouting match across the table—Indians going at it with both guns blazing and foreigners pitching in with steely, pithy international contributions of their own.

If it hadn’t been for the fact that one person kept steering the conversation back to his ex-girlfriend, I believe that things might have ended badly, with soup on the floor and prawns up people’s noses. But what lawyers do best is argue, and it was actually a stimulating discussion; and at the end of it everyone shook hands with a smile. So to the host, if he’s reading this, thank you for a lovely evening.