Sunday, December 30, 2007

The ghost of columns past

The world works according to certain incontrovertible truths that you may not like, but that it is pointless, or at least exhausting, to argue with. Random examples: Four sides to a square, 100 paise to a rupee, three laws of thermodynamics, 2.2 pounds to the kilogram, one partridge in a pear tree, 21 points in blackjack, seven dwarves, a dime a dozen, 52 weekly columns in a year.

If there’s anything more certain than these universal laws, it is that the fifty-second and final instalment of the column will do a Top Ten kind of wrap-up of the year. This is partly because other columnists will be doing the same and you have to compete, and partly because it’s an obvious and easy topic, and when you’re desperately scrabbling to find a subject for what feels like the six millionth time, it’s nice to have one handed to you on a plate.

For people who regularly throw themselves out of airplanes or bring joy and succour to the underprivileged or know other people’s secrets and don’t mind telling them, finding things to write about is not a problem; but it’s less easy if you’ve spent most of your year diligently watching ants and spiders duel to the death between old bills and dead batteries on your desk.

(Watching this, by the way, is a useful insight into power dynamics, and I’m not talking just about the dead batteries. You learn about stalking; about lunging in with deadly speed to deliver a paralytic sting and retreating until it has taken effect; about backstabbing; flushing out prey without ceding your own advantage; and that while ants never give up even while proceeding down the enemy’s gullet, spiders couldn’t care less about heroics as long as their tummies are full. It’s all very reminiscent of family life.)

Either way, every year-end column is under bone-crushing pressure to look back on the year and identify its salient moments. The trouble is that in most cases, the year gone by is exactly like the year before it, and likely to be much like the year coming up. Still, after a bit of thinking, I was able to come up with a list of events and realisations that did really seem like watershed moments in 2007. That they are relevant only to me will be my USP in a welter of columns recapping things you’ve already read about.

1. I travelled to Barbados and St. Lucia in the Caribbean, Spain, France, and Scotland.
2. People you meet at dinner parties are more than willing to talk about what they do; as soon as you ask what they think, they suddenly cross the room in search of someone who will ask them what they do.
3. Siblings and old friends are wonderful things.
4. Christmas is a traditional Indian celebration, as long as it involves gifts; if we could only find a way of commercialising Thanksgiving, we’d do that one too. Maybe in 2008?
5. I rediscovered a number of people I haven’t met in twenty years or more, thanks to Facebook—which also lets you play Scrabble online.
6. More people will comment on an article about chocolate than will comment on an article about social ills.
7. I’ve entered that stage of life when you go to as many funerals as you do weddings and births.
8. A new pair of jeans can make you feel like a million bucks, should you be one of those people who do not actually have a million bucks.
9. Eat fish oil.
10. Just 52 more columns to go next year.

Happy 2008.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Cabbages and kings

On Sunday last I had cocktails with His Highness Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur. Most people call him Shriji, though he is also referred to simply as ‘Udaipaw’, which is totally awesome. He looked quite tired, presumably because just the other day he’d had to smile at four thousand people who’d come to wish him for his birthday. I got the distinct impression that this night he’d rather have been in bed, but he was charming nevertheless, and properly resplendent in a black bandhgala with gold buttons and his famous middle-parted beard.

I was wearing my best, darkest jeans for the occasion, and had neatly combed out my own moustache. But there was so much blue blood, and so many eye-popping jewels, and it was all so intimidating, that I completely forgot to introduce myself as ‘Vasant Kunj’ (which is where I live). I just mumbled “Hi, happy belated,” and then fell back, in a fright, to a spot in the invisible middle distance to which I remained rooted for two hours, while various representatives of the Historic Resort Hotels group flitted by and graciously invited us to visit their properties.

If I do go, it will be rather different from my last big experience with Rajasthan. That was in 1997, when I was driving around the state in a large and dusty Sumo jeep with two dear old friends. We’d pooled in Rs 6,000 each for a grand total of Rs 18,000 that would cover diesel, accommodation, food, sightseeing fees and the odd purchase, in ten destinations over two weeks. Our budget was practically see-through from all the stretching.

We would skid into some fabled desert settlement around dusk, looking like three large dust bunnies, and check into some hole in the wall with unpredictable water and no discernible service, where, for anything between Rs 100 and Rs 1,000, we could pass the night all piled into one room with seriously dodgy sheets.

In Udaipur, the first hotel we tried was so dire that it failed even our unbeatably low standards. We tramped through a great deal of cow dung until we saw a tiny little purple gate in an alley just behind the City Palace. It led to a quite charming hole in the wall with a terrace that looked out over Lake Pichola. We bargained the management down to half-price, claiming persuasively that since we were the only guests, they stood to make either half the money, or none at all.

Udaipur being a romantic city of beautiful lakes and honeymooners, we decided to lavish our one budgeted splurge there, on dinner at the fancy-pants Lake Palace Hotel. We weren’t going to give cheapskate travellers a bad name: we wore clean clothes, deodorised, didn’t scratch ourselves suddenly, didn’t bargain, and were happy, at the end of the evening, to be able to pronounce the hotel “not that great”.

We were all in our mid-twenties, and pretty tough. We happily drove for five hours a day, slept next to flatulent camels on the open sands of the Thar Desert, ate at roadside trucker stops, and walked our feet off in the sun. Still, there’s a limit, and we were fortunate to all reach it simultaneously, down to the second. Standing by a well among the famous frescoes of Mandawa, exhausted, malodorous, we suddenly looked shiftily at each other and blurted, “Let’s go home!”

What a relief. We more or less ran back to the local hole in the wall, threw our stuff in the car, and hightailed it back to the creature comforts of Delhi, where we immediately went dancing.

I like to think that I’m no softie when it comes to travel. On the other hand: been there, done that.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bleak house

I’ve just finished reading The Gathering, which is a bleak Irish family saga from bleak Irish novelist Anne Enright. It’s excellent—clear-eyed without being cold, emotional but not sentimental, fearless rather than brash, a pearl of a book accreted around a dirty little hidden secret. I highly recommend it. The fact that it won the Man Booker Prize this year feels like a personal vindication of sorts, not because of all the help I did not extend to Anne, who hasn’t the faintest idea who I am, but because audiences increasingly seem to reject anything that makes them feel at all uncomfortable, especially if “it’s depressing”, which is usually to say, takes an unflinching look at truth. This seems rather unfair to the book in question.

As one of those readers who absolutely adore depressing, I like to imagine that Enright’s success avenges all the books that regularly get shafted by critics for being depressing, as opposed to poorly written, or badly thought out, or horribly structured. I remember watching Akhil Sharma’s wonderful novel An Obedient Father, seven years ago, crash and burn in the flames of depression-discrimination.

I’d go even further and say that the darker a book, the more I’m likely to enjoy it. Nor do I believe that this confirms me as a literary crazy (I make no claims here about any other kind of crazy). As far as I can remember, none of our really great works of literature or inherited cultural myths are particularly Pollyannaish. They’re about broken hearts, loved ones lost, happiness smashed to bits, abuse and exploitation, murder and suicide, war, abject poverty, crippling disease and disability, natural calamity, exile, brutality, alienation, political oppression, terrifying uncertainty, and hard luck in general.

Take the Bible, for instance—how do you think it feels to get pitched out of Paradise without a stitch of clothing, and be told that the holiday’s over and you’ll now have to slave for your food, and that you’ve blown it not only for yourself but for all of your descendants, everywhere, forever and ever? But you don’t hear people say, “Oh, I didn’t like that Book, it was so depressing.”

Or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both full of the most godawful humiliations and deaths, not to mention rape and duplicity and the kind of equivocation that would give a moral philosopher the shakes? Nobody turns them down for being depressing.

Yet, that’s how many readers react to books that deal with almost any subject you could put under the rough heading ‘real life, warts and all’. While some tortured artist strives to hold a mirror up to nature, readers are busy measuring the quality of the work by how good it makes them feel—and somewhere along the line, we’ve lost the ability to feel good about feeling sad, because being sad seems to be more undesirable today than it has ever been. Literary culture seems to be inclining towards some adolescent desire to deflect discomfort, demanding that while art should move one, it had better move one up the comfort scale, not down.

Unfortunately, as Tolstoy pointed out, happy stories are all boringly similar, while each unhappiness has its own excitingly special character. (Some people will, of course, suggest that Tolstoy said this more elegantly.) If you want shiny happy comfort, get Photoshop and a bean bag. If you want great art, you’ll have to take it to heart, and on the chin.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Spread the joy

The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, and so I make sure that at least once a day I ask myself how I can be happy in my brief little life. The deeper answer always seems to fade maddeningly before the more immediate answer, which is, invariably, to scarf a slice of bread richly layered with Nutella.

I refer to the creamy, hazelnut-flavoured chocolate spread that is commonly available in provisions stores, and that people routinely walk right past, despite the fact that it seems to have been created by the best taste buds in paradisiacal kitchens from Valhalla to Vaikunta. It’s as if they’d discovered a source of free renewable energy and made it available at every street corner, but people kept hunting for petrol and complaining about the price. Or as if the Beatles were back and hanging about singing their songs in the local park, and people just kept shuffling past with their iPods plugged into their ears. (Not that anyone younger than twenty-five has any idea who the Beatles are. George Harrison—wasn’t he a friend of Anoushka Shankar’s dad?)

The point is, people are missing out big time. I have found that a spot of Nutella has the same effect on gloom as Kryptonite had on Superman. It also has the same effect on one’s hips as irritation had on the Hulk’s biceps; but, thanks to one of those wonderful evolutionary adaptations that keep the universe going, you can dispel the gloom of gaining weight simply by continuing to eat the stuff. I should add that Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella, is not even paying me to say these things, although I can’t think why.

People love to bang on about how best to feel good. Enumerate all the good things in your life and chant them to yourself until you believe them. Compare yourself to the most unfortunate person you encounter, and gain some perspective on your complaints. Meditate for fifteen minutes every day. Make a list of all the things you like about yourself. Find a purpose and write it down (making lists is crucial to all this happiness-mongering) and refuse to be deflected from it for long.

I fully appreciate that these self-help tactics are good, salt-of-the-earth tips on how to be a happier person. My rational self admires the serious inquiries into the nature and accessibility of happiness by people like Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, who says it’s possible to synthesise happiness; and Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, who claims that an abundance of choices might be paralysing, not liberating, for the human spirit; and French monk and photographer Matthieu Ricard, who says that happiness is a habit.

I strive thataway, I really do. But, being a fairly average creature with little patience for the long hard road full of thorns, I have to confess to a certain sympathy for the direction taken by one Mike, on a website called My Senior Citizen Humor Blog. Mike writes:

“Dr. Phil proclaimed, "The way to achieve inner peace is to finish all the things you have started and have never finished." So, I looked around my house to see all the things I started and hadn't finished, and last night I finished off a bottle of Merlot, a bottle of White Zinfandel, a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream, a bottle of Kahlua, a package of Oreos and the remainder of my old Prozac prescription. You have no idea how FREAKING GOOD I feel. Please pass this on to those whom you think might be in need of inner peace.”

Saturday, December 01, 2007

God who?

I like the joke about an insomniac agnostic dyslexic being someone who lies awake at night wondering if there is a Dog. It’s a religious joke, which is one of my favourite kinds, as well as a disability joke, which is not my favourite kind, but which, I have to admit, is still funny.

Maybe it takes a certain kind of person to laugh at a joke about disability or about God; but it takes a much more frightening kind of person to put the writer of the joke against a wall and shoot him or her, instead of looking coldly down their nose and moving on, or coming up with a counter-joke, which one imagines would be the democratic thing to do.

Speaking of jokes, I think it’s very funny that people still think of India as a democracy, when any two-bit organisation masquerading as the servant/defender of some faith or the other can boot people who speak their minds right out of their houses (or, as in the case of poor old M.F. Husain, right out of the country) as well as hold a government to ransom, all over some perceived slight to God. Who, as any good atheist will tell you, doesn’t even exist.

These days everyone is so busy killing or suing everyone else over slights, real or imagined, to one or another of their gods, that they forget what a hard time we atheists have, getting ourselves through the bitter gales of life without anybody to dump on, or at least blame.

Atheism is defined as the belief that even if God did once exist, chances are that He or She would long ago have fired Himself or Herself for incompetence, and drunk Himself or Herself to death on Ambrosial Nectar in some seedy galactic Bar, and this is not a bad thing insofar as it renders the whole Karma and Heaven vs. Hell issues moot, though it also means that anything you suffer will be in the here and now, and not in the safely distant ever afterlife. Atheists get bad press for being irreverent about other people’s gods, when in fact they have to struggle as much as everyone else to keep their faith in moments of crisis, since it would be so much easier to just be able to confess, or believe that someone else will fix everything, or deflect decision-making in the direction of some Book.

Irreverence of all kinds, not to mention free speech, is the basis not just of humour, but also of originality, creativity and thoughtfulness. It seems to be dying a slow and horrible death, if not all over the world, then certainly in this country, while piety and pseudo-piety in their ugliest forms are fed to bursting, grow tall, put on weight and proceed to throw it around, and governments stand around being sensitive to religious sentiments, otherwise known as undesirable swings in voting patterns.

Luckily there are pockets of sanity left in the world, where irreverence is not just allowed but encouraged, even though it sometimes leads to stupid lawsuits. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading the satirical newspaper The Onion, I beg you to haul yourself over to and daily take in such headlines as “Christ Kills Two, Injures Seven In Abortion-Clinic Attack” and and “15,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere”, and “Heroic PETA Commandos Kill 49, Save Rabbit”, and “New Oliver Stone 9/11 Film Introduces 'Single Plane' Theory”.

The Onion takes the pants off everyone and everything. It may run satirical headlines and stories, but they’re a lot less offensive than non-satirical headlines and stories like “Cong, Left pass buck on Taslima”.