Saturday, January 26, 2008

Curtains for topophobics

It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a play, so I’m looking forward to director Tim Supple’s highly-acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been performed all over the world. The acting, set design and costumes are meant to be spectacular.

It’s always thrilling to watch a good production, and the magical interaction between actors, sets, costumes, lights, music, dialogue and audience. But I can never quite gag the little part of my head that keeps asking, ‘How do they do it? How do they get up in front of an audience without forgetting their lines, or squeaking, or turning on their heels and bolting back into the wings?’

If you’re the sort of person who lunges for the karaoke mike, then topophobia, also known as stage fright, won’t mean a thing to you. But the rest of us can instantly evoke the terrible pounding of heart, dryness of mouth, involuntary twitches and general gibbering breakdown that accompanies a public appearance of any kind.

I have terrible stage fright, and am therefore inclined to preserve myself from those situations in the first place. When I was two or three, I had to run out on a stage wearing a piece of cardboard hung around my neck inscribed with the letter S (I was the second S in a line of kids who collectively spelled ‘SWEETS’). On that occasion I was nervous, but the performance was really more of an annoying hurdle in the way of what I considered the main event, which was having my teacher put lipstick put on my mouth, which she’d promised to do if I behaved.

In middle school, I was a stagehand in a school production of The Hobbit. I figured that if anything went wrong, it would do so in the blessed darkness between scenes; but as it happened, I was helping to raise a huge spiderweb backdrop when the whole contraption ground to a halt. They had to turn on the house lights to sort it out, at which moment my circulatory system stopped, along with much of my social development.

I’d also signed up for music class before I realised with horror that we were going to perform a musical. We had to mince about onstage in top hats and leotards, and I had to sing one line solo. It came out in a whisper, and the four or five people in the audience looked deeply puzzled.

There were only three other times when I had to do anything public. Once was to read something at my father’s memorial service to a hall full of his friends and colleagues, at which time I was such a wreck anyway that stage fright was only a small part of the problem. The other two times, I had to read bits of my own writing, which I managed only because I remembered a bit of advice from a university professor who’d told me that whenever she faced a new class, she’d imagine them sitting in their seats with their trousers around their ankles, and the consequent feeling of superiority gave her the confidence to proceed.

John Lahr wrote a brilliant article for The New Yorker (‘Petrified’, August 28, 2006) in which he described the hideous stage fright of performers like Steven Fry, Sir Laurence Olivier and Carly Simon (who asked members of her orchestra to spank her). “According to one British medical study,” wrote Lahr, “actors’ stress levels on opening night are equivalent ‘to that of a car-accident victim.’”

I hear their pain. I would any day exchange topophobia for arachibutyrophobia, which is the more entertaining fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth, or for hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, which is, cruelly enough, the word that means ‘fear of long words’.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Starry, unstarred nights

One of the wonders of this planet is its astonishing variety of flora, fauna and hotels. I’m not a great lover of hotels, having been scarred for life by extended stays in them while my family looked for housing in various cities—after a couple of weeks, there’s very little to recommend being in a hotel, no matter how fancy.

But I’ve been thinking about them a bit ever since I woke up to the fact that the literary festival in Jaipur is no longer upcoming, but on-going, and every reasonable place to stay is stuffed to the gills with book lovers who are, if not more enthusiastic than me, certainly more organised. The hotel hosting the literary festival, Diggi Palace, is very nice; it’s no reflection on the place that I once threw up copiously all down the stairwell.

I’ve actually had the good fortune to experience some truly wonderful hotels, located in beautiful places and designed to let the place in, not keep it out. Topping the list is El Nido, an island resort in the Philippines where they greet your waterfront arrival by flinging food into the water to gather a multitude of brightly coloured fish, and say goodbye with a surprise [spoiler alert] candlelight dinner with exquisite silverware and glassware in a natural hidden cave to which they take you in a tiny rowboat. El Nido is in close competition with the Taj Denis Island, in Seychelles, where you have your own private stretch of beach in one of the world’s most beautiful archipelagos.

Over the course of my life I’ve also passed the night in some very weird places, such as crouching in the linen closet of an overnight train (my ticket was waitlisted, but when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go). The piles of sheets were soft enough, but there was a hole in the ceiling, through which howling February winds congealed me into a block of ice despite all the blankets.

But the worst night I’ve ever had, bar none, was in a guesthouse in the little town of Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh. Dewas is like thousands of town all over the world, in that—with apologies to its denizens—there’s no reason on earth to go there. I was on a hot air ballooning expedition, and there was a bit of a cock-up with the winds, so we had to make do with whatever accommodation was available.

This Dewas guesthouse is the one tiny spot in the earth’s biosphere that is incapable of sustaining life. The windows and the glassed upper half of my room door were well ventilated by enormous holes in the panes. There was neither electricity nor soap, so that when you tried to use the Indian-style bathroom in the middle of the night and fell in, you couldn’t really do a sterling job of cleaning up.

There was no bed linen, which must be all right in the summer, but wasn’t that great on a freezing March night. My shoes left Neil Armstrong-like prints in the dust on the floor. The other guests, and I think I saw a few walking around, were dead. The management consisted of one person who seemed to be clinging to life purely out of inertia. When spoken to he managed only a sort of yearning look, as if to say, I would love to help, but look around, my hands are tied.

The thing is, you never know where life will require you to hang up your hat for the night. Those who can’t or won’t adapt might find themselves checked into the Great Hotel in the Sky ahead of schedule—and they don’t have checkout.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Raising the bar

I don’t think of myself as a ‘feminist’ in the traditional political sense. I’m just a person who doesn’t accept certain kinds of limitations in my life, or certain sorts of treatment from other people; my femaleness is incidental. But feminist or not, I’d have to be deaf, dumb and blind to not see the patriarchy everywhere around us. It’s like The Matrix; if I close my eyes and breathe deeply, I see the world in little green falling numbers. And like Neo I can, with the sheer power of my mind, make all the little green falling numbers flex and bend to my will…

Well okay, not quite, but much like the bumblebee, which flies against all the principles of physics purely because nobody told it that it couldn’t, I’ve always refused to believe that the patriarchy will get me. As a 20-something woman living alone in Delhi I did some things that gave my parents, in faraway Malaysia and Switzerland, sleepless nights, and some other things that would have given them coronaries if I’d mentioned them.

Partly, I got away with many things because I had the element of surprise on my side. People assumed that no Indian woman would do something so outrageously immodest as smoke in the vestibule of a third class train compartment while travelling alone, so they assumed I was from abroad, and left me alone, though more than one middle-aged person on a train sternly advised me to “get married”. Mechanics at the garage assumed that only a foreigner would be so weird as to hop into the pit with them to see what they were talking about. Malodorous men in the government liquor store assumed that only a foreigner would walk in by herself and queue up along with them.

It just never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do any of these things, and so I did them, and nobody ever bothered me, and that’s still how I choose to run my life. Like Keanu Reeves, I just close my eyes and f-l-e-x the world.

No, not really. Still, the Matrix analogy is not all that far-fetched. From official forms that ask only for ‘Father’s name’ to neighbours who want to know ‘What relation is he of yours?’ to friends and family addressing you when it comes to food and your male companion when it comes to work, the patriarchy is so entrenched that women themselves, even the most liberated and educated of them, promote it enthusiastically—lately through the ‘superwoman’ avatar.

The superwoman is the one who’s been told, and believes, that it is great and glorious to earn the bread and have a career, bear the children, supervise the household, and be a sex bomb all at the same time, and if that leaves no quiet time for herself, or brings on a psychotic episode, well, that’s all right because the glory should compensate, shouldn’t it? For some reason, it’s still not a question that supervising the household will continue to be her responsibility.

There are a number of things that women, not just in India but around the world, rarely question: they must bear children and care for them; they are responsible for the kitchen and meals, if not all household functioning and chores; they must take care of family elders; they must do their best not to hurt anyone’s feelings. (Those, right there, are most of the world’s dullest chores and the most enduring forms of self-abnegation; and women are taught that refusing these assignments is ‘selfish’.) Oh, and, they’d better not “ask for trouble” by wearing anything fetching.

It’s a mystery to me why women are told to hide in their homes while the lunatics don’t seem to have a curfew.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The year of living dangerously

There’s something magical about January 1. It might be just the way that the human brain is wired, but the first day of the first month of the year is a gleaming tabula rasa, empowered by the future rather than weighed down by the past. It’s a moment pregnant with possibility, when you can imagine yourself replenished and forgiven in all ways, granted a fresh start, all tanked up to do things better. The word ‘magical’ here, therefore, is used in the sense of ‘inexplicably wonderful and inspirational’ in addition to the sense of ‘completely hallucinatory’.

But after all, hallucinatory is as hallucinatory does, which is to say it might be bumf, but it’s bumf that works wonders for the dim and smelly place that is my head. When I wake up/crawl out/throw up on January 1, I am always amazed at how new, hopeful and vigorous I feel. January 1! It’s not just the birthday of Paul Revere, E.M. Forster, Noor Inayat Khan and Vidya Balan; it is that we are all reborn that day. I don’t exactly make resolutions—New Year resolutions take character, commitment and discipline and, as such, are strictly for the birds—but I do feel very smug and powerful. This lasts until January 7 or so, after which everything goes back to normal.

Henry Ford would say that that’s just my bad attitude. (Warning: this column is largely comprised of other people’s words, partly because other people have said these things far better than I can, and partly because I’m still woozy from New Year celebrations.) Ford acutely summed up one’s agency in one’s own life thus: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right”, although if we’re going to get into why it helps to think positive, I tend to side with Herm Albright, who said, “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

Either of those assertions, in any case, are more palatable than those in Rhonda Byrne’s dreadful little book/movie/audio, The Secret, which exhorts people to merely “ask the universe” for whatever they want, namely fame and riches, and blames natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis on the broody thoughts of negative people.

Anyway, 2008 feels like a year in which my life will get shaken up a little because, as Goethe wryly put it, “The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” It’s not yet a week into the year, I still feel I’m captain of my ship and master of my fate, and as William Shedd pointed out, “A ship in harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” So, like Mark Twain, I will strive to throw off the bowlines and sail away from the safe harbour, because I ask myself, as Nietzsche asked himself, “Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Comfort is a wonderful thing, but J.K. Galbraith dryly observed that “[F]aced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

Maybe it’s just a boring old mid-life crisis (yawn, yawn), but it might be true that, as Karl Wallenda posited, “Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.” And if it’s not, I’ll find out that “Living at risk,” by Ray Bradbury’s definition, “is jumping off the cliff and building your wings on the way down.” The possibilities—not ‘ker-splat’, the other ones—are enough to make your head swim.

Of course, I’ll re-evaluate all this on January 7.