Saturday, March 29, 2008

Water, water

Until quite recently most Europeans—especially the French—didn’t see much sense in bathing. One supposes it was cold and inconvenient, and that somebody had to have a good reason to establish world dominance in the perfume market.

As a kid in Switzerland I really dug the cold and inconvenient part of this argument. It got so bad that one day my sister began a tag game with me in which we took turns chasing each other through the house. Besides the kitchen and the bedroom, she also made me chase her in and out of the bathtub around the shower curtain several times. Then, having lulled me into a sense of security, she turned around while I was still in the tub and turned on the shower, trapping me into a bath against my will and thus grossly violating my fundamental human rights.

By the time I’d recovered from her deviousness I was a teenager, and having fairly regular baths to the tune of once a day. Those people who believe that as Indians they have a national duty to bathe at least twice a day, will still think of me as an oinker; but it’s really only on very cold winter mornings that I will swap a bath for an above-averagely conscientious wash of the face.

These days, however, we all have a good reason to skip a bath: there’s no water in Delhi, and even less in Gurgaon. They say it’s because the canal to Gurgaon was breached by villagers desperate for water, and because neighbouring states aren’t releasing Delhi’s share of water, but that’s just in the short term. In the long run it’s probably all because of those two-time bathers who are constantly trying to wash impurities—like guilt about wasting water—off themselves.

There are many things you can do to save water. Turn off the tap while brushing your teeth and while soaping dishes; wash your pollution-rich, nutrition-free vegetables in a pan of water rather than under a running tap; handwash your clothes or set the washing machine on economy; fix leaky taps promptly; give up drinking water and grow moisture-trapping cacti that you can suck on. Only one of those is my own suggestion, and anyone who can spot it wins a private tanker at the regular rate rather than at the fleece-the-suckers rate that private tankers are currently charging.

But a particularly effective water-saving measure is to give up bathing, because that really does use heaps of water. This is not great news, because the summer’s coming and there’s nothing like fourteen million sets of unwashed armpits to make you want to emigrate at once, even to France. But we should all consider doing this as a service to the motherland, despite the heavy olfactory costs, because otherwise eventually even the privileged people are not going to have any water left to dilute their Scotch with, and then there will be serious riots.

If you need a bit of persuasion, you should know that bathing is downright dangerous. I discovered this through Wikipedia, which everyone knows is the source of all human knowledge, particularly this column. Wikipedia lists no less than twelve deadly perils we face every time we strip off without a dirty thought. Among these are drowning, heatstroke and hypothermia, ear infections, impact injuries “from landing inappropriately in a bath, from an elevation, or from collision with other bathers”, infection, falling, fainting because of blood pressure changes, scalding, and if you’re a baby, developing asthma. In fact, it sounds as if we need a bath like we need a hole in that canal.

Give it up. It’s either that, or sucking on those cacti. You’ve been warned.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Physical law

For a brief while last year I could no longer see my feet because my belly was in the way, and since my blood circulation had also more or less stopped, I couldn’t feel them either. It takes courage to stand up when you aren’t sure if you have feet. This state of affairs was untenable. I bent my head, which was the only bit of me that could do any bending anymore, towards finding an answer.

I watched television, ate brownies, and scoured the land trying to find someone who would tell me that there was something I could do other than exercise. Those people must all have perished of obesity-related complications, because those who are left insist that there is no other way.

A friend gave me the number of a person called Ganesh (not his real name; using his real name makes me gibber with fear). “He’s my personal trainer,” she said. “He’s good. He told me he’d make a beach babe out of me in three months.” She was in fact looking quite svelte, though that might also have been because she’s 25 years old and has the metabolic rate of a hummingbird.

Ganesh turned out to be a sculpted young Adonis who took the healing properties of early morning sunlight very seriously, and conducted a passionate love affair with himself in all remotely reflective surfaces. During our introductory getting-to-know-you chat he told me his price, which was marginally more than my monthly income. I laughed hollowly and made a counter offer which caused his eyebrows to shoot disbelievingly up into his gelled hairline.

“Never mind the money, ma’am,” he said eventually. “It’s more important to get you into shape.” I thought him quite noble until he said that my thighs were all right, but, and diplomatically left it at that. Then he laid down the law: thou shalt not make excuses to skip sessions. Thus taking me on as a personal challenge, he departed, shooting a quick admiring glance at himself in the paint on the front door.

Mornings with Ganesh took on the dull hopelessness of a life sentence with hard labour. He showed great ingenuity making weights out of books and benches out of beds, and absolute ruthlessness in all matters fatty. “C’mon ma’am, cmoncmoncmon!” he would scream at my sweating bulk as I rolled about like a capsized turtle, trying to execute crunches and situps. “CmoncmoncmonCMON!” he bellowed at my labouring back as I did pushups. He almost drowned out my sobs.

After six or seven weeks of unremitting pain, I looked down and found I could see my toes again, though not in full. Then Ganesh took our relationship to the next level. “Ma’am,” he began, “I want to tell you two things. You must dye your hair, and you must take care of your feet. Then you will be very gorgeous.” I told him I would never dye my hair. “I’m telling you,” he said. “Sir will like it.”

If I stopped hanging out with Ganesh it wasn’t because of this statement, though I was properly indignant; it was because he got bored with fighting with my flab for next to no pay, and who could blame him? One day he just never showed up, though he called me to explain that he was getting tired of going from client to client, and really just wanted to emigrate to France where his friend was making barrels of cash.

I’m not sure what Ganesh ended up doing, though I wish him all the best. I’ve been thinking about him this week, since I looked down and suddenly found, again, that I couldn’t see my feet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Checkout list

Ebay is currently holding auctions for 10 Things To Do Before You Die, including floating weightless in a space simulator in Moscow, skydiving in Thailand, watching the Wimbledon gentleman’s final, driving a race car, and spending a night at the Burj-al-Arab hotel in Dubai. The highest bid, the last time I checked, was for the weightless experience. That’s what I would have bid for too, had I been bidding. Being an astronaut always seemed like it would be a kick, though it sounded like a little less fun after I read that farting inside a spacesuit can damage it.

At any rate, the Ebay auction naturally makes me want to create my own list of Things To Do Before I Die. None of them is about the wonderful places I want to visit, because it’s understood that that sort of thing is on everyone’s list. I plan to visit them all the minute I become one of the idle rich. No, my ambitions are more like a set of general principles that might prove to be improving in some way I don’t yet fully understand. Here is a random sampling of fifteen, in no particular order.

1. Read Finnegan’s Wake word for word, and understand it. It’s by James Joyce, and currently makes no sense at all.

2. Have a nice passport picture taken. The one I have to show to immigration officers all over the world for the next ten years was taken while I had conjunctivitis, and makes me look like one of the less valuable Picassos.

3. Stop compulsively editing spelling, grammar and pronunciation, and feeling resentful when other people don’t. Nobody likes it, and it’s weird, and it makes no difference to most of the world.

4. Learn one sport and play it respectably well. Scrabble counts.

5. Stop talking to the stuffed blue dragon on my desk. Because that’s really weird. Also, we’ve grown apart and he’s been spending a lot of time with the plaster skull next to him.

6. Buy a nice pair of sunglasses and never lose them. Ever. Ever. If I made a pile of all the sunglasses I’ve ever lost, I’d be able to lean comfortably against it.

7. Learn how to efficiently cook healthy, tasty food. I’ve begun by mastering how to optimally spread Nutella on bread. (The secret: slather it on, baby.)

8. Learn a foreign language, and use it to tune unpleasant people out. Even if they know I’m faking it, it’s my word against theirs. And who’s going to fight with you in a foreign language?

9. Stop smoking, even if it kills me. Particularly if it kills me.

10. Figure out when the people in 24 go to the bathroom just to pee, rather than to make covert mole-type phone calls or illegally upload satellite links to rogue operatives who keep telling them, “You’re going to have to trust me”.

11. Find the fountain of youth and the elixir of immortality, and then change the name of this list to just ‘Things To Do’.

12. Hunt down a Smurf and kneel on his chest until he tells me where his people get their hats.

13. Pretend to know what I’m doing with my life, like normal people. It makes one less of an outcast at parties, and besides, it’s the only way they’ll give me a credit card.

14. Master a musical instrument. Mine is the car horn.

15. Stop blaming my poor long-suffering mother for everything. (Ha ha! Only kidding. I just threw this one in to make her happy.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008


In 1968 Erich Von Däniken published Chariots of the Gods, thus forever ruining my credibility with friends to whom I fervently repeated his theory that Earth was visited by ancient extraterrestrial astronauts, who taught our forefathers how to raise obelisks and build spaceports for their craft to land on. Of course, my friends also knew me to be waiting for the superheroes in my favourite television cartoon, ‘Force G’, to cart me away from the tedium of family life to a career in fighting interstellar baddies, so it wasn’t a great shock.

Däniken’s critics think he’s a fraudulent crackpot. He didn’t help his case when he got a potter to fake pottery shards decorated with flying saucers and planted them at an archeological site—a surprising move since he’s a Taurean and therefore stable, prudent, with a great work ethic, and ideally suited to a career in banking or any kind of bureaucracy (or so Wikipedia says). Even in India, where the most outrageous claptrap is routinely given serious consideration by the media, the courts, and Parliament, the press ridiculed von Däniken when he came to research a radioactive cave in Kashmir that he thought might be an alien landing site.

Be that as it may, the whole thing has left me with an abiding interest in UFOs, partly because I’m still waiting for the Force G chaps. I read books on the famous 1947 ‘Roswell Incident’, in which a crash site in New Mexico was treated with extreme weirdness by the military, and Budd Hopkins’ research on alien abduction, which explains some people I know. I badgered my editor to do a story on UFOs until he said, “If you can get me the advertising, knock yourself out.”

So when I recently had a chance to watch the world’s most well respected documentary on UFOs, I grabbed it. For a few minutes there was just the presenter and me in the room, both of us looking faintly sheepish, but then twenty other space cadets turned up and I was excited again. Social stigma is a terrible thing.

Out of the Blue, narrated by Peter Coyote and produced by James Fox, investigates seminal sightings such as the 1997 Phoenix Lights phenomenon, in which hundreds of people reported the passing of a huge triangular craft with lights; and the Rendlesham File, which documents the physical investigation of a UFO by American military personnel in the Bentwaters area in England.

Besides a hopelessly spoofy musical background it’s a rather compelling movie, focusing only on credible witnesses, most of them in the military or government (although this might be definitive proof that they’re out to lunch). It also looks at only that tiny percentage of UFO sightings that do not submit to any conventional or easy explanation.

One of the interesting points the movie makes is that governments are beginning to declassify information related to UFO sightings, moving away from the strictures of the Robertson Panel set up by the CIA in 1952 to discredit floods of reported sightings. The Russians, British, French, Mexican, Brazilian and Chilean governments are finally releasing documents, in many of which authorities swear UFO witnesses to oaths of lifelong secrecy.

Now, I’m as big a fan of Men In Black as anyone else. The whole idea lends itself to parody. National Enquirer-style flying saucers and creatures with big black eyes and bulgy heads don’t do anything for me. But I’m quite willing to stick my neck out and say that anything is possible, because truth is almost always stranger than fiction.

It could be just because I’m Aquarian, and therefore eccentric, dreamy, given to meditating on abstractions that bear little relevance to life, and unable to take a position because I see both sides of the argument.

Monday, March 03, 2008

On Saturday March 1...

...Stet did not appear in Business Standard, having been unceremoniously thrown off the page by a special edition on the Union Budget. Back on Saturday, March 8.