Sunday, August 31, 2008

Games over

I’m reading Pallavi Aiyer’s engaging account of her years in China in Smoke and Mirrors, which reveals astonishing facts such as that there are still people who do journalistic research by making and keeping appointments with other people to obtain and ascertain facts and figures, instead of slouching around on the internet in one’s pyjamas.

But China has been on my mind, and on everyone else’s in the world, just in general. It was with unbounded admiration that I viewed the pure fabulousness of the closing ceremony of the 29th Olympiad in Beijing last week. I know, I know—everyone has had it up to the gills with the Olympics, and for my own part if I hear the phrase ‘coming out party’ one more time, I will break the world record in stabbing someone repeatedly with a chopstick.

But I’m still hung up on one particular facet of Olympics 2008, and that is China’s great contrast with once-great Britain. It’s true that China’s episodes of paedo-impersonation and video tampering during the opening ceremony (in the cause of aesthetics and technical perfection) are now world-famous, but the intensity with which people pounced on these incidents suggests a smidgeon of insecurity.

Well-earned insecurity, as it turned out. I thought that the Mayor of London looked shifty and embarrassed, placing his hands in and out of his pockets and generally behaving as if he had no idea what they were doing there at the end of his arms, as they handed him the Olympic flag.

It became painfully clear why, when the London 2012 presentation came on. I couldn’t believe my eyes when, in the epic ambition and sophistication embodied by the closing ceremony in the Bird’s Nest, the London Olympic organisers produced, with a roll of drums…a bus. That’s right, a big red double-decker bus rolled up to a bus stop where people in flappy coats and hats were waiting, industriously reading newspapers under big black umbrellas. The twist of lime was that the orderly queue you’d expect to board the bus turned into a ravening pack of urban anarchists who threw themselves at the doors.

But then, just when it seemed that London had decided it would seduce the world by showcasing chaotic public transport and bad weather, things got worse: the bus unfurled into a hedge-like construction out of which emerged David Beckham (or his waxen double from Madame Tussaud’s, it was hard to tell which) who propelled a football into the crowd; and a musical act that caused the umbrellas to light up with little swirling lights to help shield the coat-clad dancers from the sweat pouring off guitarist Jimmy Page.

In the spirit of Olympic brotherhood, the four or five hundred million Chinese volunteers in the middle of the stadium arranged their features into an expression of gentle, interested mystification.

I suppose it was better than showcasing the Opium Wars.

This really is Asia’s century. But it’s probably time for all the people who like to talk about India rivalling China to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s all very well to gape like goldfish at the comparative poverty of London’s imagination at the moment, but when I drive down the road in Delhi, I can’t say I’m bursting with confidence about Delhi pulling off a decent Commonwealth Games—the banners for which, you might have noticed, came down months ago and have stayed down as people try their best to forget that we’re on a deadline.

Speaking of Delhi, can anyone tell me where they’ve put the roads?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Cops and rubbers

So now there’s an advertisement that uses the word ‘condom’ a lot, advertising a downloadable mobile phone ringtone that consists of the word ‘condom’ sung in cheery harmony. The BBC World Service Trust launched the ad, of course, and it was funded by the Gates Foundation, but the good old GOI cleared it, which is a far cry from the days when the then union minister Sushma Swaraj was flaying soap commercials for posing clear and present danger to our family values.

The sudden lowering of governmental inhibitions must have something to do with the little problem we’re having with our population, which on the upside is swamping the global economy and, on the downside, large parts of the solar system as well. The fact that this condom ad made news headlines is a sorry comment on a country facing an AIDS crisis.

Speaking of family values, I’ve never been able to figure out our position (if you will) on sex. For instance, we’re a country that cannot say the word ‘sex’, or admit that anyone is even remotely sexual, including actors whose profession description, including their totally unironic self-descripton, is ‘sex symbol’. We beat up people who celebrate Valentine’s Day, and form vigilante groups to roam round apprehending and intimidating the sort of people depraved enough to have a… a… (it sticks in my craw)… a party, as happened recently in Bangalore.

Simultaneously we valourize marriage, which is kicked off by a ceremony in which two people stand up in front of a whacking great crowd and announce, in essence, that they’re going to be sleeping with each other regularly. In fact we often marry people off even before they’ve hit puberty, just to make sure that the second they feel like having sex, they have someone to get busy with. This explains how we ended up with 1.1 billion people, but it does not explain why they’re still so coy.

We’re also a country in which, although we have great monastic and ascetic traditions (though these are, globally speaking, sometimes congruent with marriage), not having children is still seen as nothing short of weird. Now that we have cloning technology who knows what might be possible, but the last time I checked, when people implore you to have children, they’re begging you to have sex.

It’s too tiresome to yet again trot out the examples of the Kamasutra and the Khajuraho temples, but when you hear people drone on about our conservative traditions, it’s inevitable. Those drawn and sculpted lovers are doing something indisputably recreational. They’re definitely not thinking about the sacred act of childbirth—or if they are, it really turns them on.

The leviathan is stirring, however. Unmarried people are starting to live together without lying about it or blushing; movie stars are going out with each other in the full glare of publicity, and there’s neither any doubt what they’re up to nor any comment about it; writers are writing about sex—mostly badly, but then that’s the nature of sex writing all over the world; singers are singing about it; columnists are answering questions about it, and the great machine of Bollywood keeps everyone’s hips grinding. In Poona, not too long ago, a seminar on sex was very well attended by lots of middle-aged people who by the lights of many self-appointed guardians of morality should long have forgotten what goes where, and how, and why.

Before we know it we’ll be saying words like ‘sex’ out loud. Until then, you can practice saying ‘condom’ without falling to pieces.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

2008: A Spa Odyssey

It’s an annoying fact of life that rich, famous people who can most afford to pay for things tend to be the people who get the most stuff for free. They’re always being showered with presents and getting offered free stays in resorts and having their bills waived at top-notch restaurants, while the rest of us grubby mortals are busy developing ugly stretch marks all over our budgets.

When they do shell out, however, they do it in style. Once in a while, a grubby mortal gets to stray into this platinum-plated world for free (it’s called ‘travel writing’), and see how the other half lives, and what they do with their untold wealth. Thus it was that last weekend I drove up a hill and into the cool, clean, white-clothed, incense-scented, soothing-music-filled precincts of the Top Class Number One Superduper Bestest destination spa in India, which is called Ananda in the Himalayas.

I think the rich probably have to close their eyes when they climb into the car at Haridwar, just as I had to, in order to better appreciate the unique geological composition of this part of the Himalayan foothills, which were created by the compression, over millennia, of layer upon layer of torn potato chips packets, crumpled plastic plates, empty soft drinks bottles and suppurating piles of other unidentifiable garbage.

But then you leave the big settlements and start to climb, and by the time you turn into the custard-coloured gates of the Maharaja’s hilltop palace, Rishikesh and Dehradun are merely scenic splashes in a painting far below, beside the champagne-coloured ribbon of the Ganga. There’s nothing here but lush rolling hills, mist, and the discreet gleam of Rolexes.

Ananda is a little like a Krishnamurti Foundation school (yoga, quietude, spiritual orientation) crossed with a Four Seasons. You can contemplate the vastness of the cosmos, the relative purity of your body and soul and the harmony of nature while doing yoga in the fresh air, losing weight, getting massaged, sleeping in your beautiful climate-controlled room looking over the valley, soaking in Dead Sea mud, and drinking excellent French wine. I’ve always had trouble deciding what to do with my life, but I was able to establish that this is much more my scene than is shambling around Delhi with my blood boiling and my hair standing on end.

They’re very serious about your health, at Ananda. An Ayurvedic menu is pointedly placed at your table in the restaurant and often gently recommended by the dining staff. But if you insist on indulging, you can choose from a menu of fine food and fine wine. This is important for people like me, who won’t do the difficult thing unless they feel they have a choice. You can eat healthily and spend all day in the spa, using the gym and getting ayurvedic treatments, hydrotherapy, body wraps and beauty treatments, or you can spend all day eating rich foods and sleeping in your room or by the pool—it’s your funeral, as they say, not to mention the funeral of your gigantic hills of cash.

As soon as you cross the line into the fabled land of the rich, of course, your grubby mortal friends turn on you. I told one that I had earlier soaked in a bath of milk, saffron, and rose petals, and that it was dinner time so I should probably head for a shower. “A milk shower?” he asked. “Or are you going to have to slum it with water?” Another said, “What’s in the toilet cistern—white rum?” That’s the problem with grubby mortals: by and large they’re a bitter lot.

With excellent reason.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The jargon juggernaut

Ideas are hermaphroditic and can breed all by themselves, like tapeworms; but the resulting bastards can aspire to legitimacy only upon cross-pollination by other ideas. Thus it is that theories beget theories, and books beget books, and the entire intellectual industry self-perpetuates, always traceable back to some bastard or the other.

Without meaning that the way it sounds, we are increasingly suffocating in hot air. The more carefully descriptive a term, the more education you need to use it, and thus it is that jargon dooms good ideas by making them less, rather than more, accessible. This is inevitable; theoretical activity, devoted to the ceaseless refinement of ideas, is always snagging on the fabric of language, which stands between a thought and its expression. One can’t blame theorists for hissing at each other like adders over the exactitude of a word: it has to be second nature in their line. They would have argued with God about The Word, had they been around early enough.

Still: a rosy-cheeked little idea flies out into the world for the first time, whistling a merry tune. Suddenly, a band of roving thinkers leaps out from nowhere and proceeds to love it — not wisely, but too well. After the dust settles, the poor bedraggled thing picks itself up, clanking under the well-meaning weight of a hundred clauses, parentheses, corollaries, caveats, appendices, red marks, and Post-It notes. It limps home sounding like:

“Sontag’s brand of formalism is radical in the sense that it attempts to focus on the ‘surface’ of the text—its sensual appearance—which is compromised by the archaeological approach of the essentialist search for meaning. In doing so, Sontag abandons almost wholesale the notion of any kind of basic essentialist meaning at all, but does not question, although it implies, the essential serarch and need for meaning, which even the ‘erotics of art’ that Sontag advocates, would have.”

I regret to say that this horrible example was written by someone close to me. Very close. Okay—by me, in an end-of-term college paper for a class portentously called The Play of Interpretation. I haven’t the faintest clue anymore what any of it means. I can only say, in my defence, that this is how we were supposed to write; and I suspect that we threw in all the names and labels we could, in the hope that the professor wouldn’t immediately realise that we’d spent all term playing Trivial Pursuit.

People love jargon. It makes them sound learned and mysterious and exciting. In the economy of power, information is the trump currency, and exclusive information the key to success. The result is that hundreds of millions of students around the world are being drilled in the use of a hundred different sets of jargon, none of which they necessarily understand, and none of which they will use for a day after they leave the ivied cloisters.

The jargon of postmodern theory, in particular, flies around with a lot more energy than understanding. “Mightn’t there be a point where space is at once intimacy and exteriority, a space which, outside, would in itself be spiritual intimacy? An intimacy which, in us, would be the reality of the outdoors, such that there we would be within ourselves outside in the intimacy and in the intimate vastness of that outside?” asks Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature. Thus is a point asphyxiated in the attempt to make it.

All it really takes for a term to become a ‘term’, is a pair of quotation marks. That annoying little hooked V-sign hand action means “the entire history of what this means, which I know, don’t you?” It is best answered with the economical use of a single finger, meaning “I don’t really care, do you?”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Can’t spells won’t

My grandmother, Malti Shukla, had terrible arthritis that turned her hands and feet into a painful ginger-like tangle. She developed the arthritis at the age of fifty, which was when she disagreed with my grandfather about their future plans; he went off to retire in his ancestral home in Lucknow, and she stayed on in Moradabad, where she was in the midst of completing an MA degree abandoned at the age of 18 when she got married. They never lived together again.

She remade her life at an age and time when it was bad form for a woman to do so. She finished her degree, got a job teaching English at the local college, and rented a flat. Being the only elderly woman with short white hair in Moradabad, she was often mistaken for Indira Gandhi, even though she took a cycle rickshaw to work. She found herself having to teach English literature in Hindi, because few of her students spoke English, but she loved it, and her students adored her.

Eventually she gave up her independence to live with her daughter’s family in Delhi, at their request. She had spent her life cooking, tending to her large joint family and staying up all night sewing birthday frocks. In her daughter’s home she could have put her feet up and relaxed, but work was worship for her, and she couldn’t abide inactivity; she took on the task of managing the household and helping to care for the family. She turned her teacher’s skills to cater to the special needs of her grandson Adit.

Even when she was very frail she would sneak off to do the shopping herself, because she liked going out and conducting affectionate pricing battles with the local shopkeepers, and because she loved good food, and was a brilliant cook, and didn’t trust anyone else to get the best ingredients.

She was tough as nails and ground her teeth quite often, but it was her endless reservoir of generosity and love that seduced people across generations. She made everyone feel loved and sheltered and cared for—not just her family, but also her students, neighbours, friends, and random strangers on the train. She made guava jelly and pickle for everyone, never forgot to write a birthday card and post it on time, and had strong views on politics that she didn’t hesitate to express. She smelled of perfume and talcum powder, had the softest upper arms in the world, read poetry, and laughed a lot.

The arthritis progressed; she had cortisone, gold injections, surgeries to implant metal pins to straighten her toes, orthopedic shoes, splints for her fingers. But every day she woke up at daybreak and spent an hour exercising, soaking her stiff hands in warm water and clenching and straightening her crooked fingers for a thousand reps, and rotating all her joints to keep mobility. She was probably the only person in the family who could touch her toes. She refused to concede one drop of life to her disease or her age—her battle cry was “Can’t Spells Won’t”. She went travelling with her beloved sisters in law, took trains and planes to visit far-flung relatives and friends in India and abroad, and kept abreast of everybody’s life. She had implacable willpower, the charisma and social graces of a queen, the guts of a commando, and an unsquashable sense of fun.

A life-long atheist, she always referred to her own death by comically closing her eyes, cocking her head, and sticking her tongue out of the side of her mouth. Last Saturday, after two years of heart trouble, surgery and strokes, she really did die, at the age of 82. If there is a god, he’s going to have to shift up.