Saturday, November 22, 2008

Second childhood

“So,” I’ll ask a long lost friend, “how have you been?” although, if I were a cooler person, I’d say ‘Whassuuuuuup!’ because apparently really cool people are supposed to sound like sneezing donkeys. And here’s what this typically mid-thirties, mid-career person will often reply: “Oh god, I have so much schoolwork to finish before our board exams.”

Now long, long ago, on my home planet far, far away, adults who had completed school and college simply stopped doing homework, just like that, so it always takes me a minute or two of spinning around in circles with my tongue lolling before I’m ready to ask a trenchant follow-up question like: “Did you say homework?”, though if I were cooler I’d say “Whaaaaaaa?!” because if you’re going to be cool you’d better be choking on a hairball.

As a person who has perfected the art of not having children and is therefore in a position of wonderful objectivity, I’d say: Get a grip, people, let the little blighters do their own work. Is it because you really don’t have enough problems in your thinning portfolio and thickening arteries, in your marriage and at work, that you’re dying to lie awake at night worrying about how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit?

But no, today’s parents seem dead keen on doing homework, fretting over math problems and spending hours Photoshopping the cover of the history project, sometimes while the student in question is off relaxing over a few drinks with his or her friends. They bite their nails during their kids’ exams, wishing they could do for them, probably because they studied much harder.

I was beginning to think this parent-child joint homework thing a uniquely Indian trait, when a recent article in The New Yorker opened my eyes. The land of the free and the home of the brave, for your information, is ‘overparenting’ its children in order to—get this—compete with little kids in India and China. How’s that for an outsourcing opportunity? We could be writing college applications for millions of American kids and saving them the three to forty thousand dollars they’d pay IvyWise to do so in the US.

Anyway, I’m here to tell you that doing your children’s homework for them is overkill. My mother just let us be, so much so that I learned early on to forge her signature on the homework calendar that we had to have signed at the end of every day or week, so that I wouldn’t wake her when I left for school in the morning—and I’m doing all right, barring the bank balance and the nightmares.

She was a big fan of John Holt, the famous educator who believed that schools do more to impede than foster learning and the real stuff takes place at home; she earnestly read his books, allowed us to read our own and watch many B-grade movies, never had a clue what I was studying (or not), at wherever it was I went every morning, and sensibly settled down to writing her own book, which allowed us the freedom to grow in the way most natural to us.

That’s a total exaggeration, of course. She and my father attended every PTA meeting they had to, and they dragged my siblings and me off to every museum, gallery, theatre and volcano-top in sight. None of us failed a thing, and all of us became truly odd people. We’ve had our ups and downs, of course—but today she can look at her children in their various life situations and move her lips in a silent prayer of thanks. At least that’s what I thought it was, until I sidled up close one day and heard her muttering, “Damn that John Holt.”

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The One

You know those people who light up the room when they walk in? The ones whose smiles seem to well up from their bellies and whose skins glow with conviviality? The ones who look really glad to meet you, and really enjoy themselves wherever they go?

Well, I’m not one of them. I tend to lighten the mood very much the way a ton of bricks might, and spread about as much joy as a damp sweater. “How are you?” people will ask, and that’ll set me off: I’ll go ahead and tell them how I am, segueing smoothly into how the whole wretched world seems to be. If you’re looking to add fun and games to your soiree, I’m not the first person to call. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to shore up your quota of depressive, broody complainers, my number is—ah, why bother.

And yet, here I am on this Wednesday afternoon, so happy that I haven’t eaten anything all day. I can’t stop smiling. I pushed my hair back just now and I swear I brushed against a halo of tiny birds, hearts, harps, flowers, music notes and smiley faces circling my head. Instead of inducing a powerful gag reflex, it’s making me hum moonily to myself.

It’s because, at long last, we have an outrageously good-looking man leading the Free World. When people talk about JFK being handsome, they’re just being polite. They mean, ‘for a politician’. Barack Obama, on the other hand, is a stunner any way you cut it. He’s young, athletic, and has that sexy thing going where his cheeks blow out gently when he pronounces his bs and ps.

Just kidding (though it doesn’t hurt that he’s gorgeous). My happiness is really because, as my sister said from a bar in Shanghai where she watched Obama get elected and give his victory speech, “He made a pain in my heart, that I didn’t even know was there, go away.” My sister is given to weeping with relief at other equally uncertain outcomes, such as daily sunrise, but I had to agree. The man is inspirational, in addition to be being sharp as a razor and emotionally rock-solid (and hot).

Why? Pitch-perfect psychology. He sticks to the issue, never takes his eye off the ball, acknowledges the need to build consensus instead of trying to tear down the other chap, and could therefore be the best conflict-resolver we’ve seen in a very long time. He’s the prettiest possible embodiment of the best possible expression of globalisation: biracial, shaped by multiple ethnicities, as outward as he is inward looking, well-travelled, well-informed, tech-savvy, acutely aware of the world’s interdependence, and seemingly focused on bettering the world rather than on self-aggrandisement. What’s not to slavishly worship?

I swear I heard one of the CNN anchors sniffle as she pretended to analyse the events in an unbiased fashion. The newspeople couldn’t keep the smiles off their faces. Crowds all over the world danced in the streets and drank themselves silly in thoroughly inappropriate time zones. The last time the world got so involved (though in varying ways) was on September 11, 2001.

If you didn’t spend most of Wednesday morning processing a sense of relief, joy, and hope, you’re either dead or brain-dead (there’s a name for that political position, but in the spirit of bipartisanship, I’m not going to tell you what it is). Sloganeering is forever richer for this election. Think of the possibilites: ‘Yes We Can’, ‘Maybe We Could’, ‘You Really Did, ‘We Really Shouldn’t’ and so forth.

People may well always ask each other, as they did when JFK was shot, and when the Twin Towers fell, Where were you when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States?

Say cheese

God knows we’re all in need of a few laughs after the tumultuous events of the last fortnight, particularly the incredibly unfunny Raj Thackeray’s rabble-rousing in Mumbai. You know what would really be funny? It would be really funny if all the North Indians, every last one, actually did leave Mumbai, and refused point blank to come back even if he begged, which he would start doing pretty soon. And then there were a lot of unfunny bombs all over the place. And the Canadians had an election, though that was pretty funny in that it went completely and utterly unnoticed.

Then, just when I needed it, the heavens re-aligned and gave unto us a comedy night. I’ve never seen a stand-up comic perform in India, so it was a treat to catch Russell Peters, particularly after spending an hour and a half in traffic trying to get there. (If there’s an easy barometer for just how staggeringly stupid and obnoxious we are as a people, traffic is it.) I’ll say this for YouTube: it may not be as much fun as watching something live, and it drives you crazy if the Net is slow, but there are a lot fewer morons on the way.

There’s something irresistible about a guy who refuses to be nice to anyone, especially people who are trying to be nice to him: Peters picks on people with pitch-perfect skill—large swathes of the peoples of the world, as well as you, old guy back there, and you there, lousy Bollywood actor, and hey, you too there in the fourth row with your hands on your crotch. He makes fun of names, accents, immigrants, cultural habits, success and failure, political stances, histories and sex. (His jokes about sex often provoked, after gales of laughter, a lot of excited chattering in the audience.)

Laughter is one of those complex psychological mechanisms that serve to process internal conflict. So, like all good comics, Peters makes discomfort—from the most obvious broad cultural strokes to the most delicate individual nuance—his field of expertise. If it’s potentially painful, it’s grist to his mill, but in the most constructive way possible. He’s just rude enough to shock, and just pleasant enough to turn the shock to laughter rather than anger. Besides, how can you fail to like a guy whose eyebrows work that hard?

In India, stand-up comedy is, how shall I put it—not all the rage. We’re very good at laughing at other people’s discomfort, but our own goes by the name of ‘our sentiments’ and we are apparently utterly humourless about those. I was quite disappointed that Peters didn’t make fun of our politicians and our religions and our food and our hypocrisies, sticking instead to his largely immigrant shtick. Then I realised that he was just sensibly doing what he knows best.

I’m yearning for someone home grown, who knows us very well, to rise through the ranks of sentiments and start beating up on them with a big smile and the kind of intelligence that is so admirable that you can’t possibly fail to laugh along with it. We have a long, long way to go, if the clips of Vir Das on YouTube are anything to go by.

Veterans of Peters’ show said he’s been better. Still, I emerged from the show with my face and sides hurting from laughter, and the rest of me weak with vestigial giggling. You could do worse than that on an average working night.

Talking about a revolution

I’ve now lived in Delhi as an adult for thirteen years, and can safely say that while I think of it as my brick-and-mortar, tap-needs-fixing, hang-up-my-hat, extended family home, it’s definitely not my political, social, cultural, moral, spiritual, administrative, or any other kind of home. Which begs the question: What the hell am I still doing here? I’ll let you know as soon as I know.

You would think that being around this long might inure a person to some of the more glaring contradictions we live with. But in my deeply complicated thirteen-year relationship with India in general and Delhi in particular, though I’ve come to accept horrifying economic differences as part of life, I’ve simply never been able to wrap my head around some of what passes for normal social interaction. A few basic sample questions:

Why do English-speaking Indians talk about their Hindi-speaking compatriots in English in the presence of said compatriots, assuming that they couldn’t possibly understand English words like “stupid” or “fool” or “these people”, or that they are somehow excluded from literacy in body language and tone; or, worse, that it doesn’t matter if they do understand?

Why, for that matter, do Hindi-speaking Indians talk about their domestic help in their presence as if they weren’t there?

Why do employers of domestic help refer to them as “these people” and “they” even when they’re talking about one person?

When a doorman opens the door, or a car park attendant hands over the key, or a courier person rings the doorbell, or a roadside sweeper stops raising dust to let you walk by, why does nobody look him or her in the eye and say “Thank you”?

Why do poor people automatically defer to and leap to the aid of anyone who looks richer than themselves on the street (say, to change a flat tire, or give directions) and why do the rich automatically expect them to, and why doesn’t it ever work the other way around?

Why are employers paternalistic to the extent of withholding a poor person’s salary until after the holidays because “they’ll only drink it away”?

And so forth. The basic attitudes and common courtesies that should ease human interaction even in the face of vast economic difference don’t seem to count for much in good old India; the rich aren’t terribly keen to examine or modify their behaviour because it’s much easier to lord it over other people and not waste time on niceties like human rights and courtesy.

But there’s only so much beating, physical or psychological, that people can take before something gives way. I’ve wondered for a very long time why the revolution hasn’t yet turned up, but much of me thinks it should. I like to think it’ll be a civil affair, a socio-cultural movement; but I might be able to empathise if they decide to find people like you and me and put our heads on pikes.

That’s why I’m so enjoying The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning first novel about a man from “the Darkness” (as opposed to from the more commonly written-about light of ‘India Shining’), nursed on the usual poisons of poverty and oppression, who breaks out of what he calls the chicken coop, to journey into his version of the “Light”.

It’s deeply sad that this excellent, extremely complex and nuanced novel must be lauded for a ‘different’ view of India (as Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People was); you have to wonder why more people don’t write about this stuff. I highly recommend that you buy it and read it; at the least it will make you think hard about whether your head looks better on your shoulders or on a pike.