Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hey Ram

I’ve been wondering what to do for my birthday, by which I mean that my mother suggested, by which I mean that she shouted across the dining table, that I had social obligations, by which she means that I’ve been sponging off my family and friends long enough and that I should, by which she means bloody well better, return their hospitality.

So I’ve been thinking about having a party. (To friends and family who might be reading this: If you’re not invited, it’s because I haven’t sponged off you enough just yet, but no worries—the year is young). The whole idea of having people come to my house is extremely strange and troubling to me after years of just going to their houses. But with my mother getting into the act, I’m trying to keep calm by remembering that it will be very much like going out to someone else’s house, in this case my own.

It’s not strictly true, though, that I only go to other people’s houses. I also often go out to bars and pubs and suchlike, where I have a couple of drinks, maybe smoke a couple of cigarettes, have some conversation, sometimes dance a little, and drive myself home, almost always with my garters and strength of character intact. But that’s me. I have this insane propensity—insane, I tell you—to go about behaving as if I can live my life and do my own thing even though I have ovaries and a uterus.

Some people think this is seriously off the wall. I wrote, in a previous column, about my life as a woman in urban India, to which one gentleman reader responded by email: “I think you are insane. What message do you want to convey by smoking in a third-class compartment, hobnobbing with mechanics, standing in a queue of uncouth drunkards? For God's sake, stop your corrupting writings (sic) in a responsible newspaper.”

The message I’d like to convey to this gentleman is the same message I would like to convey to the faithful workers of the Sri Ram Sena who last week thrashed women in Mangalore for drinking alcohol in a pub, and to the mighty array of other self-styled custodians of Indian morals and values—and I do hope they will take it in the right spirit: “You’re dumb as rocks, and boring to boot! Piss off immediately.”

It’s amazing the number of people—not just in India but around the world—who continue to believe that it’s women causing all the moral mayhem. Most Indian women spend their lives wishing they weren’t stuck with men whose Indian morals and values consist of staring at women with their tongues lolling. And that’s the most harmless of a vast array of lousy Indian male behaviour that includes such Indian morals and values as honour killings and bride-burnings.

Thank god we have the Constitution, even though it would really help if people read it occasionally, especially those who run the country (and, for instance, ride roughshod over every living thing to build vast malls, only to then object to ‘mall culture’, which is apparently not the habit of being a consumerist pig but the habit of walking hand in hand.)

Anyway, sod all that. I have a party to think about. I’m not sure about the food, but yesterday I went to the government liquor store, stood in a queue of uncouth drunkards, and bought quantities of moral lubricant. To the massively boring custodians of my moral fabric: if it’s any consolation, my mother was with me.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cold comfort

I’ve hacked and coughed and sniffled and snorted my way through this past week, which has made me realise that it’s been quite a while since I was last ill, which I attribute to simple living, high thinking. It has also made me realise that while I was once a fairly stoic patient, I am now an accomplished whiner, which I attribute to my personality.

My nose is blocked and I can’t breathe, my ears are blocked and I can’t hear, my throat hurts and scratches, the epicentre of the whole thing seems to have shifted to my chest, my back hurts, the edges of my nose are raw from nose-blowing, my sinus twinges all the time, and most of the time I’d rather be asleep. My eyes water, my head is woollier than usual, my feet ache, and my shoulders are stiff. My skin is warmer than usual, but the thermometer is registering lower-than-normal temperature. I feel like a giant petri dish, cultivating evil-looking bacteria even in places not normally associated with this kind of sickness, like the back of my knee.

Chronically ill people are generally excellent patients because they very quickly realise how boring it is to go on about one’s symptoms ad nauseam, and for the rest of the world to hear about them. My grandmother, who suffered from terrible arthritis for decades, never seemed to mention it much at all. My mother, who has chronic asthma and various other ailments, takes care of herself with minimum song and dance.

However, people with ox-like constitutions who aren’t used to being sick, think that the sky is falling on their heads and cannot believe that other people are carrying on with their lives. My exceedingly robust father brought the household to its knees when he had a cold once in six years; I think it was a rare chance for him to be fussed over rather than having to fuss over other people. For my part, I deeply resent the whole US presidential inauguration thing, which went ahead as if nobody there knew or cared about my condition. It’s that kind of insular and insensitive foreign policy that will cost the US valuable friends.

It’s a good thing that I’ve stayed away from the internet these last few days, because I’m a shining example of a cyberchondriac. That’s somebody who compulsively looks up their symptoms on various nuance-free medical sites and concludes, from a runny nose, that they have cancer, or a bad heart, or, in the case of the worst exaggerators, are already dead. I’m not quite that silly, though I should mention that I do feel very poorly indeed.

A rough inventory of healthful and pharmaceutical products I have consumed over the last four days, because I understand that you won’t sleep until you know: two inhalations and gargles daily; two gallons regular tea and 78,000 cups ginger tea daily; two capsules three times a day of some dodgy-looking Chinese medicine sent a while ago by my sister, and embraced without question by my mother, despite the fact that she isn’t sure how to take them and consequently invented the two-capsules-three-times-a-day dosage; one large-sized bottle of ayurvedic Joshina cough syrup; and one medium-sized bottle of ayurvedic Adusol tonic—clearly named after the weird, socially-inept guy in the college dorm who doesn’t have any close friends but lots of acquaintances who hang out in his room because the music is good and there’s always something to smoke, as in, “Let’s go freak out in Adusol’s room, yaar. Maybe he had a shower this week.”

There, I bet you enjoyed listening to me complain! I certainly did. Oooo—my ears just popped.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Chinese chukkas

I finally made it to China this week, on a family holiday to visit my sister and brother-in-law in Shanghai with my brother, his wife and kids, and my mother. Here’s how six days typically pass in one of the world’s most exciting places when there are young children about.

8am: Wake up, raring to go and explore. 10am: Squabble about where to go. 11am: Drum your fingers while the laggards eat breakfast. 12pm. Froth as great activity related to dressing for sub-zero temperatures, results in zero forward momentum. 12.50pm: Finally get everyone out of the door. 12.51pm: Go back in because the baby has pooped. 1.30pm: Eat lunch, squabble. 2pm: Go home so that six exhausted adults can catch a quick nap. 5pm: Squabble about dinner. 8pm: Fall asleep (except for the kids).

Still, I did some nice things. On our first evening we went to the hot and happening M on the Bund restaurant, on the Huang Pu riverfront. I wondered if residents always went out in pink sequined bikinis, pink masks, pink feather boas, pink wigs and pink bunny ears and tails, until I was told that this was the joint’s tenth anniversary (dress code: something pink) and The Party of the Year.

The next day I went back to the restaurant’s Glamour Bar (barely recognisable sans burlesque dancers in nipple patches), to watch a documentary film about Jin Xing, who is one of China’s foremost dancers and who, before her sex change, used to be a Colonel-rank he in the People’s Liberation Army. Jin Xing was there, sharp, funny and beautiful, and talked about how she, her three adopted kids and her German husband deal with her alternative sexuality in a country which didn’t officially believe in alternative sexuality until quite recently. This was not how I imagined China at all.

I went to the Grand Hyatt hotel coffee shop, on the 54th floor of the bamboo stem-like Jin Mao Tower, for a bird’s-eye view of vaguely dystopian ranges of buildings fading into scarves of mist or smog. Shanghai is fabulous. It’s filled with sharp design, art galleries, parks, and beautiful neighbourhoods. The streets are spotless—and, importantly, peppered with cheap massage places—and the people are beautiful and dressed to kill (except for a few who still wander around in their nightclothes from the time when that was how you showed off the fact that you could afford nightclothes).

And I ate gloriously: Yunnan style, Hunan style, Szechuan style, Taiwanese style. Lily buds with celery or squash; ‘Jew’s ears’ mushrooms and fungi of every kind; the famous xiaolongbao (“little dragon pouches”—pork dumplings with soup inside); tofu topped with salmon roe; lotus stem; fish head…I could eat here all day, every day.

It’s odd that the streets of this notoriously insular 5,000-year-old civilisation are lined with Starbucks and Nike outlets, so I went to a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk on the Chinese economy by MIT professor Yasheng Huang. A business journo handed me his card. “I’m a freelancer from Delhi and I don’t have a card,” I told him. “Oh yeah, he does some work for us—great work,” he replied, which made me wonder about his reporting.

My sister later told me that Huang had said some fascinating things about how China’s GDP figures mask the stagnation in household income growth. I spent the entire lecture wondering why the business journo drew a line down the middle of each of his notebook pages. My takeaway was: 1. Beijing-born Yasheng Huang doesn’t like Shanghai much. 2. Of approximately seven thousand journalists present, only one was wearing a red jacket. 3. Two glasses of wine are better than one. 3. I could totally live in Shanghai.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Death and the toddler

Spirituality is a funny thing. When I was a teenager my great-uncle Vishnu, who doubled as a self-proclaimed palmist, read my hand, wiggled his eyebrows a lot, and foretold that I’d take a spiritual turn at the age of 28. It is indeed true that that year I spent ten days in a vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar, but while I maintained the requisite state of silence and abstinence, the thought-bubble over my head was filled with hashes, ampersands and exclamation marks, and I spent my time trying to snack on the inside of my cheek because they didn’t feed us very much. I made, on the whole, a lousy monk.

Still, I’m not one to refuse to think about death on the grounds that it’s too morbid; in fact, I’ve been accused of a degree of over-enthusiasm about the subject, even though all my ruminations end with me sidling off into some shallower, splashier little reverie, the spiritual equivalent of lying in the grass and blowing soap bubbles.

I find baby philosophy about death very solid, and a good deal more sensible, than The Tibetan Book of the Dead. My niece Tara, who’s almost four years old, is a leading light on the subject. A few days ago she walked into my mother’s house and looked tenderly at the photographs of my late father and grandmother. “Dada died,” she announced. That’s right, said my mother. “That’s so sad. Badi dadi died too,” said Tara. Yes she did, we said. “Why?” she wanted to know. Oh, she got very old, and when people get very old, they die, my mother told her. “Yeah!” said Tara, as if my mother had just earned a gold star. She flounced up in her rainbow-striped jacket with an enormous pink flower clip in her hair and led me to the porch.

“When people get old,” she explained in a gentle, soothing voice, “they get wrinkles and their hair goes white, and then they get little and die. It’s very sad, but everyone dies. I want to tell you something,” she added, dropping her gaze delicately, “one day, maybe soon, you’ll become big and old and then, one day, you might, might, might die.”

I said that I definitely would.

“Yeah. But not now,” she said, trying to keep me calm. “First you’ll get old and you’ll have to walk with a cane and somebody will have to help you walk with the cane.”

Will you help me walk with my cane? I asked her.

“Maybe,” she said, “but maybe not.” She considered me with genuine pity and said, “I won’t die for a long time, because I’m new. But you’re not so new.”

Right again, I said grumpily. What happens, do you think, when you die?

“Your skin comes off and all the bones of your body go away,” she said. “And it’s not nice to live without your skin and your bones, so you die. Everyone has to die, yeah. But not now.” Then she picked up my mother’s phone and said she had to make a phone call to Badi dadi. “Hello?” she said, “Is that Badi dadi? I just wanted to say it’s okay.” She had a burbling conversation with her dead great-grandmother and returned with the news that all was well, and that Badi dadi had become new—and that was pretty much all anyone really wanted to know anyway.

Then she sat me down on the porch steps and draped a white handkerchief carefully over my head. “Now you look very nice,” she said. After a while I took it off and she said coolly, “I wouldn’t do that. Your hair isn’t so stylish.”

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Happy New Year, world

The most common New Year resolutions include: I will quit smoking; I will lose weight; I will exercise; I will quit drinking; I will stop procrastinating; I will help others; I will save money; I will get organised; I will learn something new; I will spend more time with my friends and family.

Many people foolishly decide to attempt all these reforms at once, and end up flailing around like turtles on their backs. The secret to success is smart delegation, so it might be more practical, now that it’s been established that the world is an interdependent global village in need of serious reform, for us to work on resolutions for 2009 at a global level, and divvy them up into national tasks, with local adaptations where necessary. That way each player can focus all resources on one real problem, and no one part of the world has to do too much.
Here’s a list of who might take on what.

USA will quit smoking ’em out. It’s bad for you and for everyone around you. They keep setting fire to things, the blowback is awful, and nobody has yet stumbled through the smoke spluttering, “Bring me to justice, for the love of God.”

REPUBLIC OF NAURU will lose weight. A staggering 94 percent of the 14,000 Nauruans are obese, making it the fattest nation on earth and, at 21 sq km, the one most justified in not building too many gyms or, indeed, a capital. Micronesia, second fattest at 90 percent, may have to assist on account of nobody ever having heard of Nauru.

ISRAEL will exercise restraint. These are difficult times, but enough behaving like the Hulk every time one of those Hamas popguns goes off. By the way, what are you doing in the Gaza strip in the first place?

LUXEMBOURG will quit drinking. No, it’s not fair, but somebody’s got to do it. A good way to guard against lapses is to stop hanging out with people from France, Ireland, Portugal and (just to be safe) Russia.

PAKISTAN will stop procrastinating. Seriously. Everyone is sick of hearing, year after year, how Pakistan will set its house in order, fight its own battles, tackle its own problems, and crack down on this, that and the other. There’s no time like 2009, people.

SWITZERLAND will help others. Properly this time, not in the same way as they did during World War II with all the dubious banking stuff. However, it may maintain military neutrality.

ICELAND will save money. It’s only fair to the millions of people and various British coucils, police departments and civic services that got wiped out when the Icelandic economy went poof.

INDIA will get organised. Ha ha! This is the joke one, like ‘I will spend more time with my friends and family’. No, but really, we need to get more organised. We could ask China for a little help.

BURKINA FASO will learn something new. But it just needs to take the lead; developing nations can use a little time and space to improve themselves, and they can also use all the help they can get doing it, but really, everyone will have to work on this one.

NORTH KOREA will spend more time with friends and family. Relationships are not easy, and they need a lot of work, and you have to make a real effort to communicate your feelings. Calling up people and threatening to nuke them doesn’t count.

There, see? It’s not so hard when you share the work.

Happy 2009.