Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Dirty talk

I’m very happy about the no-plastic-bags rule that recently came into effect, because garbage makes me grouchy. The streets in our cities are strewn with filth and stinking waste. Our hillsides are blotched with discarded plastic bags and cups. One of the saddest things I’ve ever witnessed is the sight of baby elephants, in the heart of a national park, eating plastic plates thrown there by careless picnickers.

Yes, garbage makes me very grumpy, especially when it’s lying within spitting distance of a perfectly good garbage dump. I have once gone so far as to get out of my car at a traffic light and toss a banana peel back into the car it came out of, telling the lady perpetrator that the garbage bin she must have thought was outside her window was in fact not there. Her sputtering outrage was a deeply satisfying thing, and I even walked away unscathed, because this was back in the olden days before Delhi drivers carried sidearms.

The other day I was in my car with an equally grouchy friend, waiting to pick up someone. We were watching a man sitting in his parked car in the middle of a service lane, eating off a plastic plate and drinking out of a plastic cup. “Just watch,” I said, “he’s going to throw that out of the window even though there’s a garbage dump thirty paces away.” No way, said my horrified friend, who lives in Singapore and therefore spends his time here in a state of constant shock with his hair standing on end. Way, I said grimly.

And, right on cue, the man licked the last of the food off the plate, licked his fingers, rolled down his window, dropped the plate and cup out so effetely that they practically rolled down the side of his car, and fell to smacking his lips and belching. My friend climbed out of my car, walked over to the other car, and picked up the trash with admirable politeness, telling the man that if he didn’t mind, he’d just put it in the garbage bin for him.

It was as if the fellow had been punched in the face. He hopped out of the car and began to yell after my friend as he walked to the garbage dump. “What is this?” he wanted to know. “What do you mean by picking up trash? All of India is full of trash! What do you think of yourself?”

“I’m just putting trash in the trash can”, said my friend.

The man whirled around, smarting, marched up to me and shouted, “What relation of yours is he?” None of your business, I snarled, and started my engine. He put a (dirty) hand on the hood of my car and said “Halt!” which gave me the terrible giggles, which collided with my anger and very sadly short-circuited my plan to run him over.

“How dare he pick up my trash?” the man plowed on. “How dare he even ask if he can pick up my trash? I won’t stand for someone behaving badly with me! Nobody should think they can behave so badly with others!”

We drove away while he was still fulminating in the middle of the road, telling a small, poker-faced crowd about his terrible experience.

This gentleman, like most law-breakers, took about half a second to turn an incontrovertible truth into an insult to his honour. If we have a national character, this must be it: When caught out, immediately deflect the issue and shout until everyone backs down for fear of hurting your little feelings (and, unfortunately, they too often will). Do not, under any circumstance admit a mistake and change your ways. That would be too much like a civil society and nation-building.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Baby Boss

Regular readers of this column may remember how my mother perfidiously sold my ancient yellow Maruti Zen, named Peeli, while I was out of the country. She claimed that Peeli was no longer roadworthy, but even though she convinced me to move on to a new vehicle, I’d refused to let her sell Peeli, for sentimental reasons like psychosis. So she waited until I was safely in Spain before throwing her to the wolves.

After I stopped mourning Peeli, I slowly found love again with my silver Maruti Zen, named Chandi. This was a cooler, more detatched love, however, so when the time inevitably came, last December, when my mother cast her cold eye upon Chandi’s bashed-up silver carapace and pronounced her to be no more than a little tin can with no safety features, I must say that I was not shattered. Chandi was at an age and stage where she still fetched a decent resale price. I yearned to trade her in for yet another Zen, but they no longer make the version I like.

So, a week or so ago, I exchanged her for a new Maruti A-Star. Buying the A-Star was a surreal experience in which the dealership kept promising to deliver a car that it turned out hadn’t even been manufactured, on a date that consequently began to slide the minute they had cashed my booking cheque, in a series of tones they seemed to be trying out for kicks.
“[Cheerily] Two more days, ma’am!”; “[Apologetic but confident] You’ll have it on Thursday—a hundred and ten percent!”; “[Sheepish and wheedling] Next week, ma’am. What to do, there aren’t any in the factory…”; “[Brazen lies] You’ll have it on the 2nd, at 11am!”; “[Triumphant] Ma’am, I’ve arranged a car for you!” “[Shameless] Ma’am, just three-four more days, ma’am.” “[Martyred and severe] Ma’am, with great difficulty I’ve gotten a car for you.”

I tell you, I don’t know how I’m ever going to repay their kindness.

Anyway, the A-Star is a weird-looking car with a dumpy snout of a fender, flared nostrils for headlights, and slinty little eyes for rear seat windows. I have no idea why anyone would purposely design these features in isolation, but the net effect is inexplicably compelling—a kind of gangster’s moll composed of Lego, or an edgy cartoon.

She was driven to my door, a bright red assault on the eyes, and when I saw her parked on the curb with her suspicious little eyes and ridiculous porcine nose, I felt immediate and great, possibly psychotic, love. She has airbags! And an anti-lock braking system, whatever that is! And a key that locks and unlocks her from quite far away! And a light that fades gently rather than snaps off! And an integrated music system! And I get the impression that I’d better not mention her silly looks, or cross her in any way, if I don’t want to end up sleeping with the fishes.

My mother tried valiantly to take her to the temple for a little ceremonial mumbo-jumbo, or at least to drive over four lemons placed in front of the wheels, but I didn’t even register her voice for all the angels and hosannas in my ears. Instead I took her straight to the petrol station and filled up her tank, which is represented in her cool digital display.

Thus I welcomed into my life the one and only Baby Boss.

I regret to report that I didn’t even give Chandi a last glance—they had to ring my doorbell to return the badminton rackets and shuttlecocks left in the back seat. Oh well; one moves on.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Sole survivor

When Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi hurled his size ten shoes at President Bush during a press conference in December last year, the news went around the world at a suspiciously celebratory speed. He was still shouting imprecations with secret service people kneeling on his chest when the YouTube videos came out.

He got thrown in the clink almost as fast, but I imagine that al-Zaidi had no idea that he was starting a world trend. Just a few days later, in January 2009, a bunch of Bosnian protesters in Sarajevo got together to express their feelings about their political leaders by throwing shoes at their effigies. The organisers of the protest even provided shoes, though many people apparently felt strongly enough about it all to bring their own footwear. No doubt it doesn’t feel as good without the solid thwack of contact with real flesh, but it must be better than nothing.

Then, a few days ago in February, a student at Cambridge chucked his shoe at the visiting Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who responded either by become infuriated or by remaining calm, depending on which country is reporting the incident. The shoe didn’t make the target, but it did apparently make the point. And now, the CPM state secretary in Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, has had a slipper flung at him during the Nava Kerala march by a chap who, perhaps because he missed, is reported to have been drunk.

When under pressure, people make do with what they have in terms of equipment and showmanship. Al-Zaidi tossed a pair of Oxfords. The Times said the student in the UK used a “heavy grey trainer”. The Indian used a chappal. “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!” shouted al-Zaidi. “Dictator!” yelled the Cambridge student. “V S Achuthanandan zindabad!” shouted the alcoholic Indian.

But given the increasingly woeful state of the world and the increasing tendency of people to want to express their feelings about it (viz. blogs and YouTube videos and suchlike), it seems to me that shoe companies are sitting on a very large opportunity.

The resurgent place of the shoe in contemporary culture is a phenomenon worth acknowledging. Al-Zaidi’s shoemaker is already getting chest pains from the exhaustion of an increased workload because suddenly throngs of admiring wannabes want his product. It was a start to have erected the sculpture of an enormous bronze shoe in Tikrit, to honour the spirit of al-Zaidi, at the cost of five thousand dollars and the labour of a bunch of politically-aware orphans; but due to political considerations it had to be taken down almost immediately. No; individual action, however ephemeral, is the way to go, so what might work better is for established shoe companies to invest in some R&D devoted to lines of shoes designed to be thrown at people (or their effigies) for a better lifestyle experience and with better results.

A shoe meant for throwing at an object of hate could use some specialised features. Imagine the benefits of a lower strip-off time; better aerodynamics for longer and steadier flight; optimal heft for hurling; a spot designed for good handgrip; sights attached for precision aim or, in a higher-end product, heat-seeking sensors to guide the shoe; extra bounce for maximum ricocheting in the event of a miss; motion-sensitive bells and whistles to draw attention or, conversely, camouflage patterning for stealth; and maybe it could be emblazoned with a readymade catch-all protest like “Take That!”.

Of course these are recessionary times, so unless these wonderful new products are reasonably priced, we’ll all have to go back to rotten tomatoes.