Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dog days

The wonderful thing about not having children is that you don’t have children. This means that you can keep your breakables where they are, swear as much as you like, and call a boiled egg and cigarette ‘lunch’. You can sleep right through the night (or day), never touch anyone’s poop but your own, and walk out of the house in the morning and decide not to come back for a month. In other words you are master of your fate, captain of your soul, rather than knee deep in tiny novices for whose adoring gaze you have to be a role model.

Dogs, on the other hand, are well worth having. They’re much more loyal, softer to the touch all through their lives, put up with your absences without holding grudges, and when a dog lies with his throat on your foot and swallows, it’s enough to make your heart explode with contentment.

My family has had three dogs. The first was a boxer puppy we got when we lived in Jakarta. Kipo was the sprightliest three-month-old in his litter. He was fawn coloured with a black snout and a white streak up his forehead and white socks up his paws; his tail was docked but his ears were not, and they always emerged with a milk moustache when he drank milk out of his bowl. He was smart as a whip, always up for a wriggly romp, enormously loving, and slept with all his paws in the air and just the tip of his tongue sticking out of his mouth.

The people we got him from said he’d had all his shots, but apparently they’d lied; Kipo died of hepatitis four months later, and we buried him in the garden. For weeks afterwards I’d reflexively rise from the table to open the screen door to the garden because I heard him scratching to be let in.

A while later, our doorbell rang and we found an incredibly tiny Dachshund puppy with an enormous pink bow around his neck, blinking at us from the porch. Friends of ours had gifted us one of their dog’s offspring. Toffee was so little that when he ran he floated back to earth like a leaf. He was bright, tender, well behaved, and filled the void left by Kipo for a little while, until the next summer when, while we were on vacation in India, we got a call from Jakarta saying that he had disappeared. Perhaps he’d run out of the gate, and either perished in traffic, or been stolen.

It was a good ten years before that we were ready for another dog. I spotted Simba in a photograph at a supermarket checkout counter in Manila, where my parents lived at the time. “Absolutely not,” said my mother firmly. In the car, she said, “Do you remember the phone number on the paper?” I reeled it off, we called, and a few days later Simba was tottering around our house.

He was a beloved but difficult family member. He was very loving, but also bit every one of us at least once (I have a crescent-shaped scar on my palm to remember him by). Even as a puppy he would crawl off into the bushes, out of reach, and lie there glaring balefully at the world. He was no furry plaything; he was a character, and if you didn’t respect him, you were liable to run into his dark side. He moved with my parents from Manila to Kuala Lumpur, then to Switzerland, and finally back to India, where he died aged ten and a half. I think that if he’d been human, he would have been an alcoholic and written quite good poetry.

I miss them all very much.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Truth is beauty

If there’s one thing in the world that doesn’t seem affected by clogged credit lines, it’s the global overabundance of opinions. Everyone seems to have at least one, if not several, on just about everything under the sun, and the less an opinion is solicited, the more it tends to be forthcoming. So far, so good; opinions are fruitful, helpful, and sometimes even necessary. But have you noticed how market demand has become skewed in favour of strong, rather than considered, opinion?

You can see it on talk shows, where anchors summarise an intelligent paragraph of speech into one black and white soundbyte and use that repeatedly, shearing it of all its original nuance. Or in ad campaigns, where the virtue of a strong personality any day trumps the virtue of an objective one.

This makes things hard, and also annoying, when you’re reviewing books. My reviews tend to fall into four general categories: strong admiration, strong distaste, politely expressed mixed feelings, and mixed feelings expressed without mincing words. In pretty much every case, I’ve said what I thought, in the way the book made me feel like saying it.

The first two kinds of review generate no reaction at all: nobody seems to care that I really liked this book, or really disliked that one. But when it comes to a mixed review, everyone has something to say about it.

One author of a book that I’d given a politely mixed review rang the publication editor and complained that the review was aimed at sabotaging her career (assuming on my part much more time and interest in the success or failure of her career than I had). When I met the author of a book that I’d given a candidly worded mixed review, she complained, “But it was mixed!” as if I had no business having mixed feelings about her book.

Friends who’d heard me complain about the book, subsequently concluded that I “don’t write negative reviews” because the review mentioned something redeeming about the book. It was no point my saying that I mentioned it because it was my considered opinion. For the rest of the conversation about other books, they skimmed over me because they’d decided I would just be “nice”, and went on to talk approvingly about people who as a policy “don’t write positive reviews”.

In my opinion (like it or not), when your review of a book serves as an extension of your crazy little personality, as opposed to a considered critique—and this is best determined by you—you might as well hang up your keyboard and go home, because it’s become all about you, and not about the book.

Now, I realise that I generally live in a cloud of idealism that doesn’t always match reality, but really, has it come to this, that you aren’t allowed to have mixed feelings without setting off accusations of dishonesty? The implication that people write—and are expected to write—from a prejudiced position in order to fit with some image they have of themselves, is disheartening to say the least.

I know—shocker! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to objectivity, or as much objectivity as the fetters of subjectivity and grinding conditioning will allow. We seem to have reached a place in social interaction where agenda is all. It’s considered perfectly normal to cultivate friends because of what position they hold and what they may do for you in the future—what happened to hanging out with people because you like them? And it’s considered perfectly normal to slam—or not slam—a book, person, or event, because, well, that’s just how you are.

What happened to just saying it like it is?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Colour me bad

Ah yes, Holi, joyous spring celebration, India’s famous Festival of Colours, a time to sing, dance and make merry with bright colours and music. I spent it the traditional way, holed up at home with a depressed friend, doors and windows shut against the sound of human joy. Just to make sure that our disagreeable mood wouldn’t be polluted by all the gaiety outside, we watched twelve straight hours of House, the television series whose protagonist, genius diagnostician Dr. Gregory House, should be canonised as the patron saint of misanthropes everywhere.

I have heard tales from my parents, whom I consider to be more or less civilised, of the Holis of their youth, when they roamed the streets fuelled by bhang and beer and walked into perfect strangers’ houses to sprinkle coloured water on them in a genial fashion, everyone good-humoured and tolerant and laughing and generally participating in a communal celebration of life, blah blah.

Apparently back then you really played with (as opposed to harassed) anyone whose path you crossed, known or unknown. (And indeed, in my view, the only thing that distinguishes Holi from any other booze-drenched pool party is the merry anonymity of playing with random people on the street. Take that away, and you might as well just have a booze-drenched pool party and save yourself the pickpockets, murderous drivers and rapists of the street.)

Those days are long gone. Now you have to play with a judicious assortment of friends in the privacy of your house or theirs, and hope like hell that nobody slips into an alcoholic coma, or loses an eye because of the chemicals in the colours, or gets non-consensually groped, and that the down on your cheeks will be purple merely for weeks rather than months.

But the larger point I’m making is: The thing about a twelve-hour marathon of House is that very early on you realise that you’re half in love with a sociopath, and just a little bit later, that there’s no doubt that he’s the only man for you. What is it about mean, rude people that is so deeply compelling (and not just Rochester and Mr Darcy), besides the fact that some of them are played onscreen by Hugh Laurie, he of the unkempt stubble and wild blue eyes?

Stupid question—everyone knows what it is. It’s that their constant and unapologetic transgression of social rules, gratuitous viciousness and insufferable arrogance, implies that they don’t give a fig for anyone’s approval, including yours. This is a double whammy to a person’s sense of romantic self-preservation because not only does it bespeak a wounded heart beneath the proud, aloof exterior, automatically triggering the beholder’s Florence Nightingale gland, but it also activates the normal hankering for approval, which most humans will immediately begin fighting to the death to to get. Since both projects are at once unpleasant and impossible to achieve, the whole thing is doomed to self-destruct.

Of course, this is only really likely to happen if the sociopath in question is also intelligent, funny, and attractive. It all results in the creation of a kind of ‘ruthless chic’ which will be horribly familiar to anybody who has ever been in school and had a crush on the bad boy or girl in class. And thus do legions of perfectly balanced, well-adjusted people lock like heat-seeking missiles onto people like House (and duly self-destruct). House’s fans are predictably overwhelmingly female, and I’d guess a fair number of men admire him terribly for that fact alone.

As far as I’m concerned, watching him abuse, manipulate and sneer at the weak, helpless and caring beats playing Holi any day.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Oh, THAT recession

Times are tough all over the world, but the experts say there’s no point running around panicking like chickens with our heads cut off. I expect they mean that it’s wiser to stand still and quietly fall apart, so as I watch the unhappy tide of recession turn inexorably onto Indian shores I’ve tried to respond with the snappy moves of a deer caught in the headlights: keep turning down work, eat out a lot more than before, and put all your savings into the stock market.

Who could blame me, then, for being utterly unprepared for the phone call I fielded the other day from a publication I consult with, telling me nicely that that gig had suddenly flatlined—turned pale, lain down and died. It turned out that the publication had regretfully blah blah decided that it was going to have to streamline blah blah and stick to its in-house editorial team from now on, due to revised budget constraints blah blah.

This was, sadly, the job that really paid my bills. As it happened I was in a nursing home at the time when this phone call came through, accompanying someone who was undergoing some tests, so after the nursing staff had determined that my breathlessness and the pain in my left arm was only because I was still holding the phone to my ear and sobbing, I was able to order four cups of overpriced tea I didn’t need, and then head out to a restaurant to consume some unmemorable wine and pricey pizza with friends.

I have consistently been told that the word ‘consultant’ is more credible than ‘freelancer’. Despite the hideous self-importance of the word I’ve gotten used to it, and, as part of my ostrich strategy to deal with the global downturn, have assiduously failed to acknowledge the changing winds. Just five minutes before the grim beeper rang, the universe had sent me (and I had duly failed to recognise) a portent of things to come: I’d been snickering over a New Yorker magazine cartoon that showed a pest control chap carrying his eradication equipment, telling the office receptionist: “We got a call about a consultant.”

The New Yorker is such a great magazine. I wonder if they’re outsourcing work they could do right there in New York, to consultants in Delhi.

Now that I’ve been personally bitten in the fundamentals, I’m suddenly really upset about this whole downturn thing, and am actively wondering how to save myself from the train wreck that promises to be next month’s bank balance. If you’re one of those annoying people who divide the world into ants and grasshoppers, I fall squarely into grasshopper category: I spent this entire financial year’s earnings on airline tickets, movies, extravagant dinners, good wine, wine dinners, and more extravagant meals.

On the other hand, I can console myself with the thought that the recession happens to have wiped out the ants as well, and that if we are all destined to wind up insolvent and dribbling with fear about our old age, I may well have taken the happier road there.

I like to think that something else will come up before I have to hang myself from the fan with my shoestring budget. In the meantime, the cheapest way to generate endorphins is to put on my shoes—while I still have some—and heave my sweating bulk over a few kilometres of track. It’s a strategy that dovetails nicely with my needs in the wake of all those meals and bottles of wine.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Surf’s up

I’ve spent eight hours sitting in a wifi cafe, have already consumed seven hundred recessive rupees’ worth of Lemongrass Tea, Marinated Lamb Sandwich, Bisleri and Superb Coffee Ice Cream, and am now seriously eyeing the Gooey Chocolate Cake, all in an effort to find something to say in this week’s column.

One reason is that I’ve been an accomplished wastrel of late. I have watched, in quick succession, Milk, Brick Lane, In Bruges, Burn After reading, Slumdog Millionnaire, Luck By Chance, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (the last two back-to-back at the mall, with a drink at Geoffrey’s in between and after), Doubt, Frost/Nixon, The Reader, and W..

En route I discovered that the Oscars were seriously off-track this year, no offence, and that despite being a committed reader of Maureen Dowd’s columns, my mother had actually not, in the last eight years, made the connection between ‘W.’ and ‘Dubya’. I find it strangely reassuring that hundreds of millions of people must refer to the ex-POTUS as ‘Dubya’ without having the slightest idea why. There’s something moving about a world bonding over some core issue while gamely ignoring the cultural gaps. I also now know for certain that if I had to watch movies all day, every day for the rest of my life and complain about them, I’d be ready, willing and able.

So anyway, my column-writing day has gone I don’t know where, possibly because looking at a screen that is blank and immobile has caused my brain to explode in disorientation and grief. Finally, after the sixth time that I had to ask someone to close the cafĂ©’s balcony door so that their accursed, blighted, benighted second-hand smoke didn’t float in—I’ve just given up again, and am in Zealous Convert mode—I finally quit trying, opened the top button of my jeans, took my first full breath in hours, and continued to aimlessly surf the internet as I’d been doing.

Amongst many other things I learned that someone thinks that reality TV star Jane Goody has had a wicked spell put on her. The item on Goody, who has terminal cancer and has decided to live out her final weeks on television, elicited much sympathetic comment as well as a cryptic note from an anonymous reader who claimed that Goody had been cursed and that if someone would forward an email address, anonymous would fix it.

Further down the thread, someone ventured that this curse must have come from an Indian upset with Goody over the whole Shilpa Shetty affair (in which Goody said rude, allegedly racist things to Shetty during an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, and India’s Ministry of External Affairs began to shake its portly jowls in sovereign indignation). That turned the direction of the debate ever so slightly to the subject of the ever-increasing Indian immigrant community. Reading a string of stupid, mostly illiterate comments was all worth it for the following anguished comment:


That’s how I feel about samosas too, in general. But more to the point, I see in this notion the seeds of a real, achievable strategy for world domination. All’s fair in love and recession: Let them tax US businesses that outsource to Haryana and Bangalore; we’ll just fry, spice, fatten and transfatten the competition into oblivion. We should up our production of rabri and kalakand while we’re at it.