Saturday, May 30, 2009

Seven-year itch

Halfway through the year there always comes a moment that makes me sit back in shock. Partly it’s the awful realisation that the undifferentiated hill of paper on my desk, which has developed pockets of slime and may or may not have flies buzzing around it, has to be sorted into a decipherable tax return, substantiated by more bits of paper that I will shortly have to start calling around for.

But mostly it’s because June 1 is the anniversary of my father’s death, and I’m always appalled by how much time has passed since he went permanently AWOL that beautiful sunny Saturday. Next Monday will be seven years. I’m still trying to get to grips with the fact that he has missed all the things that have happened in that time.

Two of his three children, one brother-in-law, two nieces and three nephews (at a minimum count) have gotten married; one niece, two grandchildren and three grand-nieces have entered the world, and another child is on the way. Two of his family have published books; one has held two artistic exhibitions; three have bought houses and one is fighting a legal battle to keep hers; one has lost a job; one is separated from a spouse; one has lost a companion. Two friends have had cancer. His father died, and so did his mother-in-law. His oldest friend is battling to keep a limb after a terrible motorcycle accident.

The US went to war in Iraq, Pakistan became the Taliban’s playing field, India elected two governments, there was another Isreli-Palestine war, the war in Sri Lanka ended, the Indian stock market shot up to unbelievable heights, and now the world economy is dragging itself around like a sick duck.

In other words the world has moved on, as it does. People relentlessly continue to laugh and die and be born and fight and make art and screw up the environment and buy high-tech toys, just as if nothing had happened. Wise writers sum this up beautifully by spending half a novel building up a character, killing them off in one spare sentence, and spending the next half on other people’s lives.

C’est la vie, and accepting that this is natural and inevitable is a good way to start accepting your own importance as far as the universe is concerned, which is—by a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation—nil. The less one gets this, the more prone one is to putting up futile resistance, like building giant statues of oneself with taxpayer money (this will get the world to remember you a for a little bit longer, but not in ways you really want).

This year we’re going to mark my father’s seventh year of absence by going up to beautiful Sitla Estate in Kumaon, which is a collection of guest rooms run by a friend on an orchard on top of a ridge. Here the mountains are splashed against half the horizon, the forest is alive with birds and animals, and the night sky is ablaze with stars.

Besides the obvious joys of walking in the hills, of eating breakfast beneath a hundred-year-old plum tree and lunch amid pear trees, taking your aperitif in front of a bonfire on the verandah in the twilight, and dining in a candlelit, bukhari-warmed room, Sitla also has one especially strange and lovely attribute: time both flies as well as grinds almost to a halt there. The hours between waking and sleeping are both fleeting and stretchy, so that you can stay for three days that feel like one, but dream for weeks between lunch and dinner.

It will be the perfect place for us to linger over our memories without wallowing in them. If only I had an address, I’d send my father a postcard saying “Wish you were here.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Belgian Conga

So, after a month of notably low public discourse, it’s all over. The ink applied in nearly 835,000 polling booths is fading on something like 413,000,000 fingernails; the 4,690,575 polling personnel have gone home, and the Election Commission has gathered its well-deserved bouquets. The General Election of 2009 is over, the guys who are better than the other guys have won, the talking heads are on, and next on the schedule is the national spectator sport of government formation, in which the country watches the winning entities attempt to get over 8,000 incompatible pieces from several different political puzzles to form the administration they want.

In other words, we will soon peacefully be able to return to our national pastime of heaping abuse on the worthies we went to such pain and expense to elect.

I missed much of the initial frothing and foaming, woe is me, because I’ve spent the last few days walking around Belgium, beginning in Brussels. [Pause for inevitable remark about sprouts.] This is the city famous for the tiny fountain statue of a male child urinating, the legendary Manneken Pis, which now pees all over mugs and keychains and t-shirts. I’m told a male relative of mine once almost got arrested for climbing on random statuary in the city and attempting to replicate the Manneken Pis with real urine, while under the influence of several of Belgium’s famous Trappist beers. Lucky for him, the Belgians have a sense of humour, or perhaps they’re so (justly) proud of their beer that they’re willing to forgive all kinds of weirdness performed in its name.

Mine was a whirlwind trip through four cities in as many days, during which we walked for roughly twenty-nine hours a day. Here’s some advice for anyone thinking of walking around Belgium: Wear shoes with serious cushioning, because medieval cobblestones are as hard on the soles as they are easy on the eyes. This doesn’t, however, stop Belgian women from scaling the peaks of chic in a large variety of high-heeled boots, many with pencil heels. I asked one lady, as I careened around twisting my ankles in perfectly flat shoes, how on earth Belgian women did it. “Practice,” she said grimly.

A friend of mine who produces a long list of demands for spirits whenever I travel this time wanted only one thing: a Tintin poster. I would have bought one for him had it not cost the arm and leg that I doubt he expected (Tintin is surrounded by a barbed wire fence of copyright). Much about this trip reminded me, yet again, of how difficult life is in Europe in many ways, despite the creature comforts and the relatively clean air. Water is expensive, parking is tight, and you have to pray that you don’t break a leg, because if you’re immobile, you’re sunk. No matter how disabled-friendly a city is, there will always be those spots where the only option is the stairs.

I can’t say much about my trip until I’ve written the official feature elsewhere, but here’s a weird fact for those very specialised people who sit up at night yearning for weird facts about Belgium: Belgian workers are supposed to work for seven hours and thirty-six minutes a day. The government arrived at this figure after doing some mathematical contortions involving hours per week and lunch breaks; but the result is that if, mid-meal, your waiter suddenly rips off her uniform and pulls on her pencil heeled boots, you can be sure that she has hit her seven hours and thirty-seventh minute.

My hope is that someday I’ll be able to return to Belgium and take it in properly. Meanwhile, I’m off to hunt down a good foot massage.

Postmark: Way back when

One of the great pities of the electronic age is that it has quietly marginalised, if not completely obviated, one of life’s greatest pleasures: Revisiting old letters. I’ve always been pathologically attached to every scrap of friendly writing that ever came my way. Among my most prized possessions are cartons and cartons of snail mail from the pre-internet age, as well as thousands of stored emails dating right from the early 1990s. I’m here to tell you that re-reading email, while it can jog your memory and even make you smile, is just not the same thing.

There’s something about a physical letter that is so much more than the sum of its parts. It triggers a kind of animistic awe—the notion that this paper, marked in a particular handwriting and bearing the indentations of the pressure applied on the pen, this paper that has physically made its way across the earth to reach my hands, is alive with the spirit of the writer. It’s not just an object bearing a communication but also a spiritual manifestation, a piece of that person’s soul, to be treasured and nurtured.

The result is that I have preserved, in the face of serious dust bunnies, silverfish and space constraints, every birthday card, postcard, aerogramme, post-it, fax, handwritten and even typed letter ever addressed to me. (If you think that’s weird, I should probably not mention the plastic teaspoon I keep as the memorial to a particularly fun day in 1987.)

From the vantage point of 2009 it’s amazing to see how many letters my friends and family and I exchanged before the Internet revolution hit. We wrote long letters, covering both sides of the page in a tiny hand. We put them in lovely crisp envelopes, and licked stamps, and went off to letterboxes and posted them. We waited for a reply, and when the postman handed one over, it was a shining little gift, wrapped in excitement, that you had to slope off into a corner to read and reread. Anyway: I keep them, and periodically re-read them, and this experience is a joy everyone should have.

I must get the packrat streak from my mother, whose similar but much fiercer commitment to history has packed her storeroom to the rafters with the most egregious nonsense. Over the last many days, overcome by a fit of spring-cleaning, she’s been rifling through those stored boxes with the mandate of clearing non-essential clutter.

I came upon her sitting at the dining table surrounded by a sea of paper: My math homework from the eighth grade; my brother’s baby scrawl; my sister’s school reports. I made the mistake of snorting over the math homework (on which, out of a score of 10 out of 14, an extra point had been deducted for late submission) and suggesting she toss it. “You don’t tell me what to toss, okay?” she barked in her fondest bark. Back it went into the box—and there it will no doubt stay. I completely understand; I still have my math homework from the first grade.

The downside of keeping everything, of course, is that you have to put it someplace, and since family members tend to be the most unethical members of your social circle, if they find your stuff they are unlikely to be able to keep from reading it. My sister still hasn’t forgiven my brother and me for reading—and quoting—her teenage diaries when we were kids. Yes indeed, reading other people’s old letters is a joy of its own—but that’s a different story.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Happy V-day

I didn’t enjoy Rhonda Byrne’s highly popular book The Secret. It was zealous and syrupy, and it undermined its wide-eyed wonder at the simple impact of positive thinking with an off-putting tendency to want to bend this alleged power of the universe towards the goal of making ever more money.

Having said that, I have noticed the following intriguing fact on several occasions through my life: no matter how scared or stupid you’ve been, if your intentions are honourable the universe often has a way of coming through for you. I put this notion down to the near-spiritual rush delivered by the swarms of endorphins that the body releases when it’s relieved of a sticky or disappointing situation.

The day I got my driving licence, for example, I absolutely had to make my way into the bowels of Connaught Place at peak hour, for an errand that couldn’t wait. I was rigid with terror at the thought and dragged my feet around the house in the hope that my brother would return from college before I had to leave, so that I could take him along in the passenger seat for moral support.

Finally I could wait no longer. This was in the days before cell phones, so I was on my own. I walked out the door fighting with myself, sweating blood, dying to save my first solo drive for another day and a less challenging destination, forcing my feet to walk to the car even though they were trying to go in the other direction. I opened the driver’s door with my heart in my mouth, and guess what? At that precise moment my brother walked through the gate. I was so relieved I could have wept. It was hard to resist the conviction that I was being rewarded for not having given in to fear and the temptation of just jumping into an autorickshaw.

A happy version of this happened again this past week. Readers of this column will remember, possibly with a gagging sensation, two weeks of bellyaching about wanting very much to vote, putting in a reasonable amount of effort into trying to make sure I could, and being cruelly hoist by my own petard because I was told that I’d missed the deadline for the general election of 2009.

My disappointment was massive because really, although I was stupid, I’d tried hard. And lo and behold, on Monday my doorbell rang and an election officer handed me my Election Photo Identity Card, just like that, matter-of-factly, apparently unaware of the significance of this event in my life and the attendant storm of emotion gathering within me. I stared at it for so long that he had to mention that he was really only still standing there because I had to sign for it. You mean I can vote now, on May 7? I said warily. Why not, he snorted, let’s see who can stop you. And off he went, cool as a cucumber, trailing a little cloud of my blessings.

I have no idea how this happened, but as the man said, ours not to reason why. And so, on Thursday morning, I asked my way to the polling booth, hacked my way through a thicket of journalists (who were standing around waiting to take such groundbreaking pictures as of a politician casting his vote), stood in a line, found my name on the electoral roll, stepped behind a fig leaf of a privacy screen, and lost my political virginity.

As in most cases of lost virginity, better late than never. And as in most such cases, I can’t believe I haven’t done this before, and heartily look forward to doing it again.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Monster movie

The other day my four-year-old niece Tara came home from a long hard day at her day care facility in Boston and announced to her parents: “I’m going to be a palaeontologist!” One of the things this statement suggests, besides a rather ambitious day care syllabus, is that fossil-hunting is not the dead profession you thought it was. Kids are of course always thrilled by the idea of digging around in mud, but it’s heartening to know that although the world spends much of its time being infatuated with new things, it retains some interest in the old things, which is important because apparently there was some useful stuff before the iPod, though nobody can seem to remember what.

Tara must be excited about the fearsome pliosaur whose discovery they recently announced, and by ‘they’ I mean a couple of lunatics who really did become palaeontologists. (Disclaimer, which I feel I had better add given the current political culture: I mean this in a jocular fashion, so please don’t firebomb my house for hurting the sentiments of palaeontologists. I admire palaeontologists. My niece is going to be a palaeontologist. The Ross Geller character from Friends is a palaeontologist, and I like him even though everyone in the show thinks he’s a snore).

A pliosaur is a prehistoric marine predator. This particular 150 million-year-old specimen was dug out of a Norwegian snowdrift, and its 20,000 bone fragments were painstakingly put together over many months. It turns out that it’s a whacking great thing, with a head the size of a crocodile; vertebrae the size of dinner plates; teeth the size of cucumbers; and jaws in which you could fit a small car, with snapping power that would make Tyrannosaurus rex look like a toothless old lady (and total the small car).

This horrible beast is called Predator X, presumably because there doesn’t exist a word mean enough to describe it and also perhaps because it will work very nice as the title for the future video game/movie. They’ve found enormous pliosaurs before in the same area (one of them was called The Monster) but this one—50 feet long and weighing 45 tonnes—takes the Jurassic cake. It roamed the oceans propelled by two powerful sets of flippers, thinking about the movie Jaws and wishing that humans would evolve, already.

Personally, I find giant, gruesome slavering monsters that try to kill and/or eat you—think Godzilla, King Kong, Jaws, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Alien or Species—much less frightening than the very small organisms that bump you off without ever being seen, like the tiny, deadly irukandji jellyfish, or any number of viruses from smallpox to the flavour of the month, swine flu. What also gives me the willies are the suave, bloodless fiends whose urbanity lulls you into almost ignoring the fact that they’re looking forward to flaying the skin off you even as they pour your wine (think Dracula, or Anthony Hopkins in—well, just Anthony Hopkins himself, really).

But by far the most frightening thing, in the world of horrible monsters, is the malignant (or soul-sapped) child. Remember the two little girls in The Shining? Regan in The Exorcist? The girl in The Ring? Damien in Damien: Omen II? The many cold, evil children in that movie about a villageful of cold, evil children?

Forget Friday the Thirteenth, Independence Day, and Jurassic Park. Take it from me, there’s nothing scarier than a beautiful little child with evil intent. I’ve seen that look on Tara’s face sometimes when I’ve told her she can’t have a seventh piece of chocolate. So if she asks my view on her prospects as a palaeontologist, I’m going to say, Fantastic—knock yourself out.