Thursday, July 30, 2009

Here comes the moon

The solar eclipse on July 22nd so captured everyone’s imagination this past week that the news channels actually took a couple of minutes out from yelling about the diplomatic bloopers committed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding Baluchistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarding the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, to yell about where one might best watch the eclipse (Taregana, Bihar), when (early in the morning) how (through pinhole glasses) and why (it would be the longest eclipse of the 21st century).

I always wanted to be an astronaut, because I’ve always wanted to meet some aliens outside of my family; but just because I was better at punctuation than at math, they wouldn’t let me into ISRO or NASA. This blow and the subsequent course-correction to my career that became necessary did not completely kill my interest, and I remain eager to know about stuff that happens in space. Whether it’s Jupiter suddenly developing a hole the size of the Earth, or the toilets on the International Space Station getting clogged, I’m watching and listening.

So I was extremely excited about the total solar eclipse on Wednesday. It would be thrilling to watch this rare and utterly beautiful phenomenon, especially since the next one this long one is scheduled for 123 years from now, by which time I might well be busy and forget. The band of totality, which is what they call the area on earth that will experience the full eclipse, didn’t include Delhi, but we’d get a partial eclipse. It was all going to start at the crack of dawn. It was important to get some sleep.

So on the evening of the 21st, I made sure to have an early vegetarian dinner while watching The Matrix, which I never seem to tire of; I read in bed only for an hour, which is all I can take at a time of Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos anyway, because after every paragraph or so my eyeballs start skidding around over the names of various Afghan warlords and the titles of various politicians and officers; then I turned out the light.

And it was worth all the preparation. In the morning I woke up, shambled out of bed, had an excellent plate of fruit for breakfast, read the newspapers, and then headed for the optimal position from which to view the eclipse: in front of the television. That’s where they always have the best view and the best pictures, best of all at the best time (i.e. throughout the day). Some of the pictures were taken by people on a Rs 80,000-a-seat flight specially chartered to follow the eclipse. I love those people!

Part of the reason I didn’t make more of an effort is that I doubted that a partial eclipse in cloudy skies over Delhi would match up to my last experience, which was a total solar eclipse on a completely clear day over the silhouette of the mighty Borobudur stupa in Central Java. Okay, that was in 1983, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. Who could forget—we drove from Jakarta to Borobudur, got those silly glasses, watched the moon pass slowly over the face of the sun, watched Bailey’s Beads and the corona explode behind that dark circle, saw and heard the birds and other animals get terribly confused and head to bed as night fell in the morning, felt primal restylings of our body hair, and got the t-shirt (which I hung on to for a good twenty years until it was in shreds).

Now that I’m talking about it, I’m sad to have missed the real thing. I must find a calendar that goes up to 2132c.e.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The perfect storm

One of my early defining experiences was a night in Delhi back in 1975 or ’76 when an enormous monsoon storm blew the door to the terrace plumb off its hinges, with the sort of demonic roar and attendant terror you’d expect if your airplane suddenly developed a hole in the fuselage midflight. I was three or four years old, and my parents were out doing whatever parents did in the 1970s—wearing flared pants, I imagine, and clinging to lampposts to counter the lift generated by air blowing through their bouffant hairstyles. Anyway they were out, and they didn’t come back for a long, long time. I developed the certain conviction that they were dead, and spent my time squeaking ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ like a ferret on amphetamines—a rather opportunistic thing to chant given that I was not a believer. Nor, just to clarify, on amphetamines.

The next morning, and ever after, they claimed that they’d merely been delayed by monstrous traffic snarls caused by the rain. I lived in terrified anticipation of the next maelstrom, even though they tried to explain to me the difference between the very rare gale-force wind that had deep-sixed the door, and the common pleasant breeze that might blow at any time. For years thereafter the slightest movement of air sent me rushing to them to ask tremblingly, “Is it a wind or a breeze?”

How I got from this phobic state to all-out adoration of storms is completely beyond me, but I did. Black skies, howling winds, cracking lightning and sheets of rain, trees stripped bare of their leaves, kids flying off their leashes, all this delights me beyond words, especially if I’m indoors, sipping on tea or wine.

I was happy as a pig in muck one evening in the Philippines when a typhoon blew up out of nowhere. Rain like gunfire drowned the city in minutes. The wind whipped the papaya trees to the ground like so many noodles, and threatened to lift the roof off and fly it to Malaysia—a wind so loud that when you stood next to someone and screamed something right into their ear (typically: “Wow, this is really loud”), all they experienced was you getting into their personal space and moving your lips soundlessly.

These days I’m thinking longingly of storms, seeing as how the monsoon is almost over and simultaneously hasn’t yet begun, at least here in Delhi. While Mumbai drowns and Assam declares drought, Delhi has been malingering in a purgatory of insufferable heat and humidity that regularly makes me want to beat myself to death with a straining air conditioner.

Every day for the last two weeks has been a tease—a few more clouds, a bit more wind, a louder grumble in the sky, for just a little longer every day before the sun comes bursting back out and turns up the humidity. Every time I think I’ve caught a glimpse of lightning out of the corner of my eye, it turns out to be just the neighbours, who have been performing mysterious acts of welding on their lawn since the last Ice Age. (I have watched their contractor evolve from Neanderthal to… well, maybe ‘evolve’ is a strong word.)

As I write this, on Wednesday, the sky has finally offered up a tiny little leak, an apology of a rain shower. If by the time this comes out in print this monsoon has regained a bit of lead in its pencil, then bully for us. If not, I’ll keep hoping. As far as I’m concerned, the perfect storm is one that happens.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Gross domestic product

I’ve had the house to myself for weeks now, as all other inhabitants and regular visitors are summering somewhere cooler than Delhi. I didn’t accompany them because, I declared optimistically, I was Leading My Own Life. It would have been perfect except that the general exodus from Delhi took with it the cook, which means that I have had to shift for myself in the feeding department.

Now, I may be a worthless layabout in general, but I’m no slouch when it comes to surviving. I like to mix it up to keep things fresh and interesting. Not for me the rut of daily routine. Over the past many weeks I have not only dragged every friend I have to some restaurant or the other for lunch or dinner, but have also made those of them who still let me in, cook for me at their homes. I have occasionally ordered in from fine-dining establishments such as that place with the golden arches. When none of those options is available (lately everyone’s phone always seems to be switched off or they’re having to travel out of town on short notice, or my wallet looks shell-shocked) I have fallen back on good old self-reliance.

When I head to the kitchen my being is bent on creating not just gustatory art, but also the cleanest, best fuel for the body. I find cooking both enjoyable and therapeutic, especially when my favourite music is playing in the living room and my favourite wine is slopping about in a well-cut wineglass. Plus, it’s cheaper than going out. And I don’t believe in compromising on health, either.

And so, over the weeks I have spent enjoyable, therapeutic time in the kitchen concocting a variety of healthful, tasty meals. High-fibre cereal with a dash of low-fat milk; Nestle Fitnesse with Nestle Skimmed Milk; multinational breakfast food with multinational dairy product; multigrain with protein and calcium, to name a few. And that’s just the basic stuff; I’m leaving out the exquisite nuances one can give each meal by varying the amount and/or temperature of each ingredient (a little more cereal, a little less milk; a little less cereal and a little more milk; the same amount of cereal with a bit less milk… I could go on, but the cool tips and surprises will keep until my cookbook comes out).

Even the finest cook can, however, tire of her own best and safest dish, and decide to take off on the wings of fancy. Thus it was that I decided to make pasta and salad a couple of times. The first time, I threw a bunch of tomatoes in boiling water, flayed them, beat them to a pulp, burned them, and slapped them on top of slightly overdone fusilli—and voila, Pasta a la Emergency. The salad on the side was quite good, except that I think I may have left a couple of worms in the leaves when I washed them by swiping them half-heartedly under the tap, because my stomach hasn’t been the same since.

The second time was much better. I sort of forgot to shop for any stuff to put in the pasta or indeed the salad, but it was fine: I boiled pasta, scraped some butter from the fridge and bunged that in with salt, tipped some oregano flakes on top, and then hosed the bugger down with Tabasco. Yum! I’m thinking of recreating this one when I have people over to repay their hospitality, if they take my calls. They should really come over and see how little domestic support a person can get by with.

They don’t call me Renaissance Woman for nothing.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

It’s the stupid, economy

Just to let all you corporate types know: I don’t understand the economy. Before you go feeling all superior and contemptuous, let me state that I bet I’m not the only one. Recognising that a business paper is probably not the most sympathetic forum in which to complain about this, but pressing on regardless, here’s my confusion. (I’m going to go very tentatively here, making only sweeping generalisations and uninformed pronouncements.)

My tiny little liberal artsy brain understands it thus. The big idea is that we must have ever-burgeoning demand in order to have ever-burgeoning economic growth, on the assumption that growth is the measure of an economy’s, and therefore a nation’s, health. This means we want various sectors of the economy to grow, so that all the people employed in those sectors will get paid more, so that they can buy more, so that we can increase industry to produce more goods and services that people can buy, so that we have ever more sectors on which ever more people are ever more precariously dependent.

Baffling, but okay. The problem is, is anyone coordinating all these sectors in all these countries so that we keep the global health of the planet intact? Doesn’t the present model run out of steam at the point where not only are resources scarce but the planet is also becoming disinclined to support life as we know it, furnished with amenities like drinking water and big blingy handbags?

Say we want cars because auto-making generates lots of jobs, by which people get paid and can buy things. The fact that cars require lots of infrastructure by way of roads and fuel stations and parking and walkways to the parking etc doesn’t enter the calculation. Auto makers simply knuckle down and go hell-for-leather producing as many cars as they possibly can, to make sure that at the end of the year they can show growth in their industry. To a numbskull such as myself, untrammelled growth in the car industry improves our lives in the following way: choked roads, parking hassles, pollution and spiralling health care costs. Doesn’t that sound wrong?

By the same token, the world’s losses are measured in dollar terms. A colossal storm devastates New Orleans or coastal Orissa or Bangladesh, and we shake our heads over the multimillion dollars’ worth of damage that was done. Amitabh Bachchan gets injured in a film shoot and we talk about the crores of advertising he represents. Michael Jackson dies and media goes insane. No, wait, that’s different: the media are insane.

How come money always comes first, before the health, safety and peace of citizens? How come we live in a cesspit like Delhi, where effluent-poisoned water and air ensures that we eat poisonous vegetables, and feel thrilled by the economic growth represented by the newest gadget we’ve got? I suppose it’s a good distraction from the possibility of three-eyed, six-horned babies becoming a common feature of the population.

I’m all for research and innovation which can be put to good use to better people’s lives, but by better life I mean greener grass, purer water, more nutritious and better distributed food, clean air and fuel. I’d be happy to pay the price by wearing the same clothes for longer, keeping my basic phone until it really dies, and taking public transport. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing to live with a little bit less.

I can just hear the sound of a thousand eyeballs rolling. What do I know? Mercifully, the only thing I’m expected to get right is grammar and punctuation. Feel free to send me irritated mail about it. I’ll correct it and send it back.