Friday, January 29, 2010

Wardrobe malfunction

You know those mothers who say, “You look lovely in anything you wear. Please don’t do a thing differently”? My mother wasn’t one of those. My mother’s greatest regret is that her daughters never really got into the whole pretty frocks thing. I think that she, who was a bit of a clotheshorse, would dearly have liked to have fashion-forward offspring; but very early on, I took my clothing into my own decidedly fashion-backward hands. After many successive awkward moments during which she suggested some pretty skirt and I silently laid out, every day, the same jeans and red sweater to wear to school the next morning, she shifted to a more subtle tactic, which was to gift me things in the hope that sentiment or guilt might overcome my natural tendency to keep it simple. I grimly cut the necks and bottoms off.

What she didn’t know was that the boys in the little Swiss village school I attended made a practice of running around lifting the girls’ skirts and hooting with derision at their knickers. This pastime filled me with dread, and I vowed never to aid or abet it, thereby cementing a lifelong aversion to skirts. Also, Swiss schoolteachers distinguished soccer teams in the playground by shirt on versus shirt off, thereby cementing my lifelong aversion to soccer and Swiss schoolteachers. The clincher was the moment when a friend of mine, reduced to tears by a mob of leering little nine-year-olds, pulled off all her fig leaves in front of the school building and screeched, “You want to see? Look! Look, you little bastards!” She’s now a pastor, and I hope some of her tormenters sit in her congregation with their heads hanging.

I hope my mother drew some comfort from the fact that at least my brother was quite skirt-friendly in the days when the register of his voice was higher than than a kite. Skirt-friendly—and quite amenable to having us adorn him with lipstick and clips. When this lamentable phase passed, he turned into my mother’s dream son, dandily turned out and always appreciative of any labels on his clothing. My sister, too, started her working life in attire that was at least hip if not completely fabulous.

That left me. Apart from a short and inexplicable phase in which I wore shorts with sari blouses and long earrings and a bindi, I went through life wearing hand-me-downs—I’m still wearing, this winter, the sweater my sister wore through her college years and left for me in a box when I went to college in 1991—and gifts because I refused to go clothes shopping. My closet was always a bit of a happy mystery to me, filled with socks I had never seen before, some comfortable old skivvy of my mother’s and shirts that smacked of some older cousin. I didn’t mind, so it all came home to roost in my cupboard. not that I ever wore anything other than jeans and a set of five t-shirts in strict rotation with all the necks carefully lopped off with scissors because I don’t like necklines too close to my windpipe.

“You look like an orphan,” my mother still moans. “As if you have nobody to care for you.” When my brother is feeling complimentary he’s likely to ask, “How come you’re not looking like a Bosnian refugee today?” To be fair, anything presentable I have today I probably owe to my mother.

On the upside, for her, I hope she can remember that all in all I was a cheap child to raise.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Acne what?

Too many world problems get too little press. Since other people seem to have taken charge of climate change and hunger and world peace, I’m going to take this opportunity to raise my voice for acne rosacea, the plague of people-who-flush-easily everywhere. Also I have it, and everyone keeps asking me about it.

No, it’s not pimples—that’s acne vulgaris. Rosacea is a condition in which your natural blush areas—cheeks and nose, and eventually chin and forehead—suffer constant or sporadic inflammation, so that you wander the world looking as if you’ve drunk too much, though in some cases having rosacea is a good cover story. You might develop rashes, or splotches, or pestilential red bumps. In its most benign form it can pass off as a healthy post-exercise pink glow, but when it’s acting up you can look like a lumpy beetroot. If I had a buck for every time someone has said, ‘That’s quite a sunburn’, or ‘Are you embarrassed or something?’ or ‘Hey, your skin is red and rashy!’ I wouldn’t have to write this column.

Women develop rosacea more frequently than men, but on the upside (from my perspective) it’s the men who develop the more virulent cases, like rhinophyma, in which the nose becomes bulbous, like that of sufferer WC Fields.

Nobody knows what triggers it. It could be your genes, or overexposure to the sun, or a critter that lives in hair follicles, or another critter associated with ulcers, or emotional stress. What we do know is that once you have it, you’re stuck with it. Furthermore, it will flare up if you do pretty much anything remotely joyous—smoke, drink, hang out in the sun, exercise, or eat spicy food.

When I first got a diagnosis, I asked what I could do about it. “Nothing. Relax?” said the doctor weakly. Other people will prescribe topical ointments, tetracycline, or laser treatment. But if you do all that, you give up the kind of conversation I had at a restaurant the other day.

There I was, stuffing my face with mutton curry and wine preparatory to a smoke, when a slightly batty old lady stopped by the table.

“I was admiring your complexion,” she quavered. “Is it natural or did you get it at the chemist’s?”

“Well,” I said wearily, “actually—”

“Let me tell you, you’ve got to use Johnson’s Baby Soap,” she barreled on, turning on a dime. “I’m much older than you, but what would you say about the state of my skin?”

“Pretty good,” I said dutifully. (It was, too.)

“Johnson’s Baby Soap!” she trilled. “I make all my servants wash their hands with liquid Dettol soap when they walk into the house, and then with Lifebuoy before they touch anything. But on my face, only Johnson’s Baby Soap.”

Right. Thanks.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, rosacea is just wonderful. I could have been that poor 19-year-old woman who had an allergic reaction that, and I quote, “gripped her entire body, causing her skin to burn up and scab over before falling off.” (PTI) You’d think it would take some vile biochemical weapon to cause this, but no: what made Eva’s skin burn up and scab over and fall the hell off was a paracetamol tablet she took for a fever. Yes, paracetamol. The plucky girl grew her whole skin back—a pretty hard act to follow however you slice it—but 40 percent of the one in a million people who suffer this reaction do not survive (the scientific term for ‘die’).

I’m happy to say that paracetamol isn’t on the long list of (completely futile) treatments prescribed for acne rosacea. Every cloud has an inflamed, bumpy lining.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

You go, boss

I began my working life by gathering information about potential freelance assignments during the year that I intended to be in Delhi before going to graduate school. I decided that I would make lists of publications, hunt down phone numbers, and pay my way through the year by writing.

Having these worthy intentions left me free to in fact spend my time painting grotesque self-portraits in watercolours, writing very bad short poems and short stories and staring at the phone with open fear. I did do a few assignments and projects, but essentially two years of my life and the idea of grad school ended up in the same toilet as the world’s hopes for Copenhagen.

Then one day a friend called, saying that somebody at Business Standard was looking for an article on Southeast Asia. I called the number and spoke to one Kishore Singh. I didn’t have an article on KL specifically, but perhaps I could write something else? He told me to bring whatever I had to his office.

He turned out to be a tall fellow in a long kurta with a head of greying curls, warm and polite, but with an undeniable beadiness of eye. He read through a couple of my published articles in heart-stopping silence, commented on the extreme thinness of what I was pleased to call my resumé, and then, quite seamlessly, asked if I wanted a job. All the career counselling sessions I had not attended in college swarmed into my head and I said something devastatingly sharp like, “Uh, okay, sure.” The beadiness kicked up a notch and he named a tiny little figure, which from my perspective looked good since it was a tiny little figure more than I had.

So I started working for Kishore’s Special Projects team, which turned out to have a lot to do with knowing about brands and stores and celebrities and the odd trade fair. It quickly became apparent to both him and me that I was all wrong for it, but he was unfailingly tolerant. (‘Let’s do an issue on UFOs!” I said. “Get me the advertising and you’re on,” he said.)

For my part I worked diligently if not enthusiastically, and in return he encouraged me to do book reviews and other stories I enjoyed on the side; encouraged me to go home at a civilized hour; encouraged me to not be a wimp; and taught me a huge amount without ever seeming to, including that it’s best not to open your cocky mouth too much or too loud. (I didn’t say I always followed his advice). He was funny, generous, sophisticated, smart as a whip, and the best, gentlest manager and editor you could hope to have. When I finally left he threw me a party to which I was two hours late (because I’d suddenly decided to write farewell limericks for the team) and he still smiled at me, possibly because he was so relieved that I was leaving.

Kishore commissioned Stet, and has uncomplainingly printed every word of it week after week for nearly three and a half years now. I can think of few other people who would have given me such free rein, or who wouldn’t at least have complained a little. For that, and for everything else he has ever done for me, he has my everlasting appreciation and affection.

This week was Kishore’s last week at Business Standard—for the third time. He has left twice before, but always been lured back; this time he claims it’s for real. He may be right, but it’s so hard to imagine the place without him that, even as I wish him the best, it seems appropriate to reprise one of his signature phrases: Whatever-whatever-whatever.