Saturday, February 20, 2010

Light ’em up

These days I’m reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World. He wrote it for impecunious retards like myself who read little more than the Calvin & Hobbes strip in the papers and consequently don’t understand the world of money—either how to make it or where to put it. I want this book. I need this book.

I’m only halfway through, but have already learned much from it: It’s a thorough exposĂ© of the awesome intelligence of the super-talented Niall Ferguson who also, annoyingly enough, happens to be quite hot. And it is filled with stunning insights like the fact that you can only hope to write ten heavily researched brick-like books by the time you’re forty-six, in between teaching at Harvard and doing television programmes and flying around the world being dazzling, if you don’t sleep and stare into space quite as much as I do.

Books like this are completely life-changing. This one caused me to stare into space furiously pondering the whole idea of productivity, which according to the book is somehow related to the making of money, until it was time to take a nap; and when I woke up I went right back to staring into space and pondering productivity, while smoking.

Speaking of which, while a couple of things remain fuzzy to me—banking, the bond market, the whole company thing—I, too, had a college education, and there are some things I’m quick to understand. One of them is that a lot of the money that I could be doing clever, historically informed things with, I spend on cigarettes instead. I sit there, hour after hour, diligently sending my money up in smoke. And just to make things worse, the price just went up.

I also get the fact that cigarettes are bad for you. I don’t totally get it, else I wouldn’t be smoking, but there’s plenty of ambient reinforcement for me to lean on. My five-year-old niece happened upon me smoking the other day and said crabbily, “Why do you want to make yourself DIE.” I could only hang my head and mutter something about a bad habit and how she should never do it. Not that the words needed speaking: she is as determined never to smoke as I was at her age, when I used to hunt out my parents’ cigarettes and shred them in the wastepaper basket as ostentatiously as possible.

I get that smoking grays your hair, wrinkles your skin, enlarges your pores, blackens your lips and yellows your fingnails. I get that it smells really bad. I get that it makes your throat raw and your sinusus jam up like peak hour traffic. I get that it abets macular degeneration and robs your sense of smell. I get that it promises a range of unpleasant cancers, stomach ailments, respiratory trouble, and cardiac problems.

But while all this information has penetrated my rock-plated skull, it appears to just be floating around in the cranial fluid and biding its time, because it certainly hasn’t yet percolated down to my brain. My brain is still hung up on the pleasures of the post-prandial smoke, the reading smoke, the sudden spring shower smoke, the glass of wine smoke, the great song smoke, the hanging around waiting for something smoke, the column-writing smoke, the morning tea smoke, and the post-[censored] smoke.

But I have great, totally baseless hopes for my own development. I figure I’ll quit at some point, because that’s what educated, intelligent, middle-aged people with a looming sense of mortality do. On the other hand, the same people apparently also understand what a discounted bill of exchange is. I’m still working on that.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

House of horrors

One look at the way lichen can thrive on a frozen expanse of tundra should tell you how tenacious life is. But then, one look at the way some innocent office-goer can get mulched by a piano tumbling from an upper storey should tell you that it’s also tricky business.

You might suspect, and rightly so, that airborne pianos probably don’t deserve top billing on the long list of things that working stiffs have to fear. Frankly, I’m a case of what they call damaged goods, but even I walk past tall buildings with my head held high, thoughts of deadly pianos even further from my mind than thoughts of making some kind of financial provision for my rapidly approaching dotage. But I can think of lots of things that do belong high up on a list of justifiable phobias, and many of them are not only not random, but downright clear and present dangers right in your home.

For instance: Pressure cookers. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather use a regular pan and spend an hour stirring and sweating into my mutton curry than put a pressure cooker on the flame for twenty minutes. This is because it’s a widely established fact that pressure cookers are made to lull you into a false sense of security before one day exploding in a way that leaves you unsure which bit is mutton curry and which bit cook’s face. My grandmother’s pressure cooker exploded one day while she was cooking lunch, and not only was I a wreck when I heard about it, but she was really mad about having to scrape daal off the ceiling.

For instance: Elevators. Examine your heart and tell me if you can really ever step into an elevator in the upper storeys of your building without wondering, just as it begins to move, whether the cable will hold all the way until your floor, or whether it will snap and send you plummeting to the bottom of the shaft in a twisted wreckage of metal. One retarded school of thought holds that the way to save your skin is to jump into the air at the moment of impact. Hopefully, over time, falling elevators will weed these people out of the gene pool.

For instance: Ceiling fans. We’re talking about a bunch of metal blades spinning at high speed, and if they’re doing this in my house, they’re doing so with a creaky rocking motion. It’s perfectly clear to me that a fan turned on is just a fan waiting for you to take your eyes off it or fall asleep, so that it can fly right off its ceiling mount and either impale your chest or perform a clean decapitation.

For instance: Open cupboard doors. I was brought up on a steady stream of Enid Blyton’s stories about dolls that make Chucky from Child’s Play look good. Before I go to bed I make sure my cupboards are securely closed because, even though I haven’t owned dolls for thirty years, there’s no need to risk getting up to use the bathroom and having some cold little plastic hand shoot out from under my bed and grab my ankle with a tinny mechanical laugh.

For instance: Geysers. These, in my head, are very like pressure cookers. We have experienced a geyser sparking and setting the nearby shower curtain on fire; and I once came home to find a geyser more or less exploded and behaving like the Trevi Fountain. It’s plain stupid to ignore the dangers of being summarily poached in one’s own bathroom.

With houses like deathtraps, who needs falling pianos?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

I have a dream

I know—so did Martin Luther King, and so did Abba. But my dream is neither about the state of Mississippi being transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice, nor about having a song to sing to help me cope with everything. Mine is possibly harder to turn into reality.

The dream is that one day, we in India will be able to deal in the currency of ideas and opinion without letting our giant mutant egos get in the way. In this la-la land that I inhabit, Shah Rukh Khan would be able to pick Pakistani players for his cricket team and the Shiv Sena could froth at the mouth like a rabid dog but not be able to shut down his upcoming movie (My Name is Khan). A woman’s dress might provoke catcalls or comment, but not molestation or sexual assault. And book reviews would be both written and read professionally—that is to say, as subjective opinion, formed as objectively as possible.

That’s what it would mean to have a real critical culture, rather than one of either mutual admiration or personal vendetta. I should say upfront that this is old whine in an old bottle. But if this is the third time I’m writing about book reviewing, it’s only because it happens to be the closest tip of the closest anti-intellectual iceberg in a sea filled with such icebergs specializing in sinking critical debate about everything from leisure to religion.

My dream is that we could attempt to melt those icebergs, and create a real critical culture. Possibly the single most important ingredient in this (completely fanciful) idea is good faith: to speak in good faith, and to listen in good faith. In my dream, a reviewer would say, “I read this book and my honest opinion is that it sucks/is brilliant/is mediocre. In the same dream the author, reading this review, would say, “Oh look, someone’s honest opinion. I agree/disagree.”

That’s my dream. But I know I’m awake, because what I see is intimidation, bullying, tantrum-throwing and serious cases of egoitis. The din of clashing ideas is the stuff and marrow of democratic debate, but whether this ends up being an enriching rather than irritating and pointless sound depends on how the conversation is conducted. The first pitfall of any debate is when, due to aforesaid giant mutant egos, people swerve away from the issue at hand, into blizzards of personal invective. It’s irrelevant, and adds exactly nothing to the discussion. You might as well respond to a statement like ‘I love brownies’ with ‘You would—your eyes are blue and your grandmother was Yemeni.’

People assume that if reviewers are nice about someone’s work it’s because they are friends with the author and can’t bring themselves to be honest; if they’re not nice, it’s because for reasons of [insert gratuitous psychoanalytical and sexual speculation] they’re out to get the poor geniuses who poured blood, sweat and tears into their book for years.

I’d hate to, but I’m forced to admit the possibility that this is in fact the prevailing reality—that reviewers really are motivated by either deference or malice. I’d hate to think that, but it would at least explain why authors often seem incapable of reading reviews of their work without assuming such motivations. The other explanation, of course, is that they’re simply whiny, self-pitying megalomaniacs with blue eyes and Yemeni grandmothers.

In my dream everyone has gotten over themselves and accepts that when you put something into the public domain for public consumption, you will get public opinion, on message, to which you can respond, on message. And then, honeychile, live with it.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Jaipur smorgasbord

Like pretty much nobody else I know, I spent January 2006 through January 2009 not going to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Only expert idiots do this; the rest of you should not try it at home. This year I redeemed myself by spending the whole week there, and I’m here to tell you that the collective intelligence and creativity on display in Jaipur is second only to my regret at having denied myself the pleasure for four years.

The great strength of the festival, besides its ability to pull in over 140 authors and an estimated 27,000 audience members this year, is its democratic attitude. It may be the case that not everyone deserving can be put onstage or invited to moderate, but if you choke up either as a participant or as a delegate or as someone who walked in off the street (because you can, it’s free), you’ll be treated exactly like the world-famous author next to you. You might stand in line for lunch ahead of Tina Brown, or share a table with Wole Soyinka, or find Roberto Calasso sitting on the floor at your feet at some session because all the chairs are taken. It is truly informal.

Its other great strength is the ability to stitch up unraveling hems. When speakers can’t make their sessions on time, or at all—because their flight got cancelled, or fog hindered their car journey or the Government of India wouldn’t give them a visa without a school-leaving certificate—other people pitch in and throw a pretty good panel together. The session-goer will still get something fun in the end.

If there’s a problem, it is that of surfeit. When you’ve got top calibre people from the polymath Niall Ferguson to the razor-sharp Anne Enright to the incredibly funny Geoff Dyer and Alexander McCall Smith, and when every time slot is running three or four simultaneous events, you have to make unhappy choices, but often it is better than having no choice, because if a session turns out not to be your thing, you can just wander off to another one.

If there’s anything better than putting a face to someone whose books you’ve loved for years, it must be being introduced to the work of people you’ve never read, or never even heard of. The secret weapon of the programme this year, an absolute coup, was the security-veiled appearance Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the bĂȘte noire of Islamism, whose explosive session reinforced a much-needed defence of dissent and criticism in India.

If there is delight, it is listening to Calasso divide people into “those for whom the gods happen and those for whom they don’t”; hearing Claire Tomalin describe the art of biography as “like lace-making, creating a narrative around the holes”; watching Andrew O’Hagan say that “it is not the unexamined life that is not worth living, it is the unimagined one”.

And if there is a delight after that it is the drinks and musical entertainment of the evening in the lawns—because if there’s a cost, it is exhaustion. Six hours of food for thought every day leaves your head pooped to say the least; at the end of five such days my emaciated brain synapses were crawling to the edges of my ears with their tiny tongues lolling, croaking “Water… water…” (though they seemed quite satisfied with a bit of booze).

On top of all that we now have a new literary prize—the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, a US$50,000 incentive to uncap your pen.

All in all the Jaipur Literature Festival is a wild ride because, as Man Booker-winner Anne Enright said, “Writers are not tame creatures.” At least I know what I’m doing next January.