Saturday, July 24, 2010

Bieber blues

I’m really annoyed with my little brother. It turns out that when he was twelve he could have pulled our family out of the working middle class and into the platinum-dusted stratosphere of worldwide fame and fortune—and he blew it, just because there was no YouTube in 1986.

1986 was when my parents shipped him back to India, in the fond hope that he would stop swearing like a sailor, as one did as a fourth-grader at the international school in Jakarta, and grow some socio-cultural roots. (The success of this idea can be measured against the fact that he bolted the minute he could and has lived in the United States for the last ten years. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Anyway, in 1986 he was enrolled at a nice middle-class school in Delhi. When the teacher was vetting students for their preferred hobbies, my brother picked singing, and after other similarly-interested little boys and girls had sung the national anthem and gentle Hindi ballads, he auditioned with a pre-pubertal rendition of Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing. “I want my MTVeeee…money for nothing/and your chicks for free”, he squeaked, unable to understand why people were clutching their bosoms and dropping to the floor in a dead faint. Family lore has it that he was swiftly reassigned to pottery.

The point is that, back then, he had that regular twelve-year-old boy’s squeaky voice. And he could have gotten himself some guitar lessons and a strange, forward-sweeping helmet of a haircut and rapper friends and some platinum records and one billion screaming ten-year-old female fans and more money than he knew what to do with even after giving the rest of us lots; but he didn’t. He just continued to be my kid brother, studied philosophy, got married, had two and eight-ninths children, and left us all struggling to pay our bills like everyone else. Some people have no consideration.

All this bitterness has come welling up since a few days ago, when I was driving somewhere with the radio on and listening to a very silly song called Baby. I listened to the breathy little-girl voice singing just about on key, and thought yes, my brother could have been this phenomenon known as Justin Bieber. I would at least have had a gold radio.

What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Justin Bieber? Oh, perhaps you’re over fifteen. He’s a child from Canada—discovered when he was thirteen, and now sixteen—whose voice hasn’t broken and who sings squeaky songs of love to throngs of pre-pubertal girls who hold up forests of digital cameras to record his every move while swaying and shrieking. He’s now the most searched-for celebrity on Google, has to have a bodyguard to keep his lovelorn fans at bay, and has to be coached, by men whose voices have broken, on how to deal with outrageous fame attained before your own pair have dropped.

Bieber’s mother raised him by herself in Ontario. She put up a YouTube video of him singing in a local competition, followed up with more videos that swept various tiny, wired children off their feet, and pretty soon there the two of them were, drowning in cash up to his really very weird forward-sweeping haircut. A google search for the little whipper-snapper yields 110 million results, So what if a bunch of people hate him and his music and want him to disappear into the black hole known as North Korea? At least his family will never have to work again.

So If I’m sitting here having to earn my keep, it’s all my brother’s fault. I hope he’s sorry.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Here comes the sun

These days, when the Deepwater Horizon fiasco has the Gulf of Mexico looking almost as oily as the officials from BP, Transocean and Halliburton, it’s heartening to read about a Swiss gentleman by the name of Bertrand Piccard. Monsieur Piccard and his team of scientists and engineers spent six years building a solar-powered microlight plane, and last week this plane undertook its maiden all-night flight.

That’s right, a solar-powered plane, with a pilot—CEO Andre Borschberg—at the controls. A friend of mine actually asked how the damn thing can fly at night when the sun isn’t out, so let me just lay it out at the start: the solar power is stored in batteries. The kind of batteries you keep a sharp eye on, unlike at BP.

Piccard is a hypnotherapist and a balloonist who, in 1999, was first to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a gas balloon. He’s descended from a family of balloonists and inventors, and sounds, from his name, as if he should have big curly moustaches, jowls and a potbelly, and a retinue of manservants; but in fact he’s a very good-looking man with a wonderful smile. (His hotness is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

On his “patronage committee” are a number of famous people including Buzz Aldrin and Al Gore (also Paulo Coelho, but no committee is perfect); and descendents of famous explorers—Jean Verne, Jules Verne’s great grandson, and Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles. That’s fitting, because this little project could out-famous them all.

Piccard’s dream, called Solar Impulse, was announced six years ago; and on July 7 2010, after four years of design and modelling, simulations and test flights, the rather beautiful, dragonfly-shaped single-seater aircraft took to the skies for its first night flight. Its goal was to take off and attain maximum height as night fell, and fly until the next sunrise. Which, before that same friend asks, it did successfully, landing after 26 hours and 9 minutes, with power left over in the batteries.

Speaking at the TED conference last year, Piccard said that, just as in ballooning one has to toss ballast overboard to control trajectory by changing altitude, so in life one has to toss overboard the ballast of habit, certainties, convictions and dogmas in order to head in the right direction by changing paradigms. He talked about how his balloon had risen from Switzerland with 3.7 tons of liquid propane and landed in Egypt 20 days later with 40kgs; and when he saw that, he promised himself that the next time he flew around the world it would be with no fossil fuel, in order “not to be threatened by the fuel gauge”.
He saw his balloon capsule in the Air and Space Museum in Washington alongside other iconic flight vehicles such as Lindbergh’s and the Wright Brothers’ aircraft and Apollo 11, and realised that the lovely 20th century project of human flight is doomed if we stick with fossil fuel. How to perpetuate that pioneering spirit?

On July 8 2010, the Solar Impulse project celebrated its first truly exciting achievement. “The most renewable energy we have,” Piccard has said in his fabulously charming Swiss accent, “is our own potential and our own passion.” (His accent is not relevant, but studies have shown that it helps.)

Piccard and his project represent not just eco-warrior rhetoric, but an exciting first step towards making a real and significant departure from old dependencies. You can laugh at him, but only if you like sludgy pelicans, doomed fisheries, and the thought of having life come to a grinding halt when the fossil fuels run out.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The unfairer sex

Many years ago, in our youth, my sister and I spent some time moaning to my mother about man trouble. We enumerated the several flaws of the respective subjects with gathering speed and animation, growing increasingly purple-faced and sweaty. She listened with what I thought was an inexcusable degree of calm, until we ran out of steam and just sat like small wild-eyed dogs, tongues lolling with confusion and exhaustion.

She took a long, slow, deep breath. “You have to understand, my sweethearts,” she said kindly, “that men are retarded.”

We nodded expectantly, ready to be enlightened. But it turned out that that was it. She was done.

Now, I detest gender stereotypes. I have no problem with a man who loves building things out of wood, or a woman who loves to sew, but I thought it was truly obnoxious that, in second grade, as part of extra-curricular activities, all the boys had to go to woodshop and all the girls had to go to needlework. At the time I owned a small wooden toy loom, upon which I spent countless blissful hours weaving the most horrible little bits of misshapen cloth, but I did that because I liked it, not because I was expected to.

I also detest people who are impressed by behaviour that lies outside gender stereotypes. It makes my skin crawl when women gush about a man doing the dishes, as if this is kindness beyond the call of duty, or when men are awed by a woman who drives well, as if she has to overcome some awful mental health issue to do so.

At the same time I can’t stand the knee jerk rejection of any behaviour that happens to overlap with a gender stereotype, as when a woman will never ever allows somebody to buy her a meal, as if her very sense of self would be destroyed by it; or when a man won’t allow a woman to cook him a meal even though she wants to.

In other words, I’m not hugely keen on rote behaviour of any sort, or blanket statements that purport to apply to fifty percent of the world’s population. Plus, most of my best friends are men.

So, after a fair amount of living, I think back to what my mother said all those years ago, and, much as it pains me to have to correct an elder, I must disagree. And because I know how much I appreciated her bothering to share her pithy wisdom, I like to think that other people might benefit from my humble experience too. So hear this, all you exasperated, hurting women out there, but more particularly all you starry-eyed fillies in love: It’s not entirely true that men are retarded.

Oh, they’re infantile, intemperate, blind, have double standards, look for instant gratification and scapegoats, lack the ability to parse their emotions, have the most blatant double standards, are consumed by their own sense of injury, can’t get any perspective, sulk, throw tantrums, have double standards, suffer delusions of grandeur and several other sorts of delusion, don’t know how to listen, are smug know-it-alls, make kitchen tables look intuitive, have double standards, storm around like titans with egos as fragile as eggshells, are inconsistent, don’t know the value of friendship, have double standards, are weak, are terrified of what people will think, and haven’t the faintest idea what they themselves think. Oh, and they have double standards.

But no, men are not retarded; it would be more accurate to say that they are really, really retarded. I don’t know whether they’re from Mars or from Venus, but I wish they’d go home.

Voila! Forewarned is forearmed.

December 13, 2006

A black, black day.

Before that, my life was puttering along fairly smoothly. I had enough work, the house looked all right as long as your standards were flexible, and I read a fair number of books. I was happy.

Oh, I had my share of troubles—limited finances, doomed relationships, personal loss, a frustrating inability to smoke marijuana because it gives me panic attacks. But on balance I was doing all right, thanks to the wonderful people in my life who have stuck with me through thick and thin, because when they try to run I hunt them down and smoke ’em out. Field note: they stop screaming in your face when fatigue sets in, especially if you threaten their children.

Everything was just fine until that chilly winter day when I signed up on Facebook.

Today, pale and wan from lack of exposure to sunlight, obese from lack of movement, tissues wasted away except for remarkably muscular fingers, eyes evolved to lemur-like proportions, brain that on an MRI looks like a familiar blue toolbar, I am a mere shell of the woman I used to be and, frankly desperate. If this is life, I don’t want it.

My email records show that my descent into the agonies of addiction began when I got an invitation from a friend. (It later turned out that he had no idea that his profile was stepping out at night wearing a catsuit and a balaclava and inviting everyone in his address book.) I signed up but more or less ignored Facebook—oh, that innocent time!—until June 2007, when a trickle of friends and messages suddenly turned into a flood.

There were messages. There were photographs. There were minute-by-minute updates. There was Scrabble, and Scramble, and Lexulous. There was Honesty Box. There was voyeurism. Shallow intimacies—with people one didn’t necessarily even like—sprang up like weeds. Real-world ceased because everyone was staying home, logging onto Facebook to make sure they stayed in touch. What warm-blooded mammal could resist all this?

But then it became a problem. I thought I could control it; but soon enough, it had robbed me of my basic human rights, like the freedom to move beyond internet access, the freedom to not play my Scramble turn immediately just because someone nudged me electronically, the freedom to break for meals and, sometimes, a shower. It’s the nature of addiction.

I’m tired of meeting actual flesh-and-blood people and looking beside their face to find the button that will take me to their wall. More and more, these days, in the lonely darkness of 3am, wracked by repetitive stress injury and carpal tunnel syndrome and the unbearable agony of a) not knowing what my friends are doing at that exact moment, and b) knowing what perfect strangers look like and do and talk about, I contemplate taking what our newspapers call “the extreme step”.

I even put it up on my Facebook status a couple of times, the fact that I am sick of it all and sometimes—yes, it’s true—have thoughts of deleting my profile. But, instead of fearing the worst, people thought it was funny. This is how tragedies happen: people cry out for help, and other people just ‘like’ it.

I yearn for that sweet release. It would be for the best. But then I think of all the people I’d leave behind, reeling in shock and disbelief, clutching at each other’s pixels and trying to understand, to make sense of it all; and I bow my head, and I steel myself, and I carry on for their sake.

That’s what it means to be responsible.

Wet blankets

You know those people who walk around in 30-40°C temperatures with 80 percent humidity and never seem to perspire? The ones who live in Kolkata, or Kerala, or Jakarta, or Singapore or Mumbai and spend the day tramping around the streets but never have their shirts stick to their backs, or a single dainty droplet trickle from their temples? The ones who look fresh as a daisy no matter how long they’ve been in the sun? I hate those people. It’s people like me, who sweat like a tap at the slightest hint of heat, or humidity, or deadline, that take up the slack for people like them who don’t pull their weight in the sweat gland department.

Living in Delhi is an exercise in chronic urban misery at the best of times, with additional annoyances in the form of extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures, but in the last few days the weather has been, well, there’s no gentle way to spin it, unbelievably disgusting. A couple of weeks ago we had a day that was like Northern Europe in late spring—cloudy, cool, with a nippy breeze. Just when we’d been lulled into complacency, it has soared to 44°C, with humidity levels that feel as if you’re walking around with a freshly boiled towel wrapped around you, and wet-footed ants running around inside it.

I’ve finally understood something I grew up not understanding: the English propensity to talk about the weather all the time. In a website on learning English that teaches you how to speak about the weather, the first sample conversational exchange is:

Q: “What’s it like out?”

A: “It’s miserable out.”

This is a very useful sample sentence both in England and in Delhi in terms of accuracy, even though “out” is a dodgy Americanism, in the same way that “I just paid my electric” is. But it’s not really that English, because being English involves a natural propensity for staggering understatement. My roommate in college, who was half-English, nevertheless displayed this talent as if she were fully English. We would wake up to black skies and shrieking winds, driving snow and temperatures that would freeze your tongue to your palate, and when we stepped out, me bundled up like a polar bear and she in dazzlingly short skirts and stockings, the conversation went more like this:

Me: $%^&* [freezes and falls over, dead as a doorknob]

She: “Fresh, isn’t it?”

Anyway, when you’re young you don’t notice things like the weather, or food, or sleep, or anything much besides the fact that your parents are always wrong. As your body soldiers on through season after season, though, and you look about you for a place to rest your tiring bones, weather elbows its way up the priority list and ends up right up there beside decent bars and good quality health insurance.

The best place to live, weather-wise, is without a doubt in the Seychelles, where the temperature almost never goes below 21° or above 30°C all year long. This is the zone in which I do my best thinking about decent bars and good quality health insurance. A friend of mine who lived in this sort of constant (though more humid) weather in Southeast Asia moved countries in search of a place with four distinct seasons, but I think this is a mistake.

At any rate, I’m doing my damnest to organise things such that I can spend December through February, which are the nicest months in Delhi, in the Sahara desert instead. If it works out, I’ll have proven my hunch that while human beings have a strong sense of what’s best for their bodies, their brains remain weak.

The drink that cheers

I like playing football. I last played in middle school, when our physical education classes required us to have a stab at every kind of sport, and football was my favourite. I offered to play attacker (we called it centre forward), but the coach seemed to think of me as more of a defender; it isn’t perfectly clear to me why, but I’m nothing if not a cooperative team player type. And indeed, I remember getting some of my best thinking done next to the goalpost, possibly leaning on it, while some people ran around on the other end of the field, shouting.

No wonder, then, that every four years I wait with feverish devotion for the World Cup, which I believe is some kind of big tournament. Because the fact is, there is no better globally accepted justification for breaking out enormous quantities of beer. Four years ago, when Germany hosted the World Cup, I was backpacking around Europe and found myself in Sorrento, Italy on the night that the Italian team won the final. My ears are still ringing from that night, and my liver and I didn’t talk for a while.
But the excellent thing about football is that there’s so much goodwill and good cheer floating around that you can break out the beer at the drop of a hat, for just anything, at any time, without inviting censure. You could be drinking at breakfast, or while walking in a forest, and nobody would bat an eyelid—and you can blame it on football.

So this is what I did last weekend. Some friends and I drove up to Shimla after a long and intricately plotted night of defiance, recklessness, intrigue, violence, loss and suspense, the details of which I am not at liberty to share, but let’s just say that they make Stieg Larsson look like a little old lady. The car had seen better days—two windows were inoperable, the wipers were trailing rubbery ribbons, the stereo volume bore no relation to the direction in which one turned the knob, and every time we hit a bump the face of the stereo fell off—but we got there in time to watch South Africa vs. Mexico.

Pretty much everything from that point on involved some sort of alcohol, which, for any children who are reading this, is very bad for you but does help mitigate the maddening buzz of vuvuzelas. It’s true that we had beer with our breakfast eggs and slipped some whiskey into our breakfast coffee, but we weren’t completely off our faces, and still deeply connected to the spirit of sport: we fought like wildcats over the last half-bottle of wine, resorting to dealmaking and horsetrading like the most successful teams; and we played a sweaty, screaming, occasionally violent game of pitthu in the middle of a forest, with a rolled-up pair of socks for a ball, and a tiny patch of nettled slope for a field. My team came very close to winning, given my skills as a defender, but I had to send an sms just as something exciting happened on the field and the rules of pitthu weren’t that clear to me anyway. What are you supposed to do with two balls and two piles of stone anyway?

Now I’m back, more or less detoxed enough to start all over again, and fully into the swing of football. I’ve been reading carefully about the players, the history of the teams, the statistics and the cool side stories about ball technology, and have come to my own decision about whom to support. May the team with the best socks win.