Monday, January 28, 2008

The two-ply Indian

The dualism begins with language. Most of us in a certain socio-economic class are fluent in at least two languages – English and one other – though the reality is usually three or four. Each of these languages brings it's own cultural references, literature, folklore and behaviour systems. My Little Pony and paccha kudhira* share the same paddock peaceably. See? The Indian is already two-ply and not yet old enough to go to school.

As he or she grows, this is only reinforced by the greater exposure – books, music, movies, clothes, jokes. We speak one language to our friends and another to family. And again, one language to our cousins and another to our grandparents, and we enjoy being with both. Neither is a false front. They're both real and they live comfortably side by side, except for a few rough bits in the teenage years.

The two plies replicate themselves into subsets, permeating every little part of our psyche. It becomes (literally) second nature and so it's hard to answer questions from non-Indians about large matters of "conservatism and liberality in Indian society". Giving absolute answers to anything about India is a nightmare anyway – the minute you make a firm statement – even as you're making it – you remember fifty things that contradict it.

This is especially difficult in Dubai, where the non-Indians you meet are by and large throwbacks to Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad or life members of the Stereotype Or Die Society. One mad friend used to enliven Friday brunches by insisting aggressively: "My traditional Sunday breakfast is the same as yours – eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast". But the hash browns may have been called aloo tikkis and he would have added dosa to the mix, whenever on offer – and without it being in any way out of place.

(This particular friend headed West to spread the word, most recently heard telling Torontonians: "I am not East Indian, I am Indian. There's only one kind. Columbus could not read a map and neither can you." A few months earlier he made a visit to New York more interesting by contending that "the term doesn't even make sense. Africa is a continent, with 53 countries, not a concept for you to adopt. You're American." He survived. We expect to see his name in the Birthday Honours list any day now. Or some list, for sure.)

Anyway. Reading about India's protocol problems with Sarkozy and his girlfriend, I grinned and thought about the quaintest manifestation of them all. When you invite your girlfriend or boyfriend to stay at your parents' house, you will sleep in separate rooms, because the alternative is unthinkable. Yet, you will go on holiday together and send back photographs – which your parents will naturally, happily add to the family album.

How thin and sparse our lives would be without this duality, like a warp without a weft.

*Green horse. A very long and involved Malayalam fairy tale a nanny used to tell us. Never completed, ever.

Thursday, January 24, 2008


Sleep was elusive all night. I stayed quietly awake in some vigil that I seemed to be required to keep.

When I got the message in the morning that my sister-in-law had gone into labour in the night, it was not a surprise, merely a confirmation. It’s not even surprising that my mind chose to keep the vigil, untold – this is merely the same instinct that makes my brother call me unerringly when I really need to talk, whether I want to or not.

Our family unit of five is now six. That’s not surprising either – it’s always been flexible, taking on any number from two to two hundred at any given point in space or time. What is surprising is that my small brother is suddenly a father. And that this wonder-child is real, here.

The first photographs brought a rush of entirely new emotion. Perhaps this is unconditional love. It was so unfamiliar and so strong that I had no idea what to do with it. My actions seemed strange but were probably just a response called up from my genes – I visited my locker to check on my diamonds.

Two years ago, as the jeweller handed me the case, he told me fulsomely I had bought an heirloom that I would hand down to other generations. My friend and I were too busy gloating over my new possession to care. Well, the heir to it was born this afternoon. The sense of continuity that gave me was most surprising of all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Le bleu de tes yeux

All the cynicism in the world is not proof against someone winning something for your country. What an unexpected surge of pride when Narain Karthikeyan took the podium and the national anthem played. It’s so rare, this event.

There is cricket of course but then again, not quite. Maybe it’s just that with cricket it’s gone on too long. It’s a continual cycle; we win today, we lose tomorrow, there’s a scandal the day after. It’s somehow always the match on your street, wickets outlined with white chalk on someone’s wall.

Or maybe it's that cricket somehow does not seem to provide… theatre. For one thing, they stroll on to the pitch with terrible casualness. No team standing shoulder to shoulder, facing their fate with grim determination, like soldiers defending their borders to the death. No tearful pledges to God and mama. No opera...

If an important coach died in the middle of the FIFA World Cup, mainland Europe would have come to a grinding halt. All and sundry would have claimed the loss as their own and beaten their breasts in the streets. Church bells would have tolled across South America. The stands would have been awash in black armbands. The Vatican itself may have felt compelled to say a few words on the properties of dust, ashes and grass. And half of Britain’s male population would have taken the opportunity to kill or maim the other half.

In short, there would have been enough drama to last for the next three World Cups. That’s not easy to achieve with cricket, even with racist abuse.

Come to think of it, a racist remark was one of the many rumoured reasons for Zinedine Zidane’s problem with Materazzi, but Zizou didn’t think to have a gentlemanly word with his captain about it. He lost his temper, head-butted Materazzi and threw away the final game of his brilliant career. Drama. Most important factor of football.

It inspires it, too. My disbelieving shock when the referee pulled out the red card was very real. I shouted myself hoarse with everyone else: “No no no, not his final game”. Watched the replay of the offence that everybody missed. And then the awful silence, because you knew it had to be a red card.

For me, as for many others, the game ended when Zidane walked off the field. It didn’t matter who won or lost or how many weird bets you had riding on the result. Your mind played an involuntary edit in slow-motion of Zidane scoring against Spain. Zidane becoming World Player of the Year for the third time. Zidane dancing the ball down the field as if he was Brazilian. Now, Zidane walking into the stadium, head bowed. It was the end of the world, though we were wearing Italy’s colours that night.

You can’t help this emotion with football, the moment takes you.

This post was supposed to be a paean to Narain Kartikeyan and an erudite, enlightening comment on patriotism and sport. Instead, it’s become a personal poster-waving for one player. But then isn't that exactly where all discussions of sport lead?

Le bleu de tes yeux, Edith Piaf, 1950s

Monday, January 07, 2008

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Reading a most fascinating blog, I came across a link that led me to the latest turn in America's war against evil.

Now they've donned their capes and turned their super-vision on travellers at various airports across the US, watching for subtle expression changes that will show up potential terrorists. What are these magic signals? Apparently, "a central task is to recognize microfacial expressions -- a flash of feelings that in a fraction of a second reflects emotions such as fear, anger, surprise or contempt."

Contempt? Anger? How is it possible to deal with airport procedures and not feel any of these things? Surprise? Like when you're the very first in line and the girl at the check-in desk tells you that only seat 49J is available? Fear? Like when you've overslept and arrived late and are worrying that your flight will take off before you reach the gate?

They say they observe reactions to simple questions put to random passengers. Well, if someone stopped me out of the blue to ask whether all my bags were mine, or even worse, how I am doing, fear and confusion (and quite possibly contempt) would be the very first emotions I registered.

And they coined a word to commemorate the exercise. What was wrong "facial"? Too much like something that ordinary people on the street (without capes) would use?

This blog happily likens it to the Bene Gesserit truthsayers from Dune.

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