Thursday, December 10, 2009

The grapes of wrath

Recently I made myself unpopular by spurning a bottle of Grover’s La Reserve as “singularly undrinkable”. What I meant of course was that I didn’t like it, but in the manner of wine-drinkers dangerous with little knowledge, I made it a problem with the wine. That’s just the tip of the personality disorder.

I can’t remember when wine, for me, went from being the thing you drink at Christmas in the wrong glasses to being what you drink, period. For that matter, I couldn’t tell you when or why my “hard drink” of choice became rum and coke or gin and tonic. I’ve never been a vodka person. Then one day it was all about wine.

I didn’t even have the excuse of being in the thick of the “wine revolution”; it just happened. Suddenly I had wine racks and bottles that meant more than “red or white”. I spent ages in wine boutiques picking them out. I courted eviction by rearranging bits of my landlord’s kitchen so I could store them properly. I worried about them in Dubai’s summer humidity. I changed my food habits to accommodate them. I did a lot of research and became insufferable on the subject, especially after a few glasses of it. I got caught up in it all for a while, until the sheer number of moving parts tired me out.

When you thought you’d finally grasped the grapes, you discovered unpronounceable Hungarian varietals. Just as you got some insight into the intricacies of France’s wine-growing regions and untangled them from the broader strokes of Napa Valley, along came an Argentinean Malbec, a Spanish Rioja or a German Riesling. Australia is even larger than France and New Zealand may be small, but it’s prolific. Then India joined the fray. When South African and Lebanese friends threatened to stop inviting me, I decided to give it a rest. They gave really good parties.

There was also the constant guilt that no wine enthusiast will admit to, the feeling that if you really liked the taste it had to be sub-standard. Whenever I started feeling particularly affectionate towards one – a certain South African Pinotage comes to mind – I would abandon it in a hurry without looking too closely at my reasons. Come to think of it, that bears close resemblance to other parts of my life as well, so perhaps I shouldn’t try shoving it off on to all wine-drinkers.

I now work with the fundamental truth of “I like it, I like it not”. The fancy language work I can do all on my own, and with a glass of water if necessary. Sometimes I just drink the syrup that somebody’s uncle made from apricots. I’m a better person for it, too. Occasionally, the snottiness I imbibed with the more difficult Bordeaux and horrifyingly mature Burgundies gets the better of me and I annoy a few friends, as above, but mostly I’m very relaxed, scrupulously agreeing with whatever my hosts think of their wine.

My fascination with the deliciously metaphorical concept of terroir has endured, though. And wine glasses, I love them, particularly the large works of art in which ruby liquid can swirl like dervishes, releasing entire Impressionist landscapes. I love that bouquet, the first multisensory tasting. A fresh bottle of wine is the calm of my flat before a party, warm light on wood, the pure sound of Leonard Cohen on my Linn before it turns into something louder, tea lights burning in a Zen holder that makes them look like they’re floating in the air, just as I am suspended in the solitude. This then, is probably the attraction for me. The rum and coke is always a noisy night out, but wine is personal. All the more reason, I suppose, for keeping my judgmental reflections to myself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

“All the kings horses and all the kings men/Made Humpty happy again.”

A TV show has changed the ending of Humpty Dumpty so their blood-thirsty little viewers won't be scarred by knowing his real fate. What makes it really sad is that this was the BBC. On this side of the Atlantic.

The world is getting more ridiculous by the hour. And imagine when this inevitably stunted generation actually grows up and takes over. There are days when you wish you had Calvin's transmogrifier and you could turn yourself into a member of some other species.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Women’s magazine vs fashion magazine

It may not be obvious to the indifferent eye, but there is a definite difference. Women’s mags give you advice on a hell of a lot of things – singledom, wifehood, men, sex, weight loss, mothers, mothers-in-law, dinner parties, decoration, causes, quilting and breast cancer. They also tend to have an endless supply of quizzes. Fashion mags, as the name suggests, have a more single-minded agenda.

October and November issues in India are often wedding specials, but while Femina, for example, might also tell you how to be a good guest or what to serve at your sangeeth, a Harper’s Bazaar would stick to discussing optimal lehenga length, whether zardosi or crystals is more au courant, and most fashionable venues this year. And they show you fabulous examples of all the most expensive versions that you can then worry your tailor or event planner with.

The only name I can think of that effectively straddles both worlds is Marie Claire. As far as the editor’s pages of the Indian versions go, Shefalee Vasudev definitely writes the best one. In fact, one of the important things that places it far above other women’s mags is the high standards imposed on the writing. The lack of this is one of the reasons I won’t pick up a Women’s Era in a waiting room until all other sources – including trade weeklies, decades-old Reader’s Digests and financial papers – have been exhausted. But, in spite of the fact that I admire Marie Claire, I don’t often pick it up.

That’s because I’m a fashion mag person. These are specialists, and nobody is more so than Vogue. It is a pure and serious temple to one (very well-dressed, not to mention well-heeled) God, a ruthlessly catholic worship of style in all its forms, unsullied by any practical or rational considerations whatsoever. This is the only magazine I have religiously bought for years. In fact, I sometimes only know it’s a new month when there’s a different issue on the rack in the grocery store. I recently stole last October’s anniversary issue from a doctor’s waiting room; I’d missed it and it’s rankled ever since. (It’s okay, I went back the next day and substituted last month’s Marie Claire).

So I was deeply excited to hear about The September Issue, the documentary about Anna Wintour, the captain of the mothership. I scored it from my dealer today and am now settling down to watch it.

The non-parent hypothesis

Contrary to popular representation, it’s not the babies that do it. I can hold babies by the dozen and feel only the same warmth I would towards a puppy. A little less, if truth be told.

It’s the uncoordinated little ones. Crowding into each other backstage, ruthlessly costumed. Taking on whatever comes their way though everything is larger than them. Recklessly committing themselves to dubious heroes and imaginary friends. These definitely tug at unsuspected umbilical cords. But, interestingly, this emotion seems to be uterus-optional. I did an impromptu survey in my office and found that a lot of the childless men my age and older felt this too. And again, not with babies, but the older ones. Which is another reason not to believe anything you read.

Maybe it’s because of my age and the fact that if it had been some other doorway I went through, I may by now have been the keeper of something in this age group, but I think it’s more fundamental than that. As friends and family become parents, I feel more and more disadvantaged, perhaps as a mere graduate might feel among PHDs. It is increasingly clear that it’s an essential rite of passage, the not doing of which makes one in some way weaker and insubstantial.

Pat generalizations like “the ticking clock” as usual miss the point. The nonsense about unfulfilled wombs is just that. No mere biological function, no matter how transcendental in the moment, can transform you. When you come down to it, it’s not being pregnant or giving birth that’s the life-changing experience, it’s becoming a parent. Emotionally, fatherhood is not less momentous than motherhood. (There are other examples of this strange social focus on the small step rather than the giant leap – the hoopla around losing your virginity, when the irrevocable crossing is actually your first real relationship; the fuss over the wedding, when the true growth lies in the building of a life together.)

So why is this on my blog when I know that it will probably start a rabid search for “suitable boys” in some quarters and inspire much needless heartache on my behalf? Perhaps a little bit because this blog has become an almost compulsive force, but mostly as a rebellion against popular culture that has made it taboo and pathetic to express such things. It should be perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that you feel the lack of a whole world of important experiences.

I have a non-smoking friend who had the habit of asking for a cigarette after a few drinks. I used to object vehemently enough for her to never do it around me. Two years ago, she did it by accident and looked at me in consternation, but I just told her it was okay because she’d become a mother by then. I felt that that made her better equipped to choose for herself, and the elder sisterly sense of responsibility I felt (still feel) was irrelevant. I should be able to talk about that here, just as I can to her, without the tedious emotional and social baggage.

Instead, I’m expected to hide behind the responses dictated by magazines and sitcoms. Well, I refuse.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Lebanese effect

No matter how much I may have chafed at the fact that the Lebanese are “so appearance-obsessed”, these are some of the things I miss about being surrounded by them:

- Extravagant compliments several times a week on the lines of “gorgeous hair day” or “stunning shoes”, making the effort not only worthwhile but necessary.

- Hairdressers who can tell from one glance out of the corner of their eyes what is very, very wrong with your look. And the fact that a) they understand fully that this is not a mere concern but a life-altering tragedy and b) they can fix it.

- The perfect manicure. India wins hands down on the pedicure but you really wouldn’t want to put those hands down where someone might see them.

- The nicest clothes in all sizes – because no matter how big a Lebanese woman is she will not brook compromise in the matter of dressing. You won’t catch her hiding in a large kurta and stretch pants.

- Shoe salesmen who understand completely that you will never, ever be able to buy the 2000-dollar Manolos but would like to try on five different ones anyway.

- The cuisine. I have to admit they are right – there is nothing in the world to touch Lebanese food. To any Bangaloreans reading this I have to say that the stuff being sold here is an abomination.

- The Mediterranean ethos – Give them a plate of hummous, a pot of coffee and two packs of cigarettes, and they can make a little corner of mellow sunshine anywhere, any time. They carry it within them.

- Elaborate, impeccable chivalry in lifts, doorways, parking lots. This used to make me laugh, but the truth is that you could be looking your absolute worst and still end up feeling like a visiting supermodel.

- The fact that a mass of curls and too-high heels do not merit staring. You would actually have to be a visiting supermodel to get this.

I complimented my boss on her bangle today and also remarked that it was unusual to see her wearing one. She said that she’d noticed someone touching up make-up in the loo and remembered that she was a woman too and should really make more of an effort. We laughed and I said that that went for me as well. I laughed again later that day when I caught sight of myself in a window – the Lebanese colleague and friend who used to share my office would have been seriously worried, assuming he even recognized me in my unfinished state.

As I came to the end of this post, I heard, with a rush of startled sentiment, someone talking Arabic in that familiar dialect. At the table behind us, three Levantine boys were lounging elegantly with their shishas in the way that only they can do.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Shashi Tharoor, Twitter and other kinds of cautious optimism

Last week, it was the 175th anniversary of the landing of Indians in Mauritius, mostly “indentured labourers who overcame unimaginable privations and succeeded”. India sent a Dhruv helicopter as a present. Elsewhere, efforts were begun to have Kerala's snake boats perform at the 2010 Oxbridge Boat Race. India voted for the Palestine resolution at the UN Human Rights Council. A few weeks ago, an Indian locomotive was flagged off in Benin...

I know all this from Shashi Tharoor’s Twitter feed. Along with about a hundred thousand other Indians, I only discovered his page during the cattle-class brouhaha, and then became an avid follower. Now I even get it on my phone. Several times a day, I’m distracted or delighted by a glimpse into another world. If nothing else I get a random thought from someone who’s better read, more travelled and far more informed than I, which are not always things you can say of a politician. I wish more of them were out there willing to talk about their days – simply seeing what they choose to tweet about would be such an insight into their ways!

The Times or the Hindu tell me that people are being murdered in their beds, our cities are on red alert, people are starving, someone’s starting something inadvisable in the name of religion, and the Karnataka Government is ignoring the plight of flood victims in favour of some spirited infighting. I need to know all this, but it’s also a relief to be able to balance it with some positivity. This, then, is the attraction of Shashi Tharoor’s tweets – hope. In small, 140-character doses, on an everyday scale. It’s a side of Government you rarely see because hope does not make for banner headlines (unless it’s the big, dramatic variety, as in “America’s first black president”), and the purveyors of news usually don’t bother with it.

His tweet after a meeting in London covers it: “We live in a world of opportunities, not just threats”. He’s in Bangalore today for a Tweet Up very close to where I work, but unfortunately three in the afternoon on a working day is not a convenient time at all.

Photo courtesy: Shashi Tharoor (@shashitharoor) flagging of a Benin Railways train being pulled by an Indian locomotive | TweetPhoto

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

10 years after Kargil

About a month or so ago, we watched the remembrance ceremony of the 65-day war in the Himalayas. We would have anyway because we’re all fans of military ceremonies, but this time there was also the fact that we knew one of the names inscribed on the memorial. My strongest memory of him is of a laughing boy on a terrace telling us about army life, making light of hardship and homesickness. Later that night I searched for the letter written from the border a few months before the fighting broke out. As usual I had taken too long to reply, I was setting up a new life in Muscat, had a lot to do, put it off. And the next note I saw with his name on it was a post-it on my desk from the office manager with the news that Captain Vikram Menon had fallen in Kargil. We were four cousins born in 1973 and then one afternoon, just like that, we were three.

I still have correspondence pending. People I really care about but haven’t mailed, for no clear reason. Missed calls I haven’t returned, others that I haven’t made. Facebook friends I need to actually get in touch with. My friends’ parents just down the road that I want to visit but inexplicably haven’t. Their grandparents. Birthdays I’ve not acknowledged, though I always remember, every year. Meet-ups I’ve ditched or not set up. Simple, casual conversations that I haven’t had with the people I see every day. I draw my tired thoughts around me and huddle within, and all the while, time is passing swiftly by.

I didn’t find the letter, but I haven’t looked everywhere. It will turn up, and when it does, I can finally hand it over to his mother, about nine years later than I meant to.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Asatoma satgamaya

And so an American president signs a bill after lighting a lamp in the presence of a chanting priest. The little ceremony was strangely touching. But it still left me with an unease so deep and fundamental that I can't spot the reasons for it. I think one more thing was eroded today. It feels as if all this is probably good for this generation and the next, but ultimately bad for the human race. But, as I said, no coherent thought emerges, just unfocused foreboding.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Everything I do, I will do tomorrow

I’ve set aside time every day to work on my book, so of course my blogging has become alarmingly prompt and prolific. I’ve also caught up on most of my correspondence, am well up on my YouTube watching and have added to my store of random internet trivia while “doing research” for a book that is not hampered by facts in any way.

Procrastination is the second half of the two-for-one deal that is the writing gene. My best poetry is written under the pressure of a deadline for something else, holidays are planned when I have other urgent priorities, and wardrobes are organized when I’m already late for an appointment.

I have another top-class distraction now – a delightful sitcom called The Big Bang Theory. I’ve been tiresomely recommending it to everyone I meet. It has filled the void left by the fact that both Friends and Seinfeld have been watched until memorized and Grey’s Anatomy in its sixth season has dwindled from medical drama to merely drama. Book and blog can now only get written on the days when there’re no new episodes sitting on my laptop. My Torrent pipeline (one half of which is probably reading this) is almost Columbian in the fix it delivers.

Mercifully TV itself is not an attraction. I don’t so much watch it as overhear what my parents are. This is quite a good way of keeping up with the more popular serials and the news without having to actually sit through them. The only time I consciously plug my ears is when Barkha Dutt is holding forth in her “We The People” slot – this is so that my mom’s viewing pleasure is not ruined by periodic explosions of venom from my room. I do make occasional forays into Ten Sports when there’s high profile football, Formula I or some other sporting event that happened to catch my eye on the Yahoo homepage. These usually have the best commercials too – when you don’t watch them every day, they’re fun.

I had a list of things to accomplish in the first half of the year. They weren’t. Instead, a lot of others (that should have been there) got done. I didn’t get a driving licence but I did join a gym. I still don't get enough sleep but I’ve stopped smoking. I didn’t hit the halfway mark on my book but I finished painting the table I’ve been meaning to for years.

This characteristic becomes rather inconvenient when it’s annual appraisal time at work and I have a list of achievements that are significant but have no relation to the goal sheet I submitted last year. I’ll just have to do some creative match-the-following. Just as soon as I finish transferring a drawing of a complicated Inca sun on to a perfectly fine t-shirt for embroidering with sequins at a future, unspecified, probably very distant date.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Unholy glee

Some months ago, I was sitting on the steps of the Taj at closing time waiting for my driver to show. When I finished saying goodbye to my friends, four young Brit women accosted me with “You’re Indian right?” I shrugged and looked around as if to say “I and a hundred others”. They clarified: “No I mean you’re Indian Indian, not someone who grew up somewhere else and visiting?” I reassured them. Then they said “So tell us where is the real India?” I smiled and replied “In the brochures”. It didn’t produce an answering smile so I wondered if the accent was really some obscure Middle-American one. I asked and they were definitely from the UK, so I assumed – quite rightly as it happened – that they must be on some sort of “spiritual journey”. I asked them to describe the place they meant. It was the brochure but I’d already used that line and it hadn’t gone down well, so I decided to give them some good copy to put on their blogs.

Think of India as a music store, I said, with every kind of music there is. When you enter the store, it’s all playing at once, so all you hear is discordance and cacophony. You need to walk around a bit, get used to it. Then you will begin to hear individual styles and instruments and you’ll find something you like that you’ll want to take away with you. But the important thing is that the store cannot tell you what you are likely to want, you need to figure that out yourself. There was more on the theme but my closing gem was: You can either see the muddy pond or the lotus blooming in it. Similarly, you can look at the lotus as a flower or as the seat of a goddess. You can see that goddess as good or evil. India is up to you. In fact, the place you seek is already in you – you just have to locate it.

I was going good when a compatriot of theirs with the full complement of the national sense of humour and a fine sense of carpe diem rescued them, saying he lived here and was having an after-party if they were interested. He told me in an aside that if I dropped the lotus motif, I could go too. But my car had arrived so I declined politely, wishing him success in his endeavours. I was going give the tourists some yogic parting advice but was foiled by the Guardian-reader pointedly holding the door of my car open. It was a good end to a great evening.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Schrödinger's cat

“What the hell does one talk about on a first date?” is a hard enough question, but it’s not as bad as working out what can only be called a pre-date. Since the crucial teenage years were marked by frizzy hair and the (erroneous) belief that I was fat, my education in that direction is rather stunted. This is probably why boyfriends have mostly entered my life through neutral, non-threatening portals such as work, study or friend-of-a-friend gatherings. It must be admitted that that is where I’m at my best. Friends first is the only formula that works for me (maybe more so now that the fat is quite real). And I’ve never lost a single friend, my poor efforts at staying in touch notwithstanding; my break-ups with the said boyfriends seem to have simply consisted of returning them to the friend state.

I’m absolutely useless on first dates. I feel myself seizing up or getting silly and there’s precious little I can do about it. Being of an age where everyone I know is keen on setting me up whether I want it or not, I have a lot of opportunity to see myself like this and I don’t like it at all. Email beginnings are fine of course – I’m a writer after all – but they inexorably lead to the face-to-face moment of truth, which probably creates much Jekyll-and-Hyde confusion for the party of the second part.

In the cafe I currently patronize, I’m always surrounded by teenagers in various stages of hooking up. I should envy them the hair and the poise, except it’s certain that most of them must be feeling fat and frizzy inside. So what I really admire is their ability to bell the cat nevertheless. Not only did I squander my teenage years sitting very still under a bushel, but am also wasting the present ones doing the exact same thing. Instead of proper dates, I opt for elaborately casual meetings that I have to invent terms for and end up never knowing whether I’m coming or going. And pretending that it doesn’t matter.

What it comes down to is that I’m not a first-impression person. Like a good pot of stock, I need ages of simmering to bring out the good stuff (have developed an interest in soup lately). The good thing about not being a teenager any more is that I’m perfectly okay with that. Perhaps I don’t need a date so much as an imaginary boyfriend. Shilo, when I was young…

There’s a much better piece in the Times by Sathnam Sanghera on the subject of dating in your thirties.

Schrödinger's cat, the detailed version.
Schrödinger's cat in the version I like best. A snippet from the Big Bang Theory.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Moving on

Being the sort of person who always reads the manual, I did a lot of research the first time I decided to quit smoking. There are three things wrong with all the quit-smoking programs I read online:
1. They give you rational reasons for quitting. But nobody ever smokes for rational reasons, so surely you’re unlikely to quit based on them?
2. They assume you’re trying to quit because you’ve come to hate it as a non-smoker would.
3. It’s a one-size-fits-all approach. Nowhere did I find anything I could relate to. The reasons they listed for smoking didn’t apply to me, The methods for quitting seemed to my argumentative mind to be inadequate. (E.g.: Finding something else to do with your hands is too much like a bluff just waiting to be called). So I only took as much gold as I could usefully carry – the list of withdrawal symptoms.

The rational parts helped after I went through the actual quitting part, to keep me safely smug. But as it happened, smugness only went so far and crumbled completely under the onslaught of a lovely café in the rain and remembered pleasure. So, not effective finally.

Then I read an unusual article on the subject in The New Yorker. In it, David Sedaris wrote: ““Finished” made it sound as if he’d been allotted a certain number of cigarettes, three hundred thousand, say, delivered at the time of his birth…he had worked his way to the last one, and then moved on with his life. This, I thought, was how I would look at it. Yes, there were five more Kool Milds in that particular pack, and twenty-six cartons stashed away at home, but those were extra—an accounting error. In terms of my smoking, I had just finished with it.”

It made me understand fully what I meant when I told people that I knew I would stop one day so I was going to enjoy it fully while it lasted. Now, a year later, I have half a pack of cigarettes in my dressing table that’s several months old. There was no dramatic renouncing of the habit, not even conscious thought. The cigarettes that are gone from there were simply my last ones. My lighters still lie scattered around, I see the pack every morning when I dress. But there is no wrenching here, no panic. Most of all, there’s no denial. I acknowledge that I want it and love it, but choose not to anyway.

I stopped one cigarette at a time. I didn’t smoke the first one, then I didn’t smoke the second, then the third, fourth, fifth, the next pack, the one after that. I didn’t walk gingerly through it either – I met smoker friends for drinks, continued to gather outside the office and have tea with smoker colleagues. I kept the crutches close throughout, but the packs of Nicotinelle and candy remained unopened. Eventually I gave them away.

Sitting here now, at another lovely café in the rain, I can see the cigarette shelf behind the counter with “my” pack in it and I feel nothing, not even nostalgia. All that’s left is a professional evaluation of how careless the display is, all that beautiful packaging wasted by poor lighting and bad positioning. The only nostalgia I feel is for a job that I was very good at but practically killed me. Much like the cigarettes in there, I suppose, Except that that never matters. As another smoker writes: “I am convinced that smoking will kill me, but I am not sure this particular little cigarette will.”.

Weirdly, the first time I tried to stop I had the full complement of the emotional withdrawal symptoms listed – it was very, very traumatic – but none of the physical ones. This time my body reacted violently, but there was no heartbreak, so perhaps I really had come to the end of my “quota”.

I will always be a smoker, though, whether I use the feature or not. I’m glad of it.

Thursday, October 01, 2009


Away to one side of the driveway, coconut palms grow deep in tall grass. In the middle is a gazebo, even quieter than the path. On the other side, a clutch of potted plants gives way to a little hut and a trailing vine. If it weren’t for the small signs saying “Nursery”, “Crafts” and “Café”, these could have been farm buildings. Further down there are craftworky things and interesting clothes hanging in small doorways, a staircase leading to a pastry shop, the original house and garden. Lake View Farm has found a great way to keep from turning into flats or row houses.

Hidden down yet another pathway is Tranquilitea, a tiny tea shop with big arm chairs on an open patio. They sell a startling range of teas grown in the Nilgiris and make a mean crepe. Sitting there is a delight. You just sit. And sit. Drinking in the green quiet with your tea.

And when you walk about later, spend too much on a pair of earrings bigger than your face and wander round the back, you look over a hedge with surprise into a lovely leafy neighbourhood, probably the very first of Whitefield’s “new” settlements. This is no cookie-cutter gated colony, but individual houses built on separate plots that together had been another farm called Taralaya.

I stood there and thought only that I would like to have a house in this nice place, quite unable to picture the farm of my childhood. As I continued to gaze hungrily over the wall like Rapunzel’s mother, little pieces started to resolve themselves. I noticed a sapota tree, then a few more and then many, everywhere, realizing without conscious thought that our orchard was not all cut down.

A cow lowed somewhere, somebody’s Alsatian barked, and I pictured it suddenly. Far away to my right, a house, in front of it, a rose garden, and behind, a kitchen one where my Dad grew strawberries that my brother and I picked illegally before they were ripe. – my distrust of strawberries probably stems from there. Straight ahead, a haystack we were not supposed to climb but did anyway, and beyond that, cowsheds where I saw a cow giving birth. I was of course not supposed to be there. To the left of those, poultry sheds, the business end of the farm. I don’t remember any lawlessness there, so they probably didn’t interest us much. Hens are dull. Or perhaps they were just well-guarded.

I came slowly by degrees to the place where I stood – I think I was almost exactly at the place where a brave but foolhardy dog named Max was buried after being bitten by a cobra he followed into a hole and killed.

Hard upon it came the thought that the place used to be riddled with snakes, which was why my parents never went in much for picturesque leafy hedges, and I stepped back hastily. It’s still a nice neighbourhood, though, and I would like to live there. With seven snake-spotting dogs.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


There’s a strange thread on the Bangalore Bikers Club forum. An otherwise sane and thinking human being has asked for pictures of “Bangalore Biking Cuties” to add to a presentation about cycling in Bangalore. (In his defense, he did not invent the… well, cute phrase, but just ill-advisedly used something that was said elsewhere.) Naturally, it has led to some of the said cuties protesting the term. Yet others have defended it saying, among other things, that “the men in this group have always been respectful towards women”. What one has to do with the other is hard to work out.

A friend of mine has responded with well-worded reasoning, so I should just provide the link to it and shut up, but in my self-appointed role of Last Word of/in Wisdom, it’s really hard to keep quiet.

My first reaction was blank horror on behalf of Joshine Anthony who cycled all 919 km of the Tour of Nilgiris in 2008, including a 7000-foot climb. I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about gender condescension in a sports context. No matter how good the intention, referring to women cyclists like this just implies that it’s a secondary wing, introduced at best as a concession, and at worst to add a bit of colour to the proceedings. It’s an injustice to serious cyclists.

Purely from a communications point of view, how much more effective would that message have been if it was something like: “Need representation from the women cyclists”? Well, you may only be asking for photographs, but you probably would have also got involvement – perhaps new ideas, women willing to participate more actively, to go with you to make that presentation to corporates, to use their networks too for the common good. Now you’ll have enough photographs, sure, from the cuties and from those who will be big enough to rise above the pettiness, but that seems so meagre compared to what it could have been. There will be women who will get involved anyway, some because insensitivity is not a solely male prerogative and some because of, again, rising above. But it will not start the transformation that it could have.

And surely concepts like respect need to be approached with circumspection, not bandied about carelessly? In my experience, those who feel it tend not to feel the need to state it. Not one of the 20-odd men that completed the same distance in TFN ’08 gave the slightest indication that they thought of Joshine in any terms other than, simply, a fellow cyclist. This is very different from telling her, for example, “I respect you Joshine for being a woman cyclist who completed the tour”.

If the male cyclists were referred to as Bangalore Biking Hotties, then calling the other half cuties would have probably been okay. If it was used ironically, that would have been fine too. But I think this is another of those things that you either get or don’t. It cannot be taught, be we never so strident.

Just checked the thread again, and saw that several women are now pointedly supporting the cause, and drawing their skirts away from the protesters. Perhaps one person's sensitivity is another's needless political correctness. I still stick to my point, though.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Facebook: The glue of small things

Elizabeth Bernstein is the latest among several columnists worrying that her online social network might destroy her real-life one, with complete disregard for the illogic of that.

I think blaming Facebook for the fact that you or your friends may not take the time to actually meet is a particularly grand abdication of personal responsibility, even for a time that has made that into a fine art. And about the people who don't have time to keep in touch but have the time to update their pages - well, if they didn't want to call you, they would have found other things to do anyway.

The example in the article of someone being upset at being de-friended by his ex is just bizarre – isn’t that the natural thing to do when you’ve just ended a relationship? I’ve hit the “remove friend” button to celebrate far smaller endings! A jiltee keeping too close an eye on the activities of the jilter and other kinds of stalkers are not new. Going online is just another way of doing it. As for intrusion, you can choose not to see people’s quiz results or photo albums and who gets to see what on your page. You’re not really at the mercy of anything, so all the angst is a little overdone.

One of the points in the article is that people can get more aggressive and indiscriminate when they’re typing than they would face-to-face. This is true in some cases, but it’s also worth noting that someone whose social abilities break down before a keyboard probably didn’t have too many of those to begin with. The couple who bickers on an FB wall are likely to do so in your living room too. The person who updates his status with flossing details would probably also share this information to your face, as would the one who wants to talk about last night’s dream. These people were always in your life – you were forced to listen to them at work, in the supermarket, at the bus stop, on the train, in the gym, lift or lobby. Now you also hear them online. The difference is that you’re free to ignore the status updates. In fact, if you didn’t log on every thirty seconds, you wouldn’t even have to know they’re there.

FB probably doesn’t bother me because I have a stunted social conscience and tend to turn off social contact like a tap when I’ve had enough of it. But apart from that, I frankly enjoy it! When your siblings are scattered around the world and your closest friends are far away, Facebook is a magic window. I’m at a point in my life where most of my preferred phone numbers have area codes and time zones. I can’t make an international call just to tell someone what someone else said this morning, nor is sharing everyday trivialities over email a good idea. It’s the worst thing about long-distance relationships, a hollowness that comes of never having enough small things to fill it. To me, this is what the status update, wall post or photo comment is about.

Perhaps the reason Facebook inspires so much love-hate press is because - ironically - it's a pretty accurate representation of our "real" social world, and it makes us uncomfortable to see it in all its ugliness.

Monday, August 24, 2009


In my fairly long but strangely unchequered career, I've been lucky to have had mostly mentors rather than bosses. But even in a line of giants, Joe stands out.

Recently, I stood up in front of about 70 people and made a presentation. It's not the first one I've made, so it was not a big deal, and that was exactly what was special about it. It's a long distance from the person I was at Joe's first appraisal of me seven years ago. He looked calmly at a defensive writer and said "I agree you don't really need it when you're a writer. But if you want to grow into something more, you have to be able to talk." Then he told me the crucial thing I needed to know: "Making a presentation is not about showmanship. It's just about telling a group of people what you know or believe in." And changed my view of my job, what I could do and how far I could go. He introduced me to ambition.

He grew up in Africa, went to graduate school in San Francisco and is Lebanese at heart. He had a parrot in his office that adored him like a dog and brought a happy German Shepherd named Pablo to work occasionally. His opinion is brutally frank and his compassion, disarming. He's eccentric and moody, but his scrupulous sense of fairness is only matched by his self awareness. I have co-worker friends who for some reason were not considered "my people", so I know that life with Joe was not all joy. But I was very squarely under the mantle and so felt no growing pains for six years, though I was making gigantic leaps as a person.

His annual appraisal of me consistently included the emphatic words "too nice", which graduated to "stupidly nice". My essential nature and first responses have not changed. I still find it hard to correct someone I like but because of Joe I do it anyway. I still shy away from confrontation but I will speak up against injustice. I still want people to like me but when I have to I will nevertheless go ahead and do things that will get me disliked. I was taught well.

Most of all, Joe gave me a role model, a template and manual that I refer to a million times in my working day. He only asked that we did the best we could and enjoyed ourselves doing it. He inspired absolute trust, which for a creative team, translates into having the confidence to take risks. He knew that his team's loyalty was the index of his success, their triumphs, his own.

That seems clear and logical, but when you're in the fray and surrounded by the loud and the hasty, it is easy to forget. Away from Joe's guidance, work is a particularly nerve-wracking episode of Survivor, but I brought with me four magic words that work without fail in any situation: "What would Joe do?"

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The best thing I've read this week

Approach people w/
happy curiosity, it will
disarm them.

This was written on two Post-it notes left inside a book. On "Forgotten Bookmarks".

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Favourite random things of the week

Favourite Quote
“The more colourful you are, more the possibility of you being respected as a living animal on Kerala roads,” says a cyclist friend who did a trip in full cycling regalia from Kochi to Athirapally Falls (approx 165 km) along Kerala’s homicidal highways.

Favourite Eavesdropping Situation
The table next to me seems to be engaged in either a chemistry-free date or chemistry-ridden interview. It’s been 30 minutes and it’s still unclear. Aha, it’s neither – it’s a “proposal” meeting and he may have just blown it by not responding to a joke she made, and then paraphrasing it back to her as his own. Then again, you never know: maybe she finds it endearing.

Favourite Bit of News
A call-centre taxi driver was returning home on his motorbike after work – and got run over by a call-centre taxi.

Favourite Find on the Net
“With the Backing of the USDA, One Lady Seeks to Remove One Man's Elephant that he's Loved and Owned for Over 25 Years.” Read all about it.

Favourite Bit of Unease
Listening to Obama’s election night speech again today, the lustre seemed to have dimmed a little. At the time it seemed a sincere speech – well-written, yes, but not too much so for a good orator – and more importantly, it seemed humble and understated, two traits alien to US politics. But listening to it now, it seems too crafted, too much a product of the ultra-evolved communications industry for comfort. Words are powerful in the hands of someone who knows how to use them. Godmen and other confidence tricksters have known this since the first caveman managed to get a group of other cavemen to hunt his mammoth for him.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It’s the illusions I recall

I heard a rumour that my old school is soon to be shut down. That’s my only school – I entered it for kindergarten at two and a half and left it with high honours at 15, class monitor, house captain, school prefect, prizewinner, teachers’ pet but nevertheless a very popular know-it-all, who did not yet know that that would be the last time she would enjoy certainty of victory.

It was a rural school, many students were the first ones in their families to be literate. There was a strong teaching ethic that had nothing to do with the syllabus, and a deep influence on the small community that Whitefield was at the time.

Around the time I entered high-school, the small private concern had entered a disproportionate stretch of glory. We became a centre where other schools came to write their school-leaving exams. We shone in state-level sports and cultural meets. Our name was heard in high places and our school band went to greet visiting government luminaries. Our chief guests grew more distinguished every year. Our teachers were volunteered as polling officers and advisors on textbook committees. We were the preferred guinea pigs for Education Board types, so new perspectives entered our classrooms now and then, usually in the English classes (or these are the only ones I remember). In later years, I studied with some formidable teachers of English literature but it was those visiting academics who really shaped the way I read and write, opening windows where none had existed.

Other shutters were removed too, quietly and forever. There was (still is) a school for the blind across the road and some students from there were sent to study in ours, a lesson in self-sufficiency long before it was fashionable to think of the disabled as differently abled. My mother was one of the group of teachers in my school that crossed the road and learnt Braille to make this happen. Most alumni my age will remember at least one blind child in class. One of these children is now a very senior official in a bank, another is a translator in the UN. It still bothers me when someone hurries to assist a blind person with what they believe is compassion but is really presumption, and am gleeful when the helper is shaken off impatiently. Then there was “moral science”, which was a secular teaching of principles of the “honesty is the best policy” variety. Religion only entered intellectually in the language text books through poems or stories from the major religious groups.

But I went to last year’s School Day celebration and found a mere facsimile of the place I remember. “Moral” overwhelmingly means Hindu now. Eid is a day off. Christmas is a foreigner. The Guru Granth Sahib is a mystery. Even the Buddha gets no air time. The strange parochialism that is being celebrated across the country has permeated into the staff room where teachers have long been required to wear saris, leaving no room for diversity in the form of a skirt-wearing kindergarten teacher named Lillian or a music mistress called Miss Dunn swathed in awe-inspiring frocks. No blind children play football with the sighted ones. Professors do not take poetry classes for 14-year-olds on teach-the-teacher visits.

It seems the school I knew is long gone anyway, I’m just glad it existed for a while. I have to admit though that the tartan band uniforms are much better than ours used to be, as is the band itself.

The rumour turned out to have got it wrong - it wasn't the school that was ending but the tenure of the head mistress. She used to be my maths teacher, one of the strong influences of my school days, and with her goes the last of the old guard. I guess I have no more reason to visit the school, for school days or anything else.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


There is much ghoulish anticipation of Dubai’s total collapse; an unmistakable note of glee runs through every report. The imploding of impossible dreams is always good value, the bigger, the better. And nothing is more orgasmic than being able to say “I told you so”. There is, in fact, an orgy of this in progress, forgetting conveniently that Dubai is not all, or even largely, crystal-studded water bottles and “My other car is also a Porsche”.

What happens when all the waiting staff, gas station attendants, valet drivers, office boys, grocery store workers, nannies, busboys, bellboys, groundskeepers, grooms and security guards return, needing jobs, to Manila, Jakarta, Dhaka, Colombo, Kochi, Lahore, Banjul and Bratislava?

What becomes of the taxi driver who was in Dubai so that his son in Pakistan could go to college and “become a gentleman”, and another one from the other side of the Waga border who had “five daughters to marry off”? The maids who are saving to pay for the first brick and mortar house their families have known, the elderly van driver who spent his whole life in the Middle East, brought up an extended family and still had five years to go “to make money for me now"? Most people in Dubai have heard at least one similar story.

Zooming out a little, what will Kerala do, since its prosperity owes more to “Gulf money” than policy? What about Bangladesh where the amount of migrant money put into community development is apparently higher than the government can afford to allocate?

And what of the others, the ones who may have nowhere to return to? The emotional refugees from Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, the people who built real lives in Dubai, permanent lives, and only talked of "home" in requiem for a life that was gone. I took a lot of taxis so I heard many moving variations on this theme, but the wistful tales of snow in Peshawar, rain in Gambia, recipes for Koshari and the abominable Molokhia, even one poignant rendition of Amar Sonar Bangla, are nothing to the single line from a taciturn Palestinian: “My country is imaginary.”

A more expansive compatriot of his driving a taxi in Chicago told me: “But you always have India.” I replied hospitably that there’s room in India for everybody, if it should come to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Railroad crossing?

A friend forwarded a video of a train-related thing, which led, as YouTube videos do to an hour of watching others in the category. All that has led to one burning question - how can you be accidentally hit by a train?

They are loud: hundreds of metal wheels scrape on metal rails. They're heavy: you can feel the earth shake before you see them. Apart from that, there are bells, lights and a horn that you can literally hear for miles. (I can hear one right now, sitting in my room. The railway line is one and a half miles away). So, how?

In one video, a truck was halfway across the tracks and you could hear the brakes of the train screeching for ages before it hit it anyway. Another one is a hushed report of a guy driving across the tracks right in front of an oncoming train. This time the bad train was especially culpable, as far as I can tell, because he was "a father on his way to his son's birthday party." It doesn't matter if he was a drug dealer on his way to kill an old lady - the fact is he didn't look both ways. When I stopped watching, the newscaster was talking of an investigation into how many times the horn was sounded. Maybe they'll also check if the headlight was in fact on. And if the insects in the shrubs were breathing too loudly and drowning out the sound of a 10,000 ton diesel engine.

I leave you with this. For pure wholesome entertainment you can't beat provincial American news:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

August 15, 2008: 61 years of freedom

To really feel Independence Day, you have to be in school. Or have school-going kids or be with people who have such. Nobody else seems to pay much attention to it. My mother was chief guest at a school today for their Independence Day celebration. Her description made me as sharply nostalgic for my days of marching in my house in the parade, as I suspect it made her for her days of organising these events. This is the only chief guest I know of whose speech was actually addressed to the students assembled before her rather than into the middle distance. In a nutshell, she told them what it meant to be born into an independent country and that what they got out of it depended on themselves, not anyone else.

I went to register myself at the local election office a few days ago and found:
- Government officials have turned polite, efficient and punctual.
- Government information is no longer guarded by malevolent spirits and three-headed beasts – it's freely available on detailed websites.
- Government procedures are still shrouded in mystery, myth and legend, but less bad-naturedly so.
- Someone I studied with earns 4% of my salary. She has the same degree I have, the same general socio-economic background. But she was handicapped briefly by a traumatic marriage, which would explain some of it.
- The economic surge seems to have sharpened and widened the gap between the haves and have-nots rather than otherwise.

If it's just me noticing it more now, it's not because I'm freshly repatriated but because I have a car. It's the first time that I'm not dependent on public transport in India but I know the deadness of waiting for the bus, the tiredness that comes from constantly adjusting to circumstance, accepting the certainty of uncertainty, the large swathes of time swallowed by the mere mechanisms of life.

This train of thought was taken up again during the run up to the elections and the recent budget session in the parliament. There were so many candidates or spokespeople this time who held the right kind of education, spoke English in familiar accents, and felt as they ought, but the more reassuringly familiar they got, the uneasier they made me. We complain on our blogs and editorials but we are the urban elite, we already have the tools to function. We don’t need representation as much as the crowds in the suburban bus stops at the mercy of public transport, the small farmers at the mercy of the monsoon.

India is still largely a country of people who cannot read the expiry dates on bottles of medicine and bleed to death in the corridors of badly run government hospitals. Of millions of lives as unaffected by the recession as the boom. Of travesties, divisions and farces of all the more dangerous kinds. Our banks have one mode of customer service for my father and another for the labourer building the house next door, as does every other institution. Government warehouses overflow with subsidized rations that do not reach the poor they are meant for. Government schools have single-digit pass rates since political parties prefer to invest in wasteful religious and parochial sentiments rather than education. Kids sleep on the verges of highways and old people huddle in doorways in the rain. And, ominously, very little of the technology flowing into the country reaches the real core of India’s economy – agriculture.

There are a lot of wonderful things about this country that I appreciate even more now that I’m freshly repatriated. It angers me when people demand western standards of this, that and the other, and consider that the only yardstick. It makes me furious when someone's capabilities are judged by the quality of their English. Making India better is not about being like anybody else but about being the best we can be. Unfortunately, we warrant a lot of the criticism, court it, even.

We've come a long way in 61 years, there’s no doubt. And once India’s lower middle class and poor have uncorrupt representation and real attention, we can start to call it progress. Giving IT employees a new flyover to decongest the roads is important, but on its own, it’s just icing on a barely baked cake sitting in a faulty oven in a place without electricity.

My driver is surprised when I apologize for keeping him later than usual, and I feel like apologizing again for a much bigger thing that I cannot even define, but guilt without action becomes merely another luxury.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

World’s greatest entertainer gets world’s most boring funeral

I just finished watching what should have been the ultimate celebration of the phenomenon called Michael Jackson, but turned out to be a paint-by-numbers, made-for-TV funeral service for somebody. Except for the words of a few friends and the tears of his daughter, it was so devoid of soul that not even the expected “We are the world” at the end could drum up any magic. A slick choir, a predictable preacher and safe hymns. Windows-wallpaper lighting effects, some automated slides and a few sound bites. There was no connection between the man in the pictures and what was being acted out in front of the screen.

He cut across practically every culture in the world but his epitaph was spoken from an insular soapbox. He revolutionized the music video but his last one was an AV that any trainee editor could have put together in a day. It surprises me that it makes me so furious, but I feel as if a final, irrevocable injustice was done. He never got to make his come-back tour - this was it, his last concert, and they kept him off the stage. The King of Pop should have been moonwalked off it.

They should have probably called the Brits in for this one – the Diana memorials were (are still being) done impeccably. No matter what you think of the reason for it, the event itself is always moving and eloquent and all those other words that the TV channels are already brazenly, shamelessly using for this one.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

More from the questionable archives

August 18 2008

Today was my first inside look at one of the big corporations. I was standing by the fountain drinking tea and I witnessed one of those mass exits that I had only known from stories of snarled traffic and bad taxi drivers.

Line after line of SUVs left in an orchestrated convoy, carrying home hundreds of BPO dudes and dudettes – to a common point in each area in daylight hours and right to each doorstep at night. Hundreds of doorsteps, every night. Each car fitted with a radar tracker, each driver marked and signed-off, each vehicle cleared by security. With so many cars leaving at the same time and so many people milling about, you'd expect chaos, but there was none. It was planned, mapped, quick. It could have been a military operation.

The sheer scale on which everything is done is overwhelming. My induction was two full days, in the banquet hall of a hotel. 50 others were inducted with me. I spoke to one of the presenters and she said four similar gatherings were being held around the city and our group was the smallest. My company has five offices in different locations in Bangalore. When I say offices, I mean towers or campuses. I am in one with seven floors, each big enough to swallow 300 people. The cafeteria seats hundreds of people at a time. The gym and game room are always busy, at all times of the day.

My laptop came in the box, like at retail. No Dileep from IT comes to set it up for you. You take it to your desk, assemble it, plug it in – and the network automatically loads everything you need. There isn't any Sarah from admin to give you your insurance card and tell you how it works, no Subhash from accounts to explain how the tax works. If you need to know anything, you check on a giant online portal. If it's not there, you have an employees' call-centre.

When you remember that this is just one of the many technology giants in India and they're all providing similar amenities, you get an idea of the growth and change in the country. And feel some sympathy for the government hanging on to the tail of the tiger.

I met some other people who'd come in from advertising and they told me that it's normal to go into some sort of circuit overload. Before this I'd been in one company for so long that I'd forgotten how the first few weeks feel, when you're the stranger and everything is strange. They showed us a video or two at the orientation and it felt really weird to suddenly be on the front end of a corporate video. It's a giant leap. I don't know yet if it's a good thing, but the fact is that the universe gave me what I asked for, against a lot of odds. For that I am grateful, however this turns out.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

First impressions

I have a habit of opening up a new Word file and typing out whatever thought has just struck me, so I've ended up with a lot of rogue files with unhelpful names containing bits that were supposed to be turned into something greater, later. Today I decided to collate and organize them. I found this piece in a file named, tantalisingly, "I strongly recommend the yacht". It was written soon after I started my new job.

September 2008
When you're a manager whose only work is managering, how do you quantify your job? You haven’t got a list of things to complete, just a vague address of somewhere you have to be at the end of the year, and figuring out how to get there is supposed to be what you're there for.

And what did I do today? I talked a lot at a meeting on internal communications – officially not my concern – where I was invited to provide outside opinion. I put three people in touch with each other to further another’s training idea. I lent my weight to someone else's meeting. I advised a team member on how to deal with a difficult co-worker. I then spoke to that co-worker's manager. I interviewed one person, read the samples of work she sent in and requested a second opinion. I read three other resumés and set up interviews with two of them. I had a brief conversation with my boss. I approved two leave applications. I posted on the company’s blog by way of cranking up the participation from my team.

I replied to two comments on that post. I downloaded and learnt how to use various proprietary tools. I attended one training session. I sent a few thank you mails in reply to people welcoming me into the company. I spent some time wondering how to deal with those that palpably don't and concluded that that was their problem, so no action required from me. I read a lot of Powerpoint presentations. I cautiously opened an Excel file and poked gingerly at a toolbar or two. Apart from this, my mind was abuzz, gathering information – both volunteered and otherwise – and processing it, making plans and rejecting them. But mostly trying to understand 14 people in whose very quantifiable achievements now lie mine.

I called a job status meeting. I read a quality audit. I read some of their work. I listened a lot. Then I wrote an operations report stating their achievements in August and what they're going to in September. This is all a lot of work but at the end of the year what do I say I did, when the usual measures – the job lists, training plans, forums, commendations and project trackers – record others' progress?

Meanwhile, they need my help and they'll get it, in spite of themselves if necessary. As the she-Shepherd said to Izzy Stevens: “You show an aptitude for my discipline and I have a lot to teach. So you decide how important it is for you to hate me.”

Now, nine months later

Some of it is so prophetic I could cry, if I wasn't laughing hysterically instead. And I've gone completely off Grey's Anatomy after the stupidity of the recently concluded Season 5, though I'm still very aware of the fact that the next season will begin in a month.

I usually take my blog very seriously, not something to be used as a garbage bin for every random doodle, but I have to warn those who read it that my next few posts are going to be from those stray files. Probably inspired by P. J. O'Rourke's "Age and Guile" (Review: a thoroughly interesting book).

Friday, July 03, 2009


I had a road mishap today – accident is hardly a word for it. Of course there have been some scrapes and even an episode of road rage once (by the party of the second part, not me) but this was the first time any visible damage was done to the car. On my way to work this morning, a scooter leaped without looking and knocked out what I thought at first was a light, but later found was the plastic cage the light is protected by. So this was my first experience of the Great Indian Crowd Trick. Even before I got out of the car there were people around it. Someone pointed out the fallen piece and gave me some masterful advice on the extent of damage it represented. And such was the authority with which he spoke that I actually wondered for a second if he had any. But it was merely a superior quality bystander.

Luckily, the mishap took place under the watchful eye of a traffic cop so the usual exchange of acrimonies was dispensed with, as was the tradition of extortion by the crowd. As soon as the plastic bit was rescued from under the wheels of a passing bus and dusted off, it was clear that nothing was wrong with it apart from the fact that it wasn’t attached to the car. It was found (by another bystander) to fit back into place quite easily. The attendant scratches just joined the hundred others that Bangalore’s traffic has already inflicted. (A mechanic said: “Bangalore after all, Madam, let’s wait until there’re a few more then we’ll do all together.”) So when the policeman asked me if I wanted to file a complaint, I looked at my watch and said no. The Greek chorus approved and told me why.

Interestingly, this happened right in the middle of Whitefield Bus Stand but I didn’t recognize a single person in the group! I think the policeman knew who I was, though – he seemed more than ordinarily relieved that I didn’t want to return to the ‘tation for paperwork, as if he knew I had just saved him a visit from my Dad baying for justice and blood.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Generation 2.0

I suspect I’m dealing with a weird kind of generation gap right now. More and more, I find myself among writers who don't really proof or edit their work. More unnerving than that, they don’t seem to have the fear of the fatal oversight, the typo or bit of clumsiness you might spot in a printed document when it’s too late to change. My theory is that everyone below a certain age has grown up (professionally) in a world where it’s more important to get it out there than get it right. There’s no need to spend too much time debugging the first attempt because the next version will be along in a second.

Or it's a work ethic thing. I used to believe that 14 years in advertising didn't leave you with very much, but that’s not true. In the creative department of an agency, there’s no place to hide. Even now, most agencies store a copy of every project with the signatures of those who worked on it. Your mistakes will find you. You’ll get a chance to fix it, but that’s all. There’re no Excel sheets to cover you, no hiatus while your boss makes graphs and action plans. You learn a very important corporate lesson without the expensive training in five-star banquet halls from people with famous names – accountability.

As the recently concluded Cannes Advertising Awards are being debated or celebrated in the advertising world, I have a few long-overdue Gold Gargoyles to give out:
To the creative director who made me rewrite a paragraph 37 times.
To he who returned a smug 100-word masterpiece saying: “Very nice, now say it in 30”.
To she who made me sorry I was born for the tiniest little debatable misuse of an article.
To another, who said in response to the most common defense: “Is your benchmark your client or the people who get published in the New Yorker?”
To every one of them, for saying, at one point or another, of some particularly cherished piece of work: “This is shit”.
To the unknown copywriter in The Copy Book who gave me my most valuable piece of editing advice: “Kill all your darlings”.

But this little glory hallelujah to advertising becomes null and void after just a cursory glance through the ads in the newspapers. They’re not proofing or editing anymore, either. So I guess we’re back to the generation gap, then.

99% becomes the new 100%. Then it’s 98, 97, 96 and before you know it, 65% okay is perfectly acceptable. It's all very effortlessly fashionable. Perhaps having personal standards is now passé, and I'm the one not getting it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Finding Neverland

I stepped out of my room this morning to find my Dad watching a policeman on TV saying that Michael Jackson was dead. It caused a surprising rush of emotion. It’s been years since I put any of his CDs into my player, I don’t have MJ on my iPod, but his is the defining sound of a whole generation of music. My generation.

Suddenly his songs are on the radio and they are the beat of young feet attempting impossible dances powered only by glasses of juice, teenagers in oversized jackets with padded shoulders messing with make-up and love. Dangerous. Old times, utterly forgotten until now, old friends, some of whom I have totally lost touch with, Facebook notwithstanding. But the moon is full and here come their ghosts again – Liberian Girl. Beat it. Billie Jean. We Are The World. Bad.

The opening strains of The Girl is Mine on the car stereo actually brought a lump to my throat. I felt weird about that until I reached the office and realized I wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard confessions all day of learning breakdancing, owning Thriller boots and sporting scary MJ haircuts, of upturned collars and braided coats. Two minutes ago, I finally managed to get on Facebook briefly and so many status updates echo my own.

He was bigger than himself, a project rather than a person, an anthem more than a song. Everything he did was uniquely his own, whether you liked it or not, which is why he spawned lookalikes and movealikes from the stages of Vegas to the back streets of Bhatinda. In the dime stores and bus-stations, people are probably talking of him. One entire part of the Tamil film industry must be in black mourning today.

As with all those in the bright lights – I would guess moonlight rather than sun, as far as MJ was concerned – we saw good side, bad side and terrible side. Those are hard to tell apart when your only source is the media. The words “icon”, “legend”, “end of an era” will rattle around the news and radio stations of the world for a week or so, or until the funeral, whichever comes first. The anti-newsers will write editorials saying “oh what a circus”. Someone will write a Shine On Crazy Diamond for him. Other celebrities will call him a “gifted artist”, some may go as far as “wonderful human being”. The crowds who gathered to spew hate during his courtroom appearances may well be the same ones carrying the tearful “Heal the world” banners.

The only thing we know for sure, firsthand is his music, and I hope we’ve heard too much of that to argue or to judge. He was Michael Jackson, indisputably. But what did he see when he looked at the man in the mirror? He went through so many transformations, what did he want to see? Did he see it last night?

As a friend said on Facebook “Wherever he is, I hope he finally got the nose he wanted”. Perhaps he’s turned back into that kid with the afro from The Jackson 5, and it really doesn’t matter to him now if he’s black or white.

Many songs by other people have got mixed up in this little tribute. That’s just emotional turbulence tossing up things that are not tied down or stowed away in the overhead locker. It’s hard to express the way it makes me feel, the depth of it. This is the first really big musical end, the Elvis moment, of my time.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The princess rants, continued

I’ve been having a running argument with a friend on Facebook, all because of this one article that she posted. She liked it, I didn’t. She has good points but I hold stubbornly to mine that constantly being on the defensive implies guilt and uncertainty, both uncalled for.

The author’s stand seems to me to be highly coloured by certain (probably involuntary) fascist aspects of the “women’s movement”, for want of a better phrase:
1. Women worthy of respect have to conform to specific non-“girly” rules, which is as appearance-obsessed as the point of view it affects to despise.
2. The professions most worth aspiring to are those that were historically male bastions: lawyer, doctor, entrepreneur
3. Women have to try harder just because they are women just to impress other women
4. Everything, but everything is judged in comparison, not as it is.

It's a tyranny of discrimination nearly as bad as the other one. I agree there was a time when it was necessary to go too far, but the pendulum wasn’t quite allowed to continue swinging until it found equilibrium. I have three nieces below the age of six and I resent much of the article on their behalf and for their sakes.

If anything, girls should be taught that being female is merely a fact of birth, like your family or the colour of your eyes. It's not your only identity. Your achievements shouldn’t be judged by it ("woman president", "woman CEO"), nor should you be strung up for having failed the “sisterhood” if you're an underachiever. You can be girly or feminine or boyish or butch, or whatever the current media label, or none of them. What type of woman you are doesn’t matter, what counts is what kind of person you are.

I hope my nieces will know that they are free to respond to the world as people. To ignore the media, both for and against, and think for themselves. To not argue with fools who start stupid discussions that begin with "all women" or "all men". To laugh at a sexist joke if they find it funny without it in any way affecting their power of perception. I hope they understand that the world will chatter incessantly but they are free to let go of all expectations but their own. To be women or ladies or girls without feeling a driving need for aggression or apology.

Only one important thing is wrong with the pink princess franchise – her inherent helplessness. The princess does not do for herself. Fate, fairy godmother, prince or a singing teapot always has to intervene for her. The other things – obsession with beauty, for example – are only secondary to this very dangerous message. For the rest of it, they’re just fantasies, no more cause for socio-cultural angst than Superman or Tarzan.

Then there’s this genius who wrote 1000 plus words in the New York Times, no less, about women bullying women in the workplace. Apparently the gentler sex is usually the kind, caring custodian of the careers of all other women in the world, so any deviation from this is an aberration worth reporting. What is this - a Bene Gesserit breeding program?

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More stuff about me as usual

Someone said "Benson Town" to me today and I realized that for me Bangalore is all about those parts of the city. The old British and Muslim bits. Frazer Town, Coles Park, Langford Town, Victoria Layout, Whitefield, Bangalore Cantonment and several more of that ilk, all radiating outward from MG Road. And they're all marked by friends or food or most probably both.

There was the tilli man on some deep, dark road. "Tilli" is spleen is some street language. He sold the most amazing fried tilli on the pavement by night, his fire light glinting off bicycle rims behind him. By day he was a cycle shop. Then there are kebab shops of all descriptions, running the gamut from standard issue chicken to exotic camel. Weirdly, camel kebabs are a lot harder to get the head around than the spleen of unidentified creatures.

I don't think I could find the tilli man now if I tried but there are still the beef rolls at Fanoos in Johnson Market. It still starts to rain just as you place your order standing on the road. I had Suleimani mint tea here long before the Middle East was a glint in my eye. My best friend and I once walked through the vast butchers' enclosure to see if it would affect our dedicated non-vegetarianism. As I recall, it just made us hungry.

For dessert, there's a kulfi counter on the corner between two very busy roads, with great kulfi that, I was told recently, actually has bits of cardboard in it. The news only serves to make it more interesting. A place on St Mark's road gives you lychees or apricots or strawberries with ice cream. Another one on Residency Road has Hot Chocolate Fudge, with or without nuts. The HCF that was the acronym du jour of our teenage days was in later generations superseded by DBC. The giant Death By Chocolate was on the Corner House menu in our time too but it wasn't the signature item. It's interesting that it changed – perhaps we weren't yet comfortable with the concept of excess as a birthright.

There was a hole in the wall in Russell Market that sold tea in the small hours. It was perfect after clubbing in the cold winter mornings. I wonder where a city that now has to stop partying at 11 goes. In the day, you went to there for everything from regular groceries to car parts of shady origin to glass chimneys for antique lamps that your philistine children kept knocking over. My Dad visited this market after about 20 years and what used to be their regular shop-keeper actually recognised him.

With my life centred around these parts of the city, I've never really crossed the Hudson Circle divide into the much older Karnataka territory. There are coffee shops there that the venerated Kannada writers wrote in, "tiffin rooms" where the freedom movement was plotted, bars where even today Kannadiga intellectuals argue over squat glasses of dubious dark liquid. It's high time I visited.

Maybe the Hudson Circle just divides the beef eaters from those who don't.

Picture have no relation to what I'm saying, they're just some of the Bangalore icons on the drive from Residency Road to Whitefield.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

"Hobby" is a dumb word and even stupider question

My new thing is painting furniture. I have begun with my own study table. As with most things in our house, it has a history and is older than I am. My mother got it when she was in school, shared it with her sister for a while and then handed it down to me when I was in school. I can’t remember whether my brother and I fought over it, but it seems probable since we did so over everything else in our shared room. (It was a time of a single tape recorder, so a phenomenal number of fragile tapes became collateral damage in the bitter battles for airspace.) Anyway, I asked my mom if she was sentimental about her table and she said not in the least, so I set to work on it.

Painting wood is not exactly flinging water colours on the nearest bit of paper. It involves preparing the surface first. It took an entire Sunday afternoon. Stripping veneer and sanding are work. Real work. Especially when you have a fifty-year-old surface with three layers because previous DIYers were not exactly conscientious about preparation. I found out that one of them was the above-mentioned brother, which is strange because I don’t remember receiving the requisite application in triplicate to mess with my table. The Line of Control was clearly crossed one time when I wasn’t looking. That happened all the time, both ways.

Being me, it began ambitiously. I was going to reproduce a painting by Vaco that I really like. I downloaded it and built a properly scaled grid over it so I could copy the design out faultlessly. Then I remembered that I would also need to reproduce the professional paint job, so I changed my design philosophy and did my own thing with flat colours. I call it “The Seeing Eye Sees And Having Seen, Moves On”. The catalogue copy will explain it all; the comma may be especially significant.

Enamel paint is semi-transparent and apparently needs to be “flowed on with a full brush”. So I made further downward adjustments to my ambitions. When I checked on the net later, it seemed as if most 14-year-olds know this already. Well, they didn’t teach it in school in my day. Another thing I wasn’t taught is that if you forget the masking tape and you notice two days later that some paint's trickled down the side, you can’t just take it off with turpentine – it’s not nail polish. But on the subject of beauty products, my years of experiments with eye shadow have given me a very steady hand with the finer brushes. It’s also given my some highly effective, though unorthodox, things in my workbox, such as ear buds and cotton balls.

My masterpiece has really become a practice project in how to do the thing. I’ve identified two other pieces in my room for fame and glory. One of them will not occasion much comment (apart from, maybe, “do you know how much that veneer cost me?”), but the other might involve some dispute with the owner.

My first attempt at painting furniture actually went rather well, mostly because my Dad has a full workbench and lots of advice. The brushes were my own (left over from the time I went through a clay-pot-painting phase), but I need to replace his sand paper.

The table’s not finished yet, though the painting part is over. I found a great rubbing technique that involves some complicated antics with pumice powder and linseed oil, which is supposed to turn glossy to matte. If not, I can always learn how to strip paint and start over.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Zip a dee doo dah

Squirrels outside my window. There are about a million of them here and they're absolute pests. They chew everything they can get their teeth into, build nests in the curtains and generally cause mayhem and dismay. But so cute.

A whiter shade of pale

My maternal grandmother died when I was five so my only memory of her is a blurred image of what I now know must have been the funeral pyre. Over the years we've heard a lot about her and she has always sounded pretty spectacular.

For one thing, when she started travelling abroad on her own after her children were grown, she would have been in her fifties. That's not even middle-aged in our world, but in her era it would have been considered late autumn, time for one last blossoming – grandmotherhood – and winter definitely in the air. My Gran just caught the next plane out.

She did Europe on a shoestring years before the first Lonely Planet on the subject. A person who had never travelled embraced it with gusto. All this I knew from the stories. Tonight I heard it from her – my aunt gave me two letters that she had preserved. One of them was about the first visit to London in September 1970, and the other covered Brussels and Amsterdam soon after.

They recorded her first encounters with a washing machine, canned meatballs and a martini. That she walked from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace and back because "the taxis are expensive". The wonder that an Indian in the seventies felt at the vastness of Selfridges, the fact that "in the West" small towns and villages enjoyed the same amenities as the cities. In the Netherlands, she'd "seen many pretty girls and none of them wore make-up". In Belgium she noted that "most of the tourists are American". In England, she was awestruck by the fact that the Englishwoman she stayed with worked from "morn till midnight" because "she has no help at all". Though India provided a lot of household help, it did not have melamine crockery, Revlon lipsticks or foreign bras then, so she bought these for her daughters and nieces.

Her style of travel writing strung events together on an invisible thread of thought rather than any compulsion of mundane logic. Descriptions of St Paul's, apple trees and the Surrey countryside tumbled together, high art was mixed up with a prosaic bit about having to haul luggage at Heathrow. There was a bipolar swinging from breathless excitement to inconsequent worry. Over it all floated an everything-will-please-me-because-I'm-on-holiday adjustment to the flow.

I recognized it all. At two in the morning I was staring in shock at the place where my voice comes from, the source code written before I was born, before my parents even met, for the many, many emails sent on my own travels.

I didn't know there was anybody else in my family who had this urge to send back despatches with copious detail about where you went and what you did, talking about taxis and telephone booths, being naive about the people you met, and thrilling to the fact that something was exactly as you'd read about in some book.

Her accounts were long and chatty but there was much that she didn't say about a deeply personal roller coaster ride of glee and fear, and a swelling delight in the fact that she could. I looked out for a long time at the dark trees, feeling weird that I knew this.

Interestingly, she also said that "in the air-ports now they check your baggage and yourself because of the recent hi-jackings". I didn't know it had started that early, nor that they used to hyphenate those words.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hay fever

It’s a Saturday afternoon in April. Driving out of Whitefield, the light is clear, the fields – yes there are still a few – are green, the lake is blue. A breeze rises on the bridge and rocks the trees around the old airport. One of those freak winds is pouring out of Wind Tunnel Road, so the raintrees in the satellite research centre are raining leaves and pink needles down on us as we pass. The gulmohars have suddenly asserted themselves orangely , the jacarandas are noticeably purple. The creepers on the walls of old houses are in full bloom. Everywhere the air is full of yellow petals and the pollen that is Bangalore’s trademark in health care circles. It is summer in my city, both old and new.

These come together at an unfamiliar restaurant on St Mark’s Road where I meet two old friends for lunch. The last time we met was at our graduation, but contrary to all rules, the lunch was fine. One of the lunch companions had been one of my two best friends all through college. Now, all through lunch, I constantly feel not so much an absence as the presence of one more chair at our, the echo of another laugh far away across the Atlantic. Just as when she and I reconnected in Philly two years ago, there was an echo of this laugh all the way from Seattle. Spritzers and starters, sandwiches and grilled fish and I am on the road again. Heading down Church Street looking for the used-book store and missing all three storeys of it for the second time, I spare a thought for my driver who must have the most mind-numbing job in the world.

By five-thirty I am wandering into Mocha, a little shisha break between lunch and dinner. I’ve only been here twice over the last four months but they greet me as a regular. At 6 pm, the place is filling up fast with the pre-pub, pre-club crowd. I begin to feel guilty about taking up a table and ordering nothing but endless glasses of Moroccan tea, but I'm clearly being considered sacred because I’m writing. As in so many other cafes, the staff are showing an unsolicited respect for my pastime. But also, this is Bangalore, where someone releases a book on the hour, every hour, so they never know who I might turn out to be. If I ever publish my book, the acknowledgments list is going to read like a Time Out directory.

I notice some of the (very) young girls looking at me and I can see in their eyes the same ambition I had at their age to be the “cool” woman sitting on her own and writing. I want to tell them all that glitters is not what it’s cracked up to be but am safe in the knowledge that most of them will take the other road. As the crowd empties, it’s time for me to go too, to meet other friends at Empire, a Bangalore institution in a standing-room-only part of town that the complaining IT immigrants seem never to know. Ten years after I last ate here, the food is exactly as it was, no nasty surprises, no disappointments. Our voices come from a place that does not age, the conversation is eternal.

It’s an early dinner so I arrive home before my parents have had theirs, bearing gifts of fried sheep’s brains. I find them talking to my cousins in Providence on Skype. Right now, I can’t remember my age or what year it is, time is sublimated into a vacuum, in spite of the visible fact that the niece I held when she was two days old has now been around for almost as many years. It is summer in my city, as it was then.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Mission impossible II

Lately, I haven’t been able to find the impetus to update my blog. I compose posts in my head all the time but they never get written.

It’s more than a year now since I’ve had to write for a living. I spend my time among Excel sheets and Powerpoint presentations. I find myself using management speak more and more, without making the effort to replace those words with some that actually mean something. If I’m not careful I will turn into Dilbert’s pointy haired manager who has no knowledge of his team’s “ground realities”. And today, when I’ve sat down to write, the muscles are rather stiff.

Anyway, I hereby return once more to updating my blog regularly, if only as an attempt to ignore a weird erosion of my self that seems to be out of my control.

I paused there for a bit because the café changed the music and after the years of Middle Eastern conditioning, it’s still a bit of a shock to hear a remix of Hava Nageela in a public place, both that it’s being played at all – over a muezzin’s call, incidentally – and that it can be turned into something you can dance to.

Perhaps that's a new post, coming soon to a blog near you.

Travelling light

Different management exercises over the years have returned the unanimous, ironically unchanging, verdict that I’m an "excellent change agent", the ideal person for drumming up enthusiasm in the office about something new. This is because I have a high level of indiscriminate curiosity and a crawling restlessness that plagues me and mine when things have been the same for too long.

It also means that I am unperturbed at arbitrary changes of desk and other crises of convenience and filled with unholy energy when things go wrong in the middle of critical events. It is almost solely responsible for my reputation for being good-natured under pressure. It's hard to see how all this would help or hinder the people who report to me, but I definitely recognize it early enough in others to divert to productive things, so some good must come of it.

My last job needed me to fly away now and then to meet another team, do the same work in a new place, a ritual which kept the demons quiet for an unprecedented six years. Fortunately, my current job also offers some opportunity for change of air; I was told apologetically at the start that a portion of my team sat in another city. And so I recently went on my first business trip to Chennai: I took the fast train at dawn, an auto rickshaw from the station to the office and returned by the night mail the same day.

It was an inspiring departure from the style of travel to which I'd no business getting accustomed, but in many ways also exactly the same. The step by step releasing of latches and bolts as I approached the point of departure and the complete letting go of the soul as the train pulled out. The sudden, comprehensive frizzing or flattening of the hair when I arrived, no matter how prepared I was. The group dynamics in the visitee office. The way my time was efficiently disposed to the last second. It was all familiar.

As was the almost tangible urge to just get off at some other station and keep going for a while. I used to stand for a moment below the airport departure boards before a journey, like some people do at altars or idols, silently seeing myself on that flight to Amsterdam or Sao Paolo, Turin, Almaty or Baku.

Looking out of the train window, thinking of lounges and limousines, I was glad that I had had my fling with the bling when I did, because the corporate world’s generous days must be over now. Sales conferences in exotic locales, brainstorming at beach resorts, unlimited-hospitality office parties… these are all gone, if not for good, then definitely for a long time.

I voluntarily got off that business-class gravy train, but on some days it’s hard remember why. There's a sizeable difference between being the omniscient, omnipotent creative director of a revered global account and just another manager among many in a company that has 400 employees on my floor alone. The difference is especially keen in times of client wrangles – time was when my mere presence was enough to effect a truce; now all the words I speak are not enough unless endorsed by someone else. Then I remember that I had had to earn that status. And it needs only a few seconds' thought to bring the swings and roundabouts into focus, a deep sense of grateful relief that helps the heart drag the ego of the ex-god out of bed the next morning.

At 11 pm, I walked into Chennai Central, only slightly under the influence of the almost mandatory farewell drink, and my coach was at the other end of what seemed like the longest train in the world. As my high heels started to feel like needles I realized that I loved this gritty commute that my business travel had become.

As always, the "excellent change agent" trumps the ex-god ego. That is the secret of my success – or lack of it, according to some (widely discredited) sources.

Travelling Light, Cliff Richards, 1974

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