Monday, January 26, 2009

White tigers, slumdogs and softening of the brain

I am scared of watching Slumdog Millionaire. Will it be another weary disappointment in the White Tiger style? The chances are high. And do we really want to win an Oscar when all that means is the likes of NDTV can embarrass themselves by asking AR Rahman whether it's a sign that "Indian music is now accepted internationally"? Do we not do enough of this nonsense already without the slightest bloody provocation? It is depressing in the extreme.

Our over-spiced mixture of pretension, apathy and a remarkable capacity for toadeating has now officially reached toxic levels. We don't lose any opportunity to pat ourselves on the back or "put India on the world stage". Our very real art movements are distorted and diluted by the hype that seems terribly necessary. Our very real history seems to be going this way too. And there's no point talking about sports at all unless you want to end up throwing yourself on the floor and drumming your heels.

In the corporate world, all that is wrong and ridiculous about the Global Way has been adopted enthusiastically without the leavening bits: the brusqueness without the respect for time, the sacrificing of manners without the resulting efficiency, the self-imposed urgencies, the delusions of grandeur. None of this is new to India – but they used to be the preserve of medium-sized government officials and middle management in public sector companies, nobody aspired to it or lauded it.

The news channels are equally execrable. I have the luxury of finding Fox News funny but I can't laugh about our own versions of it. Most of it is an orgy of cluelessness. Idiot girls arguing about feminism without ever understanding the word "independence". Equally IQ-challenged boys talking about the aforementioned girls. People of all kinds mouthing off about "issues" without stopped to think about them, all this presented as hard news.

Self-appointed moral police march into a nightclub in Mangalore and assault the patrons, but instead of calling it the criminal and unconstitutional act that it is, there's a lot of drivel on TV about the anatomy of violence and the driving forces of our times and the "youth".

We are aggressive about random things but will do nothing to stop injustice or crime. Mumbai's educated thousands will march in protest against an attack on the Taj but they won't rally around when the Shiv Sena terrorises an elderly shopkeeper on the wrong side of the railway tracks.

Among the newspapers, our choices range from the prissy Hindu to the scurrilous Times, and not one of them employs a writer who actually learnt English. And what the fuck is a terror attack? Is it something like a panic attack? It sounds a lot like how I'm feeling now.

India has always been complicated. Life is crowded. There are always too many people and too many things in your face. People are rude. Places are dirty. Rules are fluid. The simple act of numbering streets can become a metaphysical nightmare. But all this is still true and unadorned. This is India as it has always been, take or leave in as-is-where-is condition. As the travel books say, all it needs is time and once you get used to it, you enjoy it.

But the nouveau India is another matter entirely. It makes you want to throw up. And I'm very much afraid that Slumdog Millionaire is a child of this, a beautifully designed Penguin India cover and blurb, with nothing in between. The Oscar nomination has only deepened this suspicion.

Have to add: Two days before the Oscars, I finally watched the movie (mostly because of not wanting to be left out of the fervour if it won anything). And I liked it. As my friend said in his comment, take away the hype and it's a sweet rags to riches story.

The sun also rises in Burdubai

February 2008: A few insomniac pictures from my flat in Dubai

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Englishness of America

It's about an hour and a half to the Presidential coronation and the colonial roots are showing. The uncharacteristic amount of complicated ceremony combined with the surprising lack of drama makes this very much in the English style. Crowds waving flags, children carrying flowers, slow, stately motorcades, a hundred weird little traditions.

At all other times it's so easy to forget that the US were a colony too. I remember remembering with a shock as I stood outside South Station in Boston, looking around and wondering what the buildings reminded me of. I also remember wondering why a) it should be a shock and b) it should be important. I still don't have the answers.

For once, it's possible to watch an American public event without wanting to give them a good kicking. For one thing, this time the media's breathless superlatives are actually justified - this is a "historic event" and the result of it will be "felt across the world", so while you might wish that CNN wouldn't use the H word quite so often (or for that matter, invoke Lincoln in every third sentence), it does not really set your teeth on edge.

As an unreformable sentimentalist, I am a sucker for "historic occasions", and so much the better if accompanied by hymns, salutes and ceremony. It helps that at the end of it there is sure to be one hell of a speech delivered with all the punch and panache that only a black orator can pull off.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The debt gene

Money is hereditary. Not the presence or absence of it, but the instinct that governs either. I sincerely hope that like all genetic gifts this one is also significantly affected by the environment and can be learnt or unlearnt up to a point. Because if it can’t, I am doomed. I am terrible with money, the condition seems to be entirely independent of my wishes or actions.

Yet, I am not fundamentally undisciplined. Inside (and not that deep down either, unfortunately) I am that annoying straight-A student who needs kicking, wholesome Hilary the class monitor, Hannah the head nurse, Her Holy Martyr Edith of the Clipboard. So my first response is usually one that propitiates authority and seeks approval (any other kind needs this one to be suppressed first). At best, I am Hermione Granger. Nor am I a stranger to grown-up financial responsibilities – I’ve dealt with them all my adult life and not done too badly either.

Nevertheless, money runs circles around me and then rushes off cackling, to leap recklessly into the nearest black hole. After years of blaming it on unlucky wallets and wasting small change on the obsession with keeping one coin for luck in any unused bag, I’ve realized that the lucky coin should be inside you not your bag. So, to neutralize the birth defects, everyone should be taught practical finance at school. Failing that, what the world needs is financial counselors, a combination of shrink, accountant and life coach who will be the change you want to see in your bank account. Oprah had the right idea with her Debt Diet and panel of advisors. That should be a real, regular, accessible job. Maybe it is…

If I was really Hermione Granger, I could just wave a wand. Money, like food, is probably one of the five exceptions to magical transfiguration (ref: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but maybe genes are not.

Money is the stupidest thing we do as a species. And we spend our entire lives ruled by it.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A curious lack of bonhomie

More thoughts on the Bengaluru Midnight Marathon...

About "briefing" the runners 10 seconds before the starter gun? Next time, take the trouble to mark the route efficiently so they can concentrate on the running rather than the navigation. Asking them to work out where to turn right is ridiculous, to say the least.

About the total lack of order and discipline at the starting line, the less said the better.

And should the TV camera have been right on the track as runners were coming in? Some of them had to swerve to avoid crashing into the anchor person.

The much vaunted stalls looked more like a job fair than the other, fun kind. Who wants to buy a mobile connection or magazine subscription an hour before midnight?

The Bengaluru Midnight Marathon was well attended, much publicized and has some history behind it. Yet, the event itself was a bit disconnected and disappointing. There were a million ambulances (ran into the physiotherapist who came with us on the Tour of Nilgiris), fairy lights along the route, TV cameras, spot prizes, live bands, a huge crowd drinking coffee and eating Cafe Coffee Day puff pastries, but there was no sense of "one mind, many bodies" that an event like this should have had.

People cheered loud and long at the start and finish, but the volume was not commensurate with the numbers. But I didn't stay to the end, perhaps the vibe kicked in after two in the morning. It was certainly loud enough for those who were living in the area. Which brings me to - if you're going to have a major event through the night and closing part of the road, have the courtesy to inform the local inhabitants. Just a little article in the newspaper would do. And it's very laudable to run for good causes, but if you have to park haphazardly, block exits and litter residential areas to do it, you're not achieving very much.

To those who've said to me that I should appreciate the scale instead of finding fault, I would like to say - Bangalore Habba, Vasanthhabba, Freedom Jam, every college festival, the state sports meets at Kanteerva stadium, the district sports meets in other places... others have done it and they've all done it better. All you have to do is spend some of the sponsorship money on the best professional help. Everything is not about the prize money; it's also about the experience.

(The only bit of the band I heard was a strange rendition of Roadhouse Blues but that was just as it should be - it was a peaceful, familiar feeling to stroll around my old school grounds with dubious musicians on the microphone.)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

So was the winner of the marathon a perfect 10?

I've just strolled home from watching the Bengaluru Midnight Marathon. I cheered very sincerely for the half and full marathons but the good feelings disappeared in the run up to the women's race.

The tiresome debates on driving, left brain, right brain, who's a better manager, whose role is what will carry on ad nauseam as long as there's a healthy quotient of idiots of both sexes in any forum, but gender-condescension at a sporting event? That fairly takes the breath away!

I thought of many brilliant, cutting things to say on my blog while I stood there swelling with indignation and muttering angrily to my Mom who was watching too, but apart from the fact that I've forgotten most of them, only one thing really needs to be said here. Before flagging off the race, they gave away, with much fanfare, a prize for the most beautiful smile. Right there at the starting line of a marathon, to a group of runners. It was followed by a briefing that seemed to try very hard to stick to words of one syllable, but maybe I was being over-sensitive about that.

The women's race was sponsored by Cisco and if I were them, I would think very carefully about what exactly the message was that I paid large sums of money for.

I don't know if there was a Miss Photogenic prize at the end of the race because I thought it best to leave – if the woman with the mic shrieked "laydeeeze" one more time I'd have felt honour bound to kick her teeth in.

Friday, January 09, 2009

What's that song?

Why is it so hard to get over the Tour of Nilgiris? All of us who participated have other lives, work, events to go to or avoid, people to call or duck, places to be, things to do, but most of us are right now in some sort of post-TFN dream.

During our impressionable years, we’ve all been on school and college excursions, girl guide/boy scout/NCC camps, class trips. Since then, we’ve gone on voluntary versions of those with friends, family, colleagues. So that kind of group dynamic is not new to any of us, and yet there is something new and different about TFN. Attempting to work out what is like trying to list the entire discography of an artist from a half-tune that keeps playing in your head. And just as annoying.

I do know that I came back rejuvenated, almost jubilant. Parts of my mind that I thought were permanently atrophied from disuse turned out to have just been a little rusty – they got some exercise and are working fine again. I also, inexplicably, came back vindicated and hopeful. I thought it was the usual euphoria of achievement that comes after any prolonged activity but it has lasted long beyond the time that should have faded. And not just for me, judging by what others are saying.

What was so deeply influencing about those seven days? The scenery, the camaraderie, the feat? That could have been so for the cyclists – except it’s not really the cycling they seem to be talking about now – but it doesn’t explain the attachment the non-cyclists feel. What happened there to make it so special? Perhaps it should just be enough that whatever it was, happened.

A few days ago, the Facebook status of a fellow TFN alumnus read: “can’t get over TFN and it’s almost irritating me now”. That seems about right.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Don't you point that word at me

I've been going through some training material and not a single how-to article will get to the point in under three paragraphs - all of which is just the first two lines repeated in different ways. Like Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up routine, where he often cannot tell a joke and leave it at that; he has to explain it and go over it until you are desperate for someone, anyone to just step on a banana peel and end it all. (I love the Seinfeld show though.)

It's gotten so that I'll buy anything from anyone who says I'll get something else free, rather than "for free". I support the Anti Pointless Words movement, and it's going to get bitter and bloody if I have to go through anymore semi-literate drivel from those who should know better.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

TFN nights: Chinna, chinna asai

It's true the Tour of Nilgiris is all about cycling, but the story's incomplete without the after-hours. On a good riding day, the evening was always effervescent.

The first one in Mysore was understandably low key, just a rest stop. By the second day, in Mercara, everyone was ready for more. That afternoon and early evening were filled with easy conversation, mostly post-mortems and story-swapping of the day's experiences. Later, it was cold enough to have a bonfire, which always helps. Though it was early to bed (we were in the middle of a sporting event, after all), and it was only a small group that remained after dinner, there was time enough for a little music and a ghost story or two. Avinash produced a flute, Vasu, Satish and our good doctor revealed singing talent in addition to the many other sterling qualities we'd already seen, and a brief power cut brought out the most brilliant stars I've seen since my camping times in Oman.

The next day was difficult, Sultan Bathery was unprepossessing and the night equally solitary and troubled. But the morning dawned bright and promising, the ride to Ooty more than made up for the previous day's shortcomings. That night was the fourth one; by then everyone had more or les found their level, made at least acquaintances so the group round the campfire was a gathering of comrades. There was much music, the volume was high and when the fire died down, the cold drove everyone in, so they crowded into the "girls' room" to continue into the small hours. I was tired and sleepy (and can sleep through an earthquake if need be) but Avinash is a rollicking storyteller with a beguiling ability to laugh at himself, so not listening was not an option.

The fifth night saw it turn into a group of friends, the entertainment enlivened further by dragging people forward to sing songs in their native languages (Kerala was conspicuously absent for once, since the two representatives that might have contributed were not present and the two that were present were not quite qualified to do so). An unexpected bonus was the Swiss farming song from George and it set me thinking that my discomfort on his behalf when we were singing Hindi songs was uncalled for – he probably didn't feel left out at all because there were so many degrees of fluency present in the room that translation was constantly being demanded by someone or the other. It was one of those times that made you sentimental about the diversity of the country and what it could be like in an ideal world.

There were two flutes that night, Murali having produced one that morning and entrusted it to my reluctant care (foster-parenting the delicate musical instrument of a serious musician is a lot of responsibility). Diksha turned out to be one hell of a singer as well, so the overall quality of the group singing was higher than is usual in the circumstances and it mercifully never had to come down to Antakshari. A formidable amount of talent was displayed that evening, but for me the most memorable part was Sourabh's own composition. Both words and music were his own, a sweet, lilting song about not being able to bring himself to tell someone he likes her, a sentiment with which every listening mind could quietly empathise.

(Epiphany: I need a thing, an act that I can trot out and hide behind. Not being able to do anything and being too awkward to attempt something impromptu makes one far more conspicuous than if one did anything stupid.)

The last evening in Mysore was prolonged a little, everyone aware of its finality. A little bit of amateur fortune-telling, a lot of laughter, a pleasing sense of schoolgirl truancy in breaking the Youth Hostel curfew, some sharing of pleasures, a few uncertain steps towards new friendships, perhaps.

The warm TFN nights fortified the relationships shaped by cycling or working together in the day, like clay in a kiln.

Chinna Chinna Asai, Roja, 1992

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Day seven: Diamonds and rust

The goodbye hung over the day. It was important for the record to make that final run to Bangalore, but nobody had to like it and many didn't try very hard to. It didn't help that the Mysore-Bangalore route anyway feels more like a commute than anything else.

Many people took it easy, some choosing to stop often at wayside tea stalls for chai and a chat, hailing others as they passed. Others amused themselves for a while at the lunch stop with watermelons and Nelly's wheelies. As Virender said, "This is the difference between a tour and a race. After a race, you have no friends, you won't find anyone taking phone numbers and email addresses." (Not everyone agrees with this, though. Dickie for example, has been in races where "riders have made friends with closest rivals" and he's seen far more emotional goodbyes there.)

Our entry into Bangalore was great. We were met by a police escort at Bangalore University, where everyone stopped to get into their TFN jerseys. Many of those who did only a part of TFN joined in here for the final stretch. Though the going was slow through the city and the traffic did occasionally creep up on us, the police motorcycle did help to keep the whole group together. I was riding on a motorcycle myself today, as Modi's wingman (I really wanted to do this on the ride up to Ooty but was too late to catch either of them), so I was able to see the critical mass for the first time on the Tour.

I don't know whether the riders could have felt it, but from my vantage point on the back of the shepherd motorcycle, it was an impressive sight, with bicycles stretching all the way down the road, filling the horizon. My feelings were reflected in the faces of those who turned to watch and the occasional tourist who whipped out a camera in a hurry. This was the second awesome sight of the day. The first was when we were following what I personally think of as the pro group. They rode in formation from Channapatna to Bangalore and it was like watching racing footage on TV. Very exciting.

By the end of the victory lap around Vidhan Soudha, they had done well over 919 km. We arrived at the finish line in front of the Central Library in Cubbon Park to a chorus of cameras.

The sun is setting now as I stand on the sidewalk and watch the riders congratulate each other, cheer for their support team, make thank-you speeches and plans for rides next weekend. And so the first Tour of Nilgiris is complete, as always a little too soon, just as we're making friends and it's getting good. Well, maybe next year.

Diamonds and Rust, Joan Baez, 1975

Day six: All the roadrunning

Ooty's spirit-shrivelling cold and winter mist ensured that we only left after 9:30 in the morning. There was much testing and tinkering of gears and brakes before that. The professional racers and the veterans – Raj, Dickie, Venky, Samim, Nelly – were in even greater demand than usual. The briefings were stern and unequivocal: If you feel the slightest uncertainty, do not do the steep descent. Keep your hands on the brakes, your eyes upon the road. Keep left, very, very left. Basically, Billy, don't be a hero, just get down there the traditional way, in one piece.

Within fifteen minutes of setting out, it was amply clear why. The cycles slurped up the 36 steep and tightly winding hairpin bends like spaghetti, though it was more the road taking them than the other way round. I found out later that it was murder on the wrists and shoulders, but watching from the luxury of a jeep, the sight was thing of immense beauty. As was the scenery they whirred through. It was a magnificent route, mountains and forests stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see. We were lucky in that the traffic was unusually light for the time of the year and day. There was much to take in, here a valley falling away, there a rock shaped like a face, every so often an unexpected waterfall, promising signs saying things like "Bison View Point"… therefore there was a lot of pausing for photographs or just to stand and stare.

At the bottom, we entered a long stretch of forest, first the Madhumalai Tiger Sanctuary, then Masinagudi – scene of the next Project Tiger and the village staging the inevitable bundh in protest – and past the border into Karnataka, where it became Bandipur Wildlife Sanctuary. Later on the route, we heard that several cyclists had actually spotted interesting things like wild boars and wild elephants. My animal count was: 10 Nilgiri Langurs, 2000 normal monkeys, some marsh birds, interesting but unidentifiable (by me) tracks on a game trail and four domestic elephants being herded into a lake.

This last caused much shrill excitement in most of the passing vehicles. People tumbled out of these onto the bank, chiefly engaged in affirming very loudly that what they were looking at was in fact a group of elephants that included two babies. One of the minibuses did not even bother to switch off the very loud music. They really shouldn't be allowed on this road.

A few minutes after we'd driven on, one of the elephants decided that it had had enough and headed straight for the road to say so. People scattered, revealing Dipankar riding past with Samim, and the annoyed elephant got so close, the trunk brushed him. Luckily, they are racers in training and so were there and gone before the elephant could get down to anything.

But the rapid descent into the heat of the plains made everyone feel much like meat transferred straight from the freezer into the oven, especially in the excruciatingly ordinary (inevitable comparison) stretch from Gundlupet to Mysore. More than one sturdy rider wilted and retired from the lists for a while, choosing to cycle again a little farther along the route.

I was riding with Flaunge again, in a jeep hired in Ooty. We had a wonderful driver who not only knew and used all the traffic rules but also turned out to be a sort of wandering minstrel on the subject of local lore.

Returning to Mysore was like returning to a hometown. We were there just six days earlier, but it feels like a lifetime. We're all in bed now. A certain pall hangs over this evening, the last of the Tour, this descent one that none of us has the gear ratio to take on comfortably.

All the Roadrunning, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris, 2006

Blog Archive