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.

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