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.

Blog Archive