Saturday, May 22, 2010

Sorry, Commander Glusica

My contempt for most of the Indian news channels reached epic proportions today, watching the coverage of the plane crash. I watched the story unfold over an hour or so in the morning, and what they said at the top of the hour, they contradicted at the bottom, simply because they just wanted to talk - ignorantly, incessantly - whether they had any knowledge or not. It was all irresponsible mob mentality, confusion of facts and ghoulish rubbernecking rather providing useful information - hotline numbers were not broadcast until several hours after, nor were the names of passengers. It's night now, and there's been no mention of the crew at all.

The cameras actually followed a woman being wheeled into the operating theatre. She was in shock, could not speak and added nothing to the news report, if you can call an orgy of speculation news. There was sharp contrast between the visuals of rescuers grimly carrying away charred bodies and the squeaky sounds of excitable newscasters poking at "experts" trying to get somebody to place blame somewhere. The "facts" that were being presented changed from one channel to another, even the immutable ones such as the number of people on board, the nationality of pilot and the names of the few survivors who were talking on screen.

The worst of all was the swooping down on the nationality of the pilot. I happened to be online when one newscaster finally had the courtesy to pronounce his name properly, so I typed it out into Google. Commander Zlatko Glusica - apart from being an experienced pilot who's flown this route many times, contrary to what they'd spent all morning trying to get us to believe - happens to have had three children. I'm sure it's fun for them to have their bereavement crowned by the barely disguised witch hunt being conducted on TV. The most racist race on earth is eager to find the "foreign pilot" guilty by virtue of his foreign-ness. Because, of course, all Indian pilots are vested with Vedic superpowers that can not only control the bursting of a tyre from the cockpit, but also extend runways and fill up gorges in nanoseconds through sheer yogic will.

Even if investigations show that it was, after all, an avoidable pilot error, today's TV channels are still in the wrong. 160 people died, the names in the passenger manifesto convey sad stories of whole families wiped out, of a lone parent clearly left behind on one or the other side of the flight - the solitude of Dubai's annual summer migration made permanent, of young men suddenly gone. But very little hush or respect was evident in the broadcast press, not even of the fake variety. There ought to be a law.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Holy shit

One of the first things I heard when I returned to Bangalore was that the glorious Indiana beef burger of my youth was no more. They now served only the lesser patties. Then I started to notice the absence of a beef section in Chinese restaurants. One day I succumbed to a craving for Mac Donald's and was upset enough to walk out when I found wall-to-wall chicken. Recently I found that another Bangalore institution no longer had their signature beef fry. The present state government is a party that has Hinduism as its platform, so I assumed that a policy of religious tyranny was at work. This was confirmed earlier this year in the rigorous efforts to push through a blanket ban on buying, selling or eating beef. It's being vigorously appealed but logic works in mysterious ways here so who knows whether one will shortly need to sneak into a backroom with blackout curtains to eat steak.

Hindu friends who are very religious are arguing that the cow is a sacred animal, so there's nothing wrong in protecting it. They and it are very, very wrong. The issue is not about protecting cows. When you start turning your personal religious practices into law you become Saudi Arabia. God does not come into our national anthem, we have no pledge that puts religion on the same plane as patriotism. Also, India has as many kinds of Hindus as there are Gods, and many of them eat beef. Even more important, India is not just a Hindu country.

The increasing number of idiots who've set themselves up as guardians of "Indian culture" are ignorant of or ignoring the fact that there is no such thing – each community has its own culture, and these are beyond counting. The only thing that could be called Indian is a certain unique richness of diversity, which seems to be on life support and in its final moments right now.

I smile every year when Americans are careful to say Happy Holidays rather than Happy Christmas, but we could take a few lessons from that. On Christmas Eve in Dehradun, I heard not a single carol in the shops. All I saw was a BJP rally in town, the saffron lotus hovering ominously above Rajpur Road's Adidas showrooms and cappuccino machines. I don't think the timing was a coincidence. And it made me uneasy that there was no sign of mosques or anything Muslim – if they were around, they were hidden, which is uncomfortably like the churches and temples in the hard-core Islamic lands. My country is a secular democracy, and if it's going to turn into a Hindu supremacy state, it makes me fundamentally homeless.

The temples in those parts were faintly menacing. I think it was the metal trident and flag over them, the rather militant symbols that seem to feature prominently in most Hindu agitations. The buildings were white or unfinished grey, and almost empty of ornamentation inside. The Gods themselves seemed roughly hewn. Being conditioned to the voluptuary leanings of the other half of the country, that sparseness felt like deprivation. The further south you go, the more luxurious temples become. The idols wear silk and gold and are washed with milk and honey. Every inch of their houses is carved or painted. The air is heavy with camphor and incense, the floors are slick with flowers and lamp oil. Even the smallest, poorest village deity has a velvet throne and a blinged-out carriage when it chooses to go walkabout. The cold, white atriums of the Gods here feel inhospitable and the echoes of devotees in the emptiness, dreary. But I was put in my place very neatly when a Punjabi colleague said he didn't like the South Indian temples for the same reasons that I like them.

For now, beef fascism or no, I'm glad I live in Bangalore – there is a temple on every street corner, but also equally visible churches, mosques, gurudwara and fire temple. If you wake before dawn in our house, you first hear the matins from a church of unknown denomination, then a muezzin's call from farther away, and that's followed by the chanting from the temple down the road. They have equal, independent airtime and are all equally annoying in their loudness. It's a brief glimpse of an India that could be, the country that's forgotten in the pages of the constitution because nobody read the manual.

Friday, May 07, 2010


I was clearing out my handbag today, having decided to minimize and move to smaller bags and save my shoulder some wear and tear. This is what I found:

A Chinese lipstick case given to me by my mother
A wallet given to me by my father
An unbreakable steel mirror brought by an ex-boss from Korea
A Montblanc pen I got as a birthday gift from an aunt
A Shaeffer pen that was a farewell gift from a long-ago employer
A phone that was a birthday gift from my brother and sister-in-law
Another phone, ditto
A pocket compass that was a present from the sister-in-law’s brother
A lip salve sent by another friend – more a sister-in-law, really – from California
A bling keychain that was a wedding favour sent from Canada by a former colleague
Attached to that is one that another ex-boss brought me from Brazil
Attached to that, yet another one an ex-boyfriend brought me from Arizona
Attached to that, a really grubby one that was part of a highly successful project I worked on, which I consider a talisman
A monogrammed card case from a friend in Philadelphia
A pack of heart-shaped post-it notes that an anonymous admirer (or class clown) left on my desk this Valentine’s Day
Sundry notebooks, membership cards, packs of tissues, assorted jewellery, a dishwasher and a pick-up truck

And it seems there isn't one that I can give up, except for the post-it notes. Conundrum.

The first strand of grey

The birthday milestones passed unheeded. As a friend wrote, I never seem to know what age I actually am. (I still don’t know without some elaborate counting). The number of years don’t seem to mean anything at all. Wrinkles – pshaw! Gravity – whatever. But grey hair… OMG. And so, it seems I’ve discovered what my greatest vanity is; how weird that it should be something I generally pay very little attention to.

I was entirely unprepared for the horror, when I saw it in the well-lit, magnified mirror of a hairdresser. It triggered an unreasoning panic and emergency stock-taking of the “youth squandered! achievements nil!” kind.

My memory is already mostly gone – I never remember to do things (one of my colleagues recently told me I needed a wife. This is an uncomfortable corollary of the time a friend walked into my apartment when it wasn’t inspection-ready, looked around for a few minutes in growing delight and said “but you’re a guy”). On the plus side, of course, there are some stupid things I’ll never do again. Then again, they were fun at the time. Screw wisdom, I’d like the pigments back.

One of my best friends from college just joined my office. How strange to be sitting down to lunch 20 years later, peering into each other’s lunch boxes and offering to share food. Now we talk about travelling with children, staff meetings and how we only register our own aging by the fact that our little brothers are over 30, but I notice we laugh just as much as we did. And what a relief to talk unreservedly to someone in an office that, after nearly two years, is still the big dark. How nice to speak in the same voices, to recognize mannerisms and verbal shortcuts, just as if I didn’t have one foot in the grave.

But it’s all downhill from here. I feel it in my pre-osteoporotic bones.

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