Archive for October, 2005|Monthly archive page

Making up for lost time

Ah, the last week end of October. A special time, when children dress up as the monsters they are. And scare the bejudas out of people, as they do from the moment they are born… As special as Halloween is, I love this time of the year for a more mundane reason. This weekend, time becomes time again. Not the pretend stuff we put up with during the other seven months of the year. Soon, we’re to have this fake time for eight months. Yipee! One less hour to sleep everyday. How did the Government guess this was just the pressing problem I wanted them to solve? World peace, eradicating malaria and AIDS, nominating Supreme Court justices – we’ll get around to that stuff by and by. Taking away an hour’s sleep from our citizens, now that’s an urgent problem.

They tell me that daylight savings has a laudable goal – energy conservation. The Government says, “Daylight Saving Time “makes” the sun “set” one hour later and therefore reduces the period between sunset and bedtime by one hour. This means that less electricity would be used for lighting and appliances late in the day.” Forgive me for butting in, but doesn’t Daylight Saving Time also “make” you get up an hour earlier? And since I’m not exactly overflowing with vim and vigour in the mornings, I do not use the opportunity afforded by my waking up in the dark to play hide & seek with my tooth brush, or wear night vision goggles to find my way to the kitchen. This may come as a surprise to you, but I turn on the lights! An hour earlier!

And if you’re so worried about saving energy, I’d suggest that providing a SWITCH for plug points would be a start. I don’t turn off my television, my bed side lamp, my microwave or any of tens of appliances when am hitting the bed earlier as a dutiful citizen. Because I CAN’T. Not unless, I risk life and limb to crawl beneath all sorts of obstructions & unplug the damn device in question. And what of the thousands of stores and offices that leave lights on the whole night? And the all terrain vehicles that are apparantly the only way to go from suburban residence to downtown office and back again, given that one has to cross three rain forests, a couple of marshlands and a stretch of desert on the way? I don’t want to make a list of the ways in which energy is wasted in this country. I’ll simply be wasting even more by staying up all night.

Tell you what, you want to delude yourself that you’re saving energy, I’ll let you kid yourself. Just don’t try to kid me that an hour being taken away in March is simply notional, and this hour is returned to you come October. The hour that will be returned to me on Sunday morning is simply the one I lost the Sunday in March. What about the 200 odd hours I’ve lost everyday in the meantime? And you want to swindle me out of 30 more! If all office workers can be given those 8-9 days off, now you’re talking real savings – imagine, a week’s vacation. No lights in offices, no lifts, no coffee machines, no photocopying or printing or tapping away at computers… Megawatts of energy saved! And if people wish to spend their vacation traveling, or shopping, spending money here and there, that’s good for the economy isn’t it? Isn’t that the same principle as getting a $200 tax return?

Where does all this lost time go? It probably joins the time I save by using a microwave to warm my glass of milk instead of using a stove, the time I save by using a computer instead of a typewriter, the time I save by ordering goodies instead of cooking for Diwali… Is it going into some invisible 401K account, and will be returned to me when I retire? I doubt that. These days, one can’t even retire. No, one is headed for life as an active Senior. I’ll be expected to account for all the time I didn’t spend kayakking or waltzing or golfing when my limbs still move by doing them all when I just want to sleep in late. Perhaps by the time I get to 85 or 90 (yeah, no one retires before then. If you do, you simply move onto a second career – as a writer / consultant / potter / actor, or whatever), they’ll have Daylight Saving Time all the time! And my wish to sleep in late will never happen.

I’m too depressed to continue. I think I’ll go waste some time watching TV. There’re enough people saving time already.

An evening’s adventure.

Yesterday, thanks to some brilliant orchestration on my part, I managed to get locked out of my apartment. It all started in the morning (as so many nasty experiences often do, for me). It’s been a few months since we moved to our new apartment. Perhaps, it is time to stop calling it the ‘new’ apartment. But I digress… The reason I bring this up is because something like last evening would have never happened were we still living in the old apartment…

Now play close attention, because things are complicated, and to truly appreciate the extent of my brilliant planning and execution, it is vital to understand the layout of my apartment. There are two ways to enter my apartment – through the main door, and through the garage. If the fancy takes you, as it often does me, you may also exit through these very same doors.

I’m usually quite bad at drawing maps, giving directions and the like. Here’s my attempt at listing the complicated sequence of events that precipitated in the heinous crime, er, I mean my getting locked out. Feel free to ask questions. I won’t hear you, and you won’t bother me at all.

We will begin with the evidence.

Exhibit A: The Main Door: The main door has two bolts – the upper bolt, and the lower bolt. Only the lower bolt may be opened from outside the apartment. (not outside the apartment complex, say, remotely from Timbuktu, but by standing on the other side of the door and using a key. Remote opening of apartment doors from Timbuktu is technology one will simply have to wait for). The upper bolt (also called the ‘privacy bolt’ by the apartment management, possibly with the aim of gouging a few dollars more in the name of ‘additional safety features’) cannot be accessed with the key. It is no doubt meant for scared home makers who wish to make their home in as secure an environment as possible.

Exhibits B1 and B2: The Door to the Garage (B1) and The Garage Door (B2): The Door to the Garage is not bedecked with a multitude of bolts. But lest there be sibling rivalry between the two exits, the benevolent apartment builder has provided the garage with its own charms. Et voila, we meet the remote operated Garage Door. Now, if you find your attention wandering, take a deep breath, and focus! The Door to the Garage is different from the Garage door. The former connects the living room with the garage, while the latter connects the garage with the outside world. And just in case you were curious, the Garage Door, while remote operated may not be opened from Timbuktu either. Most days, it doesn’t open (or close) when you work the remote from 2 feet away. Success is usually achieved by banging the remote against your palm or the car (or any other handy object) two to five times in rapid succession, giving the thing a good jiggle or two, mouthing a few choice swear words and trying again. (Swearing doesn’t actually do anything to the door, but my roomie & I find it has a somewhat calming effect on the nerves. So it’s just for you, not the Garage Door.)

Yesterday morning, just as I was about to step out the Door to the Garage (Exhibit B1), I was overcome with the sudden and pressing urge to bolt the upper bolt to the main door (Exhibit A). With a life-long history of succumbing to sudden and pressing urges, I decided that yesterday morning (an early one, as we had to reach office by 7:30 AM for a conference call) was not the best time to take a stand and resist temptation. I yielded, and bolted the door, using both bolts. We left through the Door to the Garage (Exhibit B1), closed the Garage Door (Exhibit B2). The apartment is now as safe as a house.

Fast forward 12 hours to the evening. Roomie wanted to attend a Microsoft conference. So I get a ride back home with the boss. Boss drives off. I reach Main Door (Exhibit A). Even as I reached for my key, the door momentarily turns into a screen, and in slow motion, I watch a movie of a younger me (well, it was 12 hours ago) bolt the upper and lower bolts and turning away towards the garage. The movie played to the very apt background score of yours truly screaming silently to myself.

You give up too easily, you say. You should simply go through the garage, you say. Sure. I would have done just that, had I had the foresight to get the remote to open the Garage Door from the roomie. Prescience is always in short supply & I’d already used up my quota for the day when I double bolted the Main Door.

I had two options – call boss and go with him & spend the evening at his home, and wait for the roomie to get back from conference. Or go to the mall, hang around, and wait for the roomie to get back from the conference. Let me rephrase that. I had one option. Go to the Mall.

So to the Mall I went. Spent a few hours walking around. Foraged the deep discount racks at Foley’s, looking for that $5 Ralph Lauren sweater that has magically skipped the notice of the hordes that frequent the mall. As always I did not find it. Next time, I say. Somehow, am the eternal optimist when it comes to Ralph Lauren. Someday, I will no doubt be able to afford him. Went around to Bath & Body Works – smelled their pots of creams and lotions. Why is it important to have your Body Cream Whipped? In the interest of scientific inquiry, I bought a jar. If I suddenly turn into Nicole Kidman, I’ll know why.

At the end of what felt like hours (hold on, it was hours) of walking around in what were easily the most uncomfortable shoes on God’s earth, I spotted Walden Books. Praise be, I told myself. I’d promised to myself that I shan’t buy any more books this year. (Us book-types do that frequently, just to pass the time – no reader I know ever keeps such promises). But here I felt was a golden opportunity to bypass guilt. I hadn’t specifically set out to buy books. After all, fate put me in that mall. That only meant one thing – the Powers that be wanted me to buy books.

So I enter the store. I check out their new arrivals section. And start feeling uneasy at once. They had paper-back copies of Guns, Germs & Steel and The Time Traveler’s Wife – under NEW ARRIVALS! That should’ve warned me. But the eternal optimist I am, I walk up to the counter and start a conversation with the High School kid they’ve entrusted the store to.

Me: “Do you have Two Lives by Vikram Seth?”

Kid: “Hold on, let me check my computer. What was the name again?”

Me: “S-E-T-H. Vikram Seth. V-I-K-R-A-M.”

Kid: “Hmm, I’ve never heard of that name.”

Sound of my heart breaking into a million pieces, accompanied by the shattering of the Sphygmomanometer, as my blood pressure shoots way up, as it does in cartoons. (It was a curious sensation, and one I should have documented better for the scientists. Hypertension accompanied by a breaking heart – a feat that should be technically impossible, but there I was, experiencing it.)

Kid: “We don’t have Two Lives. But I do see two other books – A Suitable Boy and Three Chinese Poets.’

Me, breathing again: “Where do I find Three Chinese Poets?”

Kid: “Oh, we don’t actually have either of the books. Sorry.”

Me: “Oh. OK.”

So, nursing a broken heart and 23 blisters on my feet, I trudged back home, feeling as whipped as my jar of Body Cream. And I still had at least an hour to go. I limped over to the hot tub, rolled up my pants, and soaked my aching feet into luke warm water (why they insist on calling the damn thing “hot” tub, I’ll never know), flipped open my cell phone & called up a couple of friends to share my woeful tale and pass the time. Roomie eventually arrived, sounded me off for my folly, and I gratefully slinked into my room & my bed.

Still the day was not a complete waste. Many valuable lessons were learned:

– You may feel you have the keys to unlock the mysteries of the world, but pal, life is incomplete without the garage opener.

– Just like there is daylight savings time, there are bookstore employees in this world who have not heard of Vikram Seth. That their presence goes against everything that good and honest and true and natural does not preclude their existence.

– It’s OK to forget the Garage Opener, as long as you have your credit card with you, and a mall across the road.

– And oh, wear comfortable shoes. Always.

Farewell to Madras

When I left India, I stuffed as much of “home” as is humanly possible into two large suitcases. I consoled myself with the fact that life in my adopted country comes equipped with broadband, Google Talk, cheap calling cards and numerous other devices, each a symbol of reassurance that I’ll always stay in touch with home.

What I didn’t realize then, is that the instant I stepped on the plane I also stepped into a parallel universe, equipped only with my two suitcases which function as time capsules filled with memories of that other world I used to inhabit. The instant the plane lifted off Indian soil, I lost all touch with home. This week end, I decided that I shall no longer insist on calling Madras “home”. No more clinging on to this imaginary ideal.

What brought on this maudlin state? Hard to point a finger at one specific cause – it’s been building up for sometime now. ‘Ghajini’ was the final straw.

As I watched Surya prance about in hot pink cargos, I realized that I’ve become a complete stranger to the way of the Tamils. If one considers popular entertainment as a barometer of prevailing tastes, I can no longer call myself a Tamilian. I’d looked forward to Ghajini, despite knowing that it is an attempt at the desification of Memento. In fact, I was impressed that a Tamil movie was ‘inspired’ by such challenging original material as Memento. I knew it would be asking for the moon to expect them to tell the tale backwards (remember this is the audience that found Michael Madana Kamaraj too hard to follow). I was prepared for a chronologically simpler retelling. I was even prepared for a second heroine, and a second chance at romance & a happy ending.

What I was not prepared for was a sorry Bollywood-import for a villain, who’s been imported twice over, possibly due to a mix-up involving two copies of bills of lading (don’t ask why I say these things – effects of a summer internship at P&O NedLloyd apparently still linger on.) And while this is mere wishful thinking, I do keep hoping that Tamil cinema would rid itself of actresses who represent inspired casting decisions for the ‘before’ segments of weight reduction ads. Or if you must have “healthy” looking females, would someone please clothe them! Or does that defeat the whole purpose? I find it painful and embarrassing to defend Tamil cinema to non-Tamil friends when our “item girls” look they way they do. Every time I bring up, say, Govinda, they come right back at me with Mumtaz & the like. Nayantara appears to be the latest addition to our line of “svelte” beauties.

As I’d mentioned, Ghajini was merely the last straw. I also found Anniyan disappointing & Chandramukhi painful. Movie wise, it has been a painful year. I’ve survived gems such as 7G Rainbow Colony, Mumbai Express, Devathayai Kanden, Krishna Thulasi, Chellamay and others my traumatized mind has succeeded in suppressing the memories of. My experience with Bollywood has been no better. I watched 71/2 Phere. And if that weren’t enough, I also watched Ek Alag Mausam. I shall never let myself be seduced by the presence of Irfan or Nandita Das. Particularly Ms. Das – the lady has disappointed me across languages.

It’s one thing to get suckered into watching duds (you watch more of them when you’re outside India, out of a misplaced and questionable sense of Tamizh Pattru). But another thing entirely to scoff at the year’s best movies. For starters, the latter makes for some uncomfortable silences during calls home. One cousin has watched Anniyan thrice. How do I continue the conversation after hearing that piece of information?

I worry about my Tamil-ness when I find myself unable to sit through these masterpieces even once. If you dislike Tamil movies when you are in India, you might be considered merely ignorant. Having spent 6 years in Delhi, I am considered something of a non-Tamilian by the Madrasis, and non-Tamilians who watch Tamil movies are treated with a fond indulgence – as you would foreigners attempting to speak your language. But if you dislike Tamil movies and you happen to live in the US, you’re a snob. If you’ve ever made the mistake of mentioning a foreign language movie or two (even if you personally watch them more for Ziyi Zhang or Gael Garcia Bernal than for their subtle story-telling), you are a pseudo.

When I read Naipaul or Lahiri, it’s always been with a sense of curiosity. Till date, I’ve not felt any sort of kinship with those misplaced souls. I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. This week end, I realized that that is what I am. I suppose it had to happen sometime – when you stop saying dah-nce and learn to say day-nce, you catch yourself asking friends to order a movie on NetFlix, when you celebrate Diwali on a convenient weekend, instead of on Diwali day.

All of these little changes have been accumulating over the last year. When I watched Surya in a Mustard T-shirt (tight, with no sleeves, please – we want to show the world that we spend at least 10 hours a day at the gym), and Mustard pants, I realized that Madras may no longer be “home”.

I love the movies. And an important reason I watch them is to get material for day dreaming. Hollywood movies are great. As are Chinese movies, Spanish movies, Polish movies and well, you get the idea. But Tamil movies have always been special. Because, culturally, they capture one’s aspirations bang on. Heroes perform their heroic deeds in familiar settings, making it that much easier to imagine yourself in their shoes. While James Bond kicks ass, being a cryptologist from Madras who cracks codes for the Indian government wasn’t a bad dream either.

A necessary pre-condition to all this day-dreaming is that the characters be desirable. A man who has repeatedly failed his exams, and can’t get a job, until the love of a good woman helps him discover a superior vocational talent (auto-repair, dish-washing – take your pick) is most definitely NOT desirable. Granted, Sanjay Ramaswamy from Ghajini is an HBS alum who owns a large mobile phone service provider. But let’s not forget that he is also the man with the chunky silver bracelets and the hot pink cargos. I’m not planning a visit to Fresh Choice when I day dream – I’ll take X’s money, Y’s charm with the ladies, and keep my own clothes & build the perfect salad, er, hero. No, I want it to be simple – a case of find hero, replace with DoZ.

For a while, I felt perhaps age was the culprit – the other top reason behind why so many things don’t seem to make sense any more. But, naah. My parents loved Chandramukhi. And liked Anniyan. So, I’ve decided it must be the distance. Perhaps the chlorinated water of Madras passes on that je ne sais quoi that tells Tamilians in Tamil Nadu that pretending to be rappers with lots of bling is “the” way to look. Drinking fluorinated water in Texas, I’ve become ‘phoren’.

As I mourn my loss, I take comfort from fellow displaced Tamilians who appear as bewildered by Tamil movies as I am. At least, they appear to be taking it better than I am. For now, home will be virtual, like this, this , and this.

3 1/2 minutes of escape

A crisis at work had me all in a tizzy today. My favorite stress guru offers these wise words:

You work and work for years and years, you’re always on the go
You never take a minute off, too busy makin’ dough
Someday, you say, you’ll have your fun, when you’re a millionaire
Imagine all the fun you’ll have in your old rockin’ chair

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think

You’re gonna take that ocean trip, no matter, come what may
You’ve got your reservations made, but you just can’t get away
Next year for sure, you’ll see the world, you’ll really get around
But how far can you travel when you’re six feet underground?

Your heart of hearts, your dream of dreams, your ravishing brunette
She’s left you and she’s now become somebody else’s pet
Lay down that gun, don’t try, my friend, to reach the great beyond
You’ll have more fun by reaching for a redhead or a blonde

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think

You never go to nightclubs and you just don’t care to dance;
You don’t have time for silly things like moonlight and romance.
You only think of dollar bills tied neatly in a stack;
But when you kiss a dollar bill, it doesn’t kiss you back.

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think

– Guy Lombardo

Now if only I were wise enough to heed his advice…

The intrepid traveler returns

Back home. Back at my desk. Feels good. Am pleasantly surprised that it does. Have concluded that the anticipation of misery is much worse than actual misery. Just as actual pleasure usually falls short of pleasure anticipated.

On Saturday, as my friend & I walked back home from Time Square, before I bid good bye, I felt quite miserable. How had the week gone by so quickly? Would I ever be back here? God, I so do not want to think about work! Couldn’t believe I was going to miss this city, which had given me nothing but rain!

One of the worst kinds of miseries is when you’re in the middle of something and you miss it already. There’s a desperate attempt to memorize as many things as you can about your surroundings, about the day. A silly, obsessive need to touch everything, as if the happiness you associate with that place will rub off on you & will stay with you even after you’ve physically moved away. I completely understand why people buy idiotic souvenirs & other assorted junk at the places they visit. I will revisit the junk I preserved from this trip (two tickets for Goodnight and Good Luck, a “You’re Special” flyer a lady handed me after I’d asked her for directions, used up Subway passes) when it’s time to move. This is how I collect the assorted junk I never do muster the courage to throw away.

But now that am back at my desk, it feels alright. I was dreading this moment, but now that am living it, it’s not so bad. In a day or two, I can check off the “miss New York” item off my list. This is a favorite obsession – checking items off an imaginary list. On my last day, I look forward to the unbeatable satisfaction I will no doubt derive from a “Life – done”. Morbid? Sure. But hey, at the end of a vacation, this is a far more cheerful me that I myself expected!

Enough of the misery. What did I do over the last week? Apart from getting drenched on a regular basis, I read 2 novels, and watched 2 movies. Yes, we like even numbers. The books were quite bad, but the movies were both good.

First the books. Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress & Hari Kunzru’s Transmission. I feel a need to defend my even choosing the Brown, so I’ll start with that. It’d been a long while since I read pulp, and after all, this was supposed to be a vacation – a break from the usual. As I had a couple of train rides (to New Haven & Philly) in addition to the flights, I figured this would make for some nice easy reading.

For me, reading pulp is like eating tomato ketchup. I loathe the stuff. But every once in a while, I feel the urge to reassure myself that I still hate it. So, I try some ketchup. And immediately realize why I’d vowed to stay away from the stuff for all eternity the last time I’d tried it. Dan Brown did not do anything to alter my scripted response to pulp. What was tiresome about Digital Fortress was the amount of jaw-dropping the author expects from the reader. The heroine works for the NSA! The NSA is the National Security Agency! She can break codes! There is such a thing as an unbreakable code! Yawn. It’s one thing to read Dalrymple’s In Xanadu and see how this author has evolved into someone who wrote White Mughals. It’s an altogether different and far less enjoyable experience to see how Dan Brown could become the sort of author who wrote the Da Vinci Code.

The Kunzru was better than Brown, but only marginally so. Kunzru also demanded much jaw-dropping. Not for the characters or the plot, but for his own smartness. He’s a very “with it” author, or at any rate wants us to think he is. Reading Kunzru is not unlike reading Candace Bushnell. The language and the issues are all very current – like Bond-girl gowns. Hot, but with a rather short shelf life. But the crucial difference between Bond girls’ fashion & Kunzru is that well, Kunzru’s not very hot. Sure, he deals with all things “contemporary” – the typical software engineer, the Bollywood hero with underworld connections, the brand guru… But each of these characters is so stereotypical that I felt that I didn’t really have to read a novel to find out about. The Times of India would’ve sufficed. This novel came strongly recommended by an American friend. I decided to read it despite Karthik’s review, figuring it might be worth it. I suppose perhaps that’s where the crux lies. This is a novel written for Indophilic goras for whom getting inside the head of a miserable software type is a “new” thing. I am a miserable software type already, indeed am surrounded by miserable software types. So, I didn’t get much out of this book.

But it doesn’t stop there. After 3 years of Delhi Times & cover page stories about ‘Salman / Ash Break Up’ and “investigative journalism” on Salman being caught on tape, a Bollywood producer’s having connections with a Baby someone (Btw, “Baby” is a sorry transliteration for the “Chota” characters from real life) is something I’ve come to live with. It is not a surprise, it is not an interesting tidbit, it is not even funny. Ditto for the controlling-mother-of-the-heroine character, the sister-who-works-for-a-call-center, and oh, just about everybody else in the book.

Flavors did a far better job of giving us a peek into the lives of these stereotypical immigrants. Because it was unambitious, it was also more endearing. Page 3 is another example. The selfish socialites of Page 3 are by no means endearing, but you are provided with some opinion on these characters and their motives.

Kunzru expects us to love & admire his characters just because they are. Or does he expect us to love & admire him? For having taken these characters out of Delhi Times & Mumbai Times & movies-made-by-NRIs-for-NRIs and putting them into novel form, for easier consumption by a gullible western audience? A few years ago, westerners used to think India was full of snake charmers and burning widows. Now they know it’s full of software engineers day dreaming of Bollywood girls. As with Dan Brown – yawn.

Now the movies – Capote & Good Night and Good Luck. Enjoyed both. Capote is about the writing of ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote’s most famous work. My personal exposure to Capote’s work is limited to reruns of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. No doubt I’d have enjoyed this movie all the more had I read In Cold Blood. Perhaps in a few years, I will read the book. Even as you cringe at the selfishness, a part of you feels sorry for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote. Is every great writer screwed up in some way? My friend & I made a list, and concluded in the affirmative. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance makes Capote’s character credible without turning him into a genius who evokes more pity than awe.

In Good Night and Good Luck, George Clooney proves that he’s not just a pretty boy. I haven’t watched Solaris (Clooney’s directorial debut, I think), but intend to watch it now. More about this movie in a later post.

In short, it was a good break. And now am glad to be back.

The Intrepid Traveler

Temperature in Dallas finally hits the 50s. I’ve bought a new woolen cap to honor the moment (for as with all things cool, this too shall pass). I leave for New York tomorrow morning, where if Yahoo Weather is to be believed, temperatures are expected to be in the 70s the whole of next week. Isn’t that nice?

Yes, am being tiresome. After all, am off for a whole week, and away from Dallas, and in New York – I should count my manifold blessings. Problem is I loathe the run up to the whole leaving-town-process. Upon careful reflection, I realize that I:

a) love to see new places. Indeed at this point, any place other than Plano & Richardson, Texas will be regarded with the same awe as would Cairo, Istanbul, or Machu Picchu. Am not too hard to please.

b) not helped by the fact that places I plan to leave (Madras, Delhi, Dallas, Gurgaon – it doesn’t matter where) suddenly turn beautiful 24 hours before I’m due to leave. Relatives who never visit decide it’s time to visit. Malls go into deep discount mode. Friends who spend the rest of the year flitting from work to home get together for assorted adventures. (Just so they can tell me, “Oh, you’re never there when we do fun stuff.”) State Fairs with fat pigs set up shop for just the time when am gone. (Last year’s week end visit to New York caused me to miss seeing “the fattest pig in all of Texas.” A life long devotee of Lord Emsworth & the Empress of Blandings, I may never recover from the heart break)

c) don’t mind the journey itself, because am usually well stocked on books

d) abhor preparing for the journey (the endless packing & re-packing, the forced short-listing of books & music, the remembering to charge up a zillion electronic devices that I will not use, but nonetheless will NEED the minute the battery runs out, the remembering to write down all sorts of phone numbers, the remembering to wrap up tens of details at work, each more irritating that the other…Well, I just find all this “remembering” a rather draining experience)

e) am crushed by the day after the last day of the vacation

I did my first round of packing last night. With me, you see, there are always several rounds. When I start packing, I rarely remember that I’m traveling coach with hand-baggage only. I always start under the assumption that I will have a state-room, and an army of underlings to carry my baggage. That’s Round 1. Round 2 commences when I try to fit the stuff I’ve ‘set aside for the trip’ into a suitcase of any size. Rounds 2-5 consist of ranking aforementioned items in the order of their perceived importance, and discarding the once at the bottom of the list.

Round 6 is the same as rounds 2-5, but involves a greater degree of courage & determination as I force myself to pare down even more. Round 7, usually performed between 1/2 to 5 minutes before I leave home consists of stuffing back some of the items painfully discarded during earlier rounds because I’m still not entirely convinced I won’t desperately need them. The secret to the success of this round is the short time frame available – when am in a hurry, I don’t think. I stuff first, and reflect later. After all, I have a longish plane or train journey plus the rest of my life to regret my choosing to carry this heavy item or that.

As I mentioned, I’ve completed round 1. Every time I pack, I appreciate those immortal lines ‘And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep’ at a whole new level.

But, packing isn’t all bad. For instance, to my very great joy, I realized that I do not possess enough sweaters (I was told by a friend in New York to bring some). I only have 3 serviceable* ones, and 3 are clearly NOT enough for any soul. Even my Mom would agree. It’s a marvelous feeling to have objective evidence to support the claim that one has no clothes. Will remedy the shortage immediately upon return, or perhaps when I’m in New York.

Packing is also an adventure of discovery, equivalent to a minor scale moving experience, as it were. Last night I found myself repeatedly experiencing a sense of wonder, and suitably expressed these sentiments with “Wow! I bought that? When?”, “I can still fit into that? Oh Joy! There is a God, after all!”, “So this is where you’ve been hiding!” and so on.

But all the dubious delights in the world don’t take away the fact that my vacation will end. Before I can say “I am so glad to be away from work”, I’ll be right back… at the same desk, with the same inspiring view of Taco Bell, tapping away at the same damn keyboard. How cynical do you have to be to mourn the completion of your vacation even before you start it?

Note to self: Use vacation to acquire a more cheerful outlook on life.

* serviceable as per the definition according to DoZ, not OED or MOM (both well known for their exacting and rather narrow definitions of objects, emotions & experiences).**

**What did you expect?

On Ranting

Karthik’s last post got me thinking. Ranting is an honored literary tradition & masters across centuries have engaged in it with highly entertaining & edifying results. Here’s a short list of the ranters I love:

James Thurber
An undisputed master of art (in my opinion). One of his funniest is ‘File & Forget’ – a collection of his correspondence with his publishers over a mix up involving among other things a number of copies of the book “Grandma Was a Nudist”. Strictly NOT for office reading, or any place else where you don’t want to fall off your chair & roll around the floor laughing.

(Unfortunately, I do not recall the name of the piece that is my personal favorite. It features Thurber, his wife & a confused lady at a party, who all get increasingly drunk as the evening proceeds, with hilarious results. The lady accuses Thurber of having written something he has not, and he tries very hard to disabuse her, but…Well, am making an absolute hash of it here – but if someone remembers the title or the collection in which this appears, please let me know.)

David Sedaris
Sedaris’s wit lacks the rapier sharpness of Thurber’s. But his rants are equally hilarious. From his experience working as an Elf at Macy’s (or was it Bloomingdale’s?) in Santaland Diaries to his adventures in France, Sedaris is also NOT for office reading. Go here for sample sound bites. The author’s dead pan voice makes it all funnier.

But when it comes to rants, the Bard wins. As he does, am sure, in just about everything under the sun… My all time favorite rant bar none is:

To bait fish withal: if it feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.*

What wouldn’t I give to be able to rant like this…

* The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1

Let’s make this an open tag. Favorite ranters & their rants, movies included.

Coming up with hackneyed responses to common greetings

Am all for politesse. But frankly, coming up with responses to common greetings is starting to tire me. As an Indian, am used to ignoring people, and in turn being ignored. It’s a beautiful system. After moving to the US, I felt completely traumatized by complete strangers not only asking me how I was doing (or as they say in Texas, “how y’all doin’?”), but actually expecting a response. What did these people want, I used to wonder. Should I take them seriously, and actually tell them just how crappy a day I was having? Or how much their seemingly innocent question had contributed to the overall crappiness of the aforementioned day? Or was Texas full of kind souls who actually wanted to hear about my insomnia, my headaches, and a wide assortment of other illnesses?

If there’s someone I dislike more than the persons asking such questions, it’s the ones who reply “Wonderful!”, “Fantastic!”, “Super!” (you can see the exclamation marks in the air.) What do these people find in life to be so bloody cheerful about? We once disowned a friend who started saying things like that. You see, the poor chap had joined a cult (er, Amway), and was never the same again. But that’s for another post.

After several months of jumping a couple of inches into the air every time I encountered yet another well-mannered person (oh where have all the rude people gone?), I got used to it. I am now able to rattle off bromides like, “Am good, thanks. And you?”, “Have a good one” and so on. I suspect I may have crossed a major milestone because infrequently, I can even pose the question myself. (It used to be never.)

But what still has me stumped is the question “What’s up?” It is, by far, the most irritating question anyone can ask. Because, I never ever have anything to say, other than ‘absolutely nothing.’ When am in one of my dark moods, I’ve tried to be, well, dark, and responded with “Not me” or “the sun, but am asking it to go down this minute” & other mutterings in similar vein. No effect. Because no one pays attention. (Although it is sometimes worse when they do pay attention, because they usually don’t get it, and I have to spend 10 minutes explaining what I meant.)

It’s apprently enough to ask an inane question like that, and wait for some response that involves the respondent producing a sound. Some folks (the nobler ones) are happy with mere mumbles. Others have their brains tuned to only accepting some decipherable response. My best and only response is, as I mentioned, ‘absolutely nothing’. On very rare occasions, I vary it a little (let it not be said that I’ve no imagination). If the fancy takes me, I may say “nothing”. Whether I say this with a cheerful smile or a scowl depends on the time of the day & whether I happen to be headed toward or emerging from my boss’s office.

My response always seems to leave the inquirer feeling vaguely dissatisfied. I really don’t know what these people want from me. I should spend some time & come up with a few expressions that I can kill with overuse & therefore no longer have to cringe when saying them out loud. What is the ideal response to “What’s up?” Let us see:

a) Gas prices? – may work for the foreseeable future. Keep.
b) Unemployment / interest rates / house prices? – too volatile. I need something I can use forever. Discard.
c) The Eiffel Tower? – not bad. Keep.
d) The sky? – lousy. Keep for emergency use only.

If you know what the perfect response is, please, for the love of God, let me in on the secret. Until I hear from you, am starting an email campaign to rude people, begging them to move to Dallas.

Saturday (Contd.)

I suffer from a case of ‘let’s publish this NOW’ syndrome. After hitting the button, I realized I have quite a few things to add to my last post. Here goes:

Perowne’s character is easy to relate to for many reasons. He is ambitious, and has worked hard to achieve his successes. However, perhaps in keeping with the so called ‘liberal way’, at critical moments, he feels almost ashamed of his own achievements. Was he right to use his medical knowledge to get out of a beating? When I think about it now, I realize that of course he was. If your professional training does not help you get out of a sticky situation, of what use is it? Watching a possible drug addict from his window, Perowne wonders what made this young lady turn into an addict, even as he waits for the arrival of another young lady who is having her first book of poetry published.

I loved that part. Because, of late, I do seem to keep reminding myself of how lucky I’ve been. Lucky to be an Indian, and not a Somalian, lucky to have born into a Tamil family on one side of a narrow stretch of salty water, than the other. Lucky to have had a childhood characterized by the complete absence of guns, starvation and disease. Lucky to be literate. Lucky to have a job. A seemingly endless list of things about which my opinions swing between heartfelt gratitude and ennui. To read Saturday is to realize that this internal pendulum apparently isn’t yours alone.

There were too many instances where it felt incredibly easy to replace Perowne with myself. Perhaps it just helps my ego to imagine myself as being anything like Perowne; after all, he’s made it. A flourishing career, loving wife, children who’re not only incredibly talented, but also genuinely nice, a home in London, a soon to be inherited château in France… Yes, he certainly has it all. And what’s so bad about wanting all that? At 15, it was easy to imagine myself in any number of characters’ shoes, be it Scarlett O’Hara or Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Frank. At 27, the task has become more challenging. You’re jaded, you think you know yourself more, and worse, you think you know how most things work, even if you’re yet to experience them personally. Saturday let me day dream like I haven’t in a long time.

Sure, the climax felt contrived, but after 250 pages of utterly beautiful writing, who cares?

Updated verdict: Read Saturday. Read it now, before the world changes. Read it now before you do, too.

Saturday: Comfort read for the media weary.

Read Ian McEwan’s Saturday a few days ago, and found it is sublime. While I’ve read Atonement & Amsterdam, I wouldn’t call myself an avowed fan of McEwan’s. That might just change after ‘Saturday’. Saturday is a day in the life of Henry Perowne. Perowne is someone we all dream of becoming, someone we’d be lucky to be at 50. Successful career. Reasonably good health. A wife of many years, whom he still loves, and who still loves him. Two children any parent would be proud of.

The novel is immensely enjoyable for two reasons – Perowne’s sharp observations on life that make you repeatedly think, “I know just what you mean!” And the fact that the book is contemporary in a way that doesn’t in the least bit feel contrived. Afghanistan, Iraq, 9-11, Africa, Saddam, Bush, Blair, Hans Blix, the theory of evolution, Islam – they’re all part of the props, and seem to belong there.

I resisted reading this novel because I felt vaguely resentful of the intrusion of these subjects into fiction. My thinking was that at least some places should remain sacred and aloof from the messiness of every day life. Anyone who’s been around for the last five years has read hundreds of op-ed columns, or watched any number of news clips, documentaries, etc. on these issues and will continue to read and watch hundreds more. Why must we endure more of the same in fiction, too? I also found it a little sad. Had non-fiction and our growing obsession with it put fiction on the defensive, turning the very genre into yet another wannabe-newsroom pundit, delivering its own verdict on how life has changed? Or how one must now proceed to deal with this “changed life”?

I am so very glad to report I was wrong. In a way, Saturday does do all of the offensive things I feared it would (dwell upon current events, show us how people deal with them), but does so in a completely disarming and therefore very likeable manner. Perowne tries to grapple with the problem of Iraq, as almost every one must have. He tries to gauge his stands on broader issues that impinge upon his own life only peripherally, if at all.

I wonder if men have always done this. Did your parents have endless discussions on the Indo-Pak war or your grandparents on the Second World War? It must have been hard not to, as these would have impacted every day life much more than the current “global struggle against violent extremism” does. Sure, we have to go to the airport an hour earlier than we used to, and can’t carry nail-clippers in our hand-baggage any more. Sure, color coded terror alters have become a part of our vocabulary. While I admit I’m hardly a representative sample, personally, I haven’t had my food rationed. Or had to turn off lights in response to air raid alerts. Or been drafted to the army.

What I’ve done instead is read or watch the news. Debated with friends about the news. Actually discussed would be a better term, as we mostly appear agree with each other, at least on this topic. The least enjoyable experience has been having to revise my opinions about how much I trust the news itself. I don’t know if this is part of growing up, when one day you wake up and realize that even The Hindu exists in order to make a profit, as does the New York Times, and as do any number of other institutions you believed were sacred and far above the cheap motives of making a buck.

There was a point to that digression – it was such a great relief to simply peek into someone else’s opinions, sans judgment. When am reading about Henry’s sense of ambiguousness over the war on terror, I simply get to satisfy my curiosity over what another person feels like. I am not simultaneously calculating how many pinches of salt I’ll need to take with this opinion or attempting to divine whether the source of these opinions is from the left or the right of an imaginary political fence, up for re-election, or has a major merger deal awaiting regulatory approval. Fiction beats all the expert commentary, well-researched or otherwise by being, well, fictitious.

Would reading Hemingway or Maugham hot off the presses have felt the same way? Possibly. I’ll never know. What I do know that Saturday felt like a breath of fresh air. And reading McEwan in the middle of a particularly taxing work-week (aren’t they all?) made the experience that much more wonderful.

Bottom-line: Read Saturday. Read it now, before the world changes once again.