Archive for December, 2005|Monthly archive page

Happy new year

The Complete New Yoker & Seth’s Two Lives – mine. Happy New Year to me. And yeah – the rest of you, too.

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Forms and skeletons

At the moment, I have forms coming out of my ears. At work, I’ve been testing a forms automation software; at home, I’ve been filling out application forms – web forms, paper forms, mobile forms, immobile forms, I’ve filled almost every kind. Imagine my consternation when I go to a favorite blog in an attempt to restore some sanity into my life, only to have posts about forms! But at least this was a heck of lot more fun than the other forms I’ve been churning out. It reminded me that not everything about forms is the opposite of fun.

Karthik’s post also reminded me of a funny form story from my own family. Amazing how it’s the passport that serves as the one medium that long forgotten family ghosts elect to speak through. Graduating school, applying to colleges, jobs, getting insured, hospitalized or married, even dying – all these other form-filled experiences lack that certain Ouija-board-ness of the Passport application form.

A few years ago, my Periamma (aunt) was filling out a series of forms. As anyone who’s traveled abroad knows, forms beget forms (LOTS of them, since the concept of birth control is alien to forms). Periamma needed a visa. For which she needed a passport. For which she needed a birth certificate. She also needed her High School and Graduation Certificates, and mark sheets or ‘transcripts’ (God knows why, but governments like to be thorough in these matters) Coming from a typical Tamil family, of course, she had every one of these documents, safely preserved in an assortment of meticulously labeled plastic folders and envelopes. That she had them all was part of the problem.

I don’t want to get too deep into the clashes in birth dates between her birth certificate and her school and college certificates. OK, I just changed my mind – birth date confusion is an important cultural phenomenon that’s worth contemplating. It is exceedingly common among people from my aunt’s generation that it’s considered the most natural thing in the world to have multiple birth days, a ‘real’ one (the English month, date and year you were born in), the ‘official’ one (or the date that your parents gave when they enrolled you into school a few months or years before the school would officially accept you – you had to be 6 years old to be accepted into first grade, and parents’ patience rarely lasted so long), and finally the ‘star birthday’ (or the birth date as per the Tamil lunar calendar). Of course, it goes without saying that the ‘real’, ‘official’ and ‘star’ birth dates aren’t remotely connected with each other. (And just in case you were wondering, your parents only allowed you to celebrate one.)

Forms being the dumb information recording devices they are simply lack the intelligence to deal with a cultural phenomenon this complex. They give you 6 tiny boxes against ‘Date of Birth’. Which one? This is the question that stumps pretty much most folks from my parents’ generation. [Thankfully, they’ve learnt their lessons, and folks from my generation only have 2 birth days – the ‘real’ one and the ‘star’ one. We owe eternal gratitude to the introduction of kindergarten, which got us out of our parents’ hair & into our teachers’ at a much earlier age]

My Periamma had Date of Birth problems. That was only to be expected. But that was nothing compared to ‘Father’s name’. Simple question, you’d think. Except that she had Kannan (my grand father, and her actual father) on her school & college certificates, and ‘Appaswamy Mudalayar’ (or my great-grandfather) in her birth certificate. This had the entire family stumped for a long time. Since Appaswamy Mudalayar was my aunt’s maternal grandfather, my grandfather even felt a little miffed – “if someone gave the wrong name, why couldn’t it have been my father’s name?” was the unspoken question. The mystery and the passive aggressive grumbling continued for a few days. My grand parents wracked their brains, trying to retrace the actions surrounding the birth certificate. Considering my aunt is the first of five children, and was over 40 years old by the time anyone had taken the trouble to look at the damn certificate, this was quite challenging.

Finally, my grandmother remembered. In those days, one didn’t have to fill out the birth certificate form at the hospital, like one does now. Families would usually send someone over to the Thaluk office a few days after a baby was born, and get the paper work done. Our family must have had its form filler too. This form filler dropped by to get the details from my grandmother before going by the Thaluk office. The conversation must’ve gone like this:

Form filler: Kozhantha peru? (Baby’s name?)
My grandmother: XYZ
Form filler: Ennaikku poranthuthu? (Date of birth?)
My grandmother: 15 Oct 1953
Form filler: Appa peru sollunga (Father’s name?)
My grandmother: Appaswamy Mudalayar

That, you see, was the crux. My grandmother, still a young girl, had given out her father’s name.

Oh, how we laughed at my sheepish looking grandmother. After recovering, my Periamma had a bit of a row with her mother. Understandable, because she had suffered a panic attack before this deeply troubling question was resolved. That there was a confusion regarding any question was bad enough – every one in my family is trained to fall apart when faced with troubling forms. [Troubling questions in life rarely bother us. We pass them blithely by – but give us a troubling question in a form, and you’ll have a nervous wreck before you can check one of those ‘check this box if you have ever received electro shock therapy for mental illness’ questions. It’s ok to be dumb in life. But to have a form point that out to you makes it so very official.] That the troubling question could have so easily had a life-altering answer was too much.

We had the devil’s own time getting the name corrected. My aunt was born in Chidambaram. The family had long since moved to Madras. Zones had been rezoned, and Thaluk offices changed. Someone had to figure out the new Thaluk office, and go there personally to get it all sorted out. And it was. My aunt got her passport and her visa, and was able to visit her son. All’s well that ends well.

PS: I hate that line. What about all the suffering in between? But that’s a question for me and my Gods, as it applies to so much more than mere forms – life itself, come to think of it.

Munich – good, but not nearly bad enough.

I just got home after watching Munich. Am trying hard to think of a suitable analogy that will describe my state of mind at the moment. It feels like coming home from an exam you expected would be a nightmare, but which turned out to be merely comme ci, comme ça (said with a Gallic shrug and a shake of the palm, which somehow adds heaps to the sense of ambivalence that phrase so aptly signifies).

First the positives: Munich is good entertainment. For a movie where you figure out what’s going to happen over the next 2 hours in the first 40 or so minutes, it is nevertheless exciting, and frequently caused me to hold my breath and gasp and jump a couple of inches off my seat. The art direction is particularly commendable (who knew the 70s were old enough to feel like a “period”? Wonder what the 00’s will look like 30 years from now…), as is the cinematography. I love spy stories because they’re a good way to go sight-seeing from the comfort of a theater near you. And in Munich, you get to do a lot of that – Jerusalem, Beirut, Athens, Rome, Paris, Munich, New York, and even a teeny bit of Holland are all thrown in for the price of one movie ticket.

The cast is impressive, the action slick, and the violence gruesome. All in all, it delivers most things you’d expect from a political thriller. Thankfully, there aren’t too many cutesy one-liners, so it all feels quite ‘real’, or what I imagine would be real for a bunch of professional assassins. After all, what do I know of international intrigue? For all I know, spies and terrorists could actually lead glamorous Bond-like lives, or it could be something far more boring. At any rate, Munich combines the right doses of sophistication, dry wit, grittiness, and soul-searching to make the post of a super-secret Mossad agent attractive, but to also make you question your willingness to be so readily seduced. As you should.

That brings us to the reasons why I finally didn’t like Munich. There are no surprises – everything in this movie is as it should be. The violence is messy, not stylized to make it appear almost beautiful, as so many action movies are wont to these days. The righteousness that drives the bloodshed is shown to be questionable. Both sides get hurt, innocent lives are lost and the middlemen make a lot of money. The hero, who leads an Israeli assassin team slowly transforms from an unquestioning soldier boy to a paranoid, disillusioned and tortured soul, who’s afraid for the safety of his family and desperately wants to be reassured that his actions meant something. After Mr. Spielberg taught the mass audience to question violence in Saving Private Ryan, we already do. I was sorta hoping for a new lesson in this movie, which it finally didn’t deliver. Even as it piles on the moral ambiguities, Munich somehow ends up as a goody-two-shoes type of movie, very propah in depicting current social attitudes toward terrorism, what we all know we ought to feel – that there are no pure causes, that violence only begets violence, that even cold-blooded killers probably question their actions at some point.

As for the conflicts faced by Mr. Bana’s character, it’s been done already – by Aidan Quinn in The Assignment, a movie about another spy recruited by the government to kill Carlos The Jackal, whose accession to the throne of master terrorist was apparently aided by the characters whose story Munich tells. And Ben Kingsley’s and Donald Sutherland’s characters in The Assignment did a far better job at making you suspect that spies are among the most used people on earth, than do the slick Frenchman (played by Mathieu Amalric with the most delightful sneer), his papa (Michael Lonsdale as a French Don Corleone, only more he’s more politically aware, sophisticated and possibly a better cook) and the Israeli case officer (Geoffrey Rush replaying his ‘Sir Francis Walsingham’ role, but with suitably accented English).

Final verdict: Watch Munich. Expect to be entertained, you will be. While this is no feel-good holiday fare, my complaint is that it doesn’t make you feel too bad, either.

More on lists

I bow to the list-meister. Falstaff, you do know your stuff. However, I’d like to defend myelf. I am not a complete novice, and actually do some of the things you talk about. Having said that, I did expose my greenness by not having thought the post through before publishing. (Reminder to self – make a list of what you want to cover before you publish a post, then publish the post.)

1) Losing lists – don’t do it with all my lists – just the shopping lists. At any point, I have at least 7 different WIP-shopping lists – on my person, in my bag, the car, on the computer, etc. Yet, every single one of these magically disappears the minute I enter a store / mall. Things to be bought at Indian grocery stores are particularly hard to locate, and emerge days or seconds afterwards from the weirdest of places – like my person, my bag, the car or my computer. It’s a complete mystery.

2) Using the list as a way of making yourself feel spontaneous. Brilliant idea. Situations like the one with the eggs you describe have happened only by accident, but clearly, there’s way to systematize these serendipitous events. And what you say about the big ticket items – I had tears in my eyes as I read that. That’s the way to deal with life. Thank you!

3) Revising lists: My masochism hasn’t proceeded thus far, yet. I have no list-buddy I can conveniently blame / laugh at. It’s a purely solo activity, and now that I know what to do about ‘get into a relationship’ items, it is likely to remain that way. I can barely bring myself to take a re-look a list as it is – let alone revise it over & over again. All that reiteration of how wastefully I spend the one life I have would be too painful. Perhaps that is the solution – revising that one-life philosophy. If I start believing in multiple lives, AND eliminate the karma component, list-revising could become my favorite pastime, after reading and watching movies.

4) Higher order lists. I already have higher order lists of lists I have, but see the advantage in planning super-lists of lists I don’t have yet, or don’t intend to make.

5) Lists as security blankets. Spontaneity sucks, especially in areas that matter to me. Walking into Blockbuster without a plan is one of the most painful experiences in life. Unlike books, I prefer to order movies online, & the Netflix Queue is manna from heaven. That is one list I love revising. And as much as I love browsing in book stores & libraries, I rarely act impulsively. Browsing is essentially list-making, performed into order equip myself with a conscience-proof reason to visit to the store / library again.

Make a list of what you want to cover before you publish a post, then publish the post. Check. Oh sweet heaven, does that feel good!

Oh, for a spot of spontaneity.

I have a love-hate relationship with lists. As a kid, I used to be mighty taken up with them. I realize how strange this makes me sound – other kids raised a series of stray dogs, squirrels and other assorted pets. Moi, I raised lists. Every night, I’d make a list of things I’d do the next day. ‘15 hours of studying’, ‘no TV’, ‘no comics’ were the most frequent items. I can’t recall a single day when I wrote a satisfying “done” against these. But they regularly made their appearance in list after list, based on the ‘Tomorrow’s another day’ philosophy. Occasionally, items like “drink 3 glasses of milk” or “drink at least 3 glasses of milk” (on days I felt particularly optimistic) would make an appearance, and meet the same fate as the “no TV”, “no comics” goals.

When I was younger, making the list was itself a very pleasurable activity. Listing was sufficient – I didn’t actually have to study for 15 hours. With age, I discovered guilt.
Happiness slowly shifted to accomplishing those goals. I had to put in the hours in order to feel happy.

Every once in a while, I’d feel that my life was being taken over by these silly lists, and stopped making them. That worked till something or the other went wrong, and I’d have a relapse of the ‘organization’ fever and start all over again. This has gone on for pretty much as long as I can remember. Over the years, I’ve tried to compromise, sought a balance between the ‘free spontaneous spirit’ I long to be, and the anal dork I really am. I do not write down things on paper any more – I kid myself that not having things down on paper makes me that much more spontaneous – I can say, oh, I just thought of doing this. And of course, it adds a delicious twist to my worrying – do I remember everything I need to remember?

Right now, I have a zillion things to take care of. Yeah, yeah, I realize that that’s the case for hundreds of zillion souls on earth and beyond – but I do have a series of deadlines coming up and am scrambling to get a number of things done. So am very much in the list mode at the moment. In fact, mentally, I’m already preparing for the next phase after my current ‘thing’ gets over (hopefully by Feb).

Couple of days ago, I went to the library to pick up ‘Greatest Man in Cedar Hole’. When I was there, I also picked up a Neal Stephenson and a Raymond Carver (authors I haven’t read) and Howard’s End (a reward to myself for my sense of adventure in picking up all these new authors). When walking back home, I thought about all the authors I hadn’t read, but was ‘supposed’ to. Felt a bit overwhelmed by the vastness of the seas I haven’t explored yet. So, plans for post-Feb start forming inside my head. At the top of the list was ‘make a list of genres you haven’t read, and devise a plan to attack them systematically’. At 15, the high from just that thought would’ve lasted 2 days. Yesterday, I simply felt heart-broken.

Boggarts are shape-shifters. Lists are pleasure-shifters. The pleasure you derive from any action is shifted from the action to the list. If I had ‘Read the Sunday Times fully’ on my list, then I the pleasure I get from reading the Times moves to the point when I strike that item off my list. There is also a distinct difference in the emotion involved – it’s not that reading Nicholas Kristoff is any less enjoyable, only that writing a ‘done’ against ‘Did justice to Sunday paper’ feels more satisfying.

So, you feel a sense of accomplishment. That’s joy, too, right? The pleasure is still there, the timing is a little off, that’s all. But is it only pleasure delayed? Isn’t it also pleasure deformed? Worse, it becomes pain if you don’t do something on the assigned day. Reading the Sunday paper should be unalloyed fun. Reading your favorite Op-ed columnist all the more so. I was able to do neither yesterday, and plan to use the rest of the week to feel guilty.

To get back to my post-library depression – I had started thinking of authors I haven’t read, genres I haven’t tried, places to visit, friends to meet (in short, life after Feb). I felt sick to my stomach. Did I have to reduce everything, even reading to a list? If you start listing your pleasures, don’t they automatically cease to be pleasures? You’re supposed to list things like ‘pay phone bill’ – (Give me a few minutes while I quickly pay that bill. Good thing I started this post – I actually do have to pay my phone bill… perhaps it is a good idea to write stuff down!) not things like ‘ask friend S about ‘Last Tango in Paris – it might be fun’. Even ‘call friend S’ is OK, but anything more than just will move the pleasure you have in the conversation, to after the conversation when you can tell yourself, yes, I did discuss Last Tango in Paris, and yes, it was kinda fun. Btw, I didn’t get to speak with my friend about the movie, either. It was one wasted week end, list-wise.

And people take undue advantage of you once they figure out your weakness. My roomie refuses to make shopping lists. He knows he only has to mention something to me, and I’ll lie awake nights making sure I remember everything to get from the grocery store. Among friends, I am the designated worry wart – have something to take care of? Don’t bother putting it in your planner – just mention it to DoZ, it will get taken care of. So, now not only do I have my own list demons, I’m baby-sitting other people’s demons, too. (The only people who are worse than me are my parents. With them, I know I can do what my friends do to me with impudence. No wonder my parents don’t see the ‘responsible’, ‘dependable’, ‘salt of the earth’ DoZ that my friends see.)

Once in a while, I attempt minor rebellions, only to have it bite me in the ass.
Roomie: What do we need to get at Kroger today?
DoZ: I don’t know.

Fast forward to the next morning – no milk. These things never bother my roomie as much as they do me. Axiom of life – it’s always the ring-bearer, er, list-bearer’s ass that’s on the line, and I hastily re-don my mantle of list-keeper.

It’s great to be organized. It’s great to have a plan. I just wish I could leave some things in life well alone. Knowing me, I’d probably make a list of which things I’m not supposed to make a list about. Am not asking for too much, really. I don’t want to get to a point where I have a ‘do something spontaneous at 3:17 PM’ item on my list.

Things to do when you’re sick. Or Not.

I love the flu. 3 days of blissful sleep. A valid excuse to, well, not do anything. Lots of bad TV. What else can you ask for during the holidays? Mild sarcasm apart, I really do prefer the flu of the Western world to the old “viral fever” we get in India. Viral fevers, for me, usually come combined with nasty sore throats, ear infections & what not. Not a way to have fun. The last couple of times though – the flu has been nothing more than sheer enervation, where I am too exhausted to do anything but sleep. & Just in case I broke a solid 14 hour nap, I kept myself pumped with Tylenol Flu – the bestest medicine in the whole wide world. With an alcohol content greater than most wines, you betcha it’s good.

But what does one do during those 2 hour gaps, when the next round of Tylenol and exhaustion are yet to do you in? As I hadn’t planned this, I wasted those brief windows of well, consciousness. So, here’s what to do when you’re sick (& this time of the year, there’s a good chance you will be – so be prepared)

  1. Keep a few good books around. Something light. Not a good idea to be reduced to reading ‘I, Lucifer’ as yours truly was. Somehow all that satanic imagery didn’t help put the bloom back on my cheeks. Preferably nothing more serious than Wodehouse. No, not even Dahl. Wickedness in all forms is to be avoided.
  2. Let word of your illness spread – but be subtle. Make sure that all your out-of-town friends know about it, & see to it that they hear about it from someone else. With the in-town friends, you always run the risk of a personal visit. I prefer being sick alone (unless I am really sick, in which case I’d prefer to be surrounded by 23 doctors and 45 nurses each watching my vital signs like a hawk). The out-of-town friends make a lot of sweet phone calls after you’ve recovered. Nice.
  3. Fall sick on a Thursday, if you can. I got lucky this time. Extended week end. And no groceries or cooking. Talk about lucking out.
  4. Use the opportunity to watch movies like ‘What Alice Found’ – a tale of a teen-who-runs-away-from-home-only-to-turn-into-a-truck-stop-prostitute-but-still-has-a-happy-ending-of-a-sort. If you watched this movie any other time, you’d need to have your head examined. If you watched it when you were sick – well, you poor baby – with no one at home, and nothing to do. Think of all the money you save by not going to a shrink, and the time you save not beating yourself up for watching trash.
  5. Do NOT go shopping within 24 hours of recovery. You are liable to buy 10 pairs of woolen socks. 2 humongous bags of salad. 2 bottles of carrot juice. I did. And trust me, you’ll regret the carrot juice more than the socks. Your sense of “eat healthy or die trying” is rather skewed in that time frame. 40 hours into recovery, and 2 glasses of carrot juice later, I’m starting to realize that the ‘die trying’ part is going to come true. And no amount of bitterness or irony is going to help with the remaining 2 liters of the damn concoction I still have to gulp down.

Learn from my lessons. Be prepared.

On Beauty: La belle dame sans foi ni espoir

Zadie Smith writes beautifully. For a retelling of an old favorite (Howard’s End), On Beauty made me pull two almost all-nighters as I had to read just one more page. Despite gravely depleting my already small reserves of faith in the human race, this book has nevertheless been one of the most enjoyable reads of this year.

Reading ‘On Beauty’ is like watching whole bunch of coins tossed into the air. As each coin tumbles through the air, you see both sides of several coins – black / white, rich / poor, fat/ thin, liberal / conservative, moral / immoral, young / old, until one by one, they all fall down. And every last one does fall to the ground – no last minute gravity-defying flights of eternal happiness here.

Although this book is based on ‘Howard’s End’, it is not a strict retelling. The Belseys and the Kippses stand in for the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes respectively. The setting is an imaginary college town in the North East. The plot of ‘Howard’s End’ is made somewhat more complex because the Belseys are a mixed race family – the mother is black, and the father white. The writing, as I mentioned, is beautiful. The characters are so well etched out, you feel that you might recognize them if you ran into them on the road.

While ‘Howard’s End’ leaves me deeply saddened, ‘On Beauty’ almost killed what little faith I have in humanity. I am so very glad that I read this book at 27, and not at 20. Anyone who believes in anything in this novel is ultimately disappointed. It doesn’t matter what the object of their trust is – husband, father, lover, a university, or even Haiti, ever trust is broken, and every hope shattered. Claire, the woman Howard Belsey has an affair, with is the only character whose beliefs hold out. Perhaps because the woman believed all along that she will end up unhappy. This is the sort of book that is a toughie to recommend to anyone who doesn’t care to read a book simply because the writing is great. Many of my friends want at least the semblance of a happy ending. A few, like my mother, even want morality and this is certainly NOT the book for them.

As I read the novel, I couldn’t help comparing it with Saturday. Saturday was so positive. On Beauty, by contrast, is deeply cynical. Do the authors’ ages have something to do with the difference? I feel you have to be quite young to see the world with such cynical eyes, and yet have the strength to even carry on. Saturday is the voice of someone who has been through it all, and who carries the stamp of authority, when they tell you that it’s all going to work out, somehow. It’s not a cheesy Hollywood brand of happiness, but the acknowledgement of the possibility of happiness. The pace, too, was much more sedate. On Beauty is quite racy.

I am very glad I got to read On Beauty. But after a shopping spree to cheer me up, am still not over it. No wonder my friends think I’m mad. Why would anyone do this to themselves? But boy was it worth it.

Explain with reference to the context

For the greater part of my schooling years, the pleasure I derived from English exams was marred by this one section. Given that English and French were the only exams I took any pleasure in, I felt pretty miffed about anything that took away even a part of this rare emotion. It is a bizarre section almost exclusively limited to the Matriculation Board, which is itself a Tamil Nadu-specific curiosity. This is how it worked (well, kinda, because I never did get these right) – they’d give you a couple of lines (could be prose or poetry) from your text book, which you had to, well, explain with reference to the context. You’d start with which lesson or poem the passage had been sourced from, who the author of the piece was, what happened till just before this line and what happens afterwards… Kinda like explaining Desperate Housewives or Chitthi to an annoying ignoramus who walks in, with no background information whatsoever, and asks, “So, what’s happening?” The clincher was the “inference”. You had to end your response with what could be inferred from those lines. This involved some creative thinking, as it was the only original contribution you made to the whole exercise. The rest was simply setting context and summarizing.

Explain with Reference to the Context, or as it was fondly called – the ERC, was my least favorite part of an English I exam. I didn’t have trouble figuring out which chapter / poem something was taken from. Unless you had never ever read the chapter, it was pretty easy to figure that out. And of course, giving a gist of the story till that line made its first appearance was alright too. It was always the “inference” bit that got me.

The exercise worked well if the teacher picked a significant line. Think along the lines of “Tomorrow’s another day”, said Scarlett, or “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, so you could produce reams of material about the “significance” of that line. But not all English teachers were so kindly disposed. Some wanted to make the exercise challenging, and picked obscure lines that you really had to have a photographic memory to correctly place, other teachers, possibly as bored with the exercise as I was, just picked a random line. The consequences of the latter were always more dangerous than any that might result from a determination to “let’s make this difficult”.

Now, while an author may strongly dispute this, not all lines in a passage make sense, or have any significance attached to them. For instance, this entire blog is dedicated to insignificant prose. (Clearly, I am from a more magnanimous breed of authors, but you knew that.) I have suffered years of cruel and unusual punishment, having to come up with sparkling insights into lines that perhaps even the author had no idea why he or she wrote.

Once, and only once, did I snap. The line was from a chapter about Gandhi. I don’t remember the exact line or the book that the chapter was sourced from. All I remember is that it had something to do with Gandhi’s handwriting being quite illegible. I wracked my brains to see if I could spot some deep, hidden meaning. Perhaps through that line the author meant to question bourgeois ideals of what constitutes “good handwriting”, or an elegy, regretting a lost opportunity (Gandhi should have taken up that calligraphy course when it was offered at that introductory price!), or a protest against the language of the oppressor. I don’t know now, and I certainly didn’t know then. Perhaps, it was merely an interesting tidbit, mentioned to make the man sound more like a man, and less like God. But you can’t ever say that in an English exam, not in single one of the many schools I went to. “Oh, the author just put it in there, because he thought you might find it interesting. Just being chatty.” That goes against every last grain of a convent education.

As the clock ticked on, I grew desperate. As more minutes passed, I began to get angry. “How in the world is one supposed to make sense of a silly bunch of words like this line clearly is? What the devil does any of this have to do with learning English?” When I get angry, I ask myself such questions. Just to pass the time, really. God knows, I haven’t a clue about the answers, but then again, if I did have a clue, I wouldn’t be so angry in the first place, would I? Anyway, it all got increasingly convoluted. Finally, my mental bulb switched itself on, and I dashed off what I felt was the single most relevant inference a student could possibly draw from that line. Congratulating myself on my own intelligence, nay genius, I wrote, “Inference: If Gandhiji himself had bad handwriting, it is alright if we do, too.”

That little line put me on the map. It brought me notoriety. Until then, I was a quiet kid in class, almost the teacher’s pet, you could say (at least in English – let us not talk of Math). After this answer, I became the designated class-subversive. The one that the more innocent kids needed to be protected from. What if I put my powers of literary analysis to evil use, and went around whispering into guileless ears, “Psst, why do write so neatly? Gandhi’s writing sucked! Do you want to be the next father of the nation? Or do you want to be a nobody who writes his own neat goodbye note, as you fade into insignificance?” Or worse, told my fellow 4-line-copy-yoke-bearers, “Hear ye! Hear ye! I have news from the real world – lousy handwriting did not prevent a man from becoming famous or important! It is possible to live a life as a non-calligrapher!” Being only 11 or 12 at that time, I would have of course, expressed myself in simpler terms, but that did not make my possible intent any less wicked.

My rebellion, sadly, was not shocking enough to get the school to scrap the question category. Besides, the state level school board would have had to get involved, and a school-level notoriety only takes you so far. Perhaps, had I written “Because Gandhi’s writing was bad, he went on to become India’s greatest leader. All Indians who wish to become great leaders should start by writing badly”, there might have been a chance. But, there’s no point in entertaining these sad thoughts now. Hindsight, as they say, is perfect.

What did happen was that the teacher started paying extra attention to my ERC answers. It was torture I could not bear. Any chance of slipping the occasional too-smart remark under the radar was lost forever. I HAD to toe the line. I, too, began to write canned inanities that began with “By this the author wishes to convey that…”

And so died my short-lived status as the James Dean of English, 7A. Today is the 15th death anniversary. I wished to commemorate the occasion.