Archive for March, 2006|Monthly archive page

Memories of pigs, four-eyed secretaries, fat farms and dog races

“Nostalgia’s just the longing for a time you know you can survive.”
– from The Well-Appointed Room by Richard Greenberg

It’s weird to start a post on Wodehouse on that sentimental note. But Greenberg succinctly sums up what I suspect is the most important reason I continue to read PGW. I owe my introduction to PGW to a friend of my dad’s. This friend is apparently a great fan, and my father remembered the author and got me The Head of Kays . I must have been oh, 10 or 11 then. I was quite livid with my father for buying me a book which featured neither Tin Tin nor Asterix, and worse, was apparently all about boys and cricket. I refused to read the book for I don’t know how long. In those days, I actually used to read everything I bought, or could lay my hands on. Frequently, I actually ran out of books to read.[1] On one such occassion, I finally gave up my pride and truly gave Kennedy and Fenn a chance.

Kays isn’t particulary funny. But having changed schools often myself, I completely related to Kennedy who finds himself in a new house. The book that made me a life-long fan was Leave it to Psmith , another gift from my dad. A serendipitous gift because it features Blandings Castle AND Psmith… I’ve never cared much for Jeeves (whom I consider to be the meanest character PGW ever created). Had I started with one of the Jeeves books, I doubt I’d have carried on with Wodehouse.

I’m not even going to attempt going over Wodehouse’s style. Entire forests must’ve been mown down for the topic. Instead am just going to indulge in nostalgia, and say why Wodehouse is special to me…

– I remember reading somewhere that people who read do so in order to feel like they belong – borrowing Wodehouse from the Madras British Council library made me feel like I was part of a club – PGW books from the BC always had a lot of notes on the margins, lines underlined, references to other books where the same characters were featured, lines that some previous reader had felt were “the best!”. Now, almost all of my friends read. But growing up, I didn’t really have anyone I could discuss books with (my dad’s participation was limited to footing the bill for my expensive hobby.) The doodles and underlines and notes on PGW books were the closest thing I had to a conversation…

– The suspicion with which my mom’s always regarded PGW. Apparently, the sight of her one and only spending holidays cooped up with a book, and periodically letting out maniacal howls of laughter while clutching tummy and rolling on the floor wasn’t my mom’s idea of “normal” behaviour. I’d try to explain the joke to her, but you know how PGW is. My mom would only get even more convinced that her child was apparently daft as well as crazy – why else would anyone laugh at the idea of a fat pig being stolen, or a secretary in lemon pajamas? When the Stephen Fry / Hugh Laurie Jeeves shows were broadcast on televsion, I believe I made my mom watch them. She’s never taken to PGW for some reason, and my forcing it down her throat didn’t help. Something changed in my mom’s opinion of me after she saw my tear streaked face as I read that last chapter in Leave it to Psmith – where Freddy Threepwood puts his leg through a rotting floor. I’ve done and read lots of things things that perplexed and continue to disturb my mom since then, but I’d like to think that that was the first.

In a fit of nostaligia, I watched the Fry-Laurie Jeeves series last week. It’s just not the same. Laurie and Fry are still great (although Laurie wears too much make-up *shudder*), but the aunts are no longer menacing. In my memory, I’d also confused the actor who plays Steggles as being Gussie Fink-Nottle. Aunt Agatha looks just like Aunt Dahlia and Bingo Little & Tuppy Glossop feel more like a couple of extras rather than being the jolly chaps they’re in the books.

I no longer howl with laughter when reading Wodehouse. But I still read him whenever I want to escape to a world where the worst thing that can happen is that an aunt might want you to steal a cow-creamer, and the most intelligence you need to possess is to not give your real name to the judge post boat-race night.

[1] Those were golden days, when one didn’t carry all the world’s guilt at not reading one or another book from a backlog longer than I care to make metaphorical jokes about. My mom told me that if I wish for many things in life, I’d be sent back at the end of this one so I could live out all my wishes. That was meant as a warning against wishing for too much, I think. Personally am not sure any number of lifetimes will get me through my reading back log.


Poking fun, with love

For the next few days, I am going to write about my favorite humorists. This is my effort at reminding myself that there’s still lots of stuff in life that can make me laugh (with pleasure, not hysteria).

I’ll begin with David Sedaris. I was introduced to him by an ex- colleague who gifted me Me Talk Pretty One Day (easily the best gift I’ve ever received). I’ve been hooked ever since. Sedaris will be no stranger to regular readers of the New Yorker, or to listeners of NPR.

For the uninitiated, here are a few links where you can listen to the author. Warning: Do NOT attempt to listen to these recordings at work, or at any place where falling off your chair while searching your memory for something, anything to make the laughter stop can get you into trouble. After that build-up you’re bound to find anybody unfunny, but here goes anyways:

Readings:The sex of French nouns, Excerpts from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
To sample his writing, read Turbulence.

For the most part, Sedaris writes about himself, his family, life in North Carolina, his boyfriend Hugh and their adventures in France (the author & his partner split their time between France & the US, or used to till the last piece I read). It’s a real pleasure to listen to Sedaris because he delivers everything in a vaguely regretful monotone, which somehow makes situations and characters funnier. My all time favorite piece is ‘Jesus Shaves’, a hilarious account of Sedaris’s painful attempts at learning French. ‘Santaland Diaries’, an account of the author’s short-lived career as a supermarket elf is a close second.

I’m a sucker for self-deprecatory humor, and Sedaris is about as self-depreciating as humorists can get. He doesn’t bother with elaborate plots, or verbal pyrotechnics. His characters are drawn from life. But the effect is somehow not unlike PGW – both excel in developing a cast of characters that you come to love over time. His sisters, his lovable but weird parents, one very interesting brother, his rather sweet boyfriend (I suspect he says only the nicest things about him for obvious reasons) – you meet them all in different essays, and reading a new Sedaris piece is like catching up with a much loved and somewhat goofy family.

Humor can be caustic. Sedaris blends his with acceptance and love. Having grown up with Wodehouse and Thurber, I think I’m used to my humorists being nice people (or writing like nice people). Sure, I enjoy the more caustic kind, but poking gentle fun is somehow so much more fun.

Why too much TV is bad for you

Of late, there’s been a new topic to rant about in week-end calls with friends. Polygamy. At least 2 of my friends have watched the new HBO show, and well, so do I. There’ve only been about 2-3 episodes so far, and already I see a disturbing pattern emerging. My blood comes close to boiling when watching the show, and I relish making caustic remarks about it with friends, who in turn agree and come back with equally caustic responses. We swear we won’t watch it again. And the next week end, we’re having the same conversation all over again.

In this week’s episode, the question that my friends and I had anticipated, and which has fuming with indignation but also stuttering with nothing better than “But…but that’s not the same thing! At all!” finally came. If same-sex marriages are unions between consenting adults, doesn’t the same principle apply to polygamy? Let’s face it – it is the same thing. I just don’t happen to like it.

I almost miss the days in which the only thing on TV that made me feel this indignant was Chitthiiiiiiii (God, I used to hate that show!). It felt so easy to rant against media empires that gave away prime time slots to shows where wives were beaten up (remember Deepa Venkat!), ambitious women were portrayed as evil, to rave against women content creators who were so lost to greed that they only cared about making money (did I find male content creators who were as greedy to be equally offensive? No – But I was more sexist then.)…

I digress. To return to polygamy. Would I like it any better if the question were about polyandry, as opposed to polygamy? I doubt it. Because in both cases, the victims continue to be women[1]. And that’s the crux, really – my apparently unshakable conviction that in polygamy/andry, there are victims. Whereas that’s not how I feel about same-sex marriages. Big Love doesn’t make it easy for me to revise my opinions. Can’t help feeling that the men are smug. The women come across as needy (wife # 3), don’t-know-any-better (wife #2), or inscrutable (wife #1). It’s impossible for me to feel sorry for the husbands who’re under tremendous financial pressure to support multiple families, and get more than their fair share of wifely nagging. The minute I feel they must be regretting their lifestyle, along comes a bout of love-making that seems to make these men feel that the financial hassle’s worth the trouble. One fatso character actually believes that taking on wife #4 is his way of answering God’s calling. [2] Clearly, I have issues with the show.

Morality is a way to speed up decision-making. You don’t have to agonize over the pros and cons of a situation. You agree with some side because it is the “right” thing to do. It’s more efficient. In situations where morals fail or don’t apply, one can at least fall back on personal preferences:
– stealing: bad (moral reasons),
– killing: bad (ditto),
– cosmetic surgery (to get sexier looking lips / boobs / whatever): bad (surprisingly enough, moral reasons – I feel that you’re not dealing with the hand nature gave you – corrective surgery, OK – elective surgery NOT OK),
– smoking – bad (Here I leave morality and move into the realm of personal taste. I don’t like it myself, so I won’t do it. I vaguely think you’re foolish to do it, but I won’t hate you for it, or stop you from doing it, so long as you don’t blow smoke in my face),
– eating meat – distasteful (to me. You can eat whatever pleases you, so long as you don’t mess about with dead flesh in my kitchen), and so on and so forth.

I suspect I have strong “moral” beliefs about questions like stealing, killing etc. because these were instilled into me as a child (growing up with desi movies, for the longest time, I actually used to believe that the minute you commit a crime, you’d hear sirens blowing as the cops would be on their way. I must have been 12 or older before I figured out that in most cases the police really have no way of knowing the instant a crime is committed).

I’m sure my parents must have emanated a sense of “polygamy: not good” because I feel so very comfortable making that call. On the other hand, I am 100% certain there was no talk what so ever about same-sex marriages. (In all fairness we never even had the birds & the bees talk, so this topic had no chance at all. I was quite into science in those days, and they must’ve figured I’d get around to it sooner or later). And yet, I appear to have acquired strong “moral” beliefs, and unfortunately conflicting beliefs about both.

Here’s the thing about morals … They have this nasty habit of turning into umbrellas. Over-arching principles, which if they apply to situation A1 demand they be applied to situation A2 as well. With polygamy, I’m not sure what I’ll decide. I see three options before me:
– go down fighting,
– after a while bump the question from an ethical one to one of personal taste.
– stop taking stuff on TV personally. HBO wants to make money. I want to spend money. We’ve already struck a deal. Why sour the relationship with silly questions?

In the meanwhile, I’ll day-dream of situation A3 – nogamy – where people who wish to be left alone are left alone – by people of all sexes.

[1] I’m afraid I don’t recall specific evidence that I can use to back my claim. Regular readers of Kalpana Sharma will know what I mean. Or you could try watching Matrubhoomi. Yes, the latter’s fiction, but so is Big Love. All very apples to apples.
[2] My cattiness apart, the acting is really good. So far the show’s been interesting, and one hopes it will not soon run out of steam, even if carton-loads of Viagra continue to keep it steamy.

Update: Update: When I say “polyandry as opposed to polygamy”, I mean “polyandry as opposed to polygyny”. Thanks to Sudha & Pete for catching that oversight.

Genre-fication aka Reverse-engineering the magic sauce

Popular fiction is becoming like the restaurant business. If it’s new, it’s a good idea to try it now. In three months, you’ll get the same gravy / sauce (if the cuisine’s Italian) that is mass manufactured in Guangdong or Gurgaon and air-lifted to every restaurant in the world.

Take Austen. The lady writes a delightful comedy of manners and society. And since they didn’t have the internet back then, it took several hundred years for the mass production to start. First came Georgette Heyer, then Helen Fielding. Now, you have whole sections devoted to Chick-lit, all of which read exactly alike.

The Name of the Rose was great. Foucault’s Pendulum. Even better. We then move to 25+ million copies of a somewhat re-hashed Foucault’s and before you know it, you have a whole genre of wannabe historical mysteries. The latest addition to this genre is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The premise looked interesting enough. Problem: a good two generations worth of mystery surrounding Vlad, the Impaler (aka Dracula), plus at least one kidnapped Professor of History. The heroine: another Professor of History who looks into old documents collected by her father, and his mentor and travels all over Europe to unravel the mystery and to rescue the missing person(s).

It’s such a pity that what made Eco’s old sauce work has now been reverse-engineered into its individual components. The ingredients for Writing a Historical Mystery:
1. One pinch of history (vital that this pinch be from some area that even science majors will know about)
2. 5 heaped scoops of nerdiness (why would anyone who is truly cool be remotely interested in Sir Francis Bacon or a 400 year old Romanian landlord?)
3. 2 tea-spoon full of Great-Looks (for your oeuvre to really have legs, the casting director must be able to use leggy actresses) [1]
4. One attractive reward that awaits the intrepid scholar / librarian / diligent student at the end of his or her adventure (helpful hint: world domination, buried treasure, heirs to sons / daughters of God, even cataloging a rare and extensive collection of books and manuscripts – all taken – please think of something else)
5. The following are essential ingredients that you cannot replace, no matter how adventurous you’re feeling: Istanbul / Constantinople, Rome, obscure village in some-country-formerly-behind-iron-curtain, at least 2 piazzas, 3 water fountains (at least one of which should be functioning – remember leggy heroine must get wet), 4 chapels, 17 libraries and 1 railway station (to remind your US audience that Europeans are so archaic they still use trains!)
6. Very important: Pique the readers’ curiosity at the end of every word / sentence / para / chapter. If you are confused about how you can do this, begin by replacing full stops with exclamation points!

Kostova sticks to all of these rules. I might have found the book merely tedious, but the “prize” (refer rule 4 above) offered by Kostova transports the book into the realm of the ridiculous. It’s not “propah” to disclose more. I will merely say that the secret had two of my friends in splits. I was in too much pain to laugh.[2]

When I consider this genre-fication phenomenon, I realize that the fault lies with me (as it almost always does). When I see a good thing, why can’t I just let it go? So, I loved Eco. I shouldn’t try to seek that same thrill over and over again. I should move on. The hang-ups that served me well in childhood (if you enjoyed one book in the Tin Tin series, reading allof them is a good thing) no longer apply. A good friend’s always asking me to expand my horizons. I’ll try to heed his advice in at least one area of life. No more wannabe Tolkiens, Ecos, or Austens[3].

[1] In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if this whole history + mystery movement hasn’t been started by academics who would appear to have finally hired Rick Renard or someone of his caliber. In my less paranoid moments, I wonder which celebrity is a Rosie Crucian / Free Mason / what-have-you (as you can see, Foucault’s Pendulum has left a lasting impression.)
[2] For a fee of twenty-five cents, full plot will be disclosed via personal email.
[3] You should be so lucky to get wanna be Tolkiens, Ecos or Austens. You’re more likely to end up with wannabe-wannabe-Tolkiens (a wannabe-Rowling or wannabe-Paolini for instance), wannabe-wannabe-Austens (the wannabe-Fieldings and the wannabe-Bushnells figure here)

When insomnia is a good thing

A friend sent me this. This is one instance when muttering Bipasha Bipasha Bipasha (replace with your choice of item girl / guy) might have been so much better. Or perhaps that is what this chap did mumble, and got his words twisted around by an angry wife… This got me thinking about what would happen if the courts started taking action on the things we mumble when we’re asleep…

A new clause will have to be added to the Miranda rights – whatever you mumble when you’re asleep in your cell can and will be used against you in a court of law. You can get your lawyer to sleep with you, or one will be provided for you.

Interrogations will no longer feature those old bores (the good cop & the bad cop) – the most respected interrogators will now be the cops who can get you to fall sleep… Their expertise will lie in choosing the right material for the right person: Engineering text books for some, old issues of The Economist (or new ones) for others, and for the especially hardened cases perhaps even a lullaby (police brutality taken to unimagined extremes: picture David Caruso wearing sun-glasses and posing with his hands on his hips, giving you that sideways glance and singing a lullaby – I’d confess to anything under such duress!) The good cop’ll now ask you if he can get you a nice warm glass of milk. Overnight, insomniacs will become the most difficult criminals to crack.

Losing something on the way from Madras to H’wood.

I had big plans of enjoying a decent movie after the disappointment of Chithiram Pesuthadi. And I ended up watching Baasha, in English – with Viggo Mortensen & William Hurt playing Rajinikanth & Raghuvaran respectively. And I am curiously happy to say this – it was a lousy copy!

A History of Violence = Baasha ++ Sex ++ Violence (broken noses are particularly abundant) – – family drama – – 8-philosophy, no auto-kaarans, and especially no achakkus in any form whatsoever, not even the stray gumukku. In all a pale copy that fails to do justice to the original. Ed Harris & William Hurt play evil dadas nicely – but the man who matters, the auto-kaaran (well, he’s a diner-kaaran here) is wooden. The part I don’t get is why they nominated Maria Bello for her role. She’s alright, but her performance is quite ordinary. Harris and Hurt are much better even in their minor roles.

Age-old crime

I am an un-married, un-pregnant, not-in-love-and-not-confused-or-sad-about-that, and getting-long-in-the-teeth person. Why has that become such a crime of late? With each passing day, the egregiousness of the crime only seems to increase. I’m not sure what irritates me more – being thought of as a hedonist, an “abnormal” person, or being treated with hope and sympathy – “you’ll change soon”, “everything’ll be alright”, “just wait till May”… People fail to see that I am just as miserable as married people, pregnant people, people in love, and people who’re just confused. Why this marked preference for one form of misery over another?

So, here are the top 10 ways to respond the next time someone tries to give you the “talk”:

– I actually want to be in a relationship, but since I’m fat, ugly and stuck in a dead-end job no one will have me. Can you set me up with your best friend / close relative?

– If the goal is to not fit into that pair of skinny jeans, which method would you say is more efficient? 1 1/2 hours at Olive Garden or 1 1/2 weeks at Presbyterian Maternity?

– And how are you enjoying Nickelodeon?

– Thank you for asking. My relationship with Netflix is everything I ever dreamed of.

– Last Tuesday, I finally did it. Fell madly in love – with myself. I give it two months.

– Children? I’m waiting till more book-friendly models become available.

– Ah yes – the pitter-patter of little feet. I convinced my parents to adopt. It’s been wonderful for them, really.

– Since you asked, research shows that single life after 35 is completely cancer-free. We singles don’t like to let that out.

– (This one’s for enquiries from anyone who’s 10 or more years elder to you) So, what you’re saying is, “If your best friend jumps into a well, so should you?” Oh well, I only wish you’d taken the trouble to tell me that when I wanted to (a) get my tongue pierced (b) drop out of school to get a head start in the pizza delivery business (c) save that money to move to a commune

– You’re just jealous that I might pull a Demi over y’all.

PS: In the last month, I’ve outed myself to some of my friends, and I expect threats, tears et al. from a number of you for this post. Remember your own advice – let’s wait till the end of the year, I’m bound to change sooner than later.

Of windows, doors, and fish in the sea.

This has been an interesting week for me. Why beat around the bush? It’s been a miserable week. Four, what should I call them – disappointments, i-knew-this-would-happen’s, i-should-have-seen-this-coming’s, still-it’s-not-the-end-of-the-world’s, c’mon-you’ve-been-through-worse’s or my favorite at-least-i-have-my-blog-and-my-health’s in seven days. Two out of the four were pretty solid whacks to the heart and ego. The other two would have gone by almost unnoticed were it not for their timing – their contribution is invaluable in giving life that perfect degree of bleakness.

As my back-end processors work on a pep-talk for myself, I am going to bore y’all for a while by examining the common theories of happiness / sadness to see if I can pick the right model for myself:

Alternating peak-trough theory. Sometimes, I think I put too much faith in the peak-trough philosophy – the one about life being filled with alternating troughs and peaks. This makes me feel entitled to a peak every time I hit a trough and fear a trough the minute I hit a peak. So I spend my whole life dreading peaks, because only a trough can follow & the bigger the peak, the deeper the trough, and so on. And what if some lives are all troughs or all peaks? It is, after all, as valid a theory as the alternating peak-trough one.

Widow-door theory or the “when a door is closed, a window opens” hypothesis. People really should have never bought this theory in the first place. From the very name window/door, you know they’re pulling a fast one over you. The scale’s all wrong. A DOOR closed. And a window is clearly a completely inadequate consolation prize. The door’s usually of the magnitude of losing the love of your life, and the window’s like your boss telling you that you’re wearing nice shoes. Nice try, boss-man – can I be offered a day off?

Post-mortem settlement. This is very similar to the alternating peak-trough theory, but the crucial difference is that the time frame is considerably longer, and possibly never-ending. This one proposes that by facing tough times, you’re either repaying debt from a couple of generations ago, or shoring up for future generations. I have many problems with this theory. One of which is that according to this theory, the act of dying is less powerful than declaring bankruptcy is and say what you will, that just saddens me.

Plenty of other fish in the sea theory: I suspect that this is the old window-door theory rebranded for fishermen.

Shit happens: Why are we so enamoured of patterns anyway? Why seek logic? Life is random. So long as one doesn’t have to hear the story of a butterfly in Shanghai causing a storm in California, I think I’m actually ok with this one.

I don’t know why I started this post, but when have we ever let minor things like that stop us? I must work on my pep talk now.

Killing machine, moi.

I start the day with a smile, thanks to Falstaff. Then I come to this. The part that really got me was:

“High literacy rates in the state could be a major reason for this change,” said Chauhan.

And there’s more:

Activists said the cases that come to the women’s commission are only a fraction of the rising number of marital disputes. Most were handled by relatives, friends and village councils.

“We must remember that most of the marital disputes are settled by relatives, friends and village councils and only a few cases of atrocities actually reach the commission, in any case atrocities against women far outnumber those against men. But 177 cases of men seeking justice is significant,” Chauhan said.

I do pity the men of Himachal. Battered by their well-read wives! All 177 of them!

I’ve been wrong all along. Education doesn’t make you wiser, just more violent. That men have been violent with women for so long is perhaps all due to their being literate. As the tables turn, men had better watch out!

What happens in Kerala I wonder? Did 100% literacy lead to increased violence? Or is some steady state reached because both the sexes have weapons of equal power? And what happens next? Like some ever growing weapons stock-pile from the cold war days, will men and women go on accumulating more weapons? You may be counted among the literate if you so much as know how to write your name on a piece of paper. Let’s call it your average stick-type weapon. When both husband and wife have sticks, clearly the person who can progress to a more intelligent weapon would have the advantage. What’s next? Being able to read street-signs? Your ration card? No wonder people who read newspapers can wreak so much havoc!

Golly! I can read whole books! Several of them, in fact. In at least 1.5 languages! And write! Move over Attila, here comes DoZ!

The agony and the agony

How do the sports fans do it? Year after year, championship after championship? How do they keep coming back for more? Every year, I promise myself I shan’t do this again. But come Oscar time, there I am, a simpleton, hoping against hope that this year it won’t be about past debts, about which movie is morally right, which movie evokes the right baby boomer memories or whatever crazy excuse they come up with each year in deciding the winners. In true Hollywood style, I’ll try to be positive, and count my blessings. So here are some of the things I am grateful for:

– Joaquin Phoenix not winning for the Johnny Cash movie.
– Munich not winning for best adapted screenplay
– Wallace & Gromit’s winning
– That the surprise winner was Crash, and not some song & dance movie

Karl Marx would’ve had tears in his eyes. Equitable distribution of wealth is possible. He might not have seen Hollywood in the role of the just distributor, but it does go to show that miracles do happen, just like Ron Howard says they do.

I don’t have the energy to sit through 3 more hours next year, to watch Paul Giammati win for a 2 minute appearance in some movie or wait for 30 more years to watch the Academy finally give Ralph Fiennes an Honorary Oscar. But this is the post-Oscar battered-me talking. For once I hope I will continue to feel this bad, so I’m not here same time next year, ranting about one more miserable ceremony.