Archive for the ‘Humor’ Category

Homegrown talent

Growing up in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s (we turn of the century souls are doomed to sound so old so soon, aren’t we?), one of the most important questions that you were judged on was, “unakku yaar pudikkum? Rijini-ya, Kamal-a?”[1] This question was an important divider, a quick and dirty way of determining if you wanted to continue your acquaintance with the new kid in class, or confer upon him / her the label of “weirdo” (or “loosu”, to use the vernacular) and take comfort in the knowledge that your life would not in the least bit suffer from not having this person in it.

I suspect this is a cultural phenomenon unique to the 80s. I don’t know if my parents were divvied up based on their preference for Sivaji or MGR or who ever was big in their days. And I doubt that this question matters today. Can you imagine letting say, Bharath or the Chimp (aka Simbu) define your identity in any shape or form? (*shudder*)

But as always, I digress. Us 80s kids had one more question that was an almost equally important divider – the Crazy Vs. S.Ve.Sekar question[2] [3]. Like the first question, this one too appears to be a purely 80s hang-up[4].

Personally, I have always firmly been in the Crazy camp. I was introduced to Sekar first. My cousin (who being older pretty much dictated most things taste-wise for me in those days) was a big fan, and used to watch his plays. Since I didn’t live in Madras, I used to borrow my cousin’s recordings (I remember the audio tapes of Kaatla Mazhai and Mahabharathathil Mangaatha). I loved them, and tried to hold on to them for as long as I possibly could.

I might have continued life as a Sekar fan ( I remember that that old line “ullae veliyae ullae veliyae ullae veliyae” used to make me laugh uncontrollably), but something happened that changed my loyalties forever. 4 words: Michael Madana Kama Raj.

MMKR is, bar none, my all time favorite Tamil movie ever. And am pretty sure it will retain its position for the rest of my life. There may well be funnier movies, but none will have the “I grew up with this movie” cachet that this one has. I still watch this movie once in a while. I don’t laugh at every joke any more – but just for my favorites (the incident of the poor mama’s false teeth, most scenes involving the dad in the last third of the movie (his wanting to make tea at the tea estate, his wanting to relocate discussions to inside the refrigerator), and others that I love because I remember these are my parents’ favorites (for some reason the line “kizhinjithu, ithula Telungu vera” used to make my Dad laugh the hardest I remember him laughing, the “thiruppu thiruppu” joke that always set my mother off, the “Beem boy Beem boy” thing that one of my cousins used to recite till we were convinced that the gift of speech, especially in boys under the age of 10, was something that the family should be able to turn off at will).

MMKR’s cult status apart, Crazy has done some awesome writing for a number of other movies and of course, there are the plays. I’ll move on after a brief mention of my favorites – A-Ha (my kingdom for the deaf thaatha, and the classic one-liners like “Sweet name. Jangiri”), Aboorva Sagodharargal (Manorama at the police station and Mouli get funnier with reruns and Janakaraj & Shivaji remain as fresh as ever), Thenaali (Dr. Panchabootham & his assistant Ramesh Khanna who always gets Thenaali’s name wrong), and Kaathala Kaathala (I don’t like this movie (too many kadi jokes), and mention it out of fear of legions of Crazy fans issuing a fatwa in my name).

I thought about why I came to prefer Crazy over Sekar. The answer lies in the fact that Crazy is closer to PGW than Sekar is. The intricate plots, characters that spill over from one play to the next, his masterly use of props (in one play, Crazy plays a character who’s supposed to kidnap someone, and goes around begging all the characters in that scene to take the chloroform drenched handkerchief from him, there’s another that involves a sack of coconuts), his use of Madras-English (he gets it bang on – his English dialogues remind me of grandfathers-who-write-to-the-Hindu-editor, convent-taught-kids (think Church Park, DB – the “old” schools), The Hindu, and well just Madras), and his ability to bend language to his purposes (“I mean what I mean, but they can’t be so mean” is a priceless thing to say when your main characters are losing their minds about fish in the Sambar).

S. Ve’s plays are funny too. In her post, Tilo calls him the Seinfeld of Madras. I agree. Seinfeld and Larry David are very funny, but do make their characters likable. The reason you laugh at Kramer or George or Elaine is because they are so uniformly obnoxious that it gives us immense pleasure to watch them falling flat on their faces. All of Crazy’s characters by contrast are immensely likable (at least I find them adorable). They have a Wodehousian detachment from reality. No one is remotely evil, political or social issues of the times are almost never dealt with, characters are mostly bumbling and adorable idiots. If you like your comedy to be of the escapist variety, Crazy’s a fairly dependable sort to turn to.

But of late, it’s a pity to see both Sekar & Crazy stuck in a rut. It’s as if comedians are like Russian dolls and have only so many jokes inside them. Once you’ve gotten to the last tiny doll, you can only reassemble them and start over. But I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, really. All you need is MMKR and your family around to escape from

[1] The truly hair-raising part is that this question continues to be asked. Only this time as an outdated, but nevertheless important conversation starter in arranged-marriage-first-phone-call conversations. Even the possibility that judgements about one’s character or personality are being made on the basis of one’s response to this question is at least one important reason why the process sucks.
[2] Important disclaimer: I haven’t watched any of the plays of either playwright, and my exposure is restricted to the movies they were involved with, the odd audio recording and any crumbs thrown to the masses via television.
[3] Somehow YG Mahendran never figured in this question. At least that was the case in my family. Perhaps there vast numbers of YGM fans out there put me in the, er, “loosu” category on the basis of my answer some secret question that didn’t actually mention his name. To these YGM fans, I’d like to say, “You were right”. I’ve never liked him, and we wouldn’t have had much in common.
[4] Then again, what choice do kids these days have? To actually harbour a preference for Karunas or the hundreds of Karunas wannabes means that you have not only seen their work, but know enough to distinguish between them… When you have been reduced to such lows, it seems too cruel to ask you questions about wit and timing and plot and all the other qualities that mark the good comedian.

Update: For non-Southerners, the closest Hindi example to MMKR is Jaane bhi do yaaron. MMKR is no where as cynical, though. Similarities are limited to the way the plot is set up (layers and layers of carefully planned and executed scenes that all add up to a wonderfully hilarious finale)

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A humorist after my own heart

Some humorists make you laugh till your stomach hurts. Others can make you chuckle ruefully. Woody Allen makes me glad I’m me. [1]

I first fell for Allen’s words, not his movies. I read White Feathers first (or it may have been Side Effects) and moved on to the scripts of Annie Hall, Manhattan and a couple of others I don’t recall now. I must have been in my under-grad then. I’m not sure what directed me to his books at the USIS library, but I suspect I’d have found his works sooner or later. It’s difficult to imagine who would have replaced Allen had I not discovered Allen.

Over the years, I’ve watched many of his movies (although I’m glad that I still have quite a few saved for rainy days ahead) – from the truly sublime ( Crimes and Misdemeanors , Zelig , Annie Hall, Manhattan), the utterly delightful ( Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to strictly-for-fans only ( Sleeper, Don’t drink the water, The Front, The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s good to be the fan of a man who is not only a genius, but also prolific. Just compare the experience of being a Woody Allen fan to being a fan of, oh, David Mamet or David Lynch – with Allen you simply get more.

I suspect age may have had something to do with how thoroughly I fell in love with Woody Allen. For a 17 year old, to live in a big city, have sparkling conversations with friends, listen to jazz, visit museums, and yes, deal with existential problems (Allen’s characters almost exclusively have existential problems – infidelity, temptation, boredom… You don’t often come across characters who have bad jobs, or no-job, no-money, and most certainly never no-apartment) all represented the very best of “adulthood”. Allen’s world was the stuff my dreams were made of.

I’m older now, and I still want to turn into an Allen character when I grow up. Technically, I’m supposed to be living that life I dreamt about at 17 (and in a way, I suppose I am, although I don’t live in the Upper East Side or hang around Swedish film festivals). Now, I simply appreciate their fine escapist quality. I don’t resent the 20-something artists their real estate. They seem to be so sweetly unhappy with their lot that I don’t grudge them the odd 2-bedroom-apartment-with-terrace-and-view-to-die-for, in Midtown or Belgravia.

Also, Allen is an optimist. I can’t think of a single movie of his at the end of which I felt cynical. Things that are liable to make one want to kill oneself in real life – losing the love of your life, getting caught committing murder, or having your spouse of several years cheat on you – only seem to leave Allen’s characters perplexed and mildly annoyed. And in almost all of these cases, you just might manage to live happily ever after (or as happy as one’s neuroses will allow) after all. No, you don’t want Woody Allen for lessons in morality. You watch them to amuse yourself.

A good number of my friends are NOT Allen fans. Their complaints range from
“he looks like he does, and yet ends up with very pretty ladies”, “he married his own daughter, for crying out loud!”, “they talk too much in his movies”, to “he’s a twisted guy who makes twisted movies”… As for the first complaint, I admit it was a bit awkward to see him pair up with Julia Roberts, but in his old movies, honestly, it didn’t feel at all weird to see him with Diane Keaton or any of his other leading ladies. He’s never vain about his looks – whether he’s playing a cheesy, unsuccessful talent manager, an oily Latin lover, or a husband dumped by Meryl Streep for a woman, his looks are an essential part of the charm. As for his personal life, well, he’s no more or no less koo-koo than tens of other Hollywood stars (including the erstwhile matinee idol – Tom Cruise). Who cares what he does with his life as long as he makes such wonderful cinema?

This week-end, I watched Match Point. I found it a bit boring at first (the first two-thirds are pretty slow going), but the last third convinced me that the master hasn’t quite lost his touch yet. It is such a thoroughly delightful movie. But I fear that Allen may have become dated. The average age of the audience was 55. This figure was skewed by 7 or 8 odd people below 35, all of whom, I was glad to note were desis. I can see how selling Allen may be a difficult proposition when the mainstream audience needs Kiera Knightly to draw them into watching Austen, and Ashton Kutcher to make sequels to Sidney Poitier flicks (*shudder*).

I turn to the other humorists I’ve been writing about when I need to be cheered up, or need to get away from my life’s madness. I turn to Allen when I need to be reminded about myself. [1]

[1] Reading back, I realize some of this stuff sounds very vain – after all who am I to say that Woody Allen reminds me of me? I can only protest that when I say some of these things, I do so with the greatest degree of awe. A lot more of “Allen reminds me of the best I want to be”, with just the odd dash of “he reminds me of who I am.” [2]
[2] While I don’t want to sound very vain, I don’t mind sounding somewhat vain.

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.

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.

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!

A message from above

When I was a child, I was told that everyone has something special about them, something that makes them wanted. I still believe that. You may be depressed, balding, too fat, too thin, jobless, too busy, religious, debauched – there’s a telemarketer, televangelist, spammer, or at the very least, a flyer for you. Personally, I draw peddlers of every sort. Most of them come in batches – just when I think I can’t take one more email offering Ciali$$ or Vi x gra (proof that humans will ever be wiser than all things mechanical, including spam bots), there’d be a home mortgage or a 0% APR credit card phase. My peddlers like to mix it up.

Spammers come and go. But the one group that has ever had a presence in my life, and made that presence felt is the “let us save your soul” group. They are persistent, inventive, and omnipresent. I don’t know what it is about me that gives me away as a soul in distinct need of saving. I’ve sampled almost every marketing tactic known to man to get me to believe in God. That I may already do so seems to make no difference, which leads me to wonder if God is actually trying very hard in his / her own way to tell me something.

My suspicions were recently confirmed. My from-out-of-town friends & I were doing the sort of things one does when on vacation – visiting the aquarium, trying out local delicacies, visiting the famous local Hindu Temple (which we’d mentioned to our parents & would be asked to account for), and mostly importantly driving to each of locations (this being Texas, that is pretty much all we did.) None of us drives (at least not legally in the US), and we took cab-rides, a LOT of them. Since this is a highly expensive and silly way of intra-city transportation, it’s a buyer’s market. Cab drivers fell over each other to offer us their cell phone numbers, happy to wait for hours just so they could take us back home or to our next destination.

I had my latest brush with the soul-savers in one such cab. Yeah, you’d think you’re safe because you’re not in some airport or a busy street but in the privacy of a car that you hired. Makes no difference. You see, our cab driver was of a religious persuasion. I don’t understand what made him decide my friends and I were godless heathens (especially given the fact that this chappie drove us for a good 3 hours to and from the temple). We spoke of our preferences for one temple or another, of friends, of marriage (of friends we’d lost to marriage, of recently wed couples who clearly “deserved” one another), of movies (Brokeback Mountain, which of course lead to Monster) …Sheesh, I knew we needed to watch what we said out loud in Texas!

After the 3rd or 4th hour of driving us, Fred (our cab driver) started asking a few friendly questions. It began innocently enough. Where were we from? Where we here on vacation? Was that a Hindu temple we’d just visited? How many Gods did Indians believe in? (This question had us stumped for a second or two, and we valiantly fudged with “oh, thousands!”) Was any one God considered more powerful than the rest? (the two Saivites in the car obliged him with a very Saivite version of the power structure). He spoke of the Gods in Nigeria (yes, he was from Nigeria). About a God of Thunder and a God of Iron and witch doctors (although I suspect the last was just for effect). All this time, I kept thinking – this is what traveling is all about! A bunch of Indians and a Nigerian discussing religion in Texas! A God of Thunder and a God of Iron! Would I get this at home from a PBS documentary? Possibly, but this was real.

Fred went on to say there was an interesting story behind his own faith. I should have seen the warning signals, but seduced by his talk of Gods of Iron & Thunder, I hmm-hmm’ed along. What followed was the longest “how God came into my life” story I have ever heard (and I have heard quite a few in my time). My friends promptly dozed off… I had to stay awake & continue to “hmm-hmm”, occasionally “oh-wow”, “really”, “you-don’t-say” along…

I suffer from obsessive compulsive listening disorder – I believe that if there’s anyone speaking, a) I must listen b) I must provide visual or auditory proof of my listening, and (the last and most fatal rule) c) if I start hmm-hmm-ing, I must carry on. Ask my classmates – “noddy” is possibly one of my mildest nick-names… (because in class it is impolite to hmm-hmm out loud) Fred’s path to enlightenment seemed never-ending. First we covered the free-as-a-bird years – the partying, the drinking… Life then started to resemble The Birds. Within a few days or weeks, Fred had had a series of accidents. How his car went up in flames, how he almost ran over a pedestrian (there must be some Nigerian pedestrian out there boring his family & friends with stories of his having discovered God after a near-death experience), how he was burgled not once but twice in 2 weeks – everything was described in loving detail. This was followed by the why-me phase, the friend-took-me-to-a-pastor days, the pastor-asked-me-to-fast-for-a-few-days phase, and after that even I stopped listening. By then I’d made a vital discovery about myself – I CAN put my hmm-hmm-ing on auto-pilot!

My friends would wake up every 15 minutes or so – see that Fred was talking, and that I was listening – and content that all was right with the world, go right back to sleep. Sure every 30 minutes or so, one of them would direct a giggle in my direction, break up my auto-pilot’s rhythm, and get back to dozing. Finally, we reached our hotel. Fred offered to drive us around the next day. I felt I had earned the right to veto, and I exercised it. My friends agreed, and actually had the gall to ask for a summary.

That night, as I finally got my just sleep, I had my own epiphany. God was trying to tell me something. Fred was right, the message was loud, clear and very simple. Only in my case, God was saying “My child, get off your ass, and get a license!”

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.

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.