Monday, October 16, 2006
Moving to Wordpress
Artistic license? Or too much Will & Grace?
But I digress – let’s return to the play. It’s about Srinivas Ramanujan, the math genius. The play focused (mostly) on the mathematician’s years at
History’s a tricky thing. When you’re dealing with a non-fiction account, you’re less likely to make errors of interpretation, I think. An account of battles won or lost, wells dug and trees planted is just that – a list*. But add a couple of dialogues to keep people from nodding off, and boom, you risk changing everything. When Hardy calls his time with Ramanujan, "the one romantic incident in my life", I don’t know if he meant what we today automatically assume he means. (Hey, the playwright could be right in his interpretation – it’s just difficult for me to believe that a man who didn’t know how to “operate a bed” was remotely close to understanding the mechanics of a romantic entanglement, let alone one with Hardy.) Two hundred years from now, will people be as amused at us, and our eagerness to interpret same-sex friendships as being more than what they actually are?
There’s a temptation to overdo it these days, I think. There’s an ad for Chivas Regal that I see only on Channel 73 – it has a group of men out in the jungle somewhere – fishing and rafting and camping – hajjar male bonding and what not. The whole effect is spoiled by the background score – a particularly sappy song that goes, “we could be together, every day together”. Every time I see that add, I have to laugh. That they don’t seem to use this ad in non-desi programming makes me wonder about a couple of things – are desis less likely to see the ad as being anything other than four guys doing guy things, inured as they are by years of watching Salman dance without his shirt? If that’s the case, then the problem clearly is with me. Am I watching too much Will & Grace?
But with yesterday’s play, it wasn’t just me. I don’t know about the rest of the audience but each of the three of us felt “Kadavulae, enna ithu!” or its equivalent before repeating the same thing together.
I sound ancient when I say this (not to say 23 kinds of a prude), but I really do miss the old days when math was maths and gay simply meant happy. And watching an ad or a play was not so fraught.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
10 days and counting
Over the weekend, I watched Scoop. At the moment, my life feels a lot like watching Scoop - a job and a city that're vaguely familiar, and therefore comfortable to be in. But they did promise more than they have delivered so far, and I can't quite shake off the feeling that my previous experience with them was richer, more fun, better. And I've resigned myself to enjoying just the memory of grand old times, or at least till Allen and I are back on our feet again. Saving grace: I'm only 28 and closer to the beginning of my career than the end, and therefore hopefully have a few more chances than Allen to recreate the good old times.
As a dyed in the wool pessimist, I am blue most of the time. I am especially miserable during the time leading to and following a big change. Right now, I'm in a state of inter-city limbo that I detest - I have already moved on from my last home, but am yet to find a new home (or even a place that will eventually become home). Routines perfected in
Somewhere in my 3 years in Gurgaon and 2 in
While I completely fail to understand the folks who set the credit-history rules, I do understand why some women marry for money. I spent most of yesterday wishing I had a sugar daddy. Not just any sugar daddy, but one who makes 80 times my rent-to-be, has a pristine credit history, and wants nothing more from life other than to be my guarantor. Let other women have the sparkly trinkets – I’d pledge eternal gratitude for a rented studio. Heck, I’m even happy to pay the darn rent myself, so long as the process is in no way confused with “buying” a studio. Yes, I’m smack in the middle of the give-3-month-advance or put-up-sugar-daddy negotiation.
Despite the preceding cribs, it’s not all bad. I get a thrill every time I remind myself that I don't have to take a taxi to La Guardia in the next day or two to get back to "real life", where ever that may be. I am here and that feels wonderful. And the routinizer in me has been hard at work. I’m learning to switch from Dish to Time Warner Cable and getting your head around a whole new set of channel numbers feels like discovering cable all over again. And the entire subway system awaits mastery. Heck, I’ve even found a tea mate in a city of coffee-drinkers! Now if I can only find myself a sugar daddy…
Thursday, August 03, 2006
Since getting a job, I've moved twice. First time across the country. The second time to a different continent. And in a little over 5 years, I'm moving for the third time. This time to New York, to become a minuscule cog in a rather major wheel. This is will come as a big change from being a minuscule cog in a tiny wheel. Yeah, the change that really matters is that I get to exchange Dallas for NYC :)
Any city am about to leave turns beautiful over night. Dallas is the same. It actually looked like it might rain some time yesterday. The temperature went all the way down to 97, while New York swelters at 99. Every corner of the town home I'm leaving stares at me with pity, and says, "I'm one less corner you'll have in your match-box studio."
Friends in Dallas have spent the last few weeks carefully going over many aspects of life in New York - the size of the studio I'll be renting, the rent I'll pay for this space, the weather, the crowd, how my Mr. Perfect is sure to live in some city that is not New York, how I shouldn't let that stand in the way of eternal bliss (to illustrate how I shouldn't let this change in cities stand in the way of other more important changes), and how I'll continue to work during the week and laze over the week ends (to illustrate how little my life will really change). My friend in New York has also been helping me to keep my expectations real. And my real estate agent chips in where ever she can ("remember they are ads not listings").
Sometimes I take the trouble to protest, to try to convince them that I really am going to have a grand time. But these protestations are half-hearted attempts. It's not that I fear I'll be miserable in New York. Far from it. I agree with many of the things my friends say. I am not going to start jogging simply because Central Park exists. And despite my day-dreams, I am probably not going to buy season tickets at the Lincoln Center. Even I realize that apart from paying my rent I will also have to eat, occasionally at least. Truth be told, I am a little nervous about the weather. After spending the last 28 years claiming to love winters, I will finally experience a real one (oh, shush you Ice-Landers - am talking to people who mostly grew up in Madras or Trichy). Will I continue to love them as before?
The real reason I don't bother to protest too much - I don't care. The true worth of a city lies in the possibilities it offers. I doubt that I'll ever walk into some store on 5th avenue and blow $7000 on some hideous handbag - but it's nice to walk by and imagine you can. I am not going to become a concert pianist, ever. But it's easy to imagine that I might, especially when I'm gazing down at an ant-sized Barenboim, as I hang upside down from the ceiling with one hand on some fixture which will likely be the only spot I can afford at Carnegie Hall. As for the winter, I have memories enough of summers from Dallas and Delhi that will last me a long long time to come. And who knows, maybe I'll even start jogging. Not having Central Park - surely that's the reason why I've never indulged in the habit till date.
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
A seemingly never-ending column of cars, arranged four abreast, moved at a measured, forced pace like some marching army. The mindlessness of it was comforting. A mechanical activity, which didn't require her to come up with bullet point responses to why she should be driving that car, at this hour, in that direction.
"Why do they call this a freeway?" she wondered to herself, as traffic queued up in the toll-tag only lanes. She fidgeted in her seat, fussing with the seat belt, the rear-view mirror. If this were
A Hummer honked her back to
She switched on the radio. A voice sang of love, of twilight. At in the evening, it would be twilight back home. Here, the sun blazed on. Like the insolent teenager who live in the apartment upstairs, it insulted first by not going to bed when it is supposed to, and made things worse by refusing to so much as acknowledge the end of a long day. She cooled herself by turning up the AC and returned to thoughts of twilight in
Twilight was best enjoyed from the terrace. A few years ago, the view had stretched all the way to the DU Campus. Between the trees, you could see the tops of other houses. Her favorite was the one with the coconut trees - looking slightly out of place in
It was funny that she remembered every single terrace she'd ever been on. She realized that she had made practically every major decision when pacing some mottai-madi, from ranking the Asterix books she had to have (mom limited purchases to two per year) to picking a college major (Microbiology over Zoology - microorganisms were less icky than rats). She'd also decided that she loved Ravi after he'd told her he loved her (one of them had to say it first, he'd said) and later that she was going to ask him if he'd like to marry her (one of them had to ask first, she'd said).
As she passed the Belt Line exit, the traffic finally speeded up. She moved to right most lane, letting the Hummer overtake her. She drove on, thinking to herself that life had been so much simpler on those terraces. Had it been easier to make those decisions because she'd been younger? Or was there something about a terrace, the extra forty odd feet of elevation mysteriously bringing perspective to life on the ground?
She wanted nothing more than to be on a terrace at that moment. Even before she could complete that thought, she suddenly felt her car flying through the air. By the time she registered the thought that she'd been hit from behind, she and her car had already broken through the barrier on the elevated freeway. She stepped on the brakes, then stopped, because the car was still flying.
People stared at her car somersaulting through the air, flying straight across the service lane, towards the terrace of a Walgreens pharmacy. As the gravel on the terrace approached, she thought to herself, "Life doesn't flash by in nanoseconds. You get a whole traffic jam. And you get your last wish."
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Also on Wordpress
Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Strangers in strange lands
Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss is my first foray into works by the Desai clan. The experience has been good enough to warrant many more. The Inheritance of Loss reminds you that there are confused desis in
First, the anglophile ICS generation, loyal to a way of life that they perpetually aspire to, but never achieve. They live in Indian cities and villages, and long after the departure of the Brits, continue to fill their worlds with symbols from their ideal society: eating scones and cucumber sandwiches for tea, reading Agatha Christie, meeting one another at crumbling Gymkhana clubs, conversing among themselves in English, and with the servants in pidgin Hindi, and for all intents and purposes remain completely oblivious to the people, the language, the food and the problems that actually surround them. Many of the characters in this book belong to this generation – a retired Gujarati judge, a couple of Bengali sisters, an Uncle Potty of unknown origin…
Then there is the Amreeka-is-great generation. They believe they'll be richer in the
The green card, green card, the machoot sala oloo ka patha char sau bees green card that was not even green.
Unlike the previous generation which is happy in its yearning, this one bends over backwards to get to the land of their dreams. When they get there, it’s too late to wonder why they wanted to go there in the first place. At one point, Biju wonders:
What was he doing and why?
It hadn’t even been a question before he left. Of course, if you could go, you went. And you went, of course, if you could, you stayed…
Perhaps the Anglophiles are the smarter ones – yearning lasts longer than attainment, and therefore is better?
…love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.
Dissatisfied as they are, the Anglophile and the Yankophile are a mild lot. The third bunch is so disillusioned that nothing short of political autonomy - a separate x-stan / y-land (replace x and y with your preferred minority community / region) – will do. A good part of this novel takes place in Kalimpong in the late 80s – at the height of the Gorkha unrest. How alien the very idea is to the first two classes is best expressed by Lola (the Anglophile widow):
And what is this with the GOrkha? It was always GUrkha.
What was a country but the idea of it? … How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it. With each argument the next would be easier, would become a compulsive act, and like wrecking a marriage, it would be impossible to keep away, to stop picking at wounds even if the wounds were your own.
Desai’s novel is about class as much as it is about one’s sense of national identity. In any society, for a while these are maintained in hermetically sealed compartments, either out of ignorance or by force. But ultimately, people of different identities and classes do react to these differences. And when they do, some end up with illegal huts on their lawn, others get beaten to a pulp by the police. Yet others like Sai, the judge’s granddaughter who has a crush on her Indian-Nepali tutor, have their hearts broken.
The house didn't match Gyan's talk, his English, his looks, his clothes, or his schooling. It didn't match his future. Every single thing his family had was going into him and it took ten of them to live like this to produce a boy, combed, educated, their best bet in the big world. Sisters' marriages, younger brother's studies, grandmother's teeth-all on hold, silenced, until he left, strove, sent something back.
Sai felt shame, then, for him… The dilemmas and stresses that must exist within this house – how could he have let them out? And she felt distaste, then, for herself. How had she been linked to this enterprise, without her knowledge or consent?
I haven’t read Desai’s first novel (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), but I must say that The Inheritance of Loss still feels like an early work. Desai’s strengths lie in her ability to draw fresh insights out of characters and situations that appear clichéd at first glance. However, towards the end of the book, it feels as if the author is panicking – worried that she might not be able to tie all those lovely characters with their lovely stories together into one cohesive whole. And she doesn’t. There is no great so-what at the end of this great build-up. People just go back to their old ways, or grudgingly resign themselves to whatever lousy cards they’ve been dealt with. Perhaps this makes it more real. After all, even Spiderman or Superman don’t take on poverty and beat it to a pulp.
And the balance that Desai maintains so well through the first two thirds of the book, giving equal importance to the three main story threads, is somehow lost in the last one-third. Some stories and characters are ignored at the expense of others. I felt a little like waiting in the queue at Thirupathi – I’ve waited a long time to get to that spot, and just when I feel like I’ve earned my right to savor the moment, I am bustled along by some cop shouting, “Jaragandi! Jaragandi!”
Bottom line: The Inheritance of Loss is a very good read. Kiran Desai is definitely someone to watch out for. If you were born in
 As Southies born in the late 70s, I realize that my friends and I have had no experiences that might be classified as being “provocative”, so it’s mostly idle posturing.
 Go here to read Falstaff’s equally positive review. And here to read Pankaj Mishra’s take on the novel.
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Magic that makes you lose your illusions
I have a tendency to expect the worst. I’m screwed up enough to believe that if I can prepare myself to face the absolute worst, then I should be alright, I should be able to survive whatever life decides to throw my way. Expecting the worst has worked for me, because, usually, things don’t get as bad as I fear they will.
Of course, I’ve had my share of times when expectations are met, even mine. And when something goes wrong, it takes me a while to get used to the idea of being miserable, as opposed to merely fearing that I’ll be miserable. The last am an expert at – the first feels new, every time. All that preparation is apparently worthless. So, why I do persist? Do I actively enjoy gloom?
I’ve have the last question asked of me by friends who believe I also have a tendency to read or watch what they label as “depressing stuff”. I faced the latest round of questions after foolishly announcing that I’d read Joan Didion’s amazing ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’.  To review Didion’s book does not feel right – it would amount to commenting on someone’s life, worse, on someone’s grief. It feels too presumptuous. Instead, am going to take a shot at answering the question my friends ask of me – why I read books like Didion’s and what, if anything, do I get from them.
It’s a tricky thing to read memoirs. When they’re filled with lists of accomplishments, I feel that I’m condoning self-indulgence. When they are about challenges overcome, I start to wonder if I haven’t been tricked into a self-help book sugar-coated as an auto-biography. When they’re about pain or grief, I feel like a voyeur.
Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking falls into the last category. In case you haven’t already heard about this book, it is an account of Didion’s life in the one year after her husband of thirty-nine years dies of a sudden heart attack. That their daughter is battling for her life at the time of her father’s death and for much of the time afterwards does not help matters. At some point, Didion hears herself being referred to as a “cool customer”. As you keep reading, you realize she is one. She counters the haze of grief with clarity: she reads up psychological studies on bereavement, reads what medical textbooks say about her daughter’s condition, jumps through bureaucratic hoops to get her daughter transferred to different hospitals. If you can define something, you can master it. The principle does not seem to apply to grief. For all her attempts, Didion doesn’t always manage to get her arms around this shape-shifting monster. The least expected things trigger memories and she goes right back to square one.
So much for what that one year did for Didion. What this book does to you is to make you question your opinions about a number of things (after it makes you admit that what you hold are only opinions, in the first place).
First, there’s the debunking of a number of theories I’ve come to believe simply from repetition.
1. “It’s ok to die after you’ve lead a full life”. Here is a couple who led a life that can easily be described as full. I’ve been told that that should be enough. You find out that it’s not. You think you have a ton of happy memories? Wait and watch, for they are likely to come back to haunt you.
2. “To die in a moment, without going through a prolonged period of illness is a good thing.” I hear this all the time, especially from my grandparents. You encounter both types of death in this book. Neither is one easy for the ones who’re left behind.
3. “With age comes wisdom”. Perhaps it does, but at 70+, there’s still one heck of a lot you don’t understand.
Then there’s the issue of judgment. To benefit from loss does not feel right. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that turning your grief into a successful book isn’t something that my mother would approve of.  Silent martyrdom feels like the only right response to the death of a close friend or family member. Of course, I immediately felt guilty about feeling that way. Who am I to impose rules on the ways people can deal with their loss? What has conditioned me to think of silence and martyrdom as being the best, or worse, the “right” reaction?
Along with this vague mixture of disapproval and guilt comes a bit of wishful thinking. Didion and Dunne appear to have had a wonderful marriage. Despite all the grief that the end of such a wonderful relationship entails, I realize that I should be lucky to have one in the first place. There’s also wishing that if I live to be Didion’s age, I hope I’d have even half the tenacity, half the clarity of this woman. And who am I kidding – I also wish for at least half her success.
At some point, I realized that this book was becoming a part of my internal calibration mechanism. [Bear with me while I take a detour to explain what I mean by this.]
If reading in general is a great escape hatch, reading about misery is the zenith of escapism. It not only helps you escape life at the moment you’re reading, but also long afterwards. I’ve been reading for about a couple of decades now (which sounds great, doesn’t it? This is the only instance where I’m proud of my age), and I’ve started to notice that “original” moments are becoming rarer and rarer. Everything I do or feel, I’ve probably read about already (and therefore experienced, even if only vicariously). Perhaps the accumulation of experience is merely an artifact of age, but reading certainly quickens the process like nothing else does .
For the most part, I compare and contrast my real experiences with ones I’ve already had. I read more than I do anything else, and so even when I come across something completely new, my immediate reaction is to think of an appropriate author and how he or she might describe what I’m going through. As a result of all this measuring and analyzing, lots of times, I escape from actually feeling (unless I remind myself to – which immediately makes the experience artificial, don’t you think?). At the bare minimum, I get to defer impact of feeling. The act of calibration always comes first because it feels so much more important than what I’m feeling, which can always be done later. While the worth of this “suspension” is debatable in happy times, it has become invaluable in bad ones. And the more I read, the richer my portfolio of experiences. End digression.
Didion’s book is now part of this mixture. The good thing about reading Didion’s experience is that it forces you to acknowledge that it is Didion’s experience – if something like that were to happen to me, I would have to find my own ways of dealing with it. There is no guarantee that just because Didion seems to have survived, I will. She makes it abundantly clear that deep loss is always personal, and that there is no escaping it.
When I read what I’ve written, I see that I haven’t given a straight answer to the question I set out to answer. Why do I read books like this one? I did not enjoy it, at least not in the way my friends imply. If this were fiction, I might have considered agreeing with them.  On the contrary, this is real, and all the more terrifying for that reason. It is brutal, like Alice Sebold’s Lucky, if less violent.
One reason I started to read this particular book was simply because I’d read uniformly positive reviews about it. . Also, I’ve been moping around a bit lately, and felt the need to see the world as seen by someone older, and therefore hopefully wiser. To get some perspective, so to speak. It was an unsettling experience to read Didion, because what I finally got from her was that there is no way to escape bad things. And whatever my personal misery, it is different from Didion’s and there were no “lessons” I could learn.
But for all that, learn I did. Thanks to Didion, I think I understand the mechanics of my own approach to disappointment better. Will I deal with it any better the next time I face it? I don’t know. But understanding helps me fine tune my internal calibrator. More importantly, understanding helps me recognize my fancy calibrator for the illusion that it is. And both have value.
 To my credit, I did not ask them to read this book, despite the fact I was dying to *order* them to read this book. I merely told them what the book was about.
 Warning: I have a nasty habit of assigning responses to “moral” questions to my mother, especially to those answers I feel I “ought” to give. I have no idea if my mother approves or disapproves of this particular book. She hasn’t read it.
 The alternative is that I actually go out and live life. Are you kidding me? Why would I ever choose that option, when I can experience all there is to right from the comfort of my bed, and get to read awesome writing at the same time? Life’s totally overrated!
 Note, the term used is “consider” - stories about unhappy people unfortunately happen to be some of the best written – and that’s my reason for reading those books, so there!
 How many books get positive reviews from Michiko Kakutani and Falstaff? Go here and here to read them.