Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I'm game if you are



You're not going to believe what I learnt in class today.


You know how we're always arguing over what to do over the weekends? Like last week, when I wanted to catch that special Antonioni retrospective and you wanted me to take you shopping?

I DID NOT argue. You promised that we would go to the sale, and then backed out at the last minute. I mean, you don't even like Antonioni for god's sake, and....

Ya, ya, okay. It was a once in a lifetime event and I didn't know about it when I promised, but okay, so it was my fault. The point is you know how we always have trouble deciding? Well, I discovered in class today that there's this game called the Battle of the Sexes which looks at exactly that problem. It's really cool.

You were sitting around in class playing games?

No, no, it's Game Theory. It's like this uber-cool branch of economics. So listen. It turns out that there's something called a mixed strategy equilibrium that provides a better answer to the problem than just having one person give in to the other.

Really? That's interesting. How does it work?

Well, for starters, you take a dice.

A dice? What kind of dice?

A normal dice. Like the one that comes with our snakes and ladders game.

So this mastermind solution has something to do with snakes and ladders?

No, no. Look, it could be any dice. It just has to be unbiased, that's all.

Hmmm...I'm not sure that snakes and ladders thing is unbiased actually. The way you kept getting all those sixes last time was really suspicious. If we're going to need a dice for this method of yours I think we should get a new one.

Yes, yes, all right, we'll get a new dice. But listen. So once you have this dice, one of us, say I, throws it, and if it comes up 1 or 2 then I do what you want, otherwise I do what I want.

Huh? Wait. So basically you're saying there's twice as high a chance of you getting what you want than of me getting what I want. That's convenient, isn't it? Why don't we just split the bloody dice equally - if it comes up 1, 2 or 3 we do what I want, and we do what you want otherwise. I'm okay with that. I don't see why I should be at a disadvantage just because it's your game.

Ah, but you won't be at a disadvantage. You see, after I throw the dice, you throw it too and the same rules apply. If it comes up 1 or 2 then you do what I want otherwise you do what you want. So you see, there's a two-in-three chance that you'll end up doing what you want as well.

So basically you're saying there's a two-thirds chance that you'll do what you want AND there's a two-thirds chance that I'll do what I want?

Yes, exactly.

Not very strong on fractions, are they, these game theorists of yours. It feels like one of us has a third of a chance too many.

No, no, obviously we don't always do the same thing you see. We can separate and each do our own thing.

So now you don't want us to spend weekends together? You want us to separate and do things by ourselves? Why don't you just come out and say that you don't want to spend time with me, instead of trying to blame it on some vague model that you made up?

No, look, it's not that I don't want to spend time with you. You know I do. It's just that that's the way the rules are set up. You do what the dice tells you to do and I do what the dice tells me to do. The rest is just up to chance. That's the whole point of it. Besides, it's not like we would be spending all our weekends separately. In fact, there's a 4/9th chance that we'd be together - either doing what you want or what I want (2/9th chance of each). It all depends on what the dice comes up with.

So basically we spend more than half our weekends apart. What joy. And wait. What happens if we both throw a 1? Then you'd have to do what I want and I'd have to do what you want, wouldn't we?

Yes, exactly.

What? You mean I'd have to go to an Antonioni retrospective while you went shopping for dresses? That doesn't make any sense. Why wouldn't one of us just go with the other?

Because you have to stick with the rules. Start switching decisions opportunistically and the whole thing will break down. Look, anyway, it's not like that's going to happen all the time. The probability of getting that outcome is just 1/9.

So basically your master strategy to keep us from arguing is to say that 5 times a year we each go do something that we don't want to, without the person we're doing it for?

Well, it wouldn't be 5 times a year exactly, of course. It could be more. It could be less. It's all probabilistic, you see.

I see. So we could end up doing this every weekend for an entire year.

We could. But it'd be really, really unlikely. A total freak chance.

But still, it could happen. If we were going to do this at all (and I'm NOT saying I agree, mind you) why wouldn't we just schedule it? Set aside the weekends that we were both going to be miserable? That way at least we wouldn't run the risk of it happening more often.

No, no, then it wouldn't be random anymore would it? That doesn't work.

Right. So not only should we be doing something neither of us wants to do, but we should also do it completely at random. Sort of like a weekly surprise.

Yes, exactly. Look, I know it sounds a little daft when you put it like that, but it really works. Honest. You can show mathematically that there's no way that either of us could do better by ourselves.

Really? We couldn't just talk about it like grown-ups, for instance? Instead of playing games with dice like we were five years old.

No, no, that's where the arguing starts. It's precisely to avoid having to talk about it that you need the algorithm in the first place.

So you're basically admitting that you'd rather leave your weekend plans up to chance than talk to me about them. Do you really hate talking to me that much? Has it really come to this?

No. Look, it's just a game, all right.

Our relationship is just a game to you?

No. This decision rule thing is just a game I learnt at school. I just thought it might be fun to try it.

I don't think so. Why are you spending your time doing stuff like this anyway? I thought your PhD was in Corporate Strategy. What are you doing trying to solve husband-wife conflicts?

No, no. I mean, the whole husband-wife thing is a metaphor, obviously. This stuff has tons of applications to other business problems.

Really? Like what exactly?

I don't know. Tons. Mergers and Acquisitions stuff. Systems integration. Competitive Dynamics. Lots of great stuff like that. You wouldn't understand.

I'm sure. So now you want our lives to be determined by a metaphor? What else can this Game Theory of yours do for us? Is there anything in it about sharing the TV remote, for example? I think I could use some innovative solutions there.

Well, actually, there is this game that kind of has the same structure. The way it works is...

I DON'T CARE!! Don't think I can't see what you're trying to do with this. Trying to weasel your way out of things you don't want to do. Well it won't work. That sale you didn't take me to last week is still on this weekend, and we're going. And no amount of manipulation with dice is going to get you out of that. So there.

Um...right. Okay. No need to get all hot and bothered about it, darling. I was just saying...


I sometimes wonder why game theorists don't get divorced more. Don't get me wrong. I love the stuff. I watched A Beautiful Mind three times. Once I even cried. I'm just unconvinced that Game Theory has anything to do with real life.

Before people who love Game Theory start jumping down my neck, though - let me say two things. First, I'm well aware that the 'husband''s understanding of the Battle of the Sexes game above is woefully inadequate. There's a lot more nuance to the solution (and to Nash equilibria more generally), which he completely misses. And second, that I'm not saying that my criticism of being unconnected to the real world is true only of Game Theory. I actually think it holds for much of academia, I just think the Game Theory disconnect is the most amusing, and the description of the Battle of Sexes game simply lends itself to being made fun of.

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I can't believe my ears

from the New York Times:

Scientists Find Gene That Controls Type of Earwax in People

Earwax comes in two types, wet and dry. The wet form predominates in Africa and Europe, where 97 percent or more of people have it, and the dry form among East Asians. The populations of South and Central Asia are roughly half and half. By comparing the DNA of Japanese with each type, the researchers were able to identify the gene that controls which type a person has, they report in today's issue of Nature Genetics.

You just can't stop progress, can you? Think of all the millions of people out there suffering from clogged and damp earlobes for whom this finding represents the first glimmer of real hope.

It's sad that big names like Cancer and Alzheimer's get all the publicity, when teams like these, who are the real heroes of genetic research, go largely unnoticed.

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the team on their path-breaking discovery, and to assure them that I, as a fellow academic, would be happy to support them in any way I can (by providing samples for a follow on study, for instance).

After all, who knows? Today, earwax; tomorrow (dare we think it?) nostril hair. The possibilities are endless.

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You've got mail

It occurs to me today that marriage (or indeed any other long-term relationship) is like an exchange of e-mails where both people keep hitting reply. The kind of e-mail that takes up so much space in your inbox that you assume that there must be an attachment, but in fact it's nothing more than an accumulation of words, of messages no longer relevant or even legible. The kind of e-mail whose subject line is a long string of 'Re:' s followed by some obscure phrase that no longer makes sense to you because you no longer remember how all this started. The kind of e-mail where you just glance through the current message and never bother to scroll down.

Why do people do this, I wonder? Is it just the convenience of hitting that 'reply' button, the fear of not being able to find the other person in the address book of your feelings, of typing in their address from memory and getting it wrong? Or is it that we fondly imagine that by always pressing reply we are preserving, somehow, the memory of our conversations, so that all you have to do is go to the bottom of the page and scroll up and it'll all make sense again? Is it perhaps the blank page that each new message represents that frightens us? Is it just habit? Or, most insidious of all, do we feel that by being the one to break off the chain of replies, by being the one to press 'New' and start afresh, we may be showing the other person up, betraying them somehow?

Perhaps it's just that this sort of carelessness is a celebration of how large our inboxes have grown, a way of flaunting our capacity, a way of filling what would otherwise be so much empty cyber space. Is it the people who receive few messages who are more likely to do this, or is precisely the one who have many, many friends who cannot be bothered to craft a fresh mail for each one? I wonder.

Day by day, as this exchange progresses our inboxes get more crowded, our conversations longer and more obscure, more distant from their original purpose. Feelings are measured by weight and not by texture, messages by the MBs they take up and not by their intelligence. Language becomes landfill.

Next time, hit 'Compose'


[1] Speaking of mail, have you noticed how both Yahoo and Gmail say 'Compose Mail' as opposed to simply 'New Message'? What's the deal with that? Am I not allowed to send wild or frivolous mails - do they need to be all composed and proper. Or are my mails supposed to be like music now? Subject: What's up? in E minor.

[2] How does this e-mail capacity racket work anyway? Does anyone know? Is it like banking, where they essentially keep some amount of actual capacity on hand and promise way more to each subscriber on the assumption that not everyone will want to use their full 1 GB quota? Could one launch a run on Yahoo, for instance?


Monday, January 30, 2006

The round earth's imagined corners

Okay, you can call off the wake. Despite having not posted for TWO WHOLE DAYS now, I'm not dead and decaying in my own stench, as some of you have helpfully suggested. I have merely been away living it up in Manhattan (I love New York - how can you not adore a city where it's impossible to get a place to sit in a Starbucks at 8:30 am on a Sunday morning? That's what I call civilisation!) and have therefore had neither the space nor time to blog.

At any rate, I had an amazing weekend, which began with a glorious New York Philharmonic concert to commemorate Mozart's 250th (more on that later) and consisted of a string of movies (Antonioni's Blow-up, Ford's The Searchers and the delightful Tristram Shandy) punctuated by, in order: Nasi Goreng, Lemon Zesty Tuna Salad, Chicken Chipotle Burrito and some sushi whose name I can't remember (not to mention chocolate mousse cake at Veniero's accompanied by the find of the weekend - Mexican Coffee - black coffee, kahlua, tequila and whipped cream!). But perhaps the most deliriously happy moment in the whole trip was finding this gem of a Wendy Cope poem in the February issue of Poetry on the train in:

Differences of Opinion



He tells her that the earth is flat -
He knows the facts and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.



Your mother knows the earth's a plane
And, challenged, sheds a martyr's tear.
God give her strength to bear this pain -
A child who says the world's a sphere!

Challenged, she sheds a martyr's tear.
It's bad to make your mother cry
By telling her the world's a sphere.
It's very bad to tell a lie.

It's bad to make your mother cry.
It's bad to think your mother odd.
It's very bad to tell a lie.
All this has been ordained by God.

It's bad to think your mother odd.
The world is round. That's also true.
All this has been ordained by God.
It's hard to see what you can do.

The world is round. That must be true.
She's praying, hoping you will change.
It's hard to see what you can do.
Already people find you strange.

She's praying, hoping you will change.
You're difficult. You don't fit in.
Already people find you strange.
You know your anger is a sin.

You're difficult. You don't fit in.
God give her strength to bear this pain.
You know your anger is a sin.
Your mother knows the earth's a plane.

- Wendy Cope

p.s. just in case you've never come across one before (or just happened not to notice), the second part is, of course, a pantoum - not quite a perfect one - but the imperfections only add to the charm.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

A joy forever

"The history of Music as of Man
Will not go cancrizans, and no ear can
Recall what, when the Archduke Francis reigned,
Was heard by ears whose treasure-hoard contained
A Flute already but as yet no Ring;
Each age has its own mode of listening.
We know the Mozart of our fathers' time
Was gay, rococo, sweet, but not sublime,
A Viennese Italian; that is changed
Since music critics learned to feel 'estranged';
Now it's the Germans he is classed amongst,
A Geist whose music was composed from Angst,
At International Festivals enjoys
An equal status with the Twelve-Tone Boys;
He awes the lovely and the very rich,
And even those Divertimenti which
He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
Like quartets by the deafest of the B's."


"We who know nothing - which is just as well -
About the future, can, at least, foretell,
Whether they live in air-borne nylon cubes,
Practise group marriage or are fed through tubes,
That crowds two centuries from now will press
(Absurd their hair, ridiculous their dress)
And pay in currencies, however wierd,
To hear Sarastro booming through his beard,
Sharp connoisseurs approve if it is clean
The F in alt of the Nocturnal Queen,
Some uncouth creature from the Bronx amaze
Park Avenue by knowing all the K's.

How seemly, then, to celebrate the birth
Of one who did no harm to our poor earth,
Created masterpieces by the dozen,
Indulged in toilet humour with his cousin,
And had a pauper's funeral in the rain,
The like of whom we shall not see again;"

- W. H. Auden, from 'Metalogue to the Magic Flute' (Lines composed on the occassion of Mozart's Bicentennial in 1956)

There are some occasions that demand more eloquence than I am capable of, occasions that even Auden is barely equal to. Today is one such occasion. It's Mozart's 250th Birth Anniversary.

What can one say about Mozart? How can one even begin to express a fraction of how brilliant he was, how overwhelmingly beautiful his music still is? It would be like describing, wave by wave, the sea.

Let me say only that I am still awed the sheer breadth of Mozart's genius, by his ability to span every genre of Western Classical Music and contribute masterpieces to all of them. Let me say only that today, eleven years after I bought my first recording of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, I am still amazed by the thrilling richness of Mozart's sound - by the way he manages to be both gloriously sublime and pleasantly listen-able. Let me say only that there is no one I would trust to lift my spirits the way I trust Mozart.

Let me say only that Mozart is the closest thing to God that I know or am willing to have faith in.

Happy Birthday Wolfgang! My only regret is that I won't be around 250 years from now, to hear your music still being played.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Any pre-text will do

DesiPundit has this link to a SMS poetry contest being organised as part of Kala Ghoda. Now, of course, I have no intention of taking part in said contest, partly because I'm not in Bombay and don't have a phone to send SMSes from, but mostly because on general principle I disapprove of poetry contests - the very notion of turning an art form into a competitive sport is one that I'm entirely opposed to (what was it Eliot said "there is no competition - / there is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again."). That said, though, I've always been a sucker for creative challenges, so I figured I would try writing the damn things anyway.

Here they are then. Poems on Love (complete with capital L). 160 characters (with spaces) maximum*. To be sent typed out in an SMS.


A dropped heart.
Falling is flight, but in the end all things break.

Measure desire in breath and dreams in eyelids.
Every love seems unfinished in its own way.


Writing to you this way
I should be more precise.

But my fingers pick out
A language of missed connections,
And the text knows already
What it has to say to you.


This is what the heart contracts to,
A love that fits in the palm of my hand.

I try to put a brave face on it,
But my smile is a parenthesis
Closing on itself.


The signal is fading now.
All hope will be out of range.

This is just to say
That I tried to reach you,
And couldn’t get through.

- January 2006

* I've taken the liberty of adding line breaks for the blog version, but without the line breaks (though with the rest of the punctuation) each one of these will fit into a 160 character text message.


What's the story?

What am I to myself but a collection of scripts, a loose accumulation of narratives that I repeat over and over to myself, polishing a little here, editing a word or two there, reluctant to make the newest, most intimate ones public?

My identity a reef - dead versions of my self gathering one on top of the other like coral.

I am a nation of stories, a democracy of tales - some flamboyant and demanding attention, others dignified, repressed, content to live out their quiet little lives; some ambitious, others meek; some who have died young and others who will live on long after anyone can understand them, long after anyone cares. Some of these stories do not live with me, they have been exiled from my heart and have taken refuge in the memory of others, where they are occassionaly heard from. Others spend their lives wandering across the continents, looking for a place to call home, still others are afraid to even step out of the silence, for fear that the sunlight of being spoken may prove them false.

And yet they live in harmony, these stories, exist in an easy symbiosis, even the ones that contradict each other taking pains to be polite (though every now and then a story will turn to question, will seek to humble or destroy; and then, of course, there are the stories that exist only to embarass me, like senile relatives). Each story has its own function, its own special skills, its own place in the larger heirarchy. They understand division of labour, these stories, so that the stories about me as a corporate go-getter know they could not live with themselves without the stories about me as a poet; and the stories about me as a poet in turn know that they would starve without other, more practical tales to make their work possible.

What I call me is only the most powerful among these stories, their first among equals, the one narrative that all the other scripts support or are in agreement with, and have therefore chosen to be their representative. The self is inherently democratic, though, the purpose of the I is not to insist upon its own rights, but to give voice to all the other stories hidden deep within me. Other selves wait jealously in watch upon this elected I, ready, at the first misstep, the slightest awkwardness, to claim the prize of me for themselves. The position of this first story is always shaky, in fact, because the self does not much care for incumbents, is always impatient for change. No sooner has an I come to power, than the self grows weary of it, each individual story looking for other I's that it would rather have representing it. Every re-invention of who I am is a fresh election, the results uncertain at first, but then the majority becoming quite clear, and the I that has been usurped (if it has been) bowing out gracefully, stepping aside to let some other script take over and becoming, eventually, a statesman of the self, a preserver of its history, its ambassador to distant climes.

Faiz writes: "Zard patton ka ban jo mera desh hai" (roughly translated: This forest of fallen leaves that is my country). These are the countries that we inhabit. These are the nations of our becoming.


Monday, January 23, 2006

The course of true love

This glorious post by Shoe-fiend got me thinking about the many different ways in which the media puts all these ideas of what is romantic in our heads, without cautioning us about the risk factors involved. We soak up all these images of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie being all passionate and shit, and no one ever warns us that it's all about stunt doubles and special effects and there's no way that ordinary mortals like you and I can pull this stuff off without doing serious bodily harm. Make love in a field in the rain and you're almost certain to get pneumonia. Try lifting a woman in your arms and carrying her up to the bedroom and you'll be lucky if you get away with just a slipped disc or two. And that's if she's thin.

When are people going to realise that romance is a serious hazard to public health? Shouldn't the surgeon general be doing something about it? I mean, it almost feels like every saccharine romantic comedy should come with a notice at the start that says: "Caution. These actions are performed by professionals. DO NOT try them at home."

Take it from me: if you want to have a happy, long-lasting relationship you want to steer absolutely clear of all romantic gestures. They never work the way you want them to. There's always a catch that you haven't thought about and you end up either looking really foolish (if you're lucky) or fighting bitterly with someone you used to love.

Take this whole taking showers together thing, for instance. It sounds all sexy and intimate doesn't it? What they don't tell you is that different people have different tolerance for hot and cold water. So sure, it's all romantic and stuff if you both happen to have a similar preferred temperature to shower at, but if one of you likes their showers tepid and the other isn't happy unless he / she can feel the scald of the water on his / her skin, you've got issues. You'll be in the middle of a really passionate moment. You'll step into the shower together, looking deep into each other's eyes. Thirty seconds later one of you will be jumping out of the shower, screaming. There will be bewilderment, there'll be recrimination. If you're smart you'll just call the whole thing off right there and go sit in front of the television and watch football. More likely though, you'll spend the next five minutes petulantly turning the shower knob back and forth, your tempers rising all the time, until finally she'll be throwing the ring in your face and you'll be telling her how you slept with her best friend that weekend she was away to see her sick grandmother. Yet another relationship down the drain. Literally.

And you know how in the movies men are always whipping up these super-romantic meals for their wives / girlfriends, to make them feel special and loved and stuff? Don't even think about it. I remember trying it once. I was on vacation and staying with my then girlfriend and I figured it would be a really marvellous gesture. So I went down to the supermarket after she'd left for work and picked up candles, a bottle of Riesling (along with a corkscrew - I wasn't going to fall for that old catch, ha! ha!) and some pasta and settled down to make the romantic meal of the century. I had it all laid out in my head - soft candlelight, gleaming silverware, Chopin in the background, a little wine, a little poetry and then, to top it all, some delectable penne. What woman could resist?

It didn't quite work out that way. To begin with, I remembered at some point in the evening that I didn't actually know how to cook pasta - so that there followed an hour of desperate Internet searches and panicked phone calls to friends. Much frenzied chopping, boiling, sieving and other P2C2E's later, I finally managed something that was well, edible, but by this point the kitchen looked like a miniature version of Pompeii after the eruption and I barely had time to change out of my marinara sauce covered apron before my girlfriend was home. Never mind, I thought. A few etudes, some generous portions of white wine and a little Neruda, and she probably wouldn't notice.

Things I hadn't considered: a) My girlfriend didn't have any wine glasses; worse, she didn't have any glasses at all (all she had, in true PhD fashion, was styrofoam cups) b) There were no matches in the house. This meant that in order to light the candles we had to ignite a scrap of paper by placing it on the stove until it caught fire. This worked, but it set the fire alarm off so we were forced to throw open all the windows, and then sit freezing in our jackets while the smoke cleared and all her neighbours came by to stare. It also meant that we ended up with little specks of half burnt paper in our wine. AND the wind came and blew the candles out, so we were back to square one. c) At the last minute, her stereo system stopped playing CDs, so we were forced to fall back on radio. d) In all the excitement of dealing with these multiple crises (and minding the pasta, which was starting to take on strange alien shapes) I didn't actually have time to get to the Neruda.

By the time it was all over, my super romantic gesture consisted of sitting in a bitterly cold room, listening to Metallica on the radio, eating cold, congealed pasta and drinking wine out of coffee mugs. Oh, and then spending the next two hours cleaning up the mess in the kitchen so that by the time I was done my girlfriend was already asleep. I should so have ordered in chinese. At least that way we wouldn't both have had indigestion the next day.

P.S. Mom, Dad, the bit about the showers is ENTIRELY HYPOTHETICAL. Honest.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Servant of a vast flux

Countless lives inhabit us.
I don't know, when I think or feel,
Who is it that thinks or feels.
I am merely the place
Where things are thought or felt.

I have more than just one soul.
There are more I's than I myself.
I exist, nevertheless,
Indifferent to them all.
I silence them: I speak.

The crossing urges of what
I feel or do not feel
Struggle in who I am, but I
Ignore them. They dictate nothing
To the I I know: I write.

- Ricardo Reis (Fernando Pessoa); Translated by Richard Zenith.

This blog has many idols, many voices that it seeks to worship, a veritable Pantheon of Lares and Penates to whom it wishes to pay obesiance. Among these gods is one Fernando Pessoa, 1888 - 1935, Portugese poet and writer whose heteronymous talents regularly leave me speechless.

That Pessoa is an extremely skilled poet is besides the point - certainly there are many greater
talents among his generation of European poets alone. What makes Pessoa special seems, at first glance, like a clever party trick - the fact that he writes not as one man, but as four [1] each with his own individual voice - the bucolic nature poet Alberto Caeiro, the rambling and urbane Alvaro de Campos, the classical aesthete Ricardo Reis, my personal favourite [2] and the sensitive and somewhat tortured Fernando Pessoa himself. These are not simply different pen names though, they represent fundamentally different poets, each with his own distinct and recognisable voice. As an artistic exploration of the notion of identity I can think of nothing finer or more interesting.

In some sense then, Pessoa's concerns are also the point of this blog - they are both wary of the notion of the identity of identity, its fundamental unity. Pessoa's triumph is a refusal to be classified, a refusal to be either this or that. "My heart is a little larger than the entire universe" he writes, so surely it is capable of containing more than one reality, more than one point of view, more than one vector of emotions. You may call this schizophrenia or you may call it simply the contingency of the self, but it is a denial of categories that is essential to this blog.

Many people, including the ever perceptive Harold Bloom, have pointed to the parallels between Pessoa and Whitman, how Pessoa reads, in many cases, like a deconstruction of Whitman, like a splitting of Whitman into his component facets, like a prism splitting a beam of pure light into myriad colours. Yet Pessoa's sensibility has little to do with Whitman's hearty democracy - in that sense Pessoa is much closer to Rilke (and also, in some ways, to Cavafy) and therefore a quintessential European poet from between the two World Wars, tortured by the same demons of existential despair combined with a deep sense of personal frustration, of spiritual impotence. His is a hypersensitive voice, in which the shape of the external world appears in bruises. That such a sensibility should have the courage to assert itself even as one individual is impressive, that so sensitive a man should choose to hold four selves against the world's onslaught is entirely unbelievable.

A few other extracts from Ricardo Reis:

The gods grant nothing more than life,
So let us reject whatever lifts us
To unbreathable heights,
Eternal but flowerless.
Let our only science be to accept,
And as long as the blood in our veins still pulses
And love does not shrivel,
Let us go on
Like panes of glass: transparent to light,
Pattered by the sad rain trickling down,
Warmed by the sun,
And reflecting a little.


I was never one who in love or in friendship
Preferred one sex over the other. Beauty
Attracts me in equal measure, wherever
I find it, in season.

The bird alights, looking only to its alighting,
Its desire to alight mattering more than the branch.
The river runs where it finds its repose,
And not where it is needed.


I placidly wait for what I don't know -
My future and the future of everything.
In the end there will only be silence except
Where the waves of the sea bathe nothing.


[1] I'm counting only the poets here - there's also, of course, Bernando Soares from the Book of Disquiet.

[2] Admittedly, this may have something to do with Saramago's glorious The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis


Saturday, January 21, 2006


In the beginning, there was Tofu. The colourless, damp, slightly rubbery texture of it that Radha's knife sliced through with practised ease. Radha liked tofu. It was her field of expertise as a cook, even if she said so herself. Her tofu makhani was considered a minor miracle by all those who had tasted it, and her kadhai tofu was a favourite among friends and family alike - a staple at every dinner party she gave. Even her mother, who on general principle approved of nothing Radha did in the home, had to admit that she knew how to cook tofu. The thing about tofu, Radha reflected, was that people had no preconceived notions about it. Because it wasn't exactly a traditional dish, there were no grandmother's recipes floating about, and people savoured it for itself, not searching in it for the half-remembered taste of their own childhood. It was this absence of history, as though the past had leached out of tofu along with its colour, that made Radha so partial to tofu. She thought of it as the unformed poetry of her life - so blank, so easily cut down to size.

That was the other thing: the pliability of it, its protean nature. The way you could cut it to whatever shape you wanted - dice it, grate it, fillet it - and there was none of that annoying peeling and scraping to be gone through first. Today she was making tofu matar. She finished cutting the tofu into cubes, then put half a pat of oil in the pan, watching the yellow sun of it melt slowly to a neutral day. The first rays of morning were streaming through the kitchen window. Yielding her face to them, Radha reminded herself, as she did every morning, how lucky they were to have this apartment.

It was a beautiful apartment. One massive master bedroom, on a scale unheard of anywhere else in Bandra; a second room, equally large, that was used a study, its walls lined with old walnut bookshelves; high, cool ceilings, a massive living area and a true delight of a kitchen in gleaming black marble; and the most glorious view of the sea from almost every room. There wasn't a friend of theirs who didn't envy them this house, this apartment that felt as though it had been transported there by some genie, placed among the crowded architecture of Bombay by mistake.

It was Harish who had found the apartment for them. This was before they were married. Harish had mentioned to Michael, his immediate superior at work, that he needed to move out of his bachelor quarters and was looking for a nice apartment, not too expensive, preferably in Bandra or thereabouts. It turned out that Michael's aging grand-uncle had just such an apartment lying vacant, so Harish went to see it and fell in love with it almost instantly. Among friends, Radha still jokes that the only reason she married Harish was because of the apartment, and the friends laugh and assure her that it was an exceptionally good reason.

There is the landlord himself, of course. Not Michael, even though he seems to feel it his right to take a proprietal interest in the place, poking about the house every time he comes to visit. (Radha, does not like Michael - he strikes her as too brash, too arrogant - the kind of man who walks about with an exaggerated swagger, as though his genitalia were too big for his shorts). No, the real landlord, the grand-uncle. Radha is afraid of this landlord, though she will admit it to no one. There is something about his bushy eyebrows, his deep, hoarse voice, his condescending manner, that makes Radha feel that she is disapproved of, that she has said or done something to harm him, though she does not know what. He's a kind enough man, Radha tells herself, always correct and courteous, always listening patiently when they have a complaint, but something about him just strikes her as sinister.

Fortunately he doesn't interfere much. Almost never visits the house, usually contenting himself with quick phone calls to them when he's in India (he lives in Rome) and never asking any questions about the house even when he does occassionally stop by, more interested in the two of them than in his own house, so unlike Michael in that way. His only stricture, as he informed Harish before he signed the lease, was that no flesh would be cooked or eaten in the house, nor must the people living in the house eat non-vegetarian food outside. There's actually a clause about this in the rent contract. He seems obssessed about it, the old man, but for Radha and Harish, both life-long vegetarians, acceding to his condition is hardly a hardship. As Harish puts it, laughingly rebutting Radha's point about marrying him for the house, he would have considered giving up sex for a house like this, so giving up the meat that he doesn't eat anyway was hardly going to stop him.

So, here we are, thinks Radha, adding the tofu to the now sizzling pan, twenty-eight years old, in perfect health, with successful careers, a beautiful home and a loving marriage. Yes, we're lucky, she thinks, watching the cubes of tofu sputter in the pan like dice from which all the numbers have been erased.


At two that afternoon, Radha is sitting in an unfamiliar Colaba cafe, and wishing she'd gone to Churchill's instead. This cafe is a new place, serving, her friend has assured her, the most delightful vegetarian Italian food with an exquisite selection of breads, but Radha is tired after a morning of hectic meetings, and is looking for the comfort of the familiar. Besides there is something about the cafe that doesn't feel right to her. Not that it isn't well done up, the light coloured tables are arranged in careful disarray, the soft strumming of the guitar on the music system is soothing, the whole place has a sunny, weightless feel. And the waiter, she notices, is extremely good looking, though in a brutal sort of way. Yet something about this place menaces her, some premonition that hangs in the air like stale cigarette smoke.

Nonsense, she tells herself - she is here now so she might as well try the place out. Besides she will never get a table elsewhere and she is hungry. She orders a glass of carrot juice and a soy lasagna, and pulls out a book to skim while she waits.

The lasagna, when it arrives is exquisite. There is no other word for it. She takes one bite and feels the shock of the taste coursing through her, the flavour of it so thrilling that it is all her mouth can do to contain it, to keep from exclaiming in joy. She eats greedily, in a frenzy of disbelief, each new bite making the denial of what her taste-buds are telling her a little weaker. Nothing she has ever tasted before in her life has felt this rich, this succulent. As she savours the last few mouthfuls of this revelation, she makes a mental note to drag Harish here the first time they go out for dinner again, perhaps even tonight. She is supremely happy.

When the cheque comes, she looks at it carefully, then calls the waiter over to point out to him that she has had the soy lasagna and they have billed her for regular. The waiter looks at her out of those smouldering eyes of his, clearly puzzled. "Soy lasagna?", he says, "no ma'am, that wasn't soy lasagna - that was regular lasagna, I thought that's what you wanted. At least, that's what you told me", he adds, sounding defensive. "Regular lasagna?!" she half screams, "you mean, you mean the kind with MEAT in it". The waiter smiles sadistically at the sight of her obvious horror. "Yes ma'am", he said, "one hundred percent pure beef. Best Quality. Imported all the way from US". Then he laughs.


That night, at dinner, Radha can't eat a bite. The memory of what she has eaten for lunch seems to linger in her mouth like a stain, turning the sprouts and salad they are eating to ashes in her mouth. Here's the smell of blood still. The words from Macbeth that she performed in college come back to her. Who would have thought lasagna could have so much blood in it?

Harish, intent on describing a tricky deal he worked out for a client, notices nothing. She wonders if she should tell him about the disaster that has befallen her. But what if he should turn against her? Surely he wouldn't. It was an honest mistake, it could have happened to anyone. And besides, she is his wife, it's not like he's going to leave her because she made a mistake. What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? But what if he were to think she had enjoyed it? How could you eat that disgusting thing and not know? he will ask. He will try to be supportive, of course, but he will not be able to keep from feeling the disgust for her body that she feels herself. They will drift apart. The day will come when he will ask her for a divorce and she will not, in all conscience, be able to say no. Her life will be over. No, better not to tell him. No need really. It's all in the past anyway. Better to let bygones be bygones.

Three days pass. Radha cooks all her favourite vegetarian meals, taking her skill with tofu to levels it has never known before. Harish remarks on it, delighted, though a little incredulous. By the third day, having thrown a good portion of her tofu hariyali into the garbage, Radha is forced to admit to herself that bygones are not bygones. Her guilt has settled by now, has turned into anger against that stupid waiter. After all, it was all his fault, wasn't it? She clearly TOLD him she wanted a soy lasagna. She's the victim here - no reason for her to feel guilty.

But still her appetite has not returned. She tries dish after dish that used to delight her but they all seem bland, insipid. The taint of the flavour is gone, but the memory of it lies aching on her tongue, like a longing, and in comparison with it everything pales. Horrified with herself, she is forced to admit that she craves another taste of meat. She has no sooner articulated this thought in her head than she shrinks back from it. What would Harish say, what would her mother say? She thinks about the stories she heard as a little girl, about tigers who, having accidentally tasted human blood once, turn irrevocably into man-eaters. Something similar has happened to her. She is cursed. She dreams of herself tearing into live chickens, her mouth emerging from their innards caked with feathers and blood. She wakes up in a cold sweat.

When a week has passed without blunting this new appetite of hers, she starts, very furtively, to do some research on meat-eating. She reads about proteins and what the lack of them can do to the human body. She studies people at work who are, by their own admission, devoted meat eaters, and convinces herself that they are not, after all, raging and violent demons, but in fact are people just like her in every way except in diet. Slowly her resolve starts to weaken. She finds herself opening recipes of lasagna on the internet, staring at them with the saliva gathering in her mouth (Her aversion to eating her normal diet has caused her to lose three kgs in a month. She has told everyone, including Harish - who finally noticed - that she is on a diet. But the truth is that she's just hungry).

The fact is that Radha has never questioned, before now, the meaning of her vegetarianism. She did not turn vegetarian, is not vegetarian for any particular reason or principle. She is vegetarian because that is what she has always been - to question her vegetarian status would have seemed to her as odd as questioning her name or the place that she was born. Being vegetarian is not a way of life she has chosen, it's just who she is.

But slowly, she is beginning to question, is beginning to wonder what lies behind her choice. There are so many foods out there that I am depriving myself of, she reasons - fish, chicken, bacon, pork, ham, turkey, veal, beef, mutton - endless sources of fibre and protein, all crucial to human health. Isn't my denial of these things simply a form of close-mindedness? Don't we owe it to ourselves to make a more informed decision? I'm not saying that I want to turn non-vegetarian necessarily, I'm just saying that one needs to try these things and then come to an objective decision.

So, one day, four months after the Colaba Incident (which is how she now thinks of that day, capital letters included), Radha takes the day off from work and walks into a butcher's shop. The smell is overwhelming and turns her stomach, but her resolve is firm now, and she perseveres, coming away with a slab of boneless fish. Back home she anxiously pulls up a menu from the Internet, proceeds to try cooking the fish herself. To her surprise this turns out to be a lot simpler than she expected. It turns out that there are no exotic rites to be performed, none of the mystic libations she has pictured to herself. After a little initial preparation, the whole thing is surprisingly similar to the way she makes tofu. Radha sees this as an affirmation, a sign that what she is doing is meant to be. Dish prepared, she waits anxiously for Harish to come home, forces him to sit down to an early dinner, and plies him with the dish, watching tensely as he eats.

This is the moment that she has feared most of all - the true denouement that will either expose her or prove her right. She has pictured to herself a million times the revulsion on Harish's face as he turns away from the meat, showing her that it is she who is abnormal, she who is at fault. This does not happen. Instead Harish's reaction closely mirrors her's at the cafe, all those days ago. His face lights up as he eats, he devours a plateful, asks for seconds, and loudly praises her cooking, proclaiming that this time she has totally outdone herself. Finally, towards the end of the meal, he asks her what it is. She tells him.

For a moment, there is dead silence at the table, so that it feels as though Harish has dropped his fork, though it's still there, held tightly between his fingers, suspended in mid air. Then the questioning starts, the bewilderment, the recriminations. What is she thinking of? What does she mean? She tells him all about the last four months - the regular lasagna, the haunting of her appetite, her resolution to try something new - pointing again and again to the meal he has just eaten, and evidently enjoyed. Understanding takes time to digest however, and neither of them gets any sleep that night, their voices raised and lowered in that medley of accusation and tenderness that only two people deeply in love with each other are capable of. By the time the morning arrives, he has accepted, a little sullenly, that this non-vegetarian thing may be worth trying.


And so a brand new world begins. As their inhibitions gradually leave them, Radha and Harish indulge in a frenzy of eating, discovering a wealth and range of delights that their innocent palates had never thought possible. Every day is a new adventure now, every meal is a new find. It is such a thrill to be able to walk into their favourite restaurants and be able to order from the entire menu, instead of limiting themselves to one of the four selections in that green-coloured section on page 4. Radha's tofu skills are soon forgotten, as the couple turn into meat addicts, junkies of the flesh, incapable of going a single meal without something non-vegetarian (even breakfast is bacon and eggs now). Radha buys a mini deep freeze for her kitchen and stocks it with all sorts of goodies - sausages, salami, cutlets, kebabs, drumsticks, chicken breasts, steak, chops. The smell of sizzling flesh fills the house.

And that's where the trouble starts. In the urgency of their exploration, the young couple have completely forgotten the condition laid down by the landlord. One day, just as they are sitting down to hearty meal of tandoori chicken, he arrives in person, looking wrathful and suspicious (did Michael notice something and tell him? did one of the neighbours call him and report the smell? or was it just an accident that he happened to stop by? no one will ever know). Walking in, he took one look at the meal growing flagrantly cold on the table, stomped into the table and saw the KFC carton lying by the trash, the peeled strips of this morning's salami still lying on the kitchen slab, and began to shout at them. My house has been polluted forever, he screamed. I gave you the house on trust, you promised me that not even the slightest taint of flesh would come near it, and then I find you with this abomination on the dining table, committing sacrilege after sacrilege in this apartment that I have built with the sweat of my brow? I want you out of here at once. I don't care about rent or anything like that. I just want you to leave. Now. Tonight. And take your dirty food, and your clothes and your things smelling of dead flesh with you. Go. Leave now. This minute. I demand it.

It took a while for Harish to calm him down, to make him see that it was not reasonable to expect anyone to vacate a house instantly at 10 o clock at night. Sullenly, the landlord agreed, but remained adamant that they must leave, giving them, grudgingly, till the coming Sunday to clear out. When Harish tried to point out that it would be almost impossible to find a new place by then, he flared up again. "I don't care where you go", he said, "you and your damn wife can sleep on the bloody footpath. What's that to me? I just want you out of my house - every additional day you spend in it is a desecration". So there it was. Radha and Harish had three days in which to wind up the house they had lived in for four years now, and in the meantime, while they stayed there, they were not to cook or bring any meat into the house (the meat currently in the house would be thrown out immediately - a concession both Radha and Harish granted quickly and guiltily, hoping to use it to pursuade the old man to let them stay). He would hear no more.

Come Sunday, it was Michael who showed up to see the couple out and take the key from them (apparently the old man could not stand the thought of seeing them again; he was busy organising a massive pooja to purify his house the minute Michael confirmed that they had left). Michael's manner was disapproving, almost hostile. He told Harish that he was disappointed in him, that he had always considered him a trustworthy man and had been shocked to hear of his duplicity. Things at office would need to be reconsidered now, he implied. When the last of their boxes had been taken out, he locked the door of the apartment firmly, accompanied them down in the lift, and stood by the door of the building, watching them drive away, as though to ensure that they didn't sneak back in somehow.

In the years to come, Radha and Harish lived in many apartments, some pleasant enough, some frankly squalid and inconvenient. After the first flush of their excitement over meat-eating they settled into a more balanced diet, coming to see even such exotic delicacies as seekh kebabs as a matter of course. In fact, when a fad for avoiding red meat swept the country, Radha resurrected her skill with tofu, and dazzled their friends anew with her proficiency. Like the flats they moved into, their marriage soon settled into a more ordinary mould as well, they grew more negligent of each other, quarrelled more, took notice of each other more casually. Whenever they would sit down to reminisce about the old times, however, the topic of that apartment would always come up, and they would retell the story of it, sometimes whimsically, laughing at their foolishness, sometimes with genuine regret for what they had lost.


Friday, January 20, 2006

The trouble with the English language...

...is that there are no words in it for the things that really matter.

For instance, why is there no English word that describes the glowing warmth that you feel running through you when you stand under a shower on a cold winter morning and give yourself utterly to the rushing water. A sensation that is both implosion and relief, a reassertion of the self wrapped in a cocoon of flowing warmth, a return to an ur-womb, where muscles become irrelevant. The temptation to just stay there, complicit in the moment's liquidity, safe in the privacy of a heat that no one else can share. And the terrible wrench of having to face the world afterwards, the enormous sense of loss you feel as you turn off the shower knob, sense the cold making its first lecherous advances - the moment passing as easily as the mist you wipe off the mirror to find your own face.

Why is there no word for the innocence of water, its essential forgivingness; for the ease with which it kneads its way through the skin of our defenses, its fingers more skilful than a lover's?

Every time I turn off the shower in the morning I am reminded of Dickinson:

Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dead to the world

You know how people read different sections of the newspaper - some people read the business pages, others read sports, others focus on the editorial pages, or the arts?

I read the obituaries.

No, seriously. Every single day, after I've checked out the cartoons and weather in the New York Times (and vaguely skimmed the headlines), I will turn to the obituaries section and spend a good ten to fifteen minutes reading up on who died the previous day. Let other people follow stocks or Angelina Jolie's love life - I follow Death.

Thinking about it, there are a number of reasons that I like reading the obits. First, there's something about them, as news, that feels unbiased - this is not some flavour of the month thing, some combination of media frenzy and Republican spin - the facts here are accurate, and certainly the people featured have no vested interests in projecting a certain image. Dead people are really dead - they're not in there for the ratings.

Second, there's something about obituaries that seems more permanent, that puts the news in its proper perspective. Despite the NYT's tendency to fill its obit pages with some fairly obscure people, you can't help feeling that Death is a kind of filter, winnowing the chaff of everyday trivia from the grain of what truly mattered. Public obituaries are, in a very local and myopic sense, the judgement of history - what is newsworthy here is not an event but rather the whole life of the person leading up to it. This is the scale that human achievement should be measured on.

Even the more obscure obituaries serve this 'historical' purpose, by the way. If the purpose of history is to help us learn from the past, then the very obscurity of the people listed on that page in the New York Times can serve as both an Ozymandiacal reminder of the insignificance of even the most dramatic events of our day, as well as an affirmation of the unchanging nature of man's ambition. To read some of these obituaries is to see the past hold up a mirror to the present, to recognise that our capacity for scandal is not new and that power, sex and greed have always led to uproar and downfall, even in times that we, in our new found arrogance, now consider innocent.

Third, obituaries are strictly one-time things. Any given person will only die once, after all, so if you miss his / her obituary on the day it comes out, you're never going to get to see it again. This means that there's a sense of urgency to obituaries (ironically enough) that there isn't to much of the other news we read. You know more innocent people are going to be killed in Iraq, you know some new revelation about the Bush administration's complete disregard for due process is going to surface, you know that George Clooney is going to be seen at a restaurant with some other starlet and we're all going to pretend we're interested - but miss the edition that carries the news of Milosz's death, and it could be months before you know that one of your favourite poets of all time is lost to us forever.

Finally, I am always astounded by the democracy of death, by the easy camaraderie it makes possible. Saints and murderers, poets and politicians, pop-stars and scientists all rub shoulders on the obit page - it is the one section of the newspaper that remains a testament to the sheer breadth and scope of the human enterprise, of the infinite variety of things that human beings are capable of. What was it Shakespeare said:

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

You know how people dream of getting their picture in the paper? The Times obituaries is the section I'm eventually gunning for.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Whole Tooth / What they don't teach you at Harvard Dental School

The science of dentistry (as some of you may know) was first developed around three thousand years ago in Ancient China, where it was used as an advanced and highly stylised form of hand-to-hand combat. In those halcyon times, brave warriors would fight duels where they would vie to pull the teeth of out each other's jaws, the one to have all his teeth extracted first being said to 'lose face'. The true sign of a man's prowess, therefore, was the number of teeth he still possessed. Legend has it, for instance, that the renowned General Wang retained a full set of teeth till the day he died, with the exception of one incisor that he lost when he committed the tactical error of tasting his wife's fried rice. The fact that the Western world has chosen to use something as inherently harmless as gunpowder to fight its battles, while actively volunteering for dental work, remains one of the finest ironies of history, one that the ancient Chinese would doubtless have found amusing if they'd ever managed to take the time out from inventing all these other cool things to actually develop a sense of humour.

At any rate. One of the consequences of this noble provenance of the dental arts is that, like everything else that's imported from China, 85% of the features of dental medicine remain unused in the modern world because they all came written up in an obscure 600 page manual that no one can read because it's in Chinese. As an aid to budding dentists looking to start up their own clinics, therefore, I offer the following 10 cardinal rules of being a successful dentist, gleaned from years of careful observation of dental techniques:

1. The most important feature of a state of the art dental clinic is the presence of a large collection of woefully outdated and unspeakably boring magazines in the waiting room. Everyone knows that the skill of a dentist is inversely proportional to the readability of his waiting room periodicals, so that if you ever stumble into the waiting room of a dentist who has the current issue of Outlook lying about, you probably want to beat a hasty retreat, while if said waiting room features the 1974 issue of Auto Parts Illustrated then you KNOW that you're in sound hands, and you might as well have all your teeth taken out and replace them with dentures, because nothing God gave you could be better than what this dentist can do. If you're a young dentist setting up your own place, and don't have any great aunts who can lend you their teenage copies of Woman and Home, your best bet is to litter the place with the abstruse neuro-science journals that you used to collect before reality struck and you had to settle for being a dentist.

2. While outdated magazines are critical to setting the right ambience for your waiting room, they aren't enough. The Ministry of Silly Signs requires that you put up at least one poster showing a full set of shining teeth with the word SMILE written in large letters somewhere on it, preferably with some lame Hallmark type joke underneath. This is important. Failure to comply with this statute could result in your Blockbuster DVD membership being revoked permanently. Notice that the key issue here is smiling - other functions that teeth might conceivably serve are not officially recognised yet, so that if you're thinking about putting up a poster that says EAT, don't.

3. The next critical piece of equipment is, of course, the Chair. The purpose of the Chair is to obscure the fact that what you really do is essentially basic manual labour, only with really tiny instruments (I firmly maintain, for instance, that the only reason dentists get paid more than say, hairdressers, is that their chairs are fancier). A good state-of-the-art dentist's chair doesn't just recline and shine a light on you, to be truly modern it must be capable of playing Bach Fugues at the press of a foot-lever, able to run complex chaos theory models while the patient rinses his / her mouth, and equipped to fly the USS Enterprise should the need suddenly arise. You're unlikely to use any of these features on a regular basis, but the fact that you can tell the suction pipe from the karaoke attachment will make you feel less guilty about charging exorbitant rates for what is essentially a process of drilling holes in people's teeth and filling them up again.

4. If you are a man, becoming a successful dentist means you need to combine the Boris Karloff look with the bedside manner of Frankenstein. Only then will your patients be sufficiently intimidated by you to never refuse to come back, justifying this decision to themselves with the argument that you must be really good if you can afford to be so rude. (Fun fact: Dentist, in Transylvanian is spelled Igor, or would be, if vampires could spell)

5. If you are a woman, being a successful dentist means you have to be young, single and good looking. This is to ensure that the entire procedure is as embarassing and tortuous for your male patients as possible. After all, what could be more frustrating than the knowledge that when they finally meet a woman worth hitting on, it's in the most unromantic setting conceivable [1], that the first time a woman gently pushes them onto their backs and asks them to open their mouths for her, it's only so she can clean off their tartar deposits? After that, a mere extraction or two is hardly going to hurt.

6. Always wear a mask. This not only makes your pretense of being a real doctor more convincing, it also ensures that no one can actually see the 26 fillings you have in your own teeth.(thus retaining the molar high ground. heh.)

7. Always wait till you've got at least four different implements in your patient's mouth before you start asking them questions. There's nothing like making small talk while your mouth is being held forcibly open to make you appreciate the importance of healthy teeth.

8. Tell your patient that he / she has a condition of that kind that is lying dormant now but could suddenly come alive and prove excruciatingly painful if not actually fatal. Go on and on about how terrible this could be. Use words like inflammation and septic liberally. After you've got the patient to the point of abject panic, explain to him / her that you don't actually plan to do anything about it, except wait for it act up. Wave an X-ray at them to PROVE that there's no other way (Oh, yeah, always get an X-ray done - like your patient's teeth are hidden so deep within his / her body that you couldn't see them with the naked eye). This step has numerous advantages: a) it's more sadistic than making someone watch re-runs of Friends b) it gives you a reason to show empathy, thus enabling you to show off the bedside manner you've been practising in the mirror these last 5 years c) it means you can schedule follow-up meetings every few months, and eventually send your kid through college d) if anything does eventually go wrong with the person's teeth (and let's face it, it probably will) you can then claim you told them so [2] (this requires, of course, that the initial diagnosis be suitably veiled in medical gobbledy-gook; never say, for instance, that a piece of their third tooth bottom right got chipped off, say something like "you have an infracted sub-accidental presentation of your lower occidental incisor")

9. Make sure you prescribe a mouthwash or gum massage or some other treatment that will require hours of intense effort after every meal, meeting any whimpers from your patient about having a job / life with a look of shocked outrage. Remember to emphasise that the substances you are prescribing are not to be taken internally, not even in trace elements, because they could lead to poisoning and eventual blindness, leaving it to your patient to figure out how this is to be achieved with something that is being applied to his / her mouth.

10. If all else fails, simply tinker around randomly in person's mouth, and then show them a mirror and say something like "you can see the difference already". They almost certainly can't, but there's no way they're going to admit to you that they don't spend long periods of every day studying their teeth with a magnifying glass. If they do have the temerity to claim that they don't see an improvement, tell them you could do a more thorough cleaning, but it would require using a local anaesthetic - there's something about the idea of someone poking a needle into one's gums that will make even the most stalwart naysayers meekly capitulate.


[1] I mean seriously, can you imagine a situation less likely to lead to intimacy? How do you even begin to come on to someone who just spent the last twenty minutes staring at the undersides of your gums? Where's the magic? And what do you say exactly, "You want to catch dinner sometime? And afterwards we could go back to my place and floss?". Sheesh (and please, no jokes about filling cavities. Let's keep this clean. And pearly white).

[2] If absolutely nothing ever goes wrong with your patient's teeth, you can always fall back on Plan B - congratulating them on how lucky they are, as though this were some sort of personal achievement.

Monday, January 16, 2006

First Train

The wind comes from the North West, rattling the chain-metal fence like armour and sending a stray newspaper into somersaults of panic. The flag on top of the old high school wags its tail in excited greeting, here and there stray citizens emerge to bow their heads in awe. The wind pays them no attention, preferring to get on with its work, nudging the mist forward like a herd of sheep, sieving the light from the streetlamps through the bare and shaken branches of the trees. These tasks done, it arrives at the train station, whistling in shrill anticipation at the sight of the empty stockyard.

5 am. The station is deserted at this hour. The wind dusts the tracks for fingerprints, blowing a fine powder of snow across it, but the cold metal rail comes out clean. The track alone stands firm against the wind's urgency, maintaining the formality of its parallels to both horizons at once. Its very presence seems to reassure the landscape, reassert the familiar discipline of distance.

The temperature outside is - 10 C, not counting windchill. Standing on the platform, he tries to keep this fact from seeping in as though it were the cold itself, as though by denying his body the knowledge he could keep it warm. The wind howls all around him, as bitter as sour steel, and tiny patches of ice have sprouted all over the platform like some sort of skin infection. - 10 C! He stares longingly at the platform waiting room, in whose flimsy shelter a small group of fellow-travellers sit huddled together, trying to stay warm. He considers going over to them. It wouldn't be much warmer, of course, but at least he'd be out of the wind. He takes another look at the group. How miserable they look, how weak, gathered together like mangy cats. He feels a deep nausea rise in his throat at the thought of joining them. No, better to stay where he is, even if it means freezing till the train comes. But when will the train come? There's supposed to be one every hour starting with this first one, isn't there? He doesn't have a schedule. He spreads his legs a little, braces himself to face the cold, trying to ignore the ridiculous ease with which the wind cuts through his overcoat, sowing tiny spiders of chills in his skin.

It isn't long before the cold starts to get to him. Slowly the tiny ripples of the cold gather into a larger turbulence, the seep of their malice reaching his very bones. He tries walking about to keep the circulation going, but his shoes are new and the ground is treacherous and he is mortally afraid of falling. Besides, movement only seems to make it worse - every time his trousers rub against his thigh, the cold of the fabric is transmitted to his flesh. He grits his teeth and decides to stand firm. He can feel his muscles rebelling against this idea, can feel every successive tremor of the cold passing through him like a shockwave, but he tells himself that cold is all in the mind, really - 99% imagination - all he has to do is stick to strict denial and he should be okay.

Dawn arrives before the first train - the sunrise itself a kind of locomotive, first the distant rumble of light in the sky, then the first sight of the engine coming over the horizon and then the doppler-esque explosion of day barrelling its way into the world. It's a glorious sight, but he is too cold to enjoy it. By now his hands hurt as though they are trapped in a vise, and a terrible shivering has taken over his body, causing it to quiver like a rubber snake. His teeth chatter uncontrollably and so hard he is afraid something might break. He has never felt this cold before in his life, never endured so intense a hardship. He is starting to feel a bit dizzy and the conviction is growing on him that he has only to relax his vigil and the wind will blow him onto the tracks. At the same time, there is a small part of him that is proud - proud to have survived this, proud to have stood his ground. He has the terrible suspicion that the people huddled around the platform shelter are laughing at him. He must stand firm. He must show no sign of weakening.

When the train finally arrives he is the first one in, sinking gratefully into the first seat that he can find, his body still trembling wildly. In these first few minutes, his brain has been emptied of all cognition, he has become a glorified animal, the hoarding of warmth his only thought. It is now, in this first tortuous taste of heat, that he tastes the full magnitude of what he has suffered, feeling the extremities of his skin melt slowly from numbness to pain. Slowly, as his mind thaws, another thought begins to nag at him, though - something he has forgotten, something the cold has made him overlook. He checks quickly to make sure that he has brought his bag with him. Yes, there it is, lying safe and snug in the overhead compartment. What could it be that he has forgotten? Perhaps he is just imagining it.

It's the sight of the conductor that finally precipitates the answer in his mind, causing realisation to fall like a fat droplet. A ticket! He forgot to buy a ticket. How unaccountably stupid of him. Now he'll have to pay a surcharge. When the conductor reaches him he pulls out his wallet, asks how much the ticket will be. The conductor frowns. We don't sell tickets on the train, the conductor says, you have to buy them on the station. Yes, well, I'm afraid I didn't. Is there some sort of fine or something I need to pay? Maybe a special fare or something? The conductor shakes his head.

Five minutes later he is out on the platform again, one station down, and the shivering starts all over again. He watches the train pull out of the station, then walks gingerly across the empty platform (there is ice here as well and the wind is stronger) and buys himself a ticket from the vending machine. Another 55 minutes to go before the next train comes. For a moment he stares at the empty waiting room. The idea of waiting inside it tempts him, but something deep inside cries out that a gesture must be sustained if it is to mean anything. There is a lone wooden bench out on the open platform. He walks across to it, sits down. He has a long, long time to wait and the cold is just beginning to take hold.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Blue Skies from Pain

Flying across continents, he carries the night with him. Travels within it as though it were an element. Stays clear of the searchlight of the sun. In the endlessness of his dark, landscapes are irrelevant, his only lodestar is the tiny pinch of light winking slyly back at him from the wingtip of his plane. The wing itself seems so contrived, so rigidly formal, slicing through the horizon like a paper knife, seperating the inky blue of the sky from the haze of the earth.

The earth broods. That is what he has learnt today. When no one is looking the earth is mournful, almost melancholy. Hiding behind masks of ice that conceal the raw ground of its feelings. It is we humans who try to cheer the earth up, amuse it with our twinkling lights, our tiny witticisms of townships, our belly laughs of cities. And the earth is generous to us, permitting itself to be bemused the way even the most dour faced philosopher will spare a thin smile for a boasting child. But for all its sympathy with us the earth remains unmoved, ready to plunge back into its stoic silences the minute our back is turned.

In his headphones, the sound of Floyd singing Wish You Were Here. So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell. Echoed into the empty sky, the words seem like a challenge, a prophecy - the question piercing something deep inside him. Perhaps there is no Heaven but this, he thinks, perhaps God is nothing but a name we give to the sky's profounder desolation, unmatched by anything on Earth. Remember Babel, building his high tower in the hope of becoming God? Perhaps God is not dead, only rent-controlled.

How I wish, how I wish you were here. He mouths the words to himself, thinking of those he has left behind. How I wish. But where is here, exactly? Where in this unmappable blankness of his life would he want this other to be? Isn't it in fact precisely this sense of place that he seeks from the other, so that the real meaning of the song is not that you want the loved one to be where you are, in your here, but rather you yourself want to be in the place that they represent - you wish they were a 'here', a 'now'? We're just two lost souls living in a fishbowl, year after year. He looks up and finds that the passengers around are staring at him. He must have sung that out loud. He smiles sheepishly at them, turns back to the window.

What is he doing here, anyway, trapped in this cocoon of an airbus, wrapped in a thousand leagues of freezing air? Airbus. What a name, what a restless marriage of opposites. He feels trapped, constrained. He fingers the buckle of his seatbelt, checks his watch, tries to figure out how long it will be before the breakfast service. Everyone's asleep, the whole cabin plunged into a crypt like darkness. The only other reading light belongs to that girl in the embroidered salwar-kurta he noticed at the airport, who's sitting all the way across the plane at the window seat opposite his own. She's gorgeous. Straight, brown, short-cut hair, skin a delicate opal. The whole scene (the dark cabin, the two spotlights trained on him and her) reminds him vaguely of a scene in an Almodovar film; or of Eliot: "Four wax candles in the darkened room / Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead/ An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb / Prepared for all the things to be said, or left unsaid". In his younger days he might have tried to strike up a conversation with her, engineered a meeting by the lavatory, exchanged a few pleasantries. By now he knows that this would be a waste of time. He goes back to his book.

It occurs to him that every book is a journey too. You strap yourself in, prepare yourself - this will take a while. You stare through each page as though through a window, watching these landscapes you desire but can never touch unfold under your careful gaze. The book both constrains you and sets you free, fixes you to your place, but takes you across time and memory to destinations you never imagined possible. By the time it ends, you will have arrived at a new understanding, a new perspective on yourself. The world will look different, but also strangely familiar. You will struggle to adjust to the lag that comes from being returned so suddenly to your own time, your own reality. Travelling and reading, the two things everyone puts on their CV, both merely ways to enter into other worlds, escape yourself.

Somewhere in his thoughts an imaginary line is crossed, the one that divides night from day, today from tomorrow, sleep from waking. In his dream he sees a bowl of clear, still water, a bowl of the most delicate porcelain, so meek, so precious. Only he knows that the bowl is dangerous, because it has sold its fragility to the other side, and so become an apparatus of awesome power. Even a child holding it in its hands would have enough strength to flatten a city. He is not allowed to tell this secret to anyone, for to do so would cause the bowl to crack and send the waters of destruction flooding through the world. He watches in frustration as people admire the bowl, finger it, drop rose petals in it. Are they all blind? he wonders. Can't they see that the bowl has no shadow? He watches in horror as a young woman picks the bowl up in her hands (fortunately her hand is steady and the water does not ripple or spill) walks over and offers it to him. He tries to warn her with gestures, tries to wave her back, but she is insistent, so insistent...

He wakes to find that the air-hostess is handing him a form. He takes it. Stares for a while at the blandness of it, its insistence on facts - names, numbers, dates - all the details that fail to capture him, trapped in their lonely little cells, stranded behind the barred windows of their tiny boxes. Like a crossword puzzle without clues. Nothing quick or cryptic about this. He thinks about this for a while, then pulls out a pen and writes his name in the first space provided. Is not surprised to find that it doesn't fit.

Meanwhile, Harry Wainwright is laughing himself silly

It was the perfect flight. Check-in didn't take too long, security was tedious, but I made it through well in time, the flight was on schedule (well, half an hour late, but you know), I managed to get space in the overhead compartment, there were no wailing brats within earshot, the airhostesses were pretty, the food was actually edible, the jazz on the in-flight entertainment was awesome, I had a good book to read (a copy of Zadie Smith's On Beauty - a present from a friend) I managed to get some really sound sleep, the immigration lines at Newark were surprisingly short - the whole thing was too good to be true.

It was. [1] Apparently, in their diligent zeal to get all the passengers carefully seated and off on time, the Continental Airlines ground staff in Delhi forgot one minor detail - the fact that said passengers also had baggage that was supposed to take the flight with them [2]. So that when the sun rose over New Jersey this morning, it found yours truly standing meekly at the tail end of a line of some 100 irate passengers outside the baggage claims office in Terminal C. Welcome to America. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, but no one said anything about luggage.

One hour of waiting in line and several interminable waits in queue on the relevant 1-800 number later, I was informed (am informed) that all the bags left behind in Delhi are being brought to Newark tomorrow, but that there is no way of knowing whether my bag is among them, so that I'll have to wait till tomorrow afternoon before they can tell me whether I'm going to get it back or not. I have this swift mental picture of myself as one of those Confederate wives waiting anxiously for their men to come back from the war. I practise saying 'Ashley, O, Ashley' in a breathy voice. I want my Mammy. "But tomorrow is another day", I tell the woman in the call centre. I can tell she doesn't give a damn.

Why, o why, didn't I listen to those Indian Classical CDs I bought before I packed them? Ah, well, at least I was my usual paranoid self and insisted on carrying all my books in my hand baggage, so at least I still have those, even if this means not being able to straighten my aching shoulders for a week.

[1] You can talk about all the great comics of the world, but when it comes to sheer timing, no one has a thing on Fate. It's uncanny the way she always manages to hold off till that precise moment when you exhale, when you allow yourself to breathe easy, before delivering that swift and inevitable kick to the nether regions. I mean, Buster Keaton had nothing on this.

[2] I picture this as a scene from a tacky American Sitcom. A and B turn to each other with broad smiles on their faces. A says, "I think you did a great job with those passengers who were being so difficult". B smiles and replies, "Thanks. But you were pretty amazing too - I can't believe you got the luggage loaded so quickly". A's brow furrows in surprise "Luggage? What are you talking about - you're the one who put in the luggage". B: "Me, of course not, I never went near the luggage section, I was too busy with the passengers. I assumed you must have loaded it". A: "But I didn't". B: "Wait a minute, if I didn't do it, and you didn't do it, then who put the luggage on the plane". Three second pause while they stare at each other in horror. Then laugh track comes on as A and B make concerted rush off-stage. Cut scene. Open to: George, Kramer and random blonde standing at baggage claim window shouting "You did what???".

Saturday, January 14, 2006

He Wonders Whether to Praise Her or Blame Her

He Wonders Whether to Praise or to Blame Her
I have peace to weigh your worth, now all is over,
But if to praise or blame you, cannot say.
For, who decries the loved, decries the lover;
Yet what man lauds the thing he's thrown away?

Be you, in truth, this dull, slight, cloudy naught,
The more fool I, so great a fool to adore;
But if you're that high goddess once I thought,
The more your godhead is, I lose the more.

Dear fool, pity the fool who thought you clever!
Dear wisdom, do not mock the fool that missed you!
Most fair, -- the blind has lost your face for ever!
Most foul, -- how could I see you while I kissed you?

So...the poor love of fools and blind I've proved you,
For, foul or lovely, 'twas a fool that loved you.

Rupert Brooke, 1913
I'm not, in general, a big fan of Rupert Brooke. I find him too old-fashioned, too archaic. This one sonnet, however, remains a personal favourite - not so much for the 'poetry' (the verse is clever but hardly moving) as for the fact that it captures a fundamental problem with moving on, the logical flaw at the heart of nostalgia. In order to have fond memories of something you no longer have / are - you must enjoy both the presence of something and its absence - a difficult argument to make unless you take a heraclitean view of the self and argue that the self that enjoyed something in the past is different from the self that is happy to have left it behind in the present. This is not a problem only with relationships, incidentally - it works equally well for childhood keepsakes, former employers, schools, etc.

Though even here Brooke gets it a little wrong, I think. The problem is not so much that in condemning things from our past we condemn ourselves (most of us are comfortable saying that we behaved like idiots once upon a time - the past is always a convenient scapegoat); the trouble is that we may not always want to condemn things that we have left behind. Just because I personally have moved on to something else, does not mean that I don't value the person I was / the things I had - my old job may not have been what I wanted to spend my whole life doing, but I thoroughly enjoyed it while I was there and have no real regrets about the time I spent there.

This may sound fairly reasonable, but as a point of view it's pretty much a tight-rope. Say you're talking about an ex-girlfriend. Talk about her too fondly / praise her too much and people will instantly assume that you still have feelings for her, that you would like to get back together with her and that you're fairly unhappy with the way things are. They'll begin to feel sorry for you. They'll assume that it must be she who dumped you because you're clearly still in love with her. They'll monitor your speech closely for signs of lines from Devdas.

At this point the pendulum will swing. You'll start by insisting that you have no regrets and that you're quite happy to be out of the relationship. This will be greeted with that pitying, tearful look that says "It's okay, you don't have to deny your feelings to me, I understand how you really feel". Probably the most irritating look in the world. You'll lose it. You'll start detailing all the things you hated about her. You'll go on and on about how irritating she was, how miserable you were, etc. Before you know it, people will be asking you why you're so bitter about it. You'll get advice about how you need to get over it, achieve closure, forgive and move on. They'll give you the horrified look that says - you were in love with this person, how can you talk about her this way now? You'll think about it and be a little horrified yourself. You'll start talking about the her good qualities. You'll praise her. And the whole cycle will begin again.

This cycle is even worse if you happen to be talking to your ex's new boyfriend. Now it's not just about you - it's about him as well. If you praise your ex too much the new BF will be suspicious, he'll be convinced that you resent his presence in your ex's life. He'll watch lynx-eyed for you to try and usurp him. Even a genuine "You're so lucky!" will be met with indignation - are you trying to say I don't deserve it? That I'm not good enough? Huh? Huh? Like you were.

Go the other way and talk about how your ex is so lucky to have found someone so great and the new boyfriend will get all defensive of your ex. Excuse me, this is my girlfriend you're talking about - just because you were a jerk and didn't get along with her is no reason to badmouth her now, etc. This is the point where you throw up your hands and decide you can't win.

Which leaves us with the most fundamental question of all. At the risk of miffing people who worship When Harry Met Sally (yes, there are actually people like that) the real question is not whether a man and a woman can ever be just friends (of course they can) but whether they can be friends after they've been in a relationship. That's the one I'm still trying to figure out.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


There is a scene in Die Walkure where Wotan, engraged with Brunnhilde for having rescued Sieglinde, comes to punish her, and the Valkyries rise to defend one of their own from Wotan's wrath.

Halt' ein, o Vater! Halt' ein den Fluch!
Soll die Maid verblühn und verbleichen dem Mann?
Hör unser Fleh'n! Schrecklicher Gott,
wende von ihr die schreiende Schmach!
Wie die Schwester träfe uns selber der Schimpf!

Their efforts are in vain however - Brunnhilde is condemned to becoming mortal, and will sleep in a ring of fire until Siegfried comes to rescue her - and the scene ends with the Valkyries raising their voices in a wail of terrible woe for their lost sister.

It's the scene that first came to mind when I read the news about Birgit Nilsson's death.

Does the shade of Wagner still move among us, I wonder, a god turned wanderer, condemning those who make his divine music accessible to human ears? Or is Wagner really the anti-Wotan? If Wotan could take an immortal, Brunnhilde, and turn her into a maid, can Wagner take a mortal woman (Nilsson) and turn her into an immortal?

To listen to Nilsson sing is to hear the scale of human ambition, of human emotion. If it is not the voice of gods, it is at least the voice of giants.

We do not need to maintain a moment of silence for Nilsson's death. Listen. The world is already quieter.