Friday, June 30, 2006

Too Late

You've been coming home late for weeks. First it was the board presentation. Then there was the week when the Japanese delegation was in town and you had to take them to dinner every night. Now there's this new account, the one you flew to Paris for, the one that keeps you in office, working as late as midnight sometimes. I've tried to tell you how much I miss you, and how I wish you'd try to come home early, but you just shrug your shoulders and say you don't have a choice, it has to be done. I've accepted that. I haven't tried to insist, because I know it wouldn't help and you'd only get angry.

Then, this afternoon, the news on the television. The asteroid they'd just discovered. The computer simulation showing how it would strike Earth around 6 am tomorrow. The devastation it would cause. All the dreary statistics adding up to just one thing - there was no hope that any of us would survive. The End of the World. The same official government announcement on every channel, playing over and over again. I guess they figured all other programming had become redundant. I guess the camera crews and the announcers have all gone home.

For a while I was afraid that there would be panic on the streets - rioting, looting, that sort of thing. But it didn't happen. If anything, it was unusually quite, as if the whole city had gone into mourning. Which in a way, it has. A city in mourning for itself.

At first I was relieved. I thought, at least the house is safe. Then I thought about the asteroid again, that most furious of all vandals, streaking towards us through the sky. And suddenly I wasn't so concerned about someone throwing stones through our window anymore. Instead, the eerie silence on the streets began to frighten me. I began to feel as though the asteroid had already struck. We were already dead. I wished you were at home.

Where were you anyway? I tried calling you to tell you the news, though I knew you must have already heard it, no one could not have. But the phones were busy. I guess they had to be, what with everyone trying to reach their loved ones - it must be ten times worse than Christmas. Then I figured I should just wait and you'd be home in a couple of hours. But you weren't. Then I thought, maybe there's traffic on the roads. I waited another half hour than I called Marcie to see if James had got home. She said he'd been back for an hour. She said the roads were clear because unlike what you see in disaster movies no one was trying to run. There was nowhere to run to. Everyone just wanted to get home and be with their family. I asked her if James knew where you were, and she went really quiet all of a sudden, then said she had to go.

After I put the phone down, I began to think. All those late nights, all those meals out, your distraction, your coldness, that Paris trip, the shirt you brought back with the buttons ripped off and claimed the laundry had done it. Had I overlooked the obvious? Could it be you were having an affair?

It's almost ten o'clock now, and I decided long ago that you aren't coming home. All around us, the neighbours are facing up to the truth in their different ways. The Kauffmans have turned off their lights and (presumably) gone to sleep. I guess they feel they'd rather meet apocalypse in their beds. The Robinson's are having a party - I can hear the music even from here. I don't know what the Adams are up to, but if I know them at all they'll be praying. I myself have opened a bottle of our best champagne - I figured there was no point saving it now - and am in the process of getting very drunk. I'd thought I'd make a special dinner tonight, a gala last meal. But when I realised you weren't coming I gave up on that and decided to stick with champagne and icecream. It's not much fun drinking champagne alone, though. And I'm waiting for the icecream to thaw a little.

I know I should be frightened by the prospect of imminent death. I know I should be sitting here in shock, horrified by the notion the mankind will become extinct tomorrow. But all I can think is - where are you right now? What are you doing? Who are you spending tonight with, this last night before the end of the world?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Truth about Beauty

Khuda se husn ne ik roz yeh sawaal kiya,
Jahaan mein kyon na mujhe tu ne lazawaal kiya.

Mila jawab ka tasweer khaana hai duniya,
Shab-e-daraaz-e-adm ka fasaana hai duniya.

Hui hai rang-e-taghayyur se jab namood iski,
Wohi haseen hai haqeeqat zawaal hai jiski.

Kahin qareeb tha, yeh guftgoo qamar ne suni,
Falak pe aam hui, akhtar-e-sahar ne suni.

Sahar ne taare se sunkar sunaai shabnam ko,
Falak ki baat bata di zameen ke mahram ko.

Bhar aaey phool ke aansoo, payaam-e-shabnam se,
Kali ka nanha sa dil khoon ho gaya ghum se.

Chaman se rota hua mausim-e-bahaar gaya,
Shabaab sair ko aaya tha sogawaar gaya.
- Iqbal.

My pathetic attempt at a translation:

One day, Beauty asked God:
"Why did you not make me immortal in your world?"

God replied: "The world is a gallery of pictures,
A fabulous dream for man's endless night,

Its very surface is made from a thousand changing colours,
How then can be its beauty be anything but mutable?"

The moon, who was nearby, overheard this.
Soon it spread through the sky, reached the ears of the morning star.

The dawn heard it from him, and passed it on to the dew,
And the dew spread the word to all the earth.

When the flower heard it, she began to cry,
And the bud burst its tiny heart for sorrow.

Soon Spring itself began to weep, and left,
And Youth, who had come to admire the garden, grew mournful.

A delightful poem. The first few couplets are fairly average, but I love the way the news of God's word spreads - from the moon to the sky, from the sky to the morning star, from the star to the dawn, from the dawn to the dew, from the dew to the flower, from the flower to Spring and from Spring to youth - describing, in its perfect arc the very mutability, the very transience that God's initial message implied. Those last four couplets are both deeply dramatic (you can almost hear the secret being whispered from one ear to the next) and, when you stop to picture them, stunningly visual.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Roti-ing in Hell

And speaking of topical feminist issues, will someone please explain to me why we, as a society, continue to indulge in the intensely masochistic activity of making chappatis? I mean seriously, if you took all the time that is spent in the average North Indian household making these damn things and put it all together back to back, you'd get a workforce the size of Taiwan. Why can't we mass produce the stuff? Or switch to eating bread? Or cake? [1]

Thus far, my own experience with 'making' chappatis has usually consisted of cutting open a packet from the local Patel store and popping it into the microwave - so I can't say I'd ever spent time thinking about the mystical process by which chappatis actually get made. Then yesterday, driven by some atavistic homemaking impulse, I decided it was time I learnt how to make chappatis from first principles. How hard could it be? Surely making something as ubiquitous as chappatis would be a roti-walk compared to, say, doing complicated long-division sums.

Little did I know. It turns out that making chappatis is an intricate, multi-stage process that resembles nothing so much as one of those video games where, just as you think you've kicked some serious alien butt, you find yourself bumped up to the next level where the action is quicker, the leaps more difficult and the opposition more deadly. And at the end of all this will you at least get to rescue a princess or be declared champion star-fighter? No. All you'll get, if everything goes to plan, is a fairly boring, flat mildly charred piece of cooked wheat. And then you'll have to start the whole thing all over again to get another one.

The process starts, it seems [2], with making the dough. This involves taking exactly one andaaz se measure [3] of flour (aka atta) and one andaaz se measure of water and then kneading the mixture till it acquires the consistency of playdough (not to be confused with the consistency of dog puke which is what you get if, like me, you mix one andaaz se measure of flour with one and a half andaaz se measure of water). This sounds easy (well, kind of) but it isn't. It turns out that the actual kneading, far from being a fun activity for children under 5 is actual a feat of arms of Birbal-esque proportions, requiring levels of strength and stamina that the hands of sensitive poet-types like me simply do not possess. I was on my third rest break and had just about managed to get the flour-water mixture to resemble some sort of lumpy custard, when my mother took over and finished the job for me.

Right then, on to the actual chappati making. No strength required here - just skill and dexterity. The kind of stuff I'm good at. The first step is to take a lump of dough and, dabbing it with powdered flour, roll it into a thin, flat circle. Piece of cake, or well, dough. But wait, you want me to do this with what is, at best, a glorified rod? I try to explain to my mother why, based on simple Euclidean logic, a lump of putty like substance rolled in one direction cannot acquire a circular shape. She doesn't agree. I then proceed to prove her wrong empirically.

If the desired shape for this chappati had been a square I could have made it in a heartbeat. If it had been an oval I would have managed. If chappatis were supposed to be shaped like Spain, or Poland, or Italy or the erstwhile GDR I would have been an expert roti-maker. But this circle business was beyond me. How the hell do you get an even diameter on these things? No matter which direction I rolled in, some other radius would be left too short and I would have to roll along that line, and then that would get too long and I would have to roll in a third direction, and so on.

Plus it turns out that after a while the powdered flour you've applied to the lump wears off and you have to apply more flour to keep the dough from sticking. My mother's advice was - "when you feel the dough starting to stick, stop and put more flour". The trouble is, if you're a novice, the first time you realise that the dough is sticking is when a) you try to pry it off the surface you were rolling on and find it can't be done without a chisel and / or a blowtorch or b) a large strip of dough comes clean off on your roller. By the time I managed to get one flat, ready to cook piece of dough (not quite round, but at least respectably elliptical) I'd managed to get flour on my fingers, arms, clothes, hair, every handle in the kitchen, the phone, the newspaper, the car keys and even a little spot on the ceiling. And that doesn't include the 20% of dough that had to be thrown away because I'd rolled it beyond redemption.

The next stage consists of putting this thin circle of dough on a tavaa and then cooking it. This is actually fairly simple, except that a) flipping the damn chappati with your fingers (to make sure it cooks on both sides) is advisable only if you're an experienced chappati maker (or a Jedi knight) and can do this without actually touching the tavaa. Typing a long post with badly singed finger-tips is NOT fun. b) If the chappati doesn't seem to be cooking properly and remains damp it's because you didn't roll it thin enough in stage 1 above. Isn't it a good thing you found this out now instead of when you were actually rolling the damn thing because if you'd known this earlier you would have got disheartened? Isn't it a good thing that your mother is a considerate, encouraging person and didn't tell you this before? Don't worry about it. Just make sure that the next chappati you roll is exactly 3.25 microns thick and you'll be fine. c) trying to do a cryptic crossword while you've got the chappati on the tavaa is a bad idea - before you know it you've got a house full of smoke and you're making very wide, very flat atta doughnuts.

Finally, you're ready to add the finishing touch to your chappati. This consists of roasting it by tossing it onto an open flame. Again, sounds simple enough. The trouble is, if you leave it on the flame too long it catches fire and continues to burn even after you lift it off the flame. So you're left holding this burning piece of flatbread, wondering whether you should try to save its life yourself by throwing a blanket over it and snuffing out the flames, or you should just wait for the fire engines to arrive (NOTE: Waving it up and down wildly the way you would with a marshmallow DOES NOT work. Not unless your original intention was to set fire to the wall calendar).

So, to summarise. I set out to make six chappatis. The first one got stuck to the roller and had to be washed off with detergent. The second one disintegrated mid-air while I was trying to transfer it to the tavaa. The third one made it to the tavaa but was too thick. The fourth one got burnt on the tavaa itself. The fifth one caught fire and turned to cinders.

The sixth one, however, turned out perfectly. It was round. It cooked. It swelled on the flame like a good chappati should. Now I was (literally) cooking. My heart singing with confidence, I gave it one last flourish on the flame. The chappati landed on the floor.

I actually think subzi tastes so much better with toast, don't you?

[1] Yes, yes, or rice.

[2] I don't actually know how to make chappatis yet, so I'm probably getting this all wrong.

[3] The andaaz se system, known to all Indian housewives, is, of course, the true measurement system used in India. Efforts by the Indian Government to replace it with the metric system have failed miserably, the chief reason for which is the intricate complexities of the metric system, compared to the simplicity of the single unit that the andaaz se system uses for everything.

Monday, June 26, 2006


From Slate, Meghan O'Rourke's take on the Linda Hirshman's argument that women who 'choose' to stay at home rather than work are class enemies - traitors to their sex who weaken the cause of women everywhere.

"If you are a woman who is committed to gender equality, who doesn't believe that a woman's place is necessarily in the home, she argues, then you have to think about how your choices shape the collective good. Her stubborn insistence is refreshing. Unlike others, she is willing to come out and say, in no uncertain terms, that the luxury of making our own decisions as if they had no larger implications isn't ethical at this point in time. If that makes feminism unpopular, so be it; but shying away from persistent inequality by invoking the language of "choice," she observes, is hardly feminism. If you buy her argument, then even if you find it hard to leave your baby at home, and even if you find the workplace sometimes less-than-fulfilling, it's important—to society as a whole—that you work. This sounds extreme, but of course it's the lesson every man is taught when he's a boy: Your responsibility to society—the way to become an adult—is to work."

O'Rourke argues that Hirshman's arguments, unpleasant and extreme as they may be, have an important place in the overall feminist debate. That, of course, is hard to disagree with. More importantly, I think Hirshman's argument (and the critiques of it) are a good illustration of a more general question: how do we achieve collective action without subverting individual freedoms?

It's a knotty issue, but on the whole I disagree with Hirshman. There are three reasons why I think her argument is a poor one.

First, it's not hard to see why this sort of one-size-fits-all approach would be non-inclusive and divisive. Hirshman seems to see this as being of little consequence - as O'Rourke puts it: "If this makes feminism unpopular, so be it". That's a very strange argument for someone interested in effective collective action to be making. Popularity matters. There's little reason to believe, after all, that the overwhelming effect of taking this argument seriously will be to bring more women into the workforce - if Hirshman's view were to become the dominant one, then it could just as easily drive more women who were personally uncomfortable with its consequences out of the 'feminist' movement entirely. And that kind of exclusion will only marginalise the cause of women's rights more.

Second, even if using Hirshman's approach could win greater equality for women in the short run, it's not clear why the system wouldn't revert once we allowed women the right to make their own choices again. Think about it in terms of a strike. Hirshman's argument, in essence, is that women who stay at home are scabs - their continuing to serve the cause of patriarchy undermines the efforts of feminists everywhere. The trouble is that with a strike there's a clear mechanism by which concessions once won can be made permanent. Once the management has been forced to concede to the worker's demands, these demands are set down in legal agreements and workers can go back to work safe in the knowledge that the management cannot revert to its old wage rate. But even if a temporary sacrifice of individual freedom could allow women to obtain more equal treatment, what's to stop the old patterns of discrimination from returning, the moment women who want to stay at home choose to do so? In fact, won't Hirshman's method perpetuate the idea that women who stay at home are easy targets for discrimination? Will the feminist victory, then, not end up becoming simply a victory for women who want to work?

Most importantly, though, Hirshman's argument raises the important question - what exactly are we fighting for? If there is anything her rhetoric reminds me of, it is the classic communist argument for punishing class enemies for the good of the People. If there is one thing history should have taught us, it is that suspending the individual's right to self-determination in the name of some abstract political ideal is a bad idea. The trouble with the 'suffer today, to reap the benefits tomorrow' is that tomorrow never comes, and freedoms, once suspended, are lost forever. The result is the creation of a society where self-expression is stifled - a society not worth living in. Any genuinely progressive society must be built on a recognition of the plurality of its members, their freedom to make their own choices. If there is a point to the movement for gender equality, it is that women should get fair and equal treatment irrespective of who they are or what they choose to do - replacing one social strait-jacket for another is hardly emancipation.

That said, the point that Hirshman makes that is worth exploring, is the question of what a woman's 'choice' to stay at home really consists of. There is certainly the very real danger of labelling as 'choice' what is actually coercion. There is certainly good reason to question the social conditioning that defines gender roles around 'work' and 'staying at home' (as though the latter were really that much easier). And there is no question that we must do out utmost to ensure greater equality for women in the workplace, and encourage greater workforce participation by women. The point is that the right effort must be to enhance choice, not limit it. Attacking women who stay at home is attacking the symptom, not the cause.

The Perfect Suitor

Alejandro Soares was convinced that he would never get Constanza Diaz to marry him. Not that he hadn't tried. For close to three years now he had been wooing her using every technique he could imagine. He brought her flowers and chocolate. He took her for walks in the park when the weather was fine, and to the town's one air-conditioned movie hall when it wasn't; and every time the University troupe put on a new play, which it did every quarter, he would buy front-row seats for the two of them. He visited her diligently every Friday night, shaving and putting on a fresh shirt for the occasion, and on Sundays he sat two pews behind her in church and stared devoutly at her back. In the three years since they had got to know each other at a friend's wedding, he had done her taxes for her, helped her move when she shifted house and gone with her to the dentist when she needed a tooth extracted and was scared to go alone. He had been romantic. He had taken her twice to the big New Year's Eve ball at the Grand Hotel, and once for a picnic by the river. One night, early in his courtship, he had even hired a street band and tried to serenade her, though this was a move he now regretted, because of the sorry figure he had cut (the street urchins had gathered to snigger at him). All in all, he felt he had done everything a lover could reasonably be expected to do.

Yet none of this seemed to make the slightest impression on Constanza. She smiled whenever she saw him, true, and seemed happy to be in his company, but every time he mentioned love, or marriage, a spark of panic would flicker in her eyes, and she would grow strangely reluctant to talk. At first, she just thanked him when he made these protestations, then, when he pressed her for an answer (disregarding all the rules of chivalry so dear to him) she replied only that she was "flattered", without saying yes or no. There was, in her air to him at these times, a sort of amused benevolence - she seemed like a mother comforting her child for some foolish tantrum, incapable of taking his cries seriously, but reluctant to hurt him by dismissing them outright.

This reaction of her's puzzled Alejandro. Why would she not accept his suit? What was he doing wrong? His mirror told him that he was good-looking, and the balance in his account proved that he was successful, if only in a modest way. He was serious, well-informed and capable, had varied interests, and lived a clean, pious existence. He was a good dancer. He had never suffered a day of serious illness in his life. And God knows he had always been faithful to her, never, in the last three years so much as looking at another women, though there were plenty of others in this small provincial town who would have been happy to have him. Why just the other day his landlord's doe-eyed daughter had been throwing herself at him, with her silly laugh and her dress cut low to show off her white, firm breasts which he'd barely noticed because he was so devoted to his Constanza. And still the woman refused to say yes to him.

Rumour in town had it that Constanza had her heart set on one Felipe and had repeatedly been seen offering him encouragement. Alejandro couldn't fathom this. That little runt Felipe, with his shabby coat and dissheveled hair, a clerk in a store to boot, always wandering about with that distracted air of his as if trying to do sums in his head. What could Constanza possibly see in him? Didn't she see how he always seemed out of place at parties, how the only place he ever fit in was the library? Hadn't she noticed his scuffed shoes, his mismatched socks? How could she even consider choosing such a man over him?

Of course, perhaps it was not true at all. It was just the kind of gossip these idle townspeople would have made up. At any rate, either because Constanza had offered no favours, or because that imbecile Felipe wasn't smart enough to see that they had been offered, the two of them remained little more than acquaintances, and Alejandro's position as Constanza's suitor remained unchallenged.

Yet three years of unavailing courtship had taken their toll on Alejandro's confidence, and his dreams, once crisp and freshly minted, had now begun to seem like so much creased paper. The first time he heard the rumour about Constanza's interest in Felipe, he had gone straight to her house in high dudgeon, even though it was a Thursday and not the day he normally visited, and had asked her, with barely controlled anger, whether it was true that she had gone to a movie with the man on Wednesday night. She admitted the factual truth of it at once, but denied that it had any significance greater than their being 'friends', except that the blush in her cheeks as she said this told him a different story. He was indignant. Was this how his loyalty of so many months was to be rewarded? Did she think she was the only girl in town? He'd show her. Two could play at this game. What if he took out that buck-toothed Lamaraz girl next Friday? How would she like that?

Slowly it dawned on him that maybe that was exactly what she wanted. What a beautiful opportunity that would be to get rid of him! How easy it would be to convince herself, and others, that he was the one who had never truly loved her. That he was the unfaithful one. "How can you expect me to marry you when you go around taking other women to the movies!" she would say to him, the next time he broached the subject of his love. And one week later, after she had dismissed his suit once and for all, she would tell her girlfriends, "Oh, Alejandro! He was always the fickle one. Always flitting from one girl to the other." Or perhaps even: "What a coward, that Alejandro. The minute I started paying attention to Felipe, Alejandro saw instantly that he wasn't good enough for me, and gave up without even a murmur." The very thought of these lines being spoken about him made Alejandro, lying awake in bed that night, groan with misery.

No, he would not make it that easy for her. He would give her no opportunity to fault him, no excuse to run him off. Had he been neglectful? First thing tomorrow morning he would go and buy her a big bouquet of flowers. Was he being too demanding? How would stop asking her to marry him, stop assailing her with his entreaties, rather he would continue to woo her in silence, as a gentleman should. Was he not supportive enough? He would double his efforts to help her. He would meet her at the store and help her carry back her groceries. He would spend evenings reading to her mother. He would even assist her be better friends with that worm Felipe if that was what she wanted. Let her find fault with him then.

Yes, he would be the perfect suitor - impossibly charming, immaculately correct. When she finally rejected him, as he no longer had any doubt she would, she would be unable to point to any flaw in him that would justify her choice. All the town would mock her, all the women who sighed for devotion such as his would condemn her for being a fool. She would be forced to admit that she was being utterly unreasonable, would be able to give no explanation but her own caprice for such manifest and monstrous unfairness. She would have to break his heart, knowing, without possibility of doubt, that he deserved much better. That would be her punishment.

It had been a year since Alejandro had come to this decision. In those twelve months he had stuck diligently to his resolve, proving himself, again and again, the most impeccable of suitors. Soon the rumours of his incredible courtship has spread beyond the boundaries of their quiet little township. A regional radio talk-show had aired a ten minute interview with him, in which he had talked about how yes, he really loved his Constanza more than anything in the world, but no, he was content to wait patiently till she felt ready to make up her mind. A small article about his quest, with a picture of him from his college days, had appeared in the national daily. People recognised him in the street, and a few had even accosted Constanza while she was out shopping and asked her why she wouldn't marry him. Every day letters from heiresses and rich widows poured in for him, promising him all sorts of pecuniary and sexual delights if he would only transfer his affections from "that worthless whore" to them. And yet through it all, while secretly rejoicing to see his plan working so well, he remained outwardly unmoved - always soft-spoken, always devoted, never letting slip the suggestion that he considered this courtship of his anything out of the ordinary.

The one day, as they were coming to the end of another Friday evening visit, the bouquet of lilacs he had brought still fresh in their vase, the expensive liquer chocolates open on the table, Constanza looked him straight in the eye and told him she was going to marry Felipe. "How can you do this to me?", he asked, feeling the shock of the event, however expected, spread through him. "I'm sorry", she said, "it would seem I have been very unfair to you.". A small glimmer of satisfaction began to glow inside him. "But why? What is wrong with me, that you choose him?". "It's...nothing, really" "There must be something" "No. Look, can't we just accept that I love him and love is not rational and leave it at that?" Not so fast, my dear, I'm not going to let you get away so easily, he thought to himself. This is where he got his revenge. "No, I can't accept that. I've been courting you night and day, week upon week, season upon season for three years now. I've done everything a man can do to win a woman and more. I think I'm owed some explanation at least." Admit it. Admit you don't have a leg to stand on.

She sighed. "Oh, all right", she said, "if you insist. It's this self-obsession of yours, this insecurity. It's like you're always out to prove something, always try too hard. It wears me down. Look, I really like you. For a while after we first met, before you started 'courting me', as you like to put it, I may have even been in love with you. But then you went and became this other person, this actor, and suddenly it was like everything was melodramatic and fake between us. It was never about what I wanted or what you wanted anymore, it was always about what was proper. And then this last year - the newspaper report, the program on the radio - I'd never dreamed you'd be so much of an exhibitionist. I hate it. It's such an invasion of my privacy. I feel so stifled, knowing that wherever I go people are judging me. I'm a very private person, you know. Felipe understands that. Felipe understands me. And Felipe understands that he doesn't need a good suit or polished shoes to win my heart - he just needs to be himself and if that's good enough then we have a marriage. Which is why I'm choosing him over you. I'm sorry. I didn't want to bring all this up. I know you meant well. And I do wish it had turned out differently between us. But you have only yourself to blame."

Late that night, Alejandro's friends found him in a local bar, madly drunk. Having heard the news about Constanza and Felipe they tried to console him, offering him their sympathy, telling him he would get over it and that she wasn't worth it, anyway; that there were other fish in the sea. All the usual lines. To their surprise, he reacted by banging his fist on the counter and shouting "She beat me, Goddammit! She beat me!". And then he broke down and began to cry.

Scian up now

Over at The Scientific Indian, an announcement for a sci-fi short story contest. Just in case there's a story out there that Asimov hasn't already written.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Winter Dream

One winter, we'll take a train, a little rose-coloured car
Upholstered blue.
We'll be so comfortable. A nest
Of wild kisses awaits in every cushioned corner.

You'll close your eyes to shadows
Grimacing through windows
This belligerent nocturnal realm, inhabited
By black demons and black wolves.

Then you'll feel a tickle on your cheek...
A little kiss like a crazed spider
Fleeing down your neck...

Bending your head backwards, you'll say: "Get it!"
- And we'll take our time finding the beast
- While it roams...

- Arthur Rimbaud, 'Winter Dream' (translated from the French by Wyatt Mason)

The original:

L'hiver, nous irons dans un petit wagon rose
Avec des coussins bleus.
Nous serons bien. Un nid de baisers fous repose
Dans chaque coin moelleux.

Tu fermeras l'oeil, pour ne point voir, par la glace,
Grimacer les ombres des soirs,
Ces monstruosites hargneuses, populace
De demons noirs et de loups noirs.

Puis tu te sentiras la joue egratignee...
Un petit baiser, comme une folle araignee,
Tu courra par le cou...

Et tu me diras: <>, en inclinant la tete;
- Et nous prendrons du temps a trouver cette bete
- Qui voyage beaucoup...

One of the joys of being home for a while is that I finally have the leisure to catch up with books that I bought but never quite got around to reading, or read only cursorily, and left behind in India when I moved to the US. It's amazing how much you can discover in your book shelves when you go looking.

Like this delightful little Rimbaud poem. I'm not, in general, a huge Rimbaud fan. I bought his Collected Poems a while ago, and skimmed it at the time, but on the whole I find his insistence on being outrageous very juvenile. He comes up with some beautiful lines, but there's this nagging sense of his being constantly out to shock, and that, for me, detracts greatly from what would otherwise be an exceedingly interesting set of poems.

Of course, the whole point about Rimbaud is that he is a teenager (the poem above, for instance, was written when he was 16) and given his age his poems are, it must be said, unbelievably good. But while I see why that makes him a heroic figure, I don't see that that's reason enough to actually want to read his poems. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that he's a bad poet, I'm only saying that in my opinion he's as interesting a poet as say, Matthew Arnold.

This poem though, which I don't remember reading before, is pure pleasure. It's a lighthearted, playful poem, and the one dark stanza in the centre only serves as an effective counterpoint to the souffle like sweetness of the rest. What I love about the poem is how cinematic it is - like a scene from a Truffaut film starring (ideally) Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anna Karina. (Though that's hardly a coincidence - there is, after all, good reason to suspect a cause and effect relationship between Rimbaud and the French New Wave).

Now why can't I ever have train journeys like this? Every time I travel by train I end up stranded among a boisterous family who spends the entire day playing Antakshari and then quarrels with me at night when I want to keep my reading light on.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


2x3x7 turns one year old today.

*cue stirring music and montage of black and white newsreels*

Exactly one year ago, on the stroke of the midnight hour in some time zone or the other, I made a tryst with destiny. Destiny may claim that it wasn't a tryst and that we just happened to meet at a party where we had mutual friends, but she's just trying to be coy.

I had a dream. Ich bin ein Blogger. I would write blogposts on the beaches, I would write blogposts in the fields. I would hold to the truth only if it was self-evident. I would not be amused.

It was a big step for me personally, though a minor flexing of toes for Mankind.


Writing birthday posts for blogs, is, of course, a well-formalised art.

Step 1: You start by being all self-deprecating and humble.

I'd like to thank all the people who read this blog regularly. All 1.264 of you. I, of course, am just a modest little blip in a firmament of stars burning as bright as Blake's tigers.

You may now jump to the comments section and tell me how I'm being too modest and I'm actually so great and how much you love me. (I know you're out there, I've seen you on sitemeter).

Well? I'm waiting.

Oh, come on. You read this blog. You KNOW I'm insecure and needy.

Right. That's more like it.

Step 2: Next, you wax nostalgic about your original vision for the blog. And how you think you've fared with it.

I started 2x3x7 with two aspirations, both negative.

1) I did not want to be classified - slotted into one category or the other. I did not want it to be a lit blog, or a personal blog or a humour blog, or a blog that linked to other blogs / MSM articles. I wanted it to be none of those things and all of them.

2) I did not want to take myself too seriously.

I'd like to think I've done okay on the first. I've slipped up a few times on the second, but I'm trying. Really, I am.

Step 3: Next, you talk about the ways in which blogging has surprised you. The things you didn't expect. The things you found out about yourself, etc.

More navel gazing. What fun.

The thing I didn't anticipate when I started blogging (aside from the complete lack of eligible women beating down my door to mate with me) was how demanding blogging would be. It's as though someone gave you a magic lamp that you could rub and have a genie pop up to do whatever you wished, but if you wished for the wrong thing (or asked for it in the wrong way) the genie would tell you so, in no uncertain terms and in the voice of your 5th grade geography teacher. It's scary how much blogging has taken over my life. There are days when I feel like my life is a squealing piglet being slowly swallowed by the boa constrictor of this blog.

Ah, well. It wasn't that much of a life anyway.

Step 4 (optional): Talk about all the wacky searches that have led people to your blog.

The three most searched for things that led to this blog:

1) Bakke vs. the University of California
2) Puff the Magic Dragon
3) Platonic / asexual relationships

So basically, all I've achieved in the last year is give the impression that I'm a) a lawyer b) a dope-fiend and c) impotent. (none of this is true, btw.)

No wonder the path to my door remains unbeaten.

Step 5: Make resolutions for what you're going to change going forward.

Ah, this is the fun part. let's see:

1. I shall try not to use footnotes [1]

2. I shall not bandy words with people in the comments section. I shall be calm and Buddha-like. I shall not react to people who are total #$%*ing morons and don't understand the brilliant things I'm saying and can't figure out, though I've said it repeatedly, in plain english, and it's obvious to begin with, that all I meant to say was that a) it isn't...oh, dear.

3. I will carefully scna each post for typos

3b. I shall not mix up its and it's. Thats just silly.

4. I shall finally resolve this whole white font on black background business.

5. I shall write more posts about the Universe - which has the lowest count among all my categories. (Humour tops the list with 78 posts. Clearly, I've been living up to my name)

6. I shall travel more so I have more posts about my travels to put up (see what I mean about my blog taking control of my life.)

7. I shall try to write stories that do not focus on how life is a meaningless hoax, relationships invariably end badly and we are all trapped in a world where purposeful action is impossible, even though all this is inherently true (as shall be explained in all these Universe posts I'm going to write - see point 5 above).

8. I shall pay close and grateful attention to all the feedback I get through your comments.

9. I shall pay no heed whatsoever to what you're saying in the comments section - I'm a free spirit who writes for self-affirmation and not to pander to the tastes of you readers.

10a. I shall try and respond to every comment I get

10b. I shall not check the blog every 20 minutes to see if I have any new comments to respond to.

Step 6: Close with a few cliched metaphors about how it's been such a spectacular journey, such a roller-coaster ride, etc.

Well, folks, the last year has been a real roller-coaster ride. (Oh, wait, I hate roller-coasters - they make my nauseous)

Well, folks, the last year has been an incredible journey. (What kind of journey though? I get motion-sick in cars and sea-sick on boats. And trains wobble too much. Dammit, there must be some mode of travel that I like. Ah yes)

Well, folks, the last year has been an amazing transatlantic flight. (Hmmm. )

Look, it's been fun, okay. There. I said it.

When I started this blog on 24th June 2005, it was because my life was a joke and I had nothing better to do with it. 365 days and 429 posts later, it's still a joke. But now it's a joke that other people get. That's what I call sharing. That's what I call personal growth.

Step 7 (as afterthought): Invite comments

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Wishes? Curses? Magic Spells? Brickbats? WMDs? Home videos of your toothless 5 year old singing Heppy Birday To Djou? Inspiring Quotes from Great Men? Offers of intercourse? Suicide tips? Certificate for a lobotomy? Mastercard?

[1] Except where absolutely essential, of course.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bird amid backed up waste causes puzzlement (9)

I love cryptic crosswords. A good cryptic crossword is a sublime thing - a true test of the intellect that combines wit, logic, vocabulary and knowledge - and solving one can be both the most frustrating exercise on the planet, as well as the most fulfilling. It's like charades and anagrams and scrabble and quizzing and IQ tests all rolled into one.

One of the things I miss the most in the US, therefore, is access to a good daily crossword. Pointless tests of trivia like the NY Times Crossword don't interest me much (and don't even get me started on Sudoku and other such children's games). I could, of course, put in the extra effort and download crosswords from elsewhere (I've done it on occassion) but it doesn't lessen the sense of deprivation. I hadn't even realised how much I missed these clever little grids until I opened the Eco Times yesterday morning and the sight of the crossword brought me almost to tears with nostalgia.

My all time favourite crossword memory is the crossword contest we used to have at WIMWI. Teams of three people each. A cryptic clue is put up on the board. Teams have 30 seconds in which to hit the buzzer. If no team gets the solution the clue is put in a reserve pool and can be called by any team at any time. Correct solutions are filled into the grid. Obviously, as the contest progresses, more and more of the crossword has been filled up, so cracking the clues becomes easier and the competition heats up. By the end of it all, you're living on pure adrenalin. It's the most amazing feeling in the world.

Don't get me wrong. I've done my share of debating and quizzing. I've participated in all sorts of lit contests - playing scrabble, dumb c, 20 questions / tinto, pictionary and (even) Who's Line is it Anyway competitively. But there's just nothing like the thrill of hearing a cryptic crossword clue and getting it in under 10 seconds without any letters to help you. Trust me.

The other thing that's fun, especially if you're as sadistic as I am, is setting crosswords. It's a terribly painful, long-winded exercise, because you not only have to come up with a grid of words that fits, you then need to come up with clever clues for each one - clues that will seem terribly foxing until the solver gets them, and entirely obvious once he / she does. A really inspired clue is like poetry. There's the same sense of the ineffable, the same desire for accuracy, the same attention to getting every word, every letter exactly right. And there's a great deal of fiendish delight in watching other people trying to crack your clues. Not that you don't want people to crack your clues. On the contrary, it's no fun if they don't eventually get it. You just want them to have to struggle - the joy comes equally from seeing their initial confusion and watching the smile of appreciation when they finally figure out what the word is.

No wonder all these evil geniuses, these brilliant psychopaths, invariably end up giving themselves away. It's not because of some Raskolnikovian desire to be punished. It's just that it's no fun coming up with so brilliant a plan, if you're not eventually found out.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Falstaff Sportsman / My middle initials are P.E.

Last week's obligatory World Cup Post triggered a flood of memories from my days in primary school, so I figured I might as well foist them on you. (warning: long, rambling, self-indulgent post follows)

P.E. period was from 10:00 to 11:00 am on Thursdays. You were supposed to wear your white uniform for P.E. - forgetting to do so meant that you weren't allowed into assembly and lost out on your patriotic right to sing Vande Mataram and recite "Where the mind is without fear" at the top of your shrill, tone-deaf voice. The stated purpose of these white uniforms was to make you look more athletic, but personally I think it was just to ensure that the bulk of the students went back with sufficiently impressive amounts of real estate on their pants to convince even the most cynical parent that they were, in fact, getting a well-rounded education.

At any rate, P.E. was at 10 on Thursdays. Girls played handball, boys played football [1]. Now personally, I would rather have played handball too. Not because it fascinated me as a sport (or because I was interested in girls. yet). But mostly because our Sports Master loved football and had nothing but contempt for 'girlish' sports like handball, which meant that the girls got one solid hour every week when they could pretty much do their own thing, entirely unsupervised. To someone like me, who naturally considered P.E. a complete waste of time, this meant one uninterrupted hour that I could spend happily reading a book by the side of the handball court.

The girls themselves seemed to have no issue with this. The thing is, I was actually immensely popular with women back in Class III. I'd like to say this was because I was a cute little cherub with a heartbreaking smile and perfect manners, etc. But I suspect it had more to do with the fact that I was a Maths whiz and liked nothing better than helping people with their homework. Whatever the reason, once they'd figured out that I didn't intend anything as invasive as actually playing with them, the girls were perfectly happy to have me linger about the handball court.

This state of grace lasted for all of three weeks. That third week, the Sports Master finally took attendance, demanded to know where I was, and finding that I'd stayed behind with the girls accosted me at the end of class. The whole scene was like something out of Genesis, except that for a while there more than one of my ribs seemed at risk. Was I a girl, the Sports Master wanted to know. I had to reply, reluctantly, in the negative. Did I want to be a girl? he then asked, veins bulging in his forehead. Something in his voice told me that he wasn't looking for the kind of considered debate of the pros and cons involved that I thought the question warranted, so I stuck to saying no. "Well then, what were you doing playing handball?". I did, of course, have a pretty neat comeback to that one - I could have pointed out that I wasn't doing anything as silly as playing handball, I was reading my abridged Jules Verne instead. This would have made him look pretty darn silly, but something warned me that this was one of those times when discretion was the better part, etc. So I just stood there and mumbled. Behind the sports master the boys in my class sniggered. And just like that, my fate was sealed. I was cast out from paradise. I would have to play football.

[Isn't it incredible how much a generous dose of hormones can change perceptions, btw? It's hard to imagine that there was actually a time when spending time with a girl made you a loser. I remember, for instance, that we had a seating system that was alphabetical, except that it was supposed to be one boy with one girl (this was not because our teachers wanted greater interaction between the sexes; on the contrary, it was precisely to take advantage of the fact that boys and girls didn't talk to each other - thus making a one girl, one boy combination a psychologically astute [2] way of maintaining discipline in class). Except that we had some 15 girls and some 30 boys in class, so that any boy whose first name began with a letter after N got to sit with another boy. Can you believe that the boys whose names began with A - M actually complained about this? Ironic, when you consider that for most of them that six month period spent sharing a desk constitutes the most meaningful relationship with a member of the opposite sex they've ever had.]

As it turned out, though, this football thing wasn't bad, once you got into it. Because of the stupendous lack of talent I demonstrated right from the start, I was soon relegated to the harmless position of goalkeeper. I know, I know, football fanatics reading this are probably leaping out of their seats right about now and screaming that goalkeepers are really critical, as no doubt in genuinely competitive football they are. The trouble is, for all the Sports Master's long, boring lectures on tactics, rules, etc. these matches of ours usually consisted of a mass of overexcited nine year olds all gathered in one big mass around the ball (niceties like who was a defender, who a striker rapidly disappeared once the game began) kicking indiscriminately away in the hope that, somewhere between the bruised shins and the sprained ankles, one of them would, sooner or later, connect with the ball. Not surprisingly then, the ball on these occassions rarely moved more than 20 yards from the centre line, and the goalkeeper's days were a model of pastoral tranquility.

This was not to everyone's liking. The goalie on the other side, whoever he happened to be, usually wanted to be in on the game, and could therefore invariably be found not standing in front of his goal like a good watchman, but rather milling about in the fracas at the centre of the field. It was not unusual, therefore, if you actually managed to get the ball away, to have the player running next to you suddenly stoop down and pick the ball up in his hands - just when you were about to shout foul you realised he was the goalie from the other side. [3]

I, on the other hand, greatly relished the quality time I got to spend with myself alone in my goal. Since there was no actual danger of any action being required of me, and since the Sports Master, as it turned out, was too busy trying to keep track of the 1,304 ways in which the official rules were broken every minute that we played, my reading could continue unabated. If anything, the peaceful, open environs of the football field offered an ambience much more conducive to a good read.

Occasionally, of course, some freak chance would actually bring the ball skidding in my direction, hotly pursued by a small army of clutching, clawing boys. This was annoying, and most inconsiderate. I soon discovered, however, that no actual effort was required of me on these occasions. Whether or not I actually stopped the ball, it turned out, was irrelevant, it only mattered that I should try. So every time anyone tried to kick a ball into my goal, I would artistically fall to one side or the other, and pray that the ball didn't hit me. This worked amazingly well. If the striker missed, the credit for this 'save' invariably went to me, even if the ball had come nowhere near the goal itself. The theory was that my timely action had caused the striker to lose focus! If the ball did go in, I was easily consoled by my teammates, who assured me that no one could have stopped a kick like that and they were impressed by how hard I'd tried. Once or twice a few boys did cast aspersions on my abilities, but I pointed out that there were 14 of them (I know, I know, but we couldn't leave the rest of the boys out, could we?) and only one of me and the ball should never have got as far as the goal in the first place. This shut them up.

And then there was that one memorable day when my attempts to evade a swift, accurate kick aimed straight at me proved ineffective, and the ball, striking me a nasty blow on the knee (I had a bruise for a week afterward) careened back onto the field. It was my one and only taste of what it feels like to be a sports hero. My team (which eventually won by one goal) was so ecstatic about my inspired 'save' that they nearly carried me on their shoulders back to class (I say nearly, because five seconds after they tried it they realised how much I weighed and gave it up), and for the rest of the year my status as a legendary goalkeeper was assured.

The next year brought fresh challenges. Our Sports Master, always a fickle man, decided that this year we would play cricket. This caused some consternation among the masses, because while everyone got to participate more or less equally in football, it seemed natural that with cricket, only some people would get to bowl. The Golden Age of sharing and brotherhood was over.

I meanwhile, had discovered a new vocation. Having managed to convince my classmates that despite the lightning reflexes I had demonstrated as a goal keeper, I was not cut out to be a wicket keeper, I was then elevated, largely because of my continuing ineptitude, to the role of umpire. This may seem like a weighty responsibility - it is - but in my case it was ameliorated by two facts. First, I didn't know any of the rules of the game. So there really wasn't much point in my paying close attention to what was going on since I wouldn't know what to make of it anyway. And second, I had no second umpire to contend with, let alone a third one. I was the lord of all I surveyed. Or didn't. Even run-outs on the striker's end, for instance, were left to yours truly, though it was manifestly obvious that there was no way I could make a call on whether the batsman was in or out when the wicket was hit.

Given the long and illustrious heritage of my role, however, I always attempted to maintain the strictest impartiality in my dealings as an umpire. Never, not once, did I let my personal loyalties or friendships influence my decision. Rather, I listened carefully to the shouts and entreaties of both sides, and gave my decision in favour of whoever sounded more convincing. Take your average lbw appeal. Given that my knowledge of such technical terms as off-stump and leg-stump was sketchy at best (I had a strong suspicion that it had something to do with where the batsman was standing, but that was as far as my nine year old perspicacity would take me) and that I hadn't actually seen the ball being bowled anyway, because I was too busy speculating on what Mom would have packed in my tiffin that day, it seemed only fair to let myself be shouted at for a minute or so, and then declare the batsman out because the bowling side seemed so much more sincere in their assertions.

This umpiring bit didn't work as well as the goalkeeping though. As the term progressed, relations with my classmates (all of whom I'd manage to 'unfairly' dismiss at some point or the other) became rapidly strained, and the prospect of several intimate adventures with cricket stumps began to loom. I was finally rescued from the certainty of violence by my dance teacher, who decided to enlist me as part of the school's official dance team. Not that I could dance, of course - in keeping with my penchant for peripheral roles, I was the narrator. This meant that while the dance team itself was up on stage doing folk dances in outlandish costumes, I would be reading out a pre-prepared script explaining the subtler points of the dance to the audience. It only lasted some three weeks, but it was a great gig. For one thing it meant that I got to cut school and go around attending dance contests in other schools. More importantly, though, by the time I was free to go back to P.E. (having missed classes practising with the dance team), the Sports Master had given up on me in disgust, and I was free to bunk the class if I chose to. I did.

And that pretty much sums up my athletic career. The only other time I've actually participated in any sports was when R. dragged me onto a basketball court in Malaysia saying he was in the mood to shoot a few hoops. I pointed out to him that I'd never played basketball in my life, but he didn't seem to mind. He just wanted the company, he said. And if he got to beat me hollow at the same time, well, that was just gravy.

I started. In the course of the next three minutes I sank three perfect three-pointers. I never knew a human being's jaw could drop so low.

It goes without saying that I've never been able to sink a basket again in my life. Not even one of those cheap indoor plastic thingies. Talk about beginner's luck.

[1] Yes, it was a co-ed school. I've been in co-ed schools pretty much all my life, thank god. I spent all of two years in an all-boy's school and I HATED it. I hate having to use sexist stereotypes, but women really do have such a civilising influence.

[2] By my class teacher's standards, at least

[3] There was also, of course, the constant confusion about which side each player was actually on, a confusion made worse by the fact that both sides were wearing identical uniforms. This meant that the players themselves often forgot which side they were on, causing many fights of the nature of "Why didn't you pass the ball to me?" "Errr...because I'm not on your team". "Yes you are" "No I'm not" - you get the picture.

Romeo, Romeo, warfare art thou Romeo

Isn't it wonderful when you call someone an idiot and he's nice enough to actually prove again and again that he is one?

Remember Shravan? He's blithering away again - this time claiming that women should be kept out of the army because they are weaker than men.

See first: his moronic post here. Then the comments section of the link to that post from Desi Pundit, including my take on his post here. Finally (via Desi Pundit) see Annie's lovely reply to his post here.

There's nothing like a good fisking to get you started in the morning.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Last night the rain

Last night the rain was different. Weightier, more portentous. It arrived not with the light patter of a dancer's feet, but with the deep sigh of a train pulling into a station. There was the same sense of anticipation fulfilled, of a relief that felt almost like excitement. Standing at the window, I saw the trees bending their backs to the storm's baggage, preparing to be jostled. Fat drops of water clawed at the panes, fell clinking on the airconditioners. A sense of arrival was everywhere.

Back in bed again, I dreamed that the monsoon was a great locomotive, rumbling its way across the land. Gray-haired clouds turned restlessly within it, trying to fit their obese bodies to its sky-blue bunks, playing charades to pass the time.

I too was riding this train. I heard the thunder of its engines, the lazy rattle of its progress. Every now and then the train would stop, sometimes at a village station, sometimes in the middle of a field, and a cloud or two would hop off. There was no timetable to this, but the people must have known because wherever we stopped they were waiting to receive us.

And everywhere we went the children would come out to stare at this strange visitor, half-naked, amazed, wondering how far away it had come from; laughing and pointing, or just standing wide-eyed by the tracks, feeling the power of this apparition rushing down on them. Hearing the wind of it whistle through the fields. Seeing its windows flash like lightning in the night.

And afterwards, in the morning, the air cool, clean like metal. That newly washed sense of distance made possible.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Such a long journey

Continental Flight 82 from Newark to New Delhi. Thirteen straight hours wedged in a window seat doing my imitation of a sardine. Elderly couple on the seats next to me (henceforth referred to as Auntyji and Uncleji), clearly flying back to India from the US for the first time ever. Falstaff being his considerate, helpful self. Unending drama.

Crisis 1: As the plane pushes back from the gate and begins to taxi towards the runway, Falstaff, being inexperienced in these matters, commits the terrible blunder of starting to read a book (a set of Cheever's short stories). Immediate gasp of shock from his co-passengers. Doesn't he realise that with his book raised up like that Uncleji can't actually SEE the runway?! How does he expect the plane to take off if Uncleji's visibility is impaired? How dare he put the safety of the entire plane in jeopardy this way?

Falstaff meekly lowers hands and continues to read with book held at arm's length. Only now Uncleji's pointing arm is in the way. Uncleji apparently feels that unless he carefully points out all the relevant sights to Auntyji, she might miss some of them (after all, there's so much to see out of an aircraft porthole). The fact that in the process of doing this Uncleji narrowly misses taking Falstaff's nose off does not apparently concern Uncleji.

Crisis 2: The first on-screen announcements begin. The message flashing on the blue screen reads: "We hope you had a pleasant flight. Thank you for flying with us. We appreciate your business" and "Please ensure that all relevant paperwork is completed before disembarking from the plane". All this before our flight has taken off.

Uncleji has noticed this. He excitedly points this out to all those sitting around him, but the rest of us just shrug, figuring someone goofed up and it'll be corrected soon enough. Uncleji, however, belongs to a generation that is much less apathetic about matters of national importance, and feels duty bound to jump up from his seat (disregarding the fasten seat-belts sign, but what's a little risk when such weighty matters are at hand) and go find a harried flight attendant who he can explain this to. Eventually (some ten minutes later), the announcements get corrected. Uncleji beams with a hero's pride.

Crisis 3: Auntyji and Uncleji have ordered special vegetarian meals. Said meals contain rice (check), pickle (check) but (horror of horrors!!) no CURD!! This is unacceptable. Even westernised barbarians like Falstaff, who are eating Chicken Cacciatore, get curd. (And pickle. Because there's nothing like a little imli flavouring to spice up your pasta sauce). Uncle-ji indignantly tries to catch flight attendant's eye. Flight attendant, like all good waitstaff, has eyes carefully trained to remain uncaught. Eventually, growing desperate, Auntyji (who has clearly spent her two months in the US assidiously watching NFL) comes through with a flying tackle, stopping the fleeing steward in his tracks.

The news of the Great Curd Treason does not faze the steward, however. He points out that Auntyji and Uncleji had asked for a vegetarian meal and curd, being a dairy product, is non-vegetarian (where Continental came up with this particular brainwave is beyond me). That's why they've been given grapes instead.

Brief moment of silence while Uncleji's Tam Brahm brain struggles to cope with idea of grapes being a substitute for curd. Sound of bearings squealing, then giving way in protest. "But we want curd", Uncleji says, with the kind of dogged consistency one hopes for from the Indian Cricket Team. Eventually curd is provided. Once again the good citizens of Gotham can sleep in peace.

Crisis 4: Meal over, Auntyji and Uncleji decide they're in the mood for some in-flight entertainment. A fifteen minute struggle ensues, in which Uncleji unhooks his wife's seat belt, switches all available reading lights on and off, reclines and brings forward his seat 273 times, narrowly escapes making long-distance calls to Swaziland and almost succeeds in connecting his headphones to the rivets holding his seat together, but is still no closer to actually switching his entertainment system on. At this point Falstaff's earlier hooliganism (see Crisis 1) is forgiven and his help is enlisted. Falstaff proceeds to give careful instructions, helping Uncleji to get to point where he's happily watching Video Channel 2. Uncleji then proceeds to 'help' Auntyji with her system. The fact that Auntyji seems to have managed to get the system to work by herself and is happily immersed in some inane Karishma Kapoor film (I know, I know - the adjective is redundant) makes no difference. She's a woman, therefore it's his duty to guide her.

Two minutes later Auntyji's interactive screen menu has been 'permanently' set to Japanese, a language that Auntyji, sadly, does not understand. She'll have to do without entertainment for the rest of the flight. Just her bad luck. Auntyji takes this philosophically. Uncleji however, decides that it's best not to tempt fate by actually attempting to change channels on his screen, with the result that he proceeds to spend the remaining 11 odd hours of the flight watching endless repeats of Big Momma's House 2 (clearly the folks at Continental have not read this).

Crisis 5: It's time to fill out disembarkation cards. In the process of doing this, Uncleji discovers that they have only two luggage tags, though they'd checked in three bags. Panic. Falstaff (whose skill with entertainment systems has entirely redeemed him) is consulted, and is forced to admit that yes, there are only two tags when there should be three (the math to prove this is hard, but nothing that some elementary matrix differentiation can't solve). An irate Uncleji proceeds to call the steward. Recriminations fly. Auntyji is almost in tears and is being consoled by other Auntji's for her grevious loss. Uncleji is growing angrier and angrier. Other members of the crew have come over to see what the trouble is. People at the back of the plane are beginning to wonder if we're being hijacked. A few of them are already trying to work out the best way to storm the cockpit.

At this point, one of the crew members points out that the tags in question are from April and are marked New Delhi to Newark. They are thus obviously the tags from the time that Auntyji and Uncleji flew to the US. The tags for this flight must be somewhere else. Auntyji proceeds to search desperately through her purse. Sure enough, three other tags emerge. It's 8:00 pm in Delhi, 10:30 am in Newark, we're 6th in the queue waiting to land, and all's well with the world again.

P.S. Yes, I'm back in Delhi for six weeks. Hence the gap since the last post.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My Room

(or Time to be self obsessed)

Coming in through the doorway you pass through a narrow passage (closet on your right, bathroom on your left) to enter into the room proper. As you walk in, you find, immediately on your left, a small bookcase of blonde wood - 4 feet high and 2 feet wide. Careful scrutiny of this bookcase will show that it contains nothing but poetry: the top shelf is taken up by 'classics' (Virgil, Camoes, Dante) and the 'English' poets (Keats, Donne, Larkin, etc) while the second shelf contains American poetry. The third shelf from the top houses translations - containing, in order, poetry translated from Russian, Italian, Portugese, French, German, Greek, Polish, Spanish, Chinese, Persian and Urdu. The bottom shelf contains periodicals. These divisions are not rigid however. Lack of space and the owner's natural laziness mean that Dickinson is squeezed between Marvell and Yeats, while Walcott, though writing in English, has ended up between Neruda and Li Po.

Above this bookcase, on the wall, a large poster (from an exhibition at the Met) of Van Gogh's Thatched Huts at Cordeville Auvers. A flood of spring greenery flooding the landscape, pouring like a cataract from the horizon, down to where the lemon-yellow road yawns in a lazy triangle. Walls and fences are foreshortened, overwhelmed, the cottages themselves seem to grow out of the living land, spontaneous, organic, their roofs one with the scenery. Above these roofs trees swirl like billows of dark green smoke, and higher up still the sky is a whirling mass of azure and cobalt, punctuated by a white sinkhole of a sun into which the colour slowly drains. This is landscape as only Van Gogh could paint it, a quiet country scene revealed in all its teeming energy.

Standing in the centre of the room and turning your eyes clockwise from this painting, you come to two bookshelves on the left hand side wall. These contain prose - fiction on the top shelf (split between novels on the right and short fiction on the left), non-fiction on the bottom (philosophy on the right, other stuff - myth, criticism, biography - on the left). There is a third bookshelf further along the wall, but this one is flimsy and has therefore been relegated to bearing only a few plays (Lorca, Ibsen, Sartre, Ionesco) and miscellaneous papers.

Between these two columns of bookshelves, there is, pinned to the wall, a small (8 by 12 inch) print of Degas' Dancer. In the background, three hazy figures emerge out of a wash of pastel and charcoal, more dervishes of motion than human beings. In the foreground, a fourth dancer, feet planted firmly on the floor, adjusts a bow behind her back. The scene itself suggests imminence, a sense of beauty waiting to happen. Degas sketches the outline of the figures themselves in clear charcoal, but uses no outline for their skirts, simply colouring them in with white and blue chalk and leaving their edges indistinct. The effect is at once ghostly and electric, at once starched and diffused. The sash that the main figure is tying around her waist sends a current of blue surging through the entire painting, so that an otherwise sepia piece is shot through and suffused with colour.

Above the unreliable bookshelf, a poster of Roy Lichtenstein's Kiss V.

The last painting on the left wall, down towards the far end, (occupying pride of place in the form of the only nail in the whole room to hang paintings on) is another Degas, this one in pure charcoal - Woman in a Bathtub. Inside the great white circle of the bathtub, the figure of a woman sits on a chair, leaning down to wash her own feet (we see her shoulders, the back of her head, and her hand rubbing away at her foot). This is beauty joined to awkwardness - you can feel the strain as the woman reaches all the way down to her toes, but the figure itself is perfectly balanced, graceful, a circle as complete in herself as the bathtub she is sitting in. This is a deeply private, even intimate moment, but it is a moment rescued from all possibility of observation, from all need of external reference. This is the lyricism of our everyday solitude. Richard Wilbur writes: "The grace is there, / But strain as well is plain to see. / Degas loved the two together: / Beauty joined to energy."

[The painting is special to me because it is the one painting I carry with me wherever I go. Originally a gift from my parents (obtained from an exhibition at NGMA in Delhi where the original was displayed), this solitary two-dimensional woman has been my constant companion ever since, adorning the walls of every room I have lived in for the past 7 years.]

The back wall of the room is taken up entirely by windows, so there is no place to hang a painting. On the floor, however, you will find a third Degas - this one a framed 30'' x 18'' reproduction of Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts. An explosion of orange announces the bursting forth of three figures - one with her back turned to the viewer, a second drinking a glass of water, a third making adjustments to her dress. As usual with Degas, you find yourself in the position of an unseen observer, a spy. None of these figures looks directly at you, they are clearly unaware of your presence, and uninhibited in their movements as a consequence. These paintings are more tenderly intimate than any explicit nude could ever hope to be, because they reveal not the nakedness of the body, but the nakedness of the self when it is not aware of being watched. Beauty, in Degas' world, is intensely human and entirely ephemeral. But more than figures themselves, Three Dancers in Yellow Skirts is notable for the energy of its pallette - the boiling ochre of the background, the flaring yellow of the skirts, with their pattern of delicate blue flowers, the wash of poppy-like crimson at their feet.

Moving on to the right hand side wall, we find, spreading horizontally over the bed, a large poster of Dali's Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire. A desert landscape. In the foreground, left, a woman sits at a table, facing away from the viewer, looking across to where, in a ruined building, the slave market is underway. The insubstantial, writhing figures of the slaves melt into the background, the transparency of their bodies merging with with the brown of wall and earth. Only the buyers and the traders are clearly defined, solid in their indifference. From within this mass of central figures, the bust of Voltaire appears and disappears. The table the woman is sitting at is covered with a cloth of lavish red, and two figures rest upon it - the first a chipped and broken base that props up Voltaire's illusory bust, the second a smooth open chalice, from which the dream-like figure of a couple embracing in despair rises. Far away in the distance, other figures populate the desert. The sense of perspective is tremendous, as is the feeling of sorrow that almost bleeds from the painting. Even without the clever illusion of Voltaire's bust this would be a mesmerising work, with it, the painting is an endless dream that deserves (and rewards) hours of contemplation.

But onward, onward. The last painting on the right hand side wall is Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) - a dizzying spiral of planes screaming into a trajectory of brazen gold. The ecstatic geometry of jazz.

Finally, on your left as you go out (on the same wall as the first Van Gogh, only on the other side of the passageway) a second, smaller Van Gogh. A tiny 8'' x 12'' print (the wall has space for nothing bigger) of Cypresses - that incredible vertical smoke-stack of a tree rising up into the heavens.

Looking around the room, it seems clear that the room has been recently cleaned and tidied, but that the occupant is not otherwise a habitually neat person. Already, the stray debris of living is starting to encroach upon the room's formal, contrived neatness. Magazines lie spilled about the foot of the bed, a backpack has been thrown carelessly in a corner, a red coffee mug with two swallows worth of coffee rest precariously on the carpet, waiting to be kicked over.

By the bed, a large floor lamp. As you watch, this lamp comes on suddenly, causing you to start back in surprise. Don't worry. It's just that the lamp has a loose connection - it switches on and off by itself (though a quick pat will usually make it come on again). This unlooked for spontaneity can be irksome - especially when one is sleeping next to the lamp - but over the time the person who lives here has learnt to adjust even to this disturbance, though it still causes him to have some strange dreams.

You look up at the ceiling and see the red light of the smoke detector winking at you. What secrets does it know about this room and its tenant? It's too late to find out now. You have to go. As you leave, a notice on the door reminds you not to use escalators in case of fire.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Obligatory World Cup Post

I support Tunisia.

Somebody has to.

Okay, okay, so I know they don't have a hope in hell of winning (actually, I don't know anything of the sort - in fact, I can safely say that I know absolutely nothing about Tunisian football. Or about football. Or about Tunisia. Except that Dizzy Gillespie seemed to like the nights there.), but wouldn't it be fun if they did win? I mean really, what's the point of going through all this brouhaha if at the end of it all Brazil is just going to take the cup. Again.

The trouble with competitive sport is that its fans still cling to the patently ridiculous notion that the winner should be the one with the most skill / talent. As if that mattered. As if the only civilised basis for deciding who wins wasn't gender, or nationality, or general under-dogness. What's with all this objectivity anyway? When are sports promoters ever going to realise that the sweetest moment in any contest is when the winner gets announced and everyone goes "The prize goes to Who?!! How the hell did he / she win?". Think about the Booker. Think about the Nobel. Dammit, even an organisation as inherently stupid as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has got this figured out. Each one of these regularly gives away prizes to people who demonstrate no merit whatsoever, and consistently overlooks the truly deserving. That's what I call a competition. It's all about mixing it up. The thrill of the contest isn't finding out who won, the thrill of the contest is arguing endlessly afterwards about whether or not they deserved to. The day they start judging World Cup matches based on the intensity of the leg-work and the beauty of a team's post-modernist explorations of the off-side [1], instead of on something as crude as goals, is the day I'll actually start watching football [2].

At any rate, I still maintain that it would be a much better cup for everyone if Tunisia won. Just think what wonders it would do for World Peace. All the football playing nations of the world (a list, which, conveniently enough, now includes the US) would come together in instant solidarity, drowning their common sorrows in a hazy mix of stale beer and nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Of course, Tunisia itself would have to be instantly liquidated with thermo-nuclear devices, but that's easy enough - we can always think up some excuse...say they were developing WMDs, for instance...what's that? That's already been done? Hmmm. Oh, well, we'll think of something. And let's face it, it's not like anyone's going to miss Tunisia once it's become a large cloud of radioactive dust. Most people won't even notice. As for the Tunisians themselves, well, at least they'll die happy, knowing they won the World Cup. What's a little casual annihilation compared to the thrill of that?

In fact, the only downside I can see to Tunisia winning the World Cup is the astronomical amount of money I stand to lose because I'm too stingy to bet $5 on them at current odds (specially since all the other people betting on Tunisia would have been liquidated in the airstrikes). I could have retired on that money. (Or at least, I could have gone on not working, which is the same as retiring, only without the farewell parties). Damn you Spain! Damn you Saudi Arabia! You haven't heard the end of this!

Or have you?

[1] I'm not entirely sure what the off-side is, btw. I've never been able to decipher whether it's a real side or just a notional concept the guy running around with a whistle uses when he feels the whole thing's looking too easy and the sponsors won't like it. Kind of like the wrong side of the bed.

[2] Which is not to say that I never watch sport. On the contrary, I am frequently captivated by all kinds of sporting events, usually when there's tons of work to do and I don't feel like doing it. The zenith of my interest in cricket, for example, occured during the 1996 World Cup, which happened to coincide with my CBSE Board Exams. Even watching cricket was more fun than NCERT textbooks.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Joyce in the Morning

A blog is a book disappointed.
Let a thousand Leopold's bloom.
Give us this day our daily dread,
Give us this night our stifling rooms.

Happy Bloomsday Everyone!


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Inside the box

A man is placed inside a metal cube of edge 8 feet.

There are no windows in the cube, no inlet of air of any kind, and the door he came in through has been hermetically sealed from the outside.

The man is completely naked. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 75 kgs.

The only other object in the box with him is a handgun. The gun is loaded and contains 6 bullets.

The walls of the cube are made of reinforced steel. A bullet striking the side of the cube will ricochet. The only thing soft enough to stop a bullet in this entire arrangement is the man's body.

With minimal activity levels, the air in the cube will last the man for upto 4 hours. Beyond that point the man will suffocate due to lack of oxygen.

Under no circumstances can the cube be opened for the next 24 hours. The man inside the cube knows this.

The man has the following options:

a) Take the gun and shoot himself in the head

b) Fire the gun randomly at the sides of the cube and wait to see where the ricochets strike him

c) Put the gun aside and wait patiently to die of suffocation

d) Disable the gun by smashing it against the metal walls and then wait patiently to die of suffocation.

e) Jump around inside the cube thus using up oxygen faster and hastening his death by suffocation. (Option e can be combined with either option c or option d)

Q1. Which of the following should the man choose? Why?

Q2. In your opinion, which is the bravest option of the five?

Q3. Which option would you choose if you were in this situation?

Q4. If you were the person who had put the man inside the cube, would you bother to open the cube after the 24 hours were up? Why / why not?


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Seeing her off

There are still twelve minutes to go before the train leaves. Standing on the platform, he hands her the backpack he has been carrying. She slings it over her right shoulder, letting one strap dangle free. She also has a large shopping bag, its straps cutting into her left arm. And her purse. Weighed down by all this, she looks like some sort of pack animal, bags bulging out on both sides. When he reaches over to hug her goodbye he cannot get his arms around her. Nor can she raise her arms to hug him back. They embrace tentatively, awkwardly, like crabs scuttling together, their shells in the way. This will not do. Stepping back, she slips the bags from her arms, places them carefully to one side, then comes forward to embrace him again. This time his arms encircle her waist easily, hers slide around his neck. They kiss.

Two minutes later they are still kissing, oblivious to the people passing by.

Three minutes later she is drawing back, pushing her hair back in place, bending to pick up her bags. With them safely on her shoulders again she grows casual, distant. She waits patiently while he touches his fingers to her cheek, then nods a hasty goodbye, climbs into the train, vanishes.

For a moment he considers following her. There are still seven minutes to go. He could help her settle in. But no, entering the train itself feels like an intrusion. He draws back from the door, backs up against the nearest pillar. He will just wait until the train leaves.

For a while he just stands there, whistling softly to himself, trying not to wonder why she doesn't come out again. He checks his watch. Still five minutes left. She probably thinks he's gone home already. He could go in, surprise her. No, that would seem too needy. Why doesn't she come out and say goodbye? Maybe he could just walk along the side of the train, peering into the windows until he spots her. No, that's absurd. He doesn't want to make a scene. It would be best if she came out. It's the least she could do, after he's come all this way to see her off. What is she doing in there anyway?

With three minutes left to go, she finally makes an appearance. Beaming, he steps forward to meet her. They embrace once more, whisper one last goodbye. He is happy now. There are still two minutes to go but he figures he might as well leave. She'll be okay now. No point hanging around. On the way up the platform stairs, he keeps turning to look back at her, as if to reassure himself that she's still there. She is. She stands in the door of the coach, pressed to one side to let other passengers in, watching him until he reaches the top of the steps. Then, when he is out of sight, she goes back to her seat, settles into it with a small sigh. One minute later the train pulls out of the station.

People are so silly. People are so beautiful.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I remember to have wept with a sense of the unnecessary

Lies would be more serious if one could lie about the matter in hand;
But it is an impertinence to think oneself so penetrating.
What people tell you by lies is how they would deal with this if it was true,
What they would like to make you think about this,
The fact that they think this worth repeating or inventing,
Or the fact that they will endeavour to make this true,
And, whether the external circumstances are favourable to them or not,
These are important truths, and you have been told them.

People who feel that lies make life intolerable,
That it is madness to attempt living, since people are liars,
Are like people who look at the handbook before the picture,
Are like people who wish the words of a poem to have a single meaning,
Are unable to feel safe unless they are irrelevantly informed.

Lies are the discipline of knowing that people are not you.
It is licentious not to lie to a friend.
The belief in truth leads to many untrue beliefs.
It leads to the belief that a series of earnest statements make a poem.

If one could speak the whole truth about lies one would be contradicting oneself.

- William Empson 'I remember to have wept'

Brilliant. Keep that in mind the next time you sit down to read your morning paper.


Monday, June 12, 2006


Propaganda n. The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation.

The worst kind of propaganda is the kind that happens to be true.

Reading last week's issue of the New Yorker over the weekend, I came across a story that contains extracts from letters, journal entries, etc. of US servicemen in Iraq. (The story itself is not available online, but there's an audio-visual presentation containing extracts from it here).

Some of the stories were simply outrageous. Like the letter by Donna Kohout where she talks about how excited she is to be seeing the places she first learned about in Bible school (next time, try taking a packaged tour instead of invading someone else's country) or Parker Gyokeres piece about the terrible living conditions and the lack of cooperation from the local people, who only listen to him when he threatens them with his gun (imagine that - you invade a country and its people refuse to wait meekly and politely in line for you to inflict your entirely illegitimate authority on them!). But the bulk of the pieces do actually invite and deserve sympathy: they are sensitive, thoughtful pieces about the very real, very human costs of war (my favourites are the ones by the medical staff - Commander E.W. Jewell's journal from on board the U.S.N.S. Comfort and Captain L.R. Blackman's e-mails home about the psychological scars that combat leaves).

And that, I think, is the problem. There's a very thin line between feeling sympathy for an individual and feeling sympathy for his or her cause. And it's very hard to maintain the clarity and insistence of abstract ethical perspectives in the face of real human suffering. How do you tell the families of those killed in the war that their sons and daughters had no business being there? That they were accessories to an unjust invasion and that sad as their deaths are, they died for a bad cause, or no cause at all, rather than for a good one?

Not that the stories are necessarily arguing causes. Jewell's piece is explicitly critical of the leaders of the Iraq Invasion, and a number of the other pieces simply describe the horrors without passing judgement on them. Consider, for example, this bit in Ed Hrivnak's account:

"One trooper confides in me that he witnessed some Iraqi children get run over by a convoy. He was in the convoy and they had strict orders not to stop. If a vehicle stops, it is isolated and an inviting target for a rocket-propelled grenade. He tells me that some women and children have been forced out onto the road to break up the convoys so that the Iraqi irregulars can get a clear shot. But the convoys do not stop."

That's horrifying. Any discussion of who's to 'blame' here - the US convoys for not stopping, the Iraqi irregulars for using women and children this way, the US convoys for being there in the first place, etc. - is irrelevant. That kind of horror is a feature of war, not of the brutality of one side.

No, these stories do not try to argue for any particular point of view. They are not propaganda because they are untrue or because they are written with the intention to mislead. On the contrary, I have no doubt that they reflect nothing but absolute honesty on the part of their authors.

They are propaganda because they reflect only one side of the story. Neither heroism nor suffering, neither cruelty nor compassion is the exclusive preserve of any one side in any war. I'm willing to bet that if you repeated the exercise with accounts from members of Al-Qaeda, you'd get a similar set of moving stories, stories that would make you forget that the people writing them were terrorists. These stories are propaganda because being published in the New Yorker is a privilege available only to the US armed forces - the people of Haditha can't and won't get the same access, the same voice.

Last week's issue also featured stories by Vassily Grossman and Italo Calvino - stories set during the Second World War. Reading them, and reading the pieces by the US servicemen, I couldn't help conducting the following thought experiment: If a leading German magazine in 1940 had published accounts from the letters / journals of ordinary soldiers in the armies of the Third Reich, would they have sounded very different from the stories of those fighting in Iraq? I sincerely doubt it. Whether that makes you more apt to be sympathetic towards the average German infantryman in World War II, or more hard-hearted towards US soldiers in Iraq is a personal choice. But it's important, I think, that we keep in mind that we can't do one without the other. Otherwise we truly are giving into the propaganda.

P.S. Some of you are almost certainly feeling the temptation, at this point, to deliver some platitudes about how History is written by the Winner. Even assuming that's true (though I would question how true it is of, say, Vietnam - History is written by those who control the media afterwards), it doesn't mean we have to like it, do we?


Other Voices, Other Rooms

From thee have I been absent over the weekend. Another of my NYC trips. Regular blogging returns tonight, but meanwhile, you can check out the rapid spread of the Falstaff menace elsewhere:

1. A piece for DesiPundit about literature and creative writing in the Blogosphere

2. A review of Jose Saramago's new novel, Seeing, over at Hafta (the review, not the novel - we haven't got to the point where we can get Nobel Laureates to write for the magazine. Yet.), where I seem liable to become a regular contributor, Sidin and co. having graciously taken me in to their fold (ha! suckers.)

If you actually read the review, you might discover that the fourth and fifth paragraphs are repeated in the sixth. I suspect this is a typo, but I'm going to pretend that it's a post-modernist experiment to amplify the title of the piece. So there.