Friday, August 27, 2004

The Answer is Still a Lemon

When I was 14, going through the worst pangs of adolescent angst, railing against the unfairness of the world in general and my parents in particular, I thought age would bring all the answers. "At 18, I'll know the answers," I'd breathe tearfully to myself each night.

But 9 years have passed since I turne d 18, and I still can't say I have the answers. Not only for the big questions - the whoppers - the "Why am I here"s and the "What's the meaning of life"s - but even for the small ones... the simple questions of why some people are the way they are, and why we aren't all happy and blithe, like Sunday's child, and why regardless of how much I gym, I don't seem to lose any weight.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "The world is so full of wonderful things, I'm sure we should all be happy as kings." Well put, Bob, but the world doesn't seem to be listening. Every magazine you read is full of the woes of the world. The Middle Eastern conflict. Hutus and Tutsis trying to wipe each other off the face of the planet. Manipur. Serbs and Croats. It seems to be endless.

And for what?
"The story of Bangladesh
Is an ancient one, again made fresh
By blind men who carry out commands
Which flow out of the laws upon which nations stand
Which say to sacrifice a people for a land."

You're probably thinking, hey, where's my dose of humour for the week? All I can say is, dunno. It's one of those days when the world seems out of control and my head is filled with question marks. Stop this planet, I want to get off, I think. Regardless of the free trip around the sun.

In one of the Dirk Gently books, Dirk had this pocket calculator, which could only display results of 4 and below. The minute any computation got out of hand (read: > 4), the screen would display the line "A suffusion of yellow". So that's the answer. What's life all about? A suffusion of yellow.

In conclusion, I quote Calvin: "I think the surest sign that there's intelligent life out there is that none of it has made any attempt to contact us."

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Life and Death in the City

It's rare that one gets time, in this frenetic place, to talk to a stranger.

In fact, this seems to be a city phenomenon. Even when I was growing up in Cal, I don't know how often I had the time or inclination to sit and talk to the guy who ran the chai stall, or who used to sit in our lane in the evenings, frying samosas and p(n)eyaji... but each trip to some smaller place, and we'd be talking to all the local people, asking about their lives, their livelihood, trying to blend into their reality.

So, a few days ago, when the auto-wala started chatting with me, I don't know what it was that made me respond. But we shared philosophy over 15 minutes of inching forward in the rain - wondering whether the only 2 places man feels peaceful are indeed, as my auto-wala claimed, the temple and the crematorium...

Walked the last few steps home, smiling to myself, thinking of philosophy in an rattle-trap auto. To hear that my neighbour - an 82 year old woman who lived alone - had passed away. Alone, and found by the maid.

How horrifying, how totally horrifying to be that old, and to live alone, and die alone. Our whole drive towards nuclear-ness... you have to wonder, if this is where it leads, is it worth it? I have this deep, driving fear that the more the world progresses, the more we're heading towards this same thing ourselves, in one form or another.

Question then is, which would you want to do? Would you want to live a full life, and do everything you can, until you're old and infirm and have to die alone? Or would you want to cut it short early, so that you never feel that loneliness that age aggravates even further? So that the losses are others', not your's? It's like asking, do you prefer it hot, or do you prefer it pink - a question that gives you choices you can't choose between.

I have middle English dirges playing in my mind today, and that's been enough melancholy for a day anyway. More when I have the answers.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Little Knowledge...

So I was traveling on work recently.

Now, there are 2 awful things about traveling on work. One: the early morning flights. Two: the company! I mean, on waking up bleary and hung over at four in the morning, you do NOT want to get a seat next to the CEO, and have to spend the next two hours talking to him about your departmental strategy for the year and how you're going to make the difference where the industry has failed. Of course, many would consider this the opportunity of a lifetime, but me? I'd rather strap myself in and drown in slumber for as long as possible.

And then there are the flight delays. Of course, when you're waking up at 4:00 a.m. to make it to the airport at 5:00 a.m. to catch a 6:00 a.m. flight, you're not really in a fit state (i.e., "sentient") to think of calling the airport to check on flight schedules. So, off you go... and spend the next 2 hours sitting on uncomfortable chairs in the lounge.

And finally, there is the small matter of who's keeping you company at that hour of the morning.

Me, I lucked out. Accompanying me on an early morning flight was an office colleague who must be the life and soul of every party. For starters, he's an analyst - which means he speaks with lots of corporations and gets the inside dope on stuff. And while we were sitting there, he told me oodles of it... stuff that will change my consumption habits forever!

Of course, these guys always begin soft... "These seats are so filthy... I wonder what we're sitting on, exactly, and who left it here," he'll casually say, pointing out the white streaks on all the seats in the lounge. And as you're trying to comfort yourself with the thought that if it's on all the seats, it's probably the material - that's it, it's a streaky material, he leans over and confides: "You know the whole thing about colas... well, actually, it gets worse - each bottle of cola has about 8 tea-spoons of sugar. I've stopped drinking the stuff. " And then, while you're sputtering and getting over that, the attack comes from another direction: "And milk - my god, it's crazy - I've stopped drinking that too." Hesitantly, you ask, "Why, what's the matter with milk?", and you're told, "90% of the cows in Mumbai have TB, that's what's wrong with the milk." And while you're trying to remember basic biology and figure out whether it's possible for a cow to transmit TB to a milk consumer, he tells you, "you wanna be the first to showcase a new medical crisis?" And you're thinking, "sure I can survive without milk - I'll just switch to soya."

And before you know it, your entire lifestyle has been wiped out... you're thinking feverishly about how soon you can get home and throw out all the provisions, about whether there's a business opportunity in raising unadulterated vegetables, and whether you can go back to the cave economy... Take it from me, it's simple: all you have to do is leave.

And when you do, leave the key under the mat. That way, I won't have to break in through a window when I rob your house.

Phobia and Irrationality (aka Fear of Flying)

Any writer's perpetual fear is that at some point, some day, people will actually read what she's writing.

Now, one might think that's a bit of an unreasonable fear, right? Isn't she writing precisely so that someone does read her writing? I mean, what's the point, otherwise? The answer (as with most answers that have anything to do with writers) is complex.

We're worried that nobody will read our writing, we're worried that the whole world will beat a path to our doors to demand sheets and sheets of it. We're worried that having done this, they'll hate whatever we've written (giving us no further reason to live) and we're worried that they'll love it, and that their expectations will get higher and higher, till eventually, woe is us, we'll fail them, and they'll hate us, and our lives will be over... and on and on in this vein. So you see, a writer's life is a traumatic one. Even pseudo writers like me suffer these pangs!

So all in all, it takes some of us a lot of courage to put stuff up in the public domain like this. And having screwed our courage to the sticking place, as it were, when you write in and tell us you like what we write... well, it makes us feel like snoopy - eyes closed, front paws clasped, dancing with his ears flapping in the wind, and little hearts all around. It makes us feel wonderful. It's as good as - no, it's better than sex.

So thank you, for writing in and telling me you like what I've written. Someday, when I've made my fortune, the drinks will be on me. :)

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

It's Raining. It's Pouring.

Rain!!! Floods!!! City fathers debating where to dump the flood waters!!!

Takes me back years, to flooding in Cal.

One of the cool things about growing up in Cal (for me, at least), was that we lived really close to school - a stone's throw (for an Olympian discuss medalist). The upshot was that each time school closed due to rain (at least once each monsoon), we'd actually have gone all the way up to school, holding our schoolbags up out of the water and wading through a river of thigh-deep water on the roads, battling tidal waves caused by passing buses and trucks, and frequently losing balance and sitting down in the muck!

Having done all this, and got to school, we'd then find that it had been declared closed. Of course, those who had actually managed to reach school could stay, and have a day off (strange, very strange, to spend a day goofing off at school without your entire class there, let me tell you), but we usually chose to wade back home. Needless to say, home being so close to school, the "we" that left for school from my house multiplied manifold on the way back - we'd arrive back home surrounded by stranded friends and cousins - all dripping, all laughing hysterically and all in various stages of infection from the god-alone-knows-what-unhygienic-muck in the flood waters.

And did we, on reaching home, immediately change into warm dry clothes and warm ourselves around hot tea? Of course not - where's your sense of adventure?! We'd all keep traipsing out again in the rain - to buy provisions to feed the army, smokes for my dad, to catch the dogs (who would, by then, be having a blast in the rain, and would be dripping and mucky), and so on. By the time we changed for the final time, it would be afternoon, and lunch - a delicious, mouth-watering lunch of khichdi and ghee - would be ready. And for those who have never experienced it (people from Rajasthan come to mind), there is nothing- nothing - nicer than coming in from the wind and rain, with that exhilarated feeling, changing into warm, dry clothes, and sitting around and eating khichdi.

Every monsoon, for years and years, there would be at least one rain day like this, when the real world would come to a standstill, surrounded by swirling water (and, possibly, several people's body fluids). And every time, we followed more or less the same routine. (Minor changes took place with age - as we got older, we were sent out to buy alcohol for the adults too, and still later, we were offered some of it, but the theme remained the same.)

And in case you think that Bombay doesn't offer the same options - think again. All you need to do is lift a bunch of Calcuttans out of Cal, and set them down in Mumbai on a rain day - and voila! You're all set!

So - you from Cal? Want to share some khichdi on an exhilarating, stormy, rainy day? Come right over. And bring your own booze - I'm not stepping out again.

Monday, August 02, 2004

The Rain in Spain, we are informed (by somewhat unreliable sources who break into song at the drop of a hat - or, perhaps, a flower), stays mainly in the Plain. No such generalities exist in the Indian subcontinent. The rain doesn't stay in the plains. It doesn't stay anywhere. In fact, it just plain doesn't, so there. That's the thing with rain here... the total unpredictability of it.

For the last 2 months, the rain gods at the met offices have been crying, "Lemuh-nade, Lemuh-nade..." from their towers, and been answered with replies of "nothing but a lemon". And finally, 2 months late and not in the least bit apologetic, the rains roar up, revving up their engines, growling and belching at the world at large, running amock across the country.

As with most things in India, there is no sense of moderation. Either it's dry as a bone, or there's a sea of rainwater through which you have to wade, morning and evening, to get to and from work (or, if you're among the blessed few, through which you watch people wade as they try to get to and from work).

This sort of meteorological uncertainty can lead to some rather desparate, frenetic, oscillatory activity for some people. Say, for example, you need to go buy cigarettes. You carefully observe the behaviour of the rain, put in some sophisticated analysis to test for the periods of rain and the periods of non-rain, check your hypotheses, run random number simulations, all to test when the next 20-minute break will be, when you can run out and buy cigarettes. Of course, you neglect to factor in the error caused by your never having attended a single stats class at college, which puts your analysis off rather badly: by the time you get your cigarettes, the rain has begun again with renewed fury, and both you and your cigarettes contract pneumonia.

Which brings us up to date with my condition. No, not the stepping out to buy cigarettes - the pneumonia. Bombay is the worst possible place in the world to get stuck in the pouring rain. To begin with, you have to brave streets which are rivers of flowing water (there's actually an undertow, a side-tow and every other type you can think of - including tow trucks). You try stepping gingerly through this seething, frothing channel into an auto - realising, only after you've sat down, that the seats are carrying at least half the water that could fit in your bathtub.

You resign yourself to a wet posterior, and get to the station, ignoring all the speculative looks cast in your direction. You don't sit while you wait for the train - hoping to... ummm... air yourself out, as it were. On the train, you realise that all your airing has been in vain - the train seats have absorbed the Ganga, and bring it gushing forth each time you attempt to sit on them. And did we mention that somewhere along the way, your umbrella turned itself inside out and broke into splinters in the howling wind? And that some road hog splashed your auto with a sheet of sludge, making you not only wet, but into the sort of thing your mother wouldn't allow inside the house?

And then, there's the office AC. I don't know how it is in other offices, but following the truly Indian ideal of "all or nothing", the AC in our office has only 2 settings: off (= muggy, claustrophobic) and Arctic (icicles start forming on our persons, and little penguins emerge from the drains and start sliding around the floors).

And the final cut: braving rain and storm, battling your own mortality to come into work, your boss tells you when you arrive, "But why did you come? You'll have to swim home."

So this may be my last post for a while. I'm striking out for sunny Espana, where there ain't no rain except on the plains. I'd stay, but they might find the boss's body.