Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I love the smell of packing tape!

December has been insane! Arriving home after 10 days away in Delhi for the wedding, I suddenly realize that griha pravesh (house warming rituals) is in 20 days, not to mention the first “birthday party” for my little monkey, followed by packing and shifting house…yet again! (Something like my 40th house in 34 years, mind you).

As I am taping shut one of the innumerable boxes, my man sits there grinning his “nasty boy” smile. “tujhe bada maza ata hai na is kaam me (you really get a kick out of doing this...don't you)” he asks, and I pause to wonder why I love it. Yes, I love the smell of packing tape, the bustle of packing things … books, glassware, clothes, I love the ripping sound the tape makes as it comes off the spool, I love pretty much everything about moving, except for what it does to the energy levels of course.

Tiring though it is, and uprooting as it does, why do I still love the most obvious manifestation of a nomadic life? Well, come to think of it, why not? I love change, I love adventure, I love the renewal and rejuvenation of mind and spirit that any new life change brings. Having moved houses, and cities, frequently all my life, I can no longer even imagine living in the same house in the same city for decades on end! If nothing else changes, I will change the décor of the rooms, change the furniture around, or choose a different colour for the walls every few months.

Change is fantastic! It is the best anti ageing product ever invented. Bottleit up and retail it in one of those little red dabbas (on an aside here, why are anti ageing products almost all in red and white colour schemes?), and you could be a bulti billionaire overnight! My father is the youngest 62 year old that I know. No surprises there… he still changes jobs, and cities, at an almost alarming rate. Last year and a half alone has seen three!

Every packing up is the beginning of new possibilities. The anticipation, the suspense, the looking-forward-to-what happens next is the best part of shifting. It’s a great clutter eliminator as well. I find staying in one place for any length of time to be an open invitation to clutter. Things accumulate – pens without caps and caps without pens, things I “might” need “one day”, old beaten up utensils that are doing the job for now. And I find that all the good things I buy, glasses, crockery, fancy pots and pans stay packed ‘as is’ in their boxes, being saved for some other time when I have more need, more space, more something. Happens to everyone. I know families who have lived in the same house for 30 years, and have incredible amounts of accumulated clutter. Some have entire rooms dedicated to storing stuff they no longer need, and will never need again!

Every time I move house, I throw stuff away. Unbelievable amounts of crap gets chucked out, leaving my household leaner and meaner. Out with the old, in with the new! Stuff finally comes out of packages, and begins to be used. Old clothes, books, shoes, bags, bartan… all go out the door, making physical and mental space for change.

The way I see it, every major change is like a little rebirth. It is stagnation that makes me want to curl up and die. There is only so much of routine I can take, and so much isn’t very much in my case. Routine and boredom are the worst tortures I can imagine on a daily basis. Mental stagnation seems, to me, to be the worst possible punishment that can be inflicted on a person who likes to use their brains. I can buy books by the dozen, source music all day, but it’s the occasional big changes that really get my blood pumping.

That’s why I love the smell of packing tape. That’s why I adore the special glue smell of it, and the fantastic ripping sound it makes when it comes off the spool. That smell, and that sound, has always meant the start of a new adventure to me. It’s the final confirmation that a new chapter, good or bad, is about to begin.

Larks and Owls – of diurnal clocks and circadian rhythms

As I drag my sleep deprived keester out of bed, at another ungodly hour, on yet another promises-to-be-very-long day, in response to the insistent chirping "mama, mama, mama" of my very own little lark, I ponder the eternal mysteries of the diurnal clock and the biorhythms so heavily programmed into every creature.

Some people are larks, some are owls. Some are naturally morning people, like my little monkey or her father, who always wake up really, really early, bright eyed and bushy tailed, and raring to meet the world running! (shudder shudder horror horror). And then there are the owls, like yours truly, for whom anything before 9 am is sheer torture. The larks are day people, rising with (or before) the sun, and practically going to bed with it too (at the same time as the sun that is, not WITH the sun :D… no hanky panky implied hahahahaha).

My daughter is almost four now, and her favorite schedule is to stay awake all day, go to sleep at 6 or 7 pm, when its getting dark, and sleep through the night till 4 am. And it's not just today. When she was a few months old, at a stage when babies nap all day, she wouldn't. Instead, she would fall asleep at about 6 pm, on her daily pram ride through the neighborhood, and sleep through the night (barring feeding calls of course).

My man is a bit like that too. 5 am and its "hello world!" He is physically incapable of staying in bed once that happens, and insists on pottering around the house with the baby, the two of them singing, dancing, doing homework, and playing all kinds of specially invented dad-daughter games. Come 8 pm, both father and daughter are drooping in tandem, eyes red, reflexes slow, and moods shot to hell.

Me, au contraire, … a complete owl. I never relish the thought of waking early, ever! Even if I do, it takes about 20 minutes, and multiple doses of caffeine before I am functioning on all cylinders. I really begin to wake up after sunset. The later it gets, the more alive I feel. Suddenly the world swims into sharp focus, and everything – every sense, every experience, takes on a new dimension. Brain starts buzzing, creative juices flow, and the party animal wakes up to sniff the air. Dancing till the wee hours? No problem! Reading all night? Can do! Talking and arguing and laughing till the east lightens and Divakar shows his face? Yippy yaay!

My brother, and best friend, is the same. So, we have always had great times in the middle of the night. Going to the nearest all night coffee shop for a cuppa at 2 am, or driving to Mumbai “just because”, its all part of the night owl syndrome. There was a time, for about two years just after I finished my Masters, when we slept all day, woke at 3 pm or so, stayed up all night, and went to sleep around 7 or 8 am, when daylight strengthened. And it was amazing! Some of my best work, poetically at least, got done during this phase, and a lot of fun was had by all.

All night laughathons at the pride hotel coffee shop were common, with the waiters looking on mystified as a group of 8 or 10 young people tell jokes by turn, desperately scribbling key words or phrases on the table mats to remember the next one till their turn rolls around again, and dissolving in fits of laughter all over the tables! Someone would suddenly suggest we go to a different place for the next round of coffee. Where to? Let’s drive to Lonavla for coffee! So off went a cavalcade, for coffee and alternative thinking mind games, to Fariya’s!

Where larks see the ethereal in the beauty of the morning, I find enchantment in the city of the night. A completely different city seems to spring out of the ground after midnight. As traffic starts to trickle down to almost nonexistent, the city pulls on a cloak of mystique. Bustling markets turn into enchanted shadowlands, and choked, frenetic streets become the wide promenades of jiamata and her entourage.

Every city I have ever lived in, no matter how ugly by day, looked fabulous by night. Driving down the streets in the halogen glow of lonely street lights, it is practically impossible to believe that this is the same city I have struggled with all day. All the frustrations, the angst, the sheer battle of city life melts away, and suddenly I am back in some magic land of my childhood dreams where turning the corner might bring me face to face with a dragon or an angel. The possibilities are virtually endless, and the sense of adventure is exhilarating, sending the adrenaline pumping by the quart through my veins.

There’s an additional factor to my love of the night too. I HATE heat. I am happiest at temperatures close to zero centigrade, and anything above 27 or 28 is sheer torture. I sweat like a pig, feel put upon from every direction, and find myself unable to function. No matter how hot the day has been, nights are cooler, even if marginally. Just the relief, after a day of being slowly steamed in my own sweat, is enough to enhance my love for the night!

The exact opposite is the case with my man and my little princess. They wake with the magic of the sun in their eyes, and begin drooping as it sets. They love the freshening of the day, (so do I, on the rare occasion I see it. I love the morning too… it’s the day that gets to me :D), and their metabolisms begin to slow down post sunset. Once daylight leaves the sky, both begin to look like un-watered roses. And by 10 pm, they are firmly ready to be off to la-la-land.

Parties at our house are weird. The evening begins with everyone bright eyed and wide awake. By the time all the guests have arrived, which is usually after 10, daughter is ready for bed, and man is only staying up because it’s rude to go to bed before everyone gets there. By midnight, both are fast asleep, leaving me to happily hold down the fort till the last guest leaves at 5.30 am, which is when baby is waking up!

Things can change though, and diurnal clocks can be adjusted and retrained. I wake in the mornings now, to send the hordes on their way to school and work, and go to sleep at a halfway decent time in order to be able to do the same again the next day. And it works, after a fashion. I function in the daytime. I get work done. I even create, in a way. But, having been completely nocturnal once, I know the difference even if others can’t spot it. Its like having the wrong prescription glasses. You can see fine, except the really fine print, or things in peripheral vision. Things seem just a wee bit out of focus and fuzzy, and its only after you put on the right glasses that the world swims back into sharp focus and you know what you were missing!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Of desensitization and defence mechanisms

My mother breaks down crying with one look at the front page photo spread of the Peshawar market bomb blasts. The image is poignant … a father and a relative frantically rushing a small child to the hospital. The child looks barely six or seven years old, if that, and is obviously heavily injured and unconscious.

What disturbs me more than the image though, is that the same morning, I have looked at the same image and felt hardly a passing twinge. So what's the deal here? Did mom overreact? Or have I turned to stone. For reasons, obvious enough to people who know me, this buzzed around in my head all day. Restless, and disturbed, I got no work done, but couldn’t put things down in writing either. What was I thinking, what was I feeling, what got under my skin so badly? It just churned around in my head for days and days, and refused to become crystallized enough to write about.

As bhai says, distance is almost essential sometimes. The whole "emotions recollected in tranquility" bit, bullshit as it may sound like when applied to poetry, does seem to be the only thing that works, sometimes. Only, this time, I'm not so sure it'll work. My head feels no clearer than that morning, and I still feel as lousy as I did then. Only, now, it's in fits and starts, every time I remember.

Everyone knows I was a big softie who cried at the drop of a hat. My man, who happens to have known me since I was about 10, claims that this "baat baat per rone ki adat" is one of the things that drew him to me in the first place. Others have had varied reactions. Some found it endearing, some irritating; some thought me sensitive, some called me nyaka. Whatever the reactions, I remember what it was like.

Dissolving in tears when I visited a friend who was hurt, crying when I went "home" to Dehradun, weeping at the sight of old friends, or at a film, or with a good book; this was an everyday occurrence. And I can still feel those pangs, although the waterworks have been ebbing over time.

I have found myself less and less prone to hydraulic display as the years pass. I don’t always like the fact, but I see its advantages sometimes. It's another defence mechanism, like my fat jokes. Someone told me recently that I am good company because I laugh at myself. What they obviously didn’t get, at least about the overweight jokes, is that it's an extension of the offense-is-the-best-defense adage.

Having been overweight most of my life, and sick of callous people whose first comment to you… on chat and in real life… is have you tried exercise/diet/gym/whatever, I have become exceptionally good at laughing at my own weight. Since I have no weight related health issues, am not part of the skinny is sexy brigade, and definitely not unhappy with the way I look, I have never quite "got" what business it is of casual acquaintances that I am not a "CNN coverage of Ethiopia". However, to avoid the repeated, pernicious and yes hurtful comments (from well meaning friends who don’t realize that it hurts, to strangers who don’t care), I learnt early to make fun of it. Better me laughing at me than them making me cry. Often, too, the way I jump into and even begin the fat jokes nonplusses and confuses the others, puts then a little bit off balance, which is good.

So then, coming back to the "crying" there are many kinds of defense mechanisms one learns to adopt over one's lifetime. Over my thirty odd years, I've had my share of pain. And yes I know my life isn’t nearly the most tragic, it's had its pits. Being someone as given to being hurt as I was practically dragged me into the nuthouse. And then, fighting to think through a haze of antidepressants that threatened to turn me into a zombie, I decide ENOUGH.

Either I had to grow my own set of walls, filters, sluices and defenses, or I was never gonna make it, mentally and emotionally at least. That’s one reason why I don’t cry much these days, and probably feel with much less intensity. (Come to think of it, that might be another reason why poetry has dried up recently). But that’s not all. There is more, I guess, to the difference in mum's reaction, and mine.

People of every generation complain that the next generation is more callous, has less depth, and feels less than they do. That’s probably true, but is it as reprehensible as they make it out to be? Is it such a bad thing? Is it entirely the fault of "aaj kal ke bacche"? I think not. Incidents of violence have been increasing steadily since I was a child. In numbers, as well as percentage, these things have gone through the roof. Human life seems cheap, and blood like so much spilt paint. If anyone is to really maintain sanity, and function in some coherent way, one cannot afford to feel intensely about every incident, every life lost.

Not just our ability to feel empathy, but the ability to step out of the door and have a normal day, depends on being able to fell less and less as we see and hear more and more about such things. If we didn’t get progressively more "callous", we would simple turn into gibbering masses of flesh curled up on our living room floors unable to function from grief and fear. And although the growing lack of "feeling" is one of the biggest problems society is facing now, there really is no other way for an individual to survive.

Terrorism doesn’t look like its going to take a breather soon. Neither does it seem as if the myriad other socio-politico-economic problems that are rampant today are suddenly going to solve themselves. Given the world we live in, what are our options? What, specifically, is my option to try and hold on to my humanity and sensitivity, without going nuts? I guess this process, this act of questioning why I feel the way I feel, of probing why I feel less now than I did 20 years ago….. this is a start.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Water irresponsibility

Will we ever, I wonder, learn to use fresh water responsibly? Watching taps run continuously while a man shaves or a kid brushes its teeth, I can only cringe, and ask myself “does it really take so much extra effort to turn off the tap when it is not being used?”

In fact, this is just another example of how little attention we pay to things around us, on a daily basis. Most of the people I see routinely and unconsciously wasting water are far from callous or unfeeling as a rule. In most cases they are even better than average, more sympathetic, feeling, thinking individuals. Why then this complete lack of thought where water use is concerned?

Well, its part of a larger malaise. Based in the “taken for granted” sense of entitlement of the HAVEs, the same mentality that makes middle class and affluent Indians waste food on a daily basis, makes them waste water. After all, “I can afford it”. I can buy all the food I want so I can throw away or waste masses of it everyday, I have round the clock running water so I can afford to let it run down the drain as much as I want. So who cares if I am wasting world resources in a criminal manner? So what if half the world dies of starvation and thirst? “I can afford it”. So, a couple I know actually takes pride and brags about the 1300 litres of water they use EVERYDAY!!!! To them, its an example of how clean they are, and how well off, that they can afford to pump that much water into the tanks each day.

To me, its just criminal wastage. Fresh water is already a fast depleting resource. Add to that the very thought of the people who don’t have access, and its pure crime to waste so much of it. And I am not even talking about women in The Thar who walk twelve kilometers to get water for their families. Most people don’t have the imagination or the empathy to even dream of how tough such a life must be. I am talking about people you can see around you everyday, your domestic help, slum dwellers, pavement people. Fresh, clean water is as inaccessible to them as an easy life or the gravy train.

Its strange that Indians seem so hell bent on wasting water, when traditional Indian methods of water use are actually quite conservation oriented. Bucket baths waste a lot less water than showers or bathtubs, washing clothes and utensils in a pond is much less wasteful than what my bai does with the constantly open tap while she soaps and rinses each vessel. Ponds and lakes also allow water to seep down and percolate into the ground water, another advantage of such systems.

Urban living has changed everything though, and the privileged members of rural societies have followed their leads. Because villages are so LS and so “poor y’know”, the whole focus of urban life is to get as far away from rural systems and lifestyles as possible. So, showers are de rigueur, and water bodies are just so much landfill waiting to happen so that someone can build another multi-storied complex. On the other hand, we neither care enough, nor seem to know enough, to adopt urban methods of conservation. Something as simple as turning the water off while we run the razor over the chin, brush up a storm in the mouth, or lather up while bathing, is something that doesn’t even seem to occur to us!

Overhead tanks routinely overflow and the excess runs straight into the gutter for minutes at a time, (have myself watched it happen for 40 mins in one case) before the pump is switched off. The common staircase, lounge and foyer areas in many residential societies are regularly washed with running water piped over them, when a good stick-mop, wielded well, would do just as good a job. Car owners encourage drivers to use a hose or buckets upon buckets of water to clean the cars when a hand held moistened wipe would give the same results. And no, we don’t recycle water. We do not store kitchen runoff to water the plants, we prefer to hose in good fresh water direct from the overhead tanks.

At this rate, water running out is not such a far off eventuality as most of us seem to think. And, (as I said in
Harvesting rainwater may solve some of India’s water problems) world war three may not be so far away.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A Typical Situation in these Typical Times …

An embarrassment of riches, that’s what most magazines would have you believe, is the age we are living in. Everyday I read about what a great age this is, the huge number of choices we have in everything, in fact, some people are even starting to agonize over “too many choices”. A recent article in my favourite magazine spend two pages wondering if shopping was going to become traumatic soon, with one having to decide between so many options.

It makes me sad, and frankly a little disappointed, that no one has bothered to think about what “kind” of choice we have today. What we seem to have, from what I can see, is a range of options, allowing you to choose between many types and brands of only the “popular” products. This applies to every field, every walk of life, and every possible case where you may need to buy anything. And what it essentially means is that people like me, the ones who are not so fond of the “popular” stuff, and periodically (even routinely) look for “off the beaten track” things, are left totally high and dry.

Something as basic as shopping for food is a clear case in point. Of course, things are much better now, compared to the dark ages when packaged instant soups were a new idea. But the predominance of one kind of food, or the makes for it, is clearly due to the “popularity factor”.

The middle class Indian consumer has suddenly woken up to the existence of “other” kinds of food (for breakfast and ‘tiffin’ if not for a meal) than the age old staples like idli and dosa or puri and paratha. Mainly achieved through a dogged advertising for Kellogg’s, followed up recently by something horrendous called “instant pasta” (a la Maggi), the trend has resulted in a sudden increase of interest in PASTA.

However, this still does not mean that’s we have a good choice in pastas, or makes thereof. There are barely two or three brands available, a highly overpriced “international” one and some competing, cheaper, but not all that great, local brands. A couple of brands are even stocking the supermarket shelves with heretofore unheard of things like pre-made pasta sauce (mainly tomato based), brine preserved olives, olive oils, and capers.

But pasta is, more or less, as far as it goes. Although a tiny minority of stores offer Ragu, and a few have interesting vegetables (nothing more exciting than broccoli or gherkins though), by and large, if you want to experiment with food, you better be super rich.

Cheeses have made shy, tentative, baby steps into the retail scene. In places like Pune, partly because of a huge non-Indian population and partly because of a generally higher level of “tish”ness in most educated “yuppy” middle class types, things have always been a little better. Cheeses are good, cheaper than other cities, and easily available in a large variety. I think nothing of ordering yak cheese on toast at the German Bakery, or buying very, very good Emmental, Gruyere, or a robust goat cheese at the nearest ABC Farms outlet. But the rest of the country isn’t that fortunate. Recently, some chain supermarkets like Spencer’s have begun stocking processed, packaged, cheeses that go by names like Emmental or Brie, but the quality is anyone’s guess, and the pricing is frankly exorbitant. I can walk into Dorabjee’s and buy anything from balsamic vinegar to fresh cold cuts, and a million other interesting things to set my culinary imagination on fire. Less fortunate are the people who fancy good food, but must shop at Spencer’s or Big Bazaar.

When I walk into one of the many MEGASTORES for anything else though, even in hip old Pune, chances are I will be disappointed. I walk into a CROSSWORD outlet for a book I want, and not only do I not find it on the shelves, but I am in for a horrendous time. The so called book advisors, fancy name for useless counter sales people, are not just uninformed but completely incompetent. You give them the name of the book…. Total blank… author…another blank…fumble with the computer, and then…”sorry ma’am it’s not in stock”. You can supposedly order books, and they will be nice enough to get them for you. Don’t believe a word of that. The books I have ordered at Crossword, and other such stores, and never received, would fill a room!

In the past, even as recently as six or seven years ago, the pavement dwelling, second-hand bookstores usually has something to pique my interest. Now, they too, not surprisingly, have gone the way of the bigger stores. While you will find hundreds of GRISHAMs and COELHOs, choices in the matter of any offbeat title or author have become severely restricted to the point of nonexistence.

It’s the same scene with music too. One of the branches of Music World in Pune exemplified the fact by having “helpers”, or whatever they are called, not even knowing what a CCR was when I asked for it. Everyone wants the hip-hop and the bubblegum pop that is everywhere these days and the tweeny “hip” sales people have never even heard of Creedence Clearwater Revival. White Snake? Spandau Ballet? Don’t even think about it! And here I am still in the realms of fairly mainstream music, in a global sense, just going back in time. If you have any hope of finding a contemporary offbeat or underground artist still remaining in your heart, that’s just plain ridiculous. It’s NEVER gonna happen.

Yes, we do get a lot more Hollywood movies now than we did 10 or 15 years ago, but it’s still just a tiny bit of the popular stuff. Even a cursory look at the Oscar nominations every year is enough to show anyone what didn’t make it here. And the Oscars are VERY mainstream! Indie films, shoestring budget experiments from the present or the past are NEVER gonna hit the plexes. Not only that, you will not hear about them either, or find them in any store.

The only reason I get to even hear of interesting non-mainstream writers, poets, musicians, films, and film makers is thanks to my equally crazy and equally non-mainstream brother who just happens to live in Chicago. And, much as we like to think we are becoming another America, THAT’S the difference. While you are equally flooded with the mainstream and popular stuff there, you actually have a real choice, and real access to the “other” if that’s what your heart desires. No such luck in the spoiled for choices India of the 21st century I am afraid. Here, for people like me, it’s either put up with the crap or shut up about it. If it weren’t for the once a year supply of books, music, and films, and the frequent “didi you MUST see/hear/read this!” that I get from crazyuddie, I would die of intellectual starvation!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Of ritualistic torture and sadistic priests

Recent events have made me re-realise why I hate organized religion and crystallised, cast-in-stone rituals so much. The recent death, and the aftermath of that death, of a member of the family clarified the hate and disgust I feel at the blind following of “so called traditions” at the cost of human emotions and pain.

A man has lost his wife, his partner, someone he presumably cared a great deal for, with whom he had two children and a life. Two kids, an eight year old, and a four and a half year old, have lost their mother. The bottom has, literally, fallen out of their world. The last thing any of these people need is for some sadistic priest or a bunch of incredibly cruel rituals, to keep rubbing their faces in their loss. They are going to be very, very aware of what they have lost for every moment of the rest of their lives.

Yet, the Hindu religion, (not sanatandharma, but what has come to be practiced today as Hinduism), completely refuses to let them mourn, and heal, in peace! The Islamic or Christian funeral rites, with the burial-as-soon-as-possible-after-the-death-and-that’s-the-end-of-it ethos suddenly seem much more humane. Whatever public mourning and ritualistic behaviour is expected is only for a day, and then people are left alone to deal with their loss.

For the Bengali Hindu family, however, bereavement is not so simple. First of all there is the absolute horror of the “mukhagni”. Now, it is traumatic enough for an adult, to have to set fire to the body of someone they loved. How much worse for a child or an adolescent? Why is the community still practicing this tradition? And I don’t mean the orthodox stick-in-the-mud followers of everything that is prescribed. I am talking about a family that emigrated to Singapore, where the man is a shippie who has roamed the world, the woman dressed in pants and tights, they partied, they led fairly “untraditional” lives. So, why the insistence on “mukhagni?”

Personally, an electric cremation seems a lot better. Not only is it more environment friendly, what with so many less sandalwood trees to chop down, it eliminates the necessity of the man or the child having to set fire to the pyre. Its emotionally much less traumatic, and a lot less inhuman. But, that does not seem to occur to very many people, even in this day and age. We still do things just because “this is how they have always been done”. “Etai niyom” is the last and final word on the subject.

Just such logic is behind the following of the twelve days of Ashouwch. Bad enough that the family is dealing with loss and displacement, bad enough that the future looks too dark to even think about, on top of all that, they have to give up their daily routines! Psychologists will be the first to tell you that in times of trauma and upheaval, routine provides solace. It makes you feel as if some part of your life, at least, is still under control, and normal. And what does Tradition dictate? That the family give up cooked food, eat only boiled stuff, not go out, not work, sleep on mats, walk around without footwear, and a myriad other routine destroying things.

In an age when death came usually after long illnesses, attended to at home, by the family, these rules gave the family a much needed rest after the death. When contagion could only be avoided by quarantine, these rules made sure you were confined long enough for the infection to become powerless before you went back into social intercourse. Today, when hospitals do the work, and contagion is no longer such an issue, these rules merely end up disrupting normal life further, creating more trauma.

At the end of the twelve days of “uncleanness”, as if the death of your loved one is somehow a fault, a sin you must be punished for, there is the even more inhuman tradition of the “shraddh”. The man, in this case, sits down in front of a portrait of the deceased wife, decorated with garlands, and with enough incense burning to set off a dozen fire alarms, to complete the final rituals. Enter the sadistic priest. “Take a few minutes to picture her in your mind, think about her” he says, as if the man has been able to stop thinking about her, and picturing every word, every smile, every gesture of the woman who was his companion in life for one single moment in the last twelve days!

Then begins, and continues for hours, a drone of mantras that no one understands (maybe even not the priest himself, who is repeating by rote), mispronounced and meaningless in this day and age. A lot of food, clothing, bedding, etc is GIVEN to the ancestors, (read taken home in the bag by the priest) and the man is looking home and more haggard as time passes. He’s obviously had little or no sleep in the past few days, what with worrying about his future, mourning his loss, and wondering how to manage two kids and a demanding job all by himself.

On top of that, before he has had time to even imagine recoving, he has been required to put up with people coming in all the time to “offer condolences”, asking all manners of nosy questions which have only managed to make it worse for him. As if that was not enough, he is also in charge of planning and arranging a “shraddh bhoj” where a number of connected and unconnected people will be invited, and fed to the gills, supposedly in memory of the deceased. So while the poor man is dropping from exhaustion and muttering a lot of Sanskrit he understands nothing of, he is also constantly being asked for instructions by various decorators, caterers and sundry other people responsible for the feast!

My man, and my family, has strict instructions. If they waste time and energy on this, I WILL come back and haunt them for all eternity. Calculate how much this would cost, and take that money to an orphanage. Much better for the “shanti” of the “atma” in my opinion, and definitely better for the mourners (who will know they did something worthwhile in the person’s memory instead of just blindly following traditions) as well as for society in general (imagine how much good work could be done if all the money spent on shraddhs every year in India was to be channelised into social work instead).

Then comes the really awful part of the whole day. The son, the eight year old child, is made to sit down and perform certain rituals. As the kid is trying to deal with a totally unfamiliar language in which he has to repeat mantras, he has to perform strange actions, like fold his hands and point them in various directions and so on. As a result, quite naturally, he is embarrassed, and looks at his cousins and smiled. At this point, the sadistic priest tell an elder relative, sitting right there... (with mock pity) “He doesn’t understand it yet, he will soon. He will know what it is to lose a mother”. This to a child who will, for the rest of his life feel his immense and unimaginable loss at every turn! not surprisingly, the child's face fall, eyes fill, and the fleeting moment of lightness he had snatched from twelve days of hell fades away fast.

Then we have a repeat of the whole rigamarole of meaningless mumbling, and then the kids, including the four-and-a-half year old are forced to do a “pranaam” at the garlanded, incense infested photograph of their lost mother. To me, that’s just plain cruel and sadistic. The priest, obviously through making a living off other peoples’ grief, has long since lost all empathy and human fellow feelings. How then is having this person preside over some vague procedures that no one even GETS supposed to help? What is he doing, in the final reckoning, smoothening her path into “heaven” at the cost of torturing and traumatizing the people she left behind, and presumably loved?

Thanks a lot but no thanks, is all I can say. Chuck me in an “electric chulli”, give the money to an orphanage, and have a party with my loved ones. Drink yourself silly if that helps with the grief, get together and celebrate my life, talk about the good times with people who cared about me and whom I cared about. For pity’s sake don’t waste time effort and money on feeding a bunch of people whose first action, as soon as they leave, will be to criticize the “arrangements” and the “deceased”. And do not traumatise and torture my man and my kids with stuff i dont believe in performed by people who didn't know me and couldnt care a hoot about me!

Dhan-ta-naaaan Nana Nana

What a number! No, I mean it! I love the song! It’s peppy, it’s fast, it’s foot tapping, and best of all, its got my favourite combination of voice and lyrics – Sukhwinder crooning his heart out to Gulzar’s amazing verse. Good Hindi, good music, good singing. Now if only the rest of the film was as impressive.

Yes, I finally saw the much awaited (by me at least) Kaminey. Midnight show at the nearest multiplex, low priced tickets, (thank god,) and a bunch of fellow Vishaal fans; should have been the ideal recipe for a great night. There was only one hitch. Vishaal let us down.

It’s a good film. Much better than most Bolly fare. Technically it is sleek, cinematography is good, camerawork is nice, but that’s not enough to lift it out of the levels of “good” into the realms of “great”. And while this may not be a problem (I mean who wouldn’t want to be “good”) for other film makers, and their fans, I personally felt very much let down. After all, from previous experience, I have come to expect something more along the lines of international greatness from Vishaal. And this time…I didn’t get it!

Shahid was good, but no metamorphosis a la Langda Tyagi. He is merely GOOD, which he has shown ample signs of being already. So where, one couldn’t help but wonder, was the trademark Vishaal touch which transforms even competent actors into amazing thespians? He has managed somewhat with Priyanka. Heretofore never more than the regulation Bollywood Hottie with not much to do in most of her films, she has done quite a fabulous job at the “theth Marathi mulgi”. For a Punjaban to get the tone of the language down the way she has, (and I know from experience that getting the tone right is half the battle), is commendable.

The characters were half-hearted. None of them had enough screen time to develop into complete human beings for the audience. There seem to be no back stories to explain any quirks in their behaviour, and a lot of good actors are wasted (especially the three Bengali brothers). Even with the two characters Shahid plays, there seems to have been less than enough attention paid to make them rounded enough, and there are things that have been WAY overdone. Most of all the whole lisping versus stammering thing. Its overdone to the point of tears sometimes…and what begins as a smile at “main f to f bolta hun” disintegrates, by the end of the film into winces.

It also takes away from Shahid’s performance, because you can almost see how much of his attention is focused on getting the respective speech impediment straight, leaving that much less of himself to give to his acting. Priyanka’s brother, the “reminds-me-so-much-of-Raj-Thackarey-virulent-chauvinist” bhope bhau, is another character who, by the end of the film, ceases to ring true. His far from convincing metamorphosis into a wannabe gangster grasping for the diamonds is, frankly, excessive and too sudden. Not to mention the seriously badly done, very very wannabe, tarantino like shootout at the end, where (unconvincingly) everyone suddenly walks into the fray with blazing guns.

Vishaal is good, even great, but this has proved that he is no Tarantino. The almost psychedelic, hopped up on acid, mind fuck of a Tarantino gun-fight ending is something no one else seems to be able to duplicate, not even Vishaal; not even with the big budget and all the tech toys he had at his disposal this time around. My question of course is, why try? Shouldn’t Vishaal of all people, just by virtue of the fact that he is himself better than average, have been able to recognize the impossibility of replicating such a scene? After all, as a writer, good or bad, I certainly recognize the impossibility of doing a Rushdie, as a poet I recognize the sheer pointlessness of trying to do a Plath or a Sexton, don’t I?

When one has found one’s voice, one’s style, it tends to come through in pretty much all one’s work. Experiment or not, that doesn’t seem to have happened in Kaminey. The quintessential Vishaal style, the understated but very effective voice, that I am so fond of, seems to be completely absent from this film. Post half-time, especially, it was more a torture, than a pleasure, to sit through Kanimey.

Came out angry and disappointed, with the only redeeming factor of the entire evening being the low priced tickets. If I had had to pay the full multiplex price for this, I would have thrown something or hit someone. Vishaal, apparently, has recently stated that he doesn’t ever want to make another film like this. I heartily hope that he doesn’t. At the end of the day, was Kaminey DHAN TA NAAN? Na na na na!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Sometimes Death is NOT the Real Tragedy

A fairly close relative of mine died last week. The news was all the more shocking because it was so unexpected. She was 34, and apparently without any major health issues. No diabetes, no hypertension, no heart troubles, in fact, when we met her last month, she seemed to be in the pink of health! Two weeks ago we received a phone call that she had been hospitalized for joint pains and such, but was likely to be released in a couple of days. Everyone assumed it was nothing major. A week later she was dead!

While it is shocking enough to have a young life cut off in its prime, her death has raised a number of issues which are more tragic. It is also showing me, as we learn more about the circumstances of her death, how most people complicate their own lives, and that of others, by a lack of foresight, a refusal to acknowledge their own mortality, and just plain bad decisions. One must not speak ill of the dead, apparently. However, I am forced to reiterate some of the things I have always said were faults in not only the Indian mentality, but also in our traditional modes of thinking.

Where shall I start? Every new aspect that comes to light just reinforces the sheer cumulative stupidity of a life ill lived! She has left two sons behind, one eight years old and one four and a half. The first problem now, of course, is what to do about the boys. They live in Singapore, and the father not only has a demanding job, he is required to tour extensively. In the absence of the family support structure, bringing up two kids of this age group, or any age group for that matter, is likely to be an almost impossible proposition. One of the possible solutions being talked about is boarding school. Now, although I personally don’t approve of the institutions at all, and consider them cruel and inhuman, it might have been a feasible short term solution at least, in this case, if not for the way the boys (especially the younger one) have been brought up by their mother.

In the fine Indian tradition of “maaaaaaa”, she has made them totally dependent and completely unable to fend for themselves. We had visited them when my daughter was a year and a half, and her younger son two and a half. My child, being the daughter of such a cruel and un-maa-like mother was already feeding herself, and eating everything we ate. The two and a half year old at that point was still on only baby food or cereal, with no extra additions, and each feeding was a “production”. In the best Indian tradition, it took two hours to feed the baby, with the mother running all over the house chasing it. My daughter had her meal in 15 minutes.

Today, he is a four and a half year old who seems to survive solely on Maggi and Horlicks, the latter still being drunk out of a bottle! He is still unable to dress himself, or put on his own shoes. My baby, I am glad to say, eats everything, feeds herself, can and does dress herself and actually get angry if u try to do it for her (“am I a baby mamma?”). Indian mothers like being compulsively preoccupied by their kids. They think a true mother is one who will get up and give her 10 year old a glass of water, even from her deathbed. My question of course is (as illustrated by this case) what happens if you do die? How does the kid manage then? Is it not better to teach them to be more self-reliant? How is the father supposed to look after such a helpless child? The child is old enough to be doing some things on his own, why wasn’t he taught to? As matters stand, it is not only impossible for the father to look after it well, it is also impossible to put it in boarding school!

I know I will come in for a lot of flak, and am likely to be lynched, not just by the mothers but by most Indians, for saying such sacrilegious things. After all, the Bollywood stereotype MAAA is so much a part of the common psyche, that logic seems like heresy to them. But seriously, why do we hate the idea of kids growing up, so much? Why do we do everything we can to prevent them from becoming individuals? And why are we so averse to simply facing our own mortality? My entire life is lived on the assumption that I may not wake up tomorrow. My daughter is being brought up in such a way that if I really don’t, she won’t have real material handicaps to deal with, along with the mental and emotional trauma of losing her mother. I would not burden her with being dependent on the help and care of strangers at a time when she is likely to be under enough stress anyway. I much prefer that she is able to fend for herself, at least in the most basic ways, so that her adjustment, as well as that of the people around her, is easier.

The inability to face one’s mortality creates other problems here too, as it has in this case. Another option, and a better one than boarding school, is for the father to relocate to India, and this is also being discussed. He might have to take a pay cut, but the advantages of such a move far outweigh the monetary loss. He will have the support of friends and family, he will be involved in the day to day life and upbringing of the kids, and the kids will be far happier, and grow up better adjusted, in their own home and in a secure situation. Yet there is a major hurdle, mostly of her making. They emigrated last year, and as soon as they landed, she splurged on a fancy car and a big apartment, for which her husband will now have to pay, “out of pocket,” a huge amount of money (in dollars of course, which makes it worse) if he wants to leave immediately.

Well, why not pay it out of the insurance? Why not? Simply because she belonged to the group made up by a majority of Indians who don’t understand the need for insurance, and are even afraid of it, because it forces you to face your mortality. Traditionally we do not talk of death, as if talking about it, or acknowledging that it exists, will make it happen immediately, and as if not talking about death will make you immortal. It’s a totally irrational thought process, based on knee jerk fear and a lack of mental strength. It is also the biggest hurdle for the insurance industry in India. To buy life insurance, you have to acknowledge that someday you will die. Oh horror! For a people unwilling to make a will, for fear that they will pop off as soon as they do, insurance is a far cry.

In this case, the woman was not covered AT ALL!!!!! The day her husband brought home insurance forms for her to sign, she asked him, in the fine filmy Indian tradition, “you want to kill me and make money from my death?” after which, understandably, the man didn’t push the issue. As a result, today her sons are the ones who will suffer. If they had a substantial sum coming in, in this time of need, the father could have paid off all dues, closed down the fort and moved here today, immediately, to help his sons pick up the pieces of their devastated life. Instead, the boys will probably have to deal with the pain on their own, in the unfriendly environs of a boarding school (which his company pays for, thank god, or that would have been impossible too), surrounded by bullies and cruel kids with two parents and happy homes. A simple understanding that I may die before my kid is grown up, the strength to face that thought, and the foresight to plan for the eventuality, can leave a child much more secure, at least financially, and better able to deal with what comes next. It also gives the child a better chance at a future.

And talking about wrong decisions, the couple apparently found out she had cancer in March. The prognosis was not great, and doctors gave her two years to live if she didn’t go on chemotherapy immediately. With chemo, they predicted, she might live for four. Given the same prognosis, and while I am not sure of what the response of any logical human, who cares about her kids, should be, I would just say “hit me with all you’ve got”! After all, if I live four years, my kids would have grown up, be much more able to survive well, and fend for themselves. Even if the chemo didn’t give me a full four years, every extra day it gives means my kids are that much closer to being adults, that much better able to lead life without me.

She, on the other hand, refused chemo. Not just that, she refused to get a second opinion, or to bring the papers and reports when she was visiting India! In fact, she threw the papers out of the suitcases at the airport on the way here, refusing to board the flight if he took them with him! They never even told anyone! As a result, she was dead in four months, died almost alone without any friends or family to help her or her family through the ordeal, and left two helpless kids in the middle of a maelstrom while the poor father tries to decide what to do with them.

While he is trying to get a grip on himself, deal with his own grief, handle that of his kids, and make important life decisions which he is in no shape to attempt, he is also dealing with guilt. For not having been able to force her to seek more help; for not having physically forced her to get on that plane with the papers, and so on. Hardly the kind of thing I would like my man to go through after I am gone. How is the man supposed to do anything? What’s priority? And in the middle of the mental emotional turmoil that he is going through, how is he supposed to take major decisions that will have long lasting repercussions not just on his life but on that of his sons? The way I see it, this is a result of selfishness, weakness, lack of foresight and bad planning. She practically committed suicide, and left behind a royal mess for her husband to sort out. She put him in an impossible position, caught between a rock and a hard place. All because of an inability to be logical and mentally strong. The poor man is now in a complete “can’t go can’t stay” quandary, and us, the extended family, at a total loss.

Is this the great Indian wife and mother we hear so much about? Well, if that’s so, I prefer being the “bad” character that I am, the unsentimental cold hearted bitch that I am seen as (and called to my face sometimes). At least my man or my kid will never have to face such a thing. My kid will have enough financial strength if I die suddenly, and she will be able to fend for herself much better. My man will never have to worry that he can either feed my daughter or be with her. And he will definitely never have to deal with this kind of guilt. The only major tragedy will be the emotional loss.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The surreal world of the great Indian adoption fLAWS

According to recent reports from government agencies, much publicized by the press (accompanied by suitable tongue clicking), adoptions in 2008-2009 have fallen by about half, over even the measly number from last year.

This is despite a concerted effort, on many fronts, to encourage the Indian adult to adopt. The press, as well as the electronic media, has done its part by bringing adoption to the forefront of the Indian mind. TV ad campaign “in public interest” have been backed up by gushy articles in the press about the joys of adoption, its social significance, the pleasures of parenthood and whatnot. The local and central governments have put up hoardings and billboards at strategic locations, pushing adoption. Electric bills are being printed and mailed with social messages encouraging people to adopt a child.

And still the numbers are falling? Is this an indication of the ever unchanging Indian biases against adoption? Is this an indication of the growing selfishness among the prospering middle and upper-middle classes? NOT AT ALL. All this indicates is the age-old “short term fixes ignore the long run” approach of the Indian establishment to just about everything. The system makes it extremely difficult for most people to adopt, completely impossible for some, even though they may be willing and able to love, support, and make a home for a child.

As recently as two decades ago, hardly anyone would even think of adoption. Forget couples who already had children of their own (whn god gives in such plenty why adopt some unknown child with unknown antecedents? Much better to carry on the Vansh, the bloodline), even the majority of childless couples would not imagine bringing a child home. Childlessness was a punishment from god, a fault of their “kismet”, or just bad luck (unless of course the BARREN woman was to blame). And who can fight GOD’s will?

So has nothing changed? Yes, much has. From a time when adoption was the last resort of the childless couple (and even then a child from a known family and bloodline was sought, like that of an impoverished relative with more kids than he could feed), today its more and more acceptable, at least in the more open minded urban culture. So why are the numbers falling, you may ask. There are a number of reasons, and none of them has to do with the reluctance of couples to adopt or with a scarcity of suitable up-for-adoption kids in the system.

First, and most important, hindrance is the superlative levels of red tape an the total lack of organization in the process and the agencies. Although there are thousands of suitable children available for adoption all over the country, and hundreds, at least, of couples wanting and waiting to adopt them, bringing the two together seems beyond the capabilities of the government. There isn’t even a national database of adoptable kids! So, if you are a couple in Maharashtra wanting to adopt, and there are no suitable children in that area, you might have to wait indefinitely for one to become available (through being orphaned or abandoned) even though there are hundreds of children available in other states.

The complete lack of technological application also makes the actual adoption process a long and convoluted one. Running around from one Organisation to another, from one Babu to another; providing a plethora of authentications, documents, proofs, ad nauseum; the months of waiting while the juggernaut of government machinery rolls along at an achingly slow pace. The police verifications and background checks alone take months, or years even, and the total process can last anywhere from three to five years, sometimes more.

Add that to the fact that most couples overcome a lot of mental, emotional, societal, and familial opposition and pressure to take the decision to adopt in the first place, and you have the beginnings of a picture. But there’s more. Most couples, for obvious reasons, seek to adopt infants. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. The child comes to you as a blank slate, so to speak, with no preprogrammed language, culture, values an so on. Effectively, it’s as good as having one of your own in terms of seamless integration into the family and society. The child is young enough to be moulded totally into one of you.

Now picture you picking a six month old, and then beginning the process that will ultimately allow you to take it home. By the time the process is completed, the child could be a six year old, brought up in an orphanage, imbibing no-one-knows what values and culture from the people who look after it. Not exactly great for instant “apnapan”. All it means for you is that you will have a long haul of un-programming, before you can even think of beginning the reprogram that makes the child a part of your family, social set, and culture. All the behaviour picked up so far will have to be un-learned before the child can learn the behaviour that is acceptable in your world.

In addition, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Jain parents can only adopt Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or Jain orphans, or abandoned kids, whose parents are not known, where the kid has been brought up in these religions! (What kind of sense that makes, in a country already swooning under the burden of divisionism, I have no idea. Why not let the parents choose? Let them decide if they would like to adopt across communities. Maybe that would even help ease inter community tensions a little). A Hindu woman, the wife of a Hindu man, cannot apply for adoption or be a co-applicant. She can only “give her consent”, and that too only if she herself is a Hindu. There are separate laws for Muslims and Parsis, but for the most part those don’t even allow outright adoption. They only allow kids to be placed in Guardianship, which ends when the children attain legal maturity. All this only adds complications, and makes it more and more impossible for couples to adopt easily or quickly.

And that’s not all. The problems stated so far only arise in the case of a married couple who have no children of their own. Now one can easily imagine how much harder EVERY thing is, for a single person wanting to adopt in India. First of all, let’s not forget the instinctive mistrust mainstream India shows for anyone who chooses not to marry. That’s bad enough, and speculation of all kinds from sexual inadequacy to homosexuality will be advanced as a reason behind such a choice. Factor in the desire of such a “strange” person to adopt a child, and you have an instant “WHY”. The paranoia is so deep rooted that it is excruciatingly difficult for a single person to adopt (in spite of the brownie points the government feels entitled to for even allowing it in the first place), thus reducing the number of prospective adoptive parents even further!

There are other issues too. Twenty something years ago, my parents wanted to adopt a child. They have two of their own, but they had the economic strength to bring up more, and thought it would be a good way to pay-it-back, give back to society. But, the great Indian adoption (f)laws prevented that very, very effectively. They had one son and one daughter, you see. So, according to the Hindu adoption laws, they could neither adopt a girl or a boy. Completely nonsensical, of course, considering that people would only want another child of the same gender if they really wanted it.

Two decades later, it hasn’t gotten any better. My man and I want to adopt, we want girls, and we want not one but two. However there is a hitch, a major one. We already have a biological daughter! So, the government of India, in all its wisdom, and on the basis of a law un-amended since the mid 1800s, tells me I cannot have more, unless I choose to overburden an already overcrowded planet by bearing more. And all this in a country like India, where female foetuses are lucky if they are allowed to be born, where female infants are incredibly lucky if they are not thrown into a well, drowned in a river, or suffocated to death with salt. Presumably, the government knows more about me than I do, and can tell that I am only pretending to want girls. What I probably really want to do, the omniscient feels, is bring them home, pay for their upkeep, education and everything else, only to make them high class slaves to my OWN daughter.

Unless the system loses its prejudices about OWN and ADOPTED children, until the processes are streamlined and cleaned up, until it takes less time – and heartache – from choosing the child to bringing it home, until religion and community stops being so much of a barrier, until single people are accepted and encouraged as adoptive parents, and until people desirous of adopting are allowed, even aided, to do so regardless of gender of child and existing biological offspring, nothing is going to change.

Adoption rates WILL fall. And neither the press nor the government should be remotely surprised by it. After all, a die hard pro-adoption couple as us (I knew I would adopt since I was 12 years old, my man, since he was in college) has been forced to all but give up the plan to bring home a child in the face of such determined and targeted opposition from the Indian government. It’s taken us four years of banging on doors and begging at agencies. Pity really, considering that two homeless, parentless, love deprived little girls would have gotten a family in that time.

School reforms turn out to be self defeatist

When I was a school going child, the system of “donations” was just taking off. What it meant, of course, was that to have your child admitted to certain schools (usually considered the A-list ones, or the best of the best) one had to pay a considerable amount of cash, over and above all the legitimate schooling expenses, as donation to the school fund. Essentially it was, and is, nothing more than a bribe, to sweeten the deal, and make sure that the kid gets into the “right” schools.

Back then, of course, there were large numbers of parents, like mine for example, who didn’t think that getting your kid into the “right school” was essential, even at the cost of your principles. A bribe was a bribe, and they refused to pay. My brother and I have had a first rate education. Both are now well into our adult lives, I firmly settled in a good profession and he doing his PhD in Chicago. So, obviously, we didn’t lose out much from never studying in a “right” school that required donation. This becomes an even greater feat, for my parents, when you consider the fact that they changed cities every few years, and bhai and I have gone to at least a dozen different educational institutions in our lives.

Getting the kids into a new school every two or three years can be tough. The temptation to give into the demand for donation must have been considerable. But they had enough confidence in us that we could clear whatever entrance tests were thrown at us, and that we would be fine in a “not top of the list” school. However, sadly, parents now seem to have lost that confidence in their kids. Everyone has gone completely ape-crazy about the “best” schools, and as a result, donations are now a fact of life. A recently opened, fairly low on the scale school I know looks like a prison, has no play space, has closed dark classrooms, unqualified and inadequate teachers, and charges 50 thousand rupees for admission to pre-school!

With greed going off the charts, and more and more schools (A B C D E list, doesn’t matter anymore) getting on the donation bandwagon, things have gone totally insane. It can cost you anything from 30 thousand to 2 lacs to have your child admitted to primary school, depending on what list the school considers itself! At some point, someone HAD to do something to change the status quo and put the brakes on the ever increasing demands for donation. A recent initiative by the government of India was supposed to do exactly that. However, as things turn out, it hasn’t achieved much. In fact, it’s set itself up to be self defeatist.

The judiciary a few years ago had banned entrance exams and interviews for kids entering primary school, and seeking admission to the nursery. The rationale was simple. Having interviews and tests not only put pressure on the tots (as insane parents try to teach them everything beforehand, from colour combinations to spellings) it also discriminates against kids from a non-English background, or from a lower social stratum (whose parents might not be able to teach the kid everything at home and may be unable to afford a playschool or tutor). As with most judgments, this one too was coolly ignored everywhere. Schools everywhere continue to conduct tests and interviews not just for the kids, but the parents too! (
Insane at school!)

Now, the government is finally putting in place a system of checks and balances. Or so it would seem to the naked eye. Now parents of students, or would be students, have the right to go to court against schools that refuse admission without a test/interview, or demand a donation. Wow! I thought, when I first read the news, finally a step in the right direction. But no! That was a premature celebration on my part. The last part of the plan undoes all the good that the rest of it proposes.

It stipulates that no case or complaint can be initiated without the prior go-ahead from a “properly appointed” official put in place by the government. Hmmm…interesting… having lived all my life in India, I am understandably wary of such arrangement and such language. In my experience, as it is in of those who know the system, “government appointed” anything is just another excuse for not taking any action, miring the issue in miles and miles of red tape, and making it easy for some BABU or another to make a fortune in under-the-table dealings.

What’s the point of making schools liable for this type of misconduct if that liability is not likely to be properly imposed? If the parent has to waste time, money, and energy in running from pillar to post trying to get the OK of some SARKARI BABU before they can even consider going to court (which in itself involves discouragingly high levels of expenditure of all those resources), what is the likelihood of any cases being lodged at all? And what is the guarantee that these “appointed” officials are going to be any more honest and any less corrupt than their brethren? Isn’t this just a way of giving the schools an out so that they can financially, or otherwise, influence these “officials” and prevent parents from taking action against them? Sure seems like that to me!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Insane at school!

“Curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice said when she found herself in the wonderland down the rabbit’s hole; that’s exactly what you would feel like saying in view of certain strange goings on in urban India today! To anyone with a little balance and grounding, the current behaviour of parents and guardians of most tiny tots, seems incomprehensible.

Two year olds, in playschool, have mother’s taking a day off from work to ask about “progress reports”. The favorite topic of conversation at the “waiting for the tot to be let out of playgroup” gathering of parents and guardians is how many and what schools one has got a “form” from. The biggest, most well known, most expensive, and most uppity schools are compared and contrasted ad infinitum, and everyone expresses how worried they are at how little the kid seems to be learning at the current playgroup.

One could almost believe these were high school students, close to their career defining board exams, that were being discussed, instead of two to three year olds who can hardly talk properly yet, let alone hold a pencil or a tune. Come admission time, the older (that means three plus years old) kids’ parents go completely insane, it seems, in their effort to get the child into a “good school”. Good, of course, is decided by how much insane pressure they put on the kids, and how famous they are… for whatever reason. Actual analysis of what they offer in terms of personality growth, mental development, or even curriculum seems immaterial.

Taking advantage of this insane rush, the so-called A schools basically make their own rules. They not only take interviews of the child, which would be mad enough, considering the child is just over three, but they also have “interviews” of the parents. One well known “open plan” foundation even makes the prospective parents take a one hour written test, before the whole rigmarole of interviews! Is that insane? Or what? To admit a three year old to school, to pay for its education, making the school a lot of money, the PARENT has to take a test?!! And that too when the judiciary has recently expressly forbidden schools from even interviewing parents?

After all, you take your kid and put him/her in a school. The idea is that you pay them, and they teach your child. Right? So why must you and your spouse have to prove that you are presentable, English speaking, literate, educated, articulate or any such thing? That’s none of the school’s business! Their job is to teach your kid to be all of those things, which they usually don’t, not to examine your status and worth! It is not for them to say “you cannot speak good English, therefore your money and your child is not good enough for our school”. According to the order by the courts, they are supposed to admit any kid who turns up, on a first come first served basis, as long as there are seats!

To make the parents not only give an interview but to sit through a one hour written exam is plain insulting! It’s worse than humiliating, it’s a downright affront! What is amazing though is that every year anything like 400 sets of parents turn up to put themselves through this humiliation and abuse, for the 30 seats that are open. Are these schools really “all that”? Will a child automatically become Nobel Prize material for having studied in one of them? And if a child has to, god forbid, go to a smaller or lesser known school, will it automatically become a useless burden on society?

Isn’t it time we, as parents and citizens, begin to think about these issues a little and have and show a little self respect? Isn’t it time we ease up a little on our infants and let them actually have a childhood for a change?

Global Good Manners are still far away for most Indians

As a culture, we don’t really learn global etiquette. The way our society is still largely structured, we don’t see the need for universal politeness. The feudal and caste hangovers (very much present today, just under the surface) make us very selective in who we are nice to. While we traditionally kowtow to our “superiors” (the thakur, the mahajan, the boss, the guru, the elder) we are notoriously callous to the “lower orders” (the junior at work, the waiter, the jamadar, the maid, the waiter, the hammaal, the list is virtually endless).

While this worked fine (or did it?) in the strictly regimented feudal system we seem unable to forget, it makes us dysfunctional in the new world order. It’s bad enough right here at home, where social-economic changes have blurred age old boundaries of categorization, replacing them with new, and still unfamiliar, categories of class. But it becomes a downright handicap when going abroad, working abroad, or dealing with foreign colleagues/friends/superiors in India.

Traditionally, the modes of behaviour for each section of society, with regard to upward and downward social intercourse, were strictly defined. Lateral social behaviour was left, in the main, up to the person. But, since lateral social intercourse was confined almost entirely within the family-extended family-business circles, it wasn’t such a big deal to be particularly polite, and all necessary guidelines were easily provided by the rules for “how to behave with those older/younger than you”. When circles expanded, to not only include non community, non family members, but non nationals or ex-nationals as well, things changed and suddenly etiquette began to matter.

Yet, there wasn’t, and isn’t (with no likeliness of being in the near future), any formal training in etiquette at the school level. Nor are these new laws of global social behaviour taught at home. As a result, most of us blunder extensively. Some of us have rubbed shoulders with “the other” for long enough, and imbibed enough of the exposure available today, to realize how important etiquette is. So, they try to learn on their own, from various sources, not excluding soft skill classes. However, most still don’t seem to care, and not only ruin the impression they make, but bring a bad name to the entire “Indian” community around the world.

So what do we do wrong? Where do I begin? It can be as basic as not knowing when to use Hello versus Hi. For example most “yo type” Indians have given up the Hello altogether, even in formal situations. While this usually passes muster in the local context, in the case of a foreign posting, an interview, etc, it can be an impression ruin-er. Hi is for friends, intimate circles, family, informal situations. In an interview, or when being introduced to someone “important”, hi just wont do! Hello is the only greeting for formal or important occasions.

We also have no concept of basic etiquette when someone asks “how do you do” or “how are you”. First of all how many people realize that “how do you do” is not a question? If someone says “how do you do” it’s a greeting…like hello….they are not asking the state of your health or life, so don’t tell them. The correct response is “how do you do”. If someone says it, you say it back. On the other hand, should someone say “how are you” or “how are you doing” you reply with a “I’m fine/great/good thank you”. It’s not an invitation to dump your troubles on the enquirer. It’s just “duniyadari”. So don’t tell them about the aching back, the corns, downsizing, or any other small upsets taking place in life right now.

With our feudal heritage, another thing we never learnt was to say Please and Thank You. Lower orders are CREATED to serve the higher orders, so where’s the question of thanking them? So we generally come across as very rude, uncouth people. We never say please when placing an order for food for example, or thank the waiter for bringing us our water, or the food, or anything. After all, we rationalise, it’s his/her job! Well, etiquette does not care if it’s their job, if someone does something for you, however trivial, you thank them; if you WANT someone to do something for you, however trivial, you say please.

Every time I say “good thnx” in reply to the regular “how are you”s from my friends (offline and online), I get the highly predictable “thanx for what?” Uhhh…. “thnx for asking??” There are two aspects of Indian social life acting here, making people wonder why I am thanking them because I am fine. One of course is the absence of any etiquette training, at any level, for the general public. The second is the concept of formality versus familiarity. Because of the way social intercourse used to be structured here, (and still is to a great extent) there were two totally different sets of behaviour for “others” and for “our people”. So, any contact with “apne log” was seen to be free of any necessity for FORMALITY. Plus, we have any number of Bollywood, and other, movies telling us really nonsensical and counterintuitive things like “no sorry or thank you in friendhip”, which doesn’t help the overall situation at all.

The way I see it, my friends and loved ones are the most important people in my life! All the more reason for me to request them to do something, rather than order them, or to say thank you, showing my appreciation for whatever they may do for me. In fact, it’s less of a problem to forget to thank the waiter than it is to forget to thank my man for example. After all, my man means a lot more to me than a waiter does, and I wouldn’t want him to feel taken for granted. All of us have, at some time or another, felt unappreciated and known the pain of a thankless job. Why should we inflict that pain on anyone, much less our friends and loved ones?

Oh! And who can forge the famous Indian Standard Time syndrome? When I throw a party, I tell my non-indian or ex-indian friends the right time to be there. For my Indian friends, I quote a time at least a hour before. So, if I want everyone to be there by 8pm, I will tell them 7pm, and STILL many would not have turned up by 9. We just don’t seem to get the concept of punctuality. And, while being late for a party or to hang out with friends may not be such a big deal (it is too! especially if it is a recurring phenomenon) the same cavalier attitude to time, in the case of a Meeting or for an interview, can have serious effects on one’s career and one’s general rep, not to mention the immense amount of irritation it engenders in the one who has to wait. why should we think that only our time is important and that everyone else exists but to wait for us, indefinitely? Whether it is traffic, or the inability to get dressed fast, or whatever, why can’t we plan ahead? Personally, I’d rather get there an hour early than five minutes late.

And is that all the list of our transgressions? Not even half. Basic things elude us. For example, I take my little daughter to a shop or a mall. Now precocious and self reliant as she is, the heavy glass swing doors are more than a three and a half year old can manage. So, most of the time, I would be laden with bags, juggling baby’s bottle of water, bag of snacks and change of clothes, and heading for the doors I know she cannot open on her own. Anywhere else in the world, someone would open the door for me. Here, unless there’s a security guard at the gate, no such hope. Not only will I have to struggle the doors open, while I wait for the baby to toddle out, at least half a dozen adults will shove her aside and traipse in and out as if I am holding the door for them!

We are completely unable to queue for anything! Given any situation where an orderly queue is required, whether at a ticket counter, the bank, the bus stop, or wherever, Indians will invariably all try to get to the counter at once, or at least look over each others’ shoulders and press forward for a better view of the proceedings, thus subjecting others not only to sundry shoves, and body odour, but also considerably slowing down the basic process itself. If everyone just took their turn, not only would everything proceed much more smoothly, and faster, but would cut out the immense frustration, irritation, and even anger, felt by the better behaved!

We have even given up some good habits we were forced to follow under the “older system” too. As we give up the traditional values, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and have totally failed to reach the standards of the “western” world that we are aiming for. The “yo” generation has given up trying to be, and is indeed actively resisting being, “good” in the age-old Indian sense, but seems to have stopped short of achieving, or even coming close to, international standards of polite social behaviour.

And the malaise has spread into all age groups and all classes. No one, for example waits a few seconds to let older people pass anymore. Everyone is in a tearing hurry, in this age of instant gratification, and anyone – old people, kids, or people who are ill --- who can’t keep up will be trampled underfoot or shoved to the side. And this is not true only of the “office time” rush hour when people seem totally blind to anything else, but happens at any time of day or night. Not only do we shove past anyone who is moving at a pace fractionally slower than ours, we don’t even have the manners to say “excuse me” when we do! No one, and I mean no one – youngsters, mature people, men, women, -- ever offers their seat to an elderly person in a bus or a train anymore.

This has become so much of a rare occurrence, that when I did so recently, in the Shatabdi Express, a supposedly up-market train, the lady I gave up my seat to was completely astonished! We seem to all be coming from a “plane” of entitlement. We feel that this is “MINE”, “I deserve it, I got to it first, so why should I give it up?” its immaterial if it is a 20-year-old sitting, while an 80-year old, or a pregnant woman, or someone carrying a lot of stuff and older, might be standing precariously in the rapidly lurching behemoth. We have ladies seats in buses. However, no seats reserved for the elderly. And, this has happened with me, when I give up the seat to an elderly male passenger struggling with bags, he was argued and scolded out of his seat by a 23-24 year old at the nest stop who insisted that she had more right to the seat because it was reserved for “ladies”! Very un-lady-like behaviour as far as I could see.

We also don’t have basic table and social manners. We shove, sneeze, cough, burp and belch in public, all without seeing any need to either cover our mouths or apologise. We chew with our mouths wide open, and we pick remnants of chicken from between the teeth with a toothpick, without feeling the slightest need to cover up the gaping orifice. Since this is not a big deal to us personally, and since we don’t notice this kind of uncouth behaviour in others, we assume we have the right to treat all and sundry to an excellent view of our gullet with half masticated food…. Surely they find it fascinating!

In a supermarket…the lack of manners is worse. Supermarkets are quite a recent concept, and most of us have no clue of the rules of etiquette necessary to negotiate through these places without being a total barbarian. We park our carts in the middle of the aisle while we browse the shelves on both sides, blocking the entire stretch to anyone else. We let our kids loose to run around, cannoning into people, carts, and shelves, and driving the attendants up a wall. We block an entire shelf while six of us have a “family conference” about which brand of coffee to buy. If there is even one person in front of the canned soup, we think nothing of reaching over their shoulders, or under their arms, to snap up that can of our favourite, before They decide they want them all.

This last transgression is a factor of another major lack in our concepts. The idea of personal space. Living in an overcrowded developing nation, traveling cheek-by-jowl in buses and trains bursting at the seams, and being brought up in a culture that gives zero importance to the individual, and places full emphasis on family, community, and so on, we never learn the idea. Yet, the people we are now interacting with and working with have a very clear, and strongly held, belief in personal space! We DON’T get the fact that getting too close, physically, makes most foreigners, and some urban Indians, very uncomfortable.

The same social structures also make us nosy and over-familiar. A French friend of mine, a woman of a certain age, always found it extremely offensive that Indians, after about half an hour of acquaintance, asked her why she wasn’t married yet, and whether she was seeing someone. This is a common issue. Culturally, we place so much importance on marriage, and have so few boundaries, that we don’t realise how personal a question of this sort is to the rest of the world! A close friend might ask something like that, but not a passing acquaintance or someone in a more formal social situation!

Along the same lines, a couple, married for about four years, always complained of how everyone not only asked about why they were not having kids, but also assumed there was a problem, and offered a plethora of unwanted advice! The idea of a couple “choosing” to wait some time before procreating, or “choosing” not to have kids seems to be something we cannot grasp. In our system, by the time you are 30, if not before, it’s a given that marriage is the next step. And since this marriage is usually with a total stranger you know nothing about and care less about, the only purpose of marriage is to “have issues”. The concepts of consolidating a relationship before taking on a huge, lifelong responsibility does not exist. After all, having kids is something everyone HAS to do, and as for bringing them up? “bacche to pal hi jate hain”

The list is virtually endless, and I encounter more and more examples every day! To mention them all here would only lengthen this far beyond the immense length it has already managed to acquire. So many little things escape us, because of our total unfamiliarity with the politeness principle, and basic civic sense, but they all affect the way people around the world look at us, deal with us, and feel around us. Seemingly small, tiny, things can leave a bad taste in the mouth for the visitor or foreign colleague. It ranges from the way we speak, what we say, to body language and “nosiness”. Considering that India is going all out in a bid to be a global power, and Indians becoming more and more “unconfined”, maybe it’s time we paid a little attention to how we present ourselves to the world, and how we interact with its members.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Magazine Shmagazine

My regular magazine, Outlook, has been unavailable for the last few weeks, for some strange reason. As a compensation, hoping not to lose the money, my paperwallah has been giving me India Today instead, and this has made me very unhappy. Strange that, considering the fact that until very recently (just a few years) India Today was my preferred magazine. Yet, getting it now, I have just re-realised why I stopped reading it in the first place. It’s become a rag, descended to the level of just another glossy tabloid.

What’s more, I got something called the India Today Woman with the mag. Hoping against hope, remembering the once quality magazine that India Today used to be, I went through it, in spite of all my usual disgust of the “women’s magazines”. Sure enough, I was disappointed yet again. One, count it, one article about Lara Balsara stood out like a lonely little light among reams of nothing but shopping and beauty pages. And even the one sole article took the so-called “female” angle. It seemed to be much more about her preferences in partying, clothes and food, than about any of her achievements as one of the most promising young women in the business world.

Makes me wonder where the editorial board of the mag is coming from. What’s the rationale behind this terrible excuse for a magazine? Do they really believe that women, ALL women, are interested in only beauty and shopping and where Lara Balsara prefers to shop? Or do they think that women, ALL women, are incapable of grasping the finer, or even broader, points of a woman’s career in the business world? Or does it go deeper than that? Is this part of the larger unstated unconscious conspiracy to KEEP women interested in the shallower things of life, keeping more thought provoking topics, and fields, a male bastion?

Whatever the underlying cause, it is depressing and disappointing in the extreme, especially for a woman like me, who IS interested in, and capable of grasping, things deeper than the latest fairness treatment, and the newest “long-stay lipstick”. This is not a new problem either. It began with adolescence, when I entered a certain target demographic. I never could stand the Feminas and Women’s Eras of the world, nor their much hyped, much glossier, but equally depthless foreign brethren such as Cosmopolitan or Good Housekeeping. Nor could I stand the Filmfare, Stardust, Cine Blitz ilk, whose sole obsession was the private lives of movie stars.

What, then, was an intelligent educated Indian WOMAN, not interested in obsessing about cooking, shopping, and housekeeping, or stars stars stars, supposed to read? Thank god for magazines like The Illustrated Weekly, and Frontline. Both, at that time, were well balanced magazines, which gave me much more to think about than whether I should regret not being able to buy a Gucci or a Prada. I could get my teeth into them, ruminate, digest, think, and come away with something worthwhile. But the Weekly shut shop in the early 1990s, and Frontline became more and more highbrow and politicized, going to the opposite end of the spectrum from the fluff peddlers, and dissapeared into the rarefied realms.

For a while, there wasn’t much to fill the gap, and for people like me. Then, outlook was launched, and grew into just the right kind of magazine. Politics, current affairs, analyses, news, “women’s” pages, shopping, films, books, and much more, in a neat little package, with good writing (a huge rarity these days), usually good English (an even rarer commodity), and insightful and concise commentary. Just the thing to engage the mind without overwhelming it. After all, if I want political theory (or astrophysics for that matter) I am more than willing to pick up a book on the subject.

Now, with my dislike for even stalwarts like India Today being reconfirmed, I guess I have no option but to sit back and wait for my own Outlook to be available again. I would rather never read another magazine again in my entire life, than pick up a Femina/Women’s Era/Eve’s Weekly or a Filmfare/Cineblitz/Stardust. So, unless I want to invite more stress and frustration than I am willing to stand, I’ll just sit here and hope my paper guy finds Outlook again soon!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mobile phones in India

It’s amazing how fast the phenomenon has caught on. Ten years ago, mobiles were a rarity, restricted to the very few who needed constant contact-ability, constant access to work, news, and so on. Tycoons and businessmen, fillum wallahs and bade babus, stockbrokers and paisewallahs this was the segment that needed or owned mobile phones even as recently as a decade ago.

Now? My bhajiwala has a cell phone, my bai has a cell phone, the autowallah whips out a cell phone and says “meeting me hun…karta hun phone”. Suddenly, they are everywhere, these gizmos, in every hand, stuck to every ear. Its amazing how fast and how far they have penetrated. From an item of luxury, they have become a necessity, essential to the day to day life of most people. How did this happen? What changed? What turned the “I don’t even need a landline” Indian into the “I can’t live without the latest handset” Indian? The way I see it, it was a combination of a lot of things.

Money for one. A huge change has been creeping in, almost unnoticed. Almost everyone has disposable cash these days. Even the humblest of wage earners seem to have discovered that money is for spending. Consumerism and a growing retail culture has converted India into a “buy, buy, buy” land, where the motto, even a decade or so ago was “save, save, save.” Loans are easy and aplenty, needs redefined by swanky foreign ads on TV, and availability through the roofs with every major global player fighting it out for a piece of the Indian pie.

Attitudes have changed too. Keeping up with the Jones’, a universal preoccupation, has reached obsessive and epidemic proportions now, and the world has grown smaller, making more and more varied kinds of Jones’ available to compete with. It’s a boon for all kinds of manufacturers, from clothes to “modular” kitchens, from “tish” furniture to consumer durables. The more people compete, the more they update, which means more sales of progressively higher segment goods. And the same applies to mobile handsets.

Me? I own the cheapest most basic handset. And no, money is not the only consideration in this. First and foremost, the Jones’ leave me cold. I never could se the logic in “keeping up”. I buy what I need, what I can use. And I use basic call and sms functions on a mobile…as do most people. So, to me, it makes no sense to buy one of the top end handsets with a thousand “features” that I don’t need and will never use. Add to that the fact that I have a child at home, whose favourite pastime is chucking mommie’s things about, and the lower end and hardier the handset is, the better it is for me.

As it is, how many people really use all the features on their swank phones on a regular basis? I haven’t seen anyone do it consistently. Sure they take a lot of pictures with their camera phones, shoot a lot of video, and send MMS messages, but that lasts for a few days, weeks at most. After that? Back to the basics…making and receiving calls, sending and receiving messages. So, essentially, the only reason most people (barring a very few I know) buy a 25 thousand rupee handset, is to show they can. It’s another way of saying “look how much money I have, to throw away”.

It’s permeated every section of society, every stratum of class. And, to this “show-off” mentality has been added the illusion of grandeur that a mobile phone gives us. Everyone likes feeling important, needed, sought after. A mobile phone gives us the illusion that we are all of those things. After all, it is the most important, most needed people who have to be in contact with the world all the time. It is the indispensable people who cannot be unreachable for even one minute, lest something should go horribly wrong in their absence. Look around you, and you will see that everyone with a mobile phone today is as important as the national security advisor to the president of the US.

Every free second, snatched in between whatever it is one does all day, is devoted to this new fetish. Crossing the street or grabbing a cuppa, walking or chilling, on a date or hanging with friends, the mobile is never far from the ear or the fingertips. Do we really need such all-encompassing connectivity? Do I really need sales messages and credit card companies calling me in the middle of a hot date? Do I need a customer satisfaction survey in the middle of my siesta? Do I absolutely need “Bollywood gossip” updates when I am at a movie theatre?

And what about the increasing number of parents who are giving mobile phones to their kids, “to keep tabs on them”? now that’s the most spurious piece of nonsense logic I have ever heard. Keep tabs? How? The kid could be sitting in a pub guzzling alcohol, phone rings, all he/she has to do is say “haan ma, I am at the temple”. There is no way of knowing. If they don’t want to be disturbed, they can just switch the damn thing off, and say “network nahi pakad raha tha”. All a mobile really does is to give the parents a false sense of security, which probably does more harm than good.

And kids with mobiles, or stupid grown ups with mobiles for that matter, are a danger to themselves in more ways than one. Not only do they run up exorbitant bills, they can put themselves in direct danger too. its amazing how easily kids, and a number of adults, give their numbers to total strangers, on the net for example. What they don’t realize is that it is highly dangerous to do this, and against all the common sense measures for internet safety! Anyone who knows your phone number can cause inconvenience in a number of ways.

For one thing, they could call you at all hours of day and night, or SMS, which can be merely irritating (in the case of normal calls) to downright disgusting (in the case of obscene or vulgar calls and messages). But that’s only a minor issue. After all most service providers provide call barring services and you can delete messages without opening them. The real problem, that most people don’t realize, is that if someone has your mobile number, and knows where to look, they can find out where you live.

This may not seem like such a big deal on the surface. But imagine this – this is a person you don’t know at all. All you know, or think you know, about them, is from their own words. How do you know that this person is not some kind of a criminal, a stalker, or worse? Your mental, emotional, physical and financial safety could be in very real danger!! What’s the bottom line then? Are mobiles good or bad? Useful or dangerous? Like all technology, the answer would lie in how we use it. Amazing connectivity and any time availability can be a great boon, in emergencies (see
Mobile phones – miracle or curse?), and for people who need blow by blow accounts of their work etc. using it wisely, in a balanced way, with conscious thought and prudence, and these wonders of technology are quite amazing (if one could only get rid of the pesky telemarketers)!

Mobile phones – miracle or curse?

When cell phones were still a new concept in India, many people debated whether cell phones, or mobile phones as they are known here, were really as useful and essential as they were being made out to be. A decade or so down the line, one can clearly say that whatever the outcome of the debate, the public has decided unanimously in favor of mobile phones.

However, since the popular thing is not always or necessarily the best thing, it doesn’t hurt to think things over and decide for oneself if mobile phones are a miracle or a curse. What does a mobile phone mean in your life, both in terms of convenience and inconvenience? Is it all good? All fabulous? Or are there any downsides? It’s not a cut-and-dried, black-and-white issue, most things aren’t. Where they have a number of advantages, they have or cause many negatives as well.

It is an amazing example of technology to be able to call anyone anytime from almost anywhere. And yes, there is a huge difference made in day to day life, all because of these little gadgets. They are useful almost anytime, great in an emergency, and convenient to carry around. There are any numbers of examples I can give of how useful these little gizmos are. There was that time. For example, when we were driving to Mumbai on a hot summer’s night, just after the first toll booth on the expressway, and miles and miles from anywhere, we had car trouble. What kind? Well, we didn’t know. The damn thing just shut down!!! And refused to start again!!

Anyone who has been on that expressway knows how serious such a situation can be. First of all, the road is deserted and literally in the middle of nowhere. There are regular police patrols now, but at that time there weren’t that many, and there were a spate of hold-ups and robberies happening frequently on the entire stretch. So, what was one to do? Well, simple really, whip out the mobile phone and call the highway assistance number. Instant action resulted. In five minutes flat there was a police car at our location, and a tow truck pulled up within twenty minutes.

We got towed to the nearest petrol pump/gas station, where we found everything other than a mechanic. Out came the mobile again, and a mechanic arrived in another ten minutes! In a total of about two short hours we were all set to rights and on our way! Before the age of mobiles, we could very well have been robbed and murdered in that time, at worst, or have had to spend the night among the mosquitoes, at best.

Another time, Mumbai to Pune, we had a sort of run in with a car at Chembur. They cut across, we honked, they got mad at the honking and tried to make trouble … the usual. We dove away, refusing to get drawn into an ugly scene. By the time we got on to the expressway, the car, a quails with about six guys in it, had been consistently following us, overtaking, braking hard, and then speeding away, slowing, following, crossing, braking, speeding and so on. Apprehension wasn’t long in arriving, especially when we realized that the guys were drinking, and there was only me and my man in our car. Out came the ever present cell phone. One call, and the Qualis with the six guys was stopped at the Kalamboli toll booth, and we drove off with a big sigh of relief!

However, it is not all rosy and hunky dory. I hate the constant reach-ability for example. Although I do turn the phone off at night, it’s a little iffy, as I don’t have a landline and may not be contactable in an emergency. But leaving it on all night, or at certain other times doesn’t work too well either, because Indians have no cell phone etiquette. Not only do we not have a clue about things like “timing”, we think nothing of calling up anyone at anytime, without any thought to their convenience.

Any idiot would know that 3.30 or 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon, for example, is “rest time” for most. Yet, every single Sunday, people will call, between 2 and 4 pm. Why? Because they don’t think, they are not taught (traditionally) to consider other people at all. It’s a “racial” thing. Our society does not place any emphasis on etiquette and basic manners. And so, just because I am awake at some ungodly hour, I don’t pause to consider whether calling someone now may be a problem, or an irritant, for them.

Another example of the total absence of manners is the phenomenon of the cell phone in the movie. Every time you go to see a movie in a theatre, there are bound to be some half a dozen cretins who will disturb your viewing pleasure with loud-ringing cell phones and louder and inane conversations. That’s one of the most irritating things on the PLANET!!! When you are in a theatre, “TURN THE GODDAMN PHONE OFF!!” After all, Barack Obama is not going to call you in the three hours that the movie will last (an hour and a half in the case of English ones). And if you are so bloody important that you cannot be incommunicado for even that much time, DON’T GO TO A MOVIE!!!! Rent at home or something, or give up films altogether. What you cannot do is ruin my enjoyment.

The levels of this kind of rudeness was brought forcibly home to me at a recent theatre festival. Even more than films, cell phones are an irritant in a play. Not only do they disturb the audience, they interfere with the actors on stage, making them lose their concentration, and create a lot of havoc with the sound system and so on. If you can’t turn of your cell phone, you should not go to a play at all. At a theatre festival I was at recently, the audience was reminded, again and again, to turn off their cell phones before the play began. In the first place, such a warning should not have been necessary at all. Any halfway decent person with a modicum of common sense should automatically realize these things.

But apparently that’s not the case. Not only do people have to be told, and reminded, again and again, some idiots STILL don’t get it!!! Throughout the festival (eight days), every single play had some a***ole or the other, often more than one, loudly informing a seemingly deaf caller “I am in a play, cant talk now, call later”, or better still, actually conducting a conversation!!!

Even if you are insensitive and rude enough to leave your phone on, you could at least put the ringer on silent, if you cant be bothered to do that, at least have the phone somewhere u can reach immediately, not in some inside pocket where it rings 20 times before you pick it up, if you cant be bothered even to do that, at least take the conversation outside!!! Nope….too much to expect from an Indian…one play actually had to be stopped, and the actors walked off the stage, for this unbelievably uncultured behaviour by the audience.

We don’t know how to talk softly either, volume controls are absent. If one has to have a mobile phone permanently stuck to ones ear, (and Bluetooth technology has made that description literal), one can, at least, cultivate the habit of speaking in an undertone. But no, ambient noise, often faulty technology, and native Indian brashness combine to fill the air with overloud conversations you DO NOT WANT TO HEAR, but have no choice but to listen in on. From inane to ugly, nasty to stupid, I suddenly become privy to everyones secrets, like it or not!

Needless to say, to me, these little gizmos are often more trouble than they are worth! There’s a lot more I want to say about the whole “mobile” movement, but that will have to wait until another day.