Sunday, August 29, 2004

In which I attempt to discuss P****graphy with a straight face

Some nights ago, while idly surfing on TV I noticed a long-haired guy doing some serious pouting and wiggling. He was fairly well covered, but as I watched, he took his frilly jacket off(well okay, it was FRINGED rather than frilly). Then he took his breeches off. Underneath them, he had a male version of a G-string -- which, if you get my point, had to be more in the way of a G-plus string, since it had to contain its contents in a more rugged way -- and I was quite surprised coz, you know, I believed that American TV was pretty straitlaced. There was a time when 'feminine hygiene' products figured only in a very limited and discrete sense on US networks. So I figured that the stripping was due to stop at the bikini line -- when suddenly, whoops! There was Mr Pouter in the All-Dangly-Together! He wriggled and wiggled and pouted some more until the hot music ended and his place was taken by another masculine lovely ...

And so, in short, I found myself watching an hour or so of porn. Most of it was commercials aimed at getting the panting viewer to pick up the telephone and call up some hard-breathing ladies, whose pictures and moaning squeals we were given fair samples of. As I'm sure is obvious my reasons for watching were entirely virtuous -- sober, solemn, research, right? Right. Believe what you will, I don't care. I am always amazed by visual porn (as against the written variety). It is so ... porny. This channel operates only for a couple of hours in the evenings, apparently, and not every evening. Nevertheless, there's clearly a vast population of gals who while away their time writhing and opening their mouths in suggestive ways and caressing themselves like Lux ads without the suds.

Most of the commercials stopped just short of revealing all that a girl can reveal, though the men were allowed to let it aaaaaaaaaaaaaall hang out, complete with butt shots -- butt, butter, butting? -- including several commercials for she-males who had the upper embellishments of women and the nether-danglies of men. I have assumed they are men who have added feminine accoutrements to themselves, rather than true herms. What I found weird was how ordinary they looked -- as if it were completely normal to see both sets of gender variables on one body.

There were a number of ads for Asian Butterflies -- by which were meant Far Eastern gals, all petite and slant-eyed, not lusty Punjabi Pumpkins or Malayali Milkmaids. It is very odd to see Asian women pumping away -- I realize this is a racist remark, because it suggests that it's quite normal to see their Caucasian sisters bouncing energetically while making ambulance-noises -- but it's just that my porn-education has always been entirely fuelled by Caucasian fantasies. I have only rarely seen anything verging on truly non-Western porn -- in fact, except for classical naughties, such as are carved onto the temples walls of Khajuraho or depicted in miniatures (including raunchy Japanese woodcuts) -- I think I am on fairly safe ground when I say that all current photo-based titillography IS pretty much Western, because it uses Western criteria for suggesting passion. Whatever the nationality or race of the ladies/lads depicted in modern pornography, the expressions, the poses and the situations are the same as they would be for Western participants.

By contrast: in Indian miniatures for instance, it has always seemed to me that lovers are often painted with exactly the same expressions on their faces as when they are posed against monsoon clouds, being attended by serving maidens. This is true however many suitors are poised to enter whichever many orifices of a lustful woman -- you know how some of them look like collective gym-exercises, with one woman servicing six men at once (one for each extremity and one each at the north and south apertures -- I don't remember seeing the third aperture being addressed simultaneously. Perhaps for reasons of faltering imagination and/or challenges at the gravitational level) -- all the participants look composed, dreamy-eyed, mildly amused and even philosophically elevated. No grimacing or panting mouths ...

The Japanese woodcuts I've seen were rather different -- they did at the very least depict the participants snarling in what looked like the transports of some strong emotion -- rather like those pictures of Samurai, come to think of it, with their foreheads wrinkled up and their eyes bulging out of their eyelids -- tiny teeth on view, cherry-red lips parted to show the slightest vestige of tongue -- but nothing even approaching the screaming, gasping, sweating, calling-out-loud of what one sees in the average Western steam-video. Instead, Japanese and Indian miniatures seemed to prefer to suggest passion by showing enormously engorged organs -- some the size of hockey sticks, or elephant prongs -- male organs, that is, not mammaries.

Which are of course, much in evidence in the commercials I saw. The Asian girls seemed to prefer what nature endowed them with, but the Caucasian ladies looked, some of them, like silicon clinic samplers. I mean, the time is long past when we can speak of breasts the size of cantaloupes, but cantaloupes the size of women's breasts -- and anyway, those are only the modest-sized ones. Some of the ladies on view had appendages which looked like they belonged on the basket-ball court, surgically tacked on, rather than filled from within. Bizarre.

Well I suppose that's enough on the subject for the moment ...

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Fortress New York

Saturday: This morning, I kitted up for an expedition out of Manhattan, to stay with friends overnight in Long Island. For the past five days, ever since I've been here, the local media has been obsessing about security arrangements for the Republican Convention due to begin tomorrow (or Monday -- but the major protest march is scheduled for Sunday, so in a sense that's when the convention begins, I guess). There are cop cars swarming the streets -- these streets which are already awash in audio signals that range from minor wailing to whoop-scream-musicalmachinegunrattling -- and burly armed security men patroling the feminine hygiene aisles in the local Duane Reade shop I went to last night to buy a RubberMaid wash basin and an iron.

It is typical of me that I would come to the industrialized West in order to flex my hand-washing laundry skills but ... so it is. I bought five pieces of clothing at Anokhi in preparation for my trip, and -- just my luck -- all five turn out to be printed in genuine indigo dye, which of course runs like a river in spate even before it's washed(no jokes -- my underwear is now all the same subtle shade of blue. My skin too -- sudden flash of inspiration: maybe THIS is why certain Indian deities are blue-skinned? They wear indigo-dyed clothes). I didn't want to risk filling the basement laundromat with dark blue suds, perhaps staining every white garment in subsequent washes for decades ahead. As is well-known amongst us laundry afficionados, there is no colour so permanent as the one that runs off one garment onto another.

Anyway, so today I ventured out into the mild sunshine, heading for Penn Station. That's pretty much ground zero for the convention, because it's at Madison Gardens, right next door. According to this week's TimeOut, if you're not a protester or a conventioneer, you don't want to be anywhere near 7th Avenue and 34th street. I put on my patented Non-Aggressive Middle-Aged Human mask, hoisted my Fab India Pacifist-Deluxe backpack on my back, smeared my face and neck with sunblock and headed down 12 floors. I thought I'd have no choice but to take the subway, but the friendly doorman in the downstairs lobby assured me that 'walking is okay -- today. Tomorrow, I don't know. You'll have to ask the people at Penn Station --'

There seemed to be less traffic on the roads, and from Madison Avenue onwards, the streets were being lined with barricades. But there were pedestrians strolling about, everything looked normal and peaceful, no Republicans in sight, no protest marchers, no tear gas or smoking corpses in the gutters. At Penn Station the ticket salesgirl said the station would be open tomorrow too, but they'd block all but two entrances.

I need to explain the sunblock. It has nothing to do with politics. The past four times I've been in the US, I've had a skin-rash from being out in the sun. According to two skin specialists I've been to, it's a 'sun-allergy' -- which sounds about as likely as a black polar bear, considering I'm SUPPOSED to have built-in radiation protection in the form of my brown skin. Alas, someone forgot to inform my skin of this situation, so it has been misbehaving. You'd think, considering I spend a large part of my life in the 100% tropical city of New Delhi, that my skin would have given notice of its sensitivity long before this. It turns out that what saves me in Delhi is ... the pollution! Or anyway, that's my explanation. Three months ago when I went up to the hills for a week, one hour in the sun without benefit of the petrochemical soup that enriches the air of the plains, caused my skin to break out in the same red splotches that appear in the US. Most piggy-hooli-arrrr, to quote Enid Blyton (the French girl in Mallory Towers).

And that's all I have to report re the convention, until tomorrow, when I return via Penn Stn. and may have more news to share about which types of WMDs are most effective against sun-allergies.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Home On The Range

Yesterday, I woke up facing the window that looks out on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 34th street. There's a tall red-brick building there, reaching 'way up high in that canonical, skyscraper-y way. I'd already seen it of course, and hadn't thought much about it, except that it is, you know, BIG and very uniform, and a rather dull, muddy, dried-blood colour. Well, yesterday, at dawn, I saw that the whole upper east-side corner of the building was rose-red, aflame with light, dawn-light -- and in that instant, the notion occurred to me that these soaring structures aren't really buildings at all, but mountains. The light striking the peak of that building (I'll have to find out its name today) reminded me -- yes, I realize it's a bit absurd -- of that moment in HEIDI when the lonely little orphan who has been sent to live with her gruff old grandfather in the high mountains, sees the sunset blazing in the snow peaks around her.

These mountains around me are made of brick and sweat and human toil and also dreams and hopes and imagination, and we have burrowed into them and made our homes amongst their high reaches. There really is something magnificent about them. I've never felt so thrilled by the sight of tall buildings before ...

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Arrived ...


The only encounter worth noting was with a woman who was sitting in my seat when I emplaned. I said, 'You're sitting in my seat -- ' and she said, 'What?!!' in the tone of someone who has just been told her credit card has maxxed out. I repeated my remark, whereupon she said, 'I'm sorry, I've been in this seat since Bombay. Just check the number --' meaning the graphic under the overhead baggage-rack door -- 'You'll see you're wrong.'

I am normally mild-mannered to a fault. But when someone attempts to relieve me of' my own true seat on an aircraft (or bus or train), I morph into a Klingon. It's not something I can control. I glanced at the graphic (just to be sure) and said, in a voice full of rusty nails, 'I'm sorry, my seat is 80K, and that's the one YOU'RE sitting in!' Just then, the man in the seat in front of ours popped up, having apparently had dealings with the woman before and said, 'What's the problem? -- oh! That's right -- you ARE sitting in the wrong seat!' after checking the graphic. The woman, who had till then been wrapped like a mummy, in an airline blanket, threw a fuming glance in my direction, but struggled to her feet and gave up her seat.

Whenever possible, I choose the last seats at the end of the Economy section -- usually, these are a pair of seats instead of three, and they afford just a teeny bit more space on the window side, just perfect for dumping one's gear. I hate leaving my carry-on luggage in the overhead locker because then it's virtually inaccessible to me, since I also hate moving around at all once I am strapped into place. Anyway, once I had my own true seat, there really was nothing more to fret about for the entire journey. We didn't even have to deplane at London. There was a 90-minute halt and then off we went again, with a new crew.

About Air India ... I want to be loyal but a blog ain't a blog if it isn't honest. So: it was better than it used to be, but not as good as, for instance, BA or Lufthansa. It's the technology for one thing -- BA has seats which practically cuddle the passenger, even in Economy. And every seat back has a tiny video screen embedded in it, so the passenger can choose to watch which ever channel he/she wishes. AI had one main screen and then a couple of smaller ones, dangling in the distance. I would have had to have had the vision of a hawk to watch a movie. Anyway, none of the movies were the kind I'd want to watch, so it didn't matter.

And there were SO many children! It was like a junior-travellers' special. Ever since I saw a Gary Larson cartoon showing an ant-mom, driving a car which had 'CAUTION: GRUBS ON BOARD' (I don't remember the exact wording) I've been unable to see small children without thinking, 'Grub!' Well, the flight was filled with grubs to bursting point. I wondered if a Cathay Pacific flight would be similar -- populous nations on the move, the future incarnated in the form of small, restless creatures with loud, cranky voices and leaky bladders.

Kennedy Airport was looking GOOD. The welcome graphics lining the corridor were very cool -- lighted panels of about four foot square, optical 3D, which looked initially as if they were X-ray views of the interior of suitcases, but as one moved through the corridor, they changed into real objects, including people, possessions, places. Further down, there was a corridor with windows on the left hand side, and on the right, larger-than-life white curtains, made out of perhaps plaster-of-Paris, perhaps ten pairs of curtains shown in various states of disarray, as if stirred by a powerful breeze, then frozen into place. If I were a conscientious art-critic, I would have noted the names of the artists who created these pieces -- but as I am not a critic at all, I hurried on without checking, but I did send out a general pulse of good-will towards the airport designers who put in the art-work.

These bulletins are NOT going to be detailed accounts of all my activities, so -- I'm stopping here.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Three Hours To Go

One good thing about travelling, is that I manage to do, on the final day before any journey, all the things that I've been putting off since the last time I travelled. It's actually been about two months since I left Delhi and about four months since I left for a length of time longer than four days so ... you can imagine how much work I got done today! Woohoo. Cleaned out the Augean Stables (okay, it's just my bathroom counter-top and the side-table next to my desk, but it's the Augean Stables for me), slew the Hydra, made tea and everything.

It's creeping up to one a.m. and by this time, there's nothing real left to worry about. I've had my passport and ticket surgically attached to my person. I've repacked my suitcase the regulation three times. I've thoroughly rehearsed the precise type of coughing-fit I will have when I reach the Immigration Desk, so as to ensure that I will be quarantined immediately. I've got all the telephone numbers of all the friends, relatives of friends and grandchildren of relatives of friends tattooed across my forearms. What's left? I've even ensured that there's an indefinite country-wide truckers' strike tonight, so the drive to the airport will be, perhaps, just a teeny bit less like an action-horror movie.

The truth is, I don't believe in setting off on a journey in a happy, relaxed frame of mind. In my experience, the clear and definite sign that disaster is about to strike is that I am feeling relaxed and unsuspecting just before it. So one of the ways I avert disaster is by never being relaxed. I believe there are teams of Fate-Fairy Vigilantes passing amongst us -- we don't see them, but they see us. They know when we've let our human guard down and have decided that nothing more can go wrong. That's when they throw in their hurricanes and flat tyres and power failures and split hair-ends.

I have quite a familiar and friendly relationship with my own personal Fate-Fairy. I play little games with he/she/it -- trying to guess what might go wrong, so that, when something COMPLETELY different happens, even if it's something nasty, I can pretend that the surprise is its own type of pleasure. If nothing nasty happens, then I can feign being disappointed. I don't know if Fate-Fairies are very smart or not, and whether mine can actually read this blog-post, but sometimes I can hear ethereal chuckling, as some unusually unexpected and perverse twist of circumstance is introduced to the skein of my life.

It's cheating to guess out loud what it might be on this trip, so I'll stop here for the moment. The next time I post or log in to this blog, I'll be on the other side of the planet. Or .... maybe not? Only the Fate-Fairy knows for sure!

Saturday, August 21, 2004

On Trans-Planetary Travel

Yep. It's that time of my life again. I'm scraping up the dregs of my waning energy in order to make the jump to hyperspace. Well, okay, only New York, if you must know. But it's really all the same. Whether it's the edge of the galaxy or just Outer Friends Colony (where I live), if I have to leave home for more than six hours, I batten down the hatches and go into travel-mode.

I DON'T like travelling. I am nervous about everything. I begin to have anxiety dreams from the moment I have a ticket in hand. This trip's anxiety dream took the form of a saga in which I was at the airport, and handed in my ticket, passport and visa (in the dream it wasn't clear whether this was the permission-to-enter type of visa or a Visa card) to the USSR Airlines woman at the entrance of the airport, then got distracted. That was, of course, the last I saw of my ticket, passport and visa/Visa. The rest of my travelling companions had already entered the airport building, and since this dream was set in the pre-cellphone era -- identified by the fact that the USSR was still in existence -- I could not alert them to the fact that I was no longer with them. Apparently they had failed to notice my absence, because they did not return to collect me either.

I spent the rest of the dream trying to befriend passers-by and digging up a patch of garden in front of a building that looked like a lighthouse, all in search of the ticket, passport and visa/Visa that I had so inappropriately handed to the woman at the entrance.

I don't normally have unpleasant dreams, and when I do, I can usually alter their chemical composition by forcing a happy ending before I wake up. In the case of this dream, the only happy ending I could manage was that I became friendly with the woman at the entrance, whose name, I learnt, was 'Irina' and who may have competed once in the Olympics as a gymnast. Irina assured me that the flight would not leave without me.

Even though this meant that I continued to be looking for my travel papers in the earth of a garden which may have once been landscaped by an odd seamstress woman-friend I had long ago, called Kum, I was comforted by Irina's words and was able to wake up. Of course I went right over to the filing cabinet in which I keep important papers, located my ticket and passport and stroked them lovingly, feeling glad that I wasn't flying to the Ukraine, but only New York.

Now I've got to go off and buy Aspirin and sun-block lotion and anti-anxiety pills (ha.ha.ha. I wish) -- my skin reacts to the sun in the US, because I have become allergic to the sun late in my life, and in Delhi, the pollution keeps me safe from its rays!! I know this because when I went up to the hills (where the air is clear) earlier this year, I got a rash which was identical with the rash I get when I am in the US. I'm only leaving Sunday night, so there's lots of time yet for more bulletins from the brink of my current nervous breakdown.

Friday, August 20, 2004

To Mark The Passage Of A Friend

For those who read and enjoyed Jill Lowe Yadav's memoir/travelogue called "YADAV: A Roadside Romance", I'd like to share the sad news that she died, in the UK, on 19th August 2004. She was in her mid-sixties. Yadav was with her in England, and all her children too. I am told she was peaceful and not in pain. She was especially keen that all her friends should remember her with gladness rather than sorrow. There's going to be a gathering to celebrate her life in August, in Delhi, but I won't be here so I won't be able to attend. If I get updates, I'll post them here.

Jill learnt she had cancer just about a year ago, but was told quite early that it may be impossible to treat it. She'd had no obvious symptoms till she developed a pain in her hip. The doctors were unable to locate the primary site and after she'd had a few radiation treatments, she said she'd prefer to enjoy whatever time she had left, rather than struggle with the treatment. She was quite accepting and philosophical about her condition. The last time I saw her was on the afternoon before she flew to England, about a month ago.

She was girlish and enthusiastic about the trip, even though she said she really didn't want to go. She was looking frail, but her hair had grown back in, looking like a trendy little pixie-cut. I think we both recognized we wouldn't meet again, but it was a happy, light-hearted meeting nevertheless, as she packed away her things and despaired of ever getting her bedroom tidied up before her departure at midnight. Yadav was there and also her friend Barbara, who made two cups of very strong coffee. We hugged and wished one another well, and ... that was that.

Wherever you are, Jill, I raise my cup of Italian espresso to you, with happy memories of our lunches at the Italian Consulate Cafe in Delhi!

Thursday, August 19, 2004


A young researcher came over to chat the other day, about the subject of her research, which is, Women In Cartoons. As it so happened, about five years ago, I was asked to choose a subject for an illustrated talk and that's what I spoke about.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find the text of my speech, though I have all the pictures I used to illustrate it, taken from my 'archives' -- my collection of books about illustrations and cartoons. But the subject is dear to my heart, as it WOULD be, considering my comic strip featured a character of the female persuasion (i.e., SUKI) and I was often in the position of having to answer questions about "what is it like to be a woman cartoonist?' Of course, this is all in the past, since I ceased producing my strip in late 1997.

Questions like that don't really go anywhere, as most cartoonists know -- it's hard enough to say what it's like to be a human being, never mind one of the rarefied sub-species.

Talking about female cartoon characters is a whole lot easier: there are so many, and yet, in some ways, there are so few -- so few VARIETIES, that is. Female cartoon characters fall into a range that usually does not go beyond young-sexy, old-not-sexy, middle-aged-sexy, child-sexless. It is rare indeed to see an adult female character whose breasts are not very prominent -- Popeye's Olive Oyl is practically unique in that she is clearly Popeye's love-interest, and yet she displays absolutely no recognizable sexual characteristics. Popeye's quite a gargoyle himself -- he really is amazingly ugly while also managing to be dashing and manly -- he has only one eye, he smokes that smelly pipe 24 hours a day and has that remarkably scrawny build with the bulging forearms ... Yet he's The Man, when it comes to saving the world from destruction.

The point is, very few female characters inhabit strips as 'just people' with no special agenda aside from hanging out in the strip. Most girls and young women are on the verge of relationships, most grown women are looking out for relationships or marriage, and are represented as wives or mothers or grandmothers or obsessive house-keepers or even (as in Calvin) the Much Hated Other. Little girls who are central to their own strips have the most autonomy of all female characters -- Little Nancy (or was it just 'Nancy'?) comes to mind -- it's like childhood is the only time that a female character is permitted to be interested in the world in a neutral, non-sexual, non-romantic way.

On the other hand, I have sometimes wondered whether my character Suki's lack of popularity (oh, she had her handful of loyal devotees, all-17-and-a-half of them) was exactly because she was such a blank in feminine terms. She looked reasonably female, and once in a rare while, her mother twitted her about getting married, but most of the time, she dangled about in an extremely abstract, gender-neutral space. She apparently had no need of a job, had no interest in domestic affairs, and though she clearly lived inside a home of some sort, which had at least a beanbag to sit in and even her own back-talking cleaning lady, she wasn't defined by her home or never seemed to care about it much.

In the early days, in the Bombay version of the strip, she had a bunch of male friends based on my real-life friends (gt, who has visited this blog and posted learned comments about 'laterality' was one of them!!). She even had a sort of boyfriend (with a character based loosely on journalist/writer Dhiren Bhagat who died tragically young -- I did NOT know him well, but just used his rather beautiful presence in the strip) but the relationship didn't go anywhere and then, after a while, it became increasingly clear that she preferred the company of non-human characters like the Frog, the Alien, the Python, etc. I didn't plan to make her so disconnected from real life, she just evolved that way and I didn't try to control her.

So ... who knows? If only I'd been a little more savvy, given her the right kind of curves, dressed her in chiffons instead of baggy kurtas, got her to obsess about hunks instead of frogs and made her conscious of hair gels and skin creams, maybe she'd still be in business ...

Or, to put it differently, if only I'd had a brain transplant, maybe I'd be rich and famous instead of spending half the night posting to this crazy little blog!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Seven Days Later ...

Well, eight actually, because Sunday 15th was a holiday at the Ayurveda Kendra where I was scheduled to 'enjoy' seven sessions of therapeutic oil massage. This morning was the last one. I believe I can state clearly that I am not suited to being massaged. This is NOT a critique of the Kendra: I think they're doing a great job. It's me. I've got the wrong temperament for being attended to by three women, while I lie in a shallow trough of warm oil.

All seven days, even though the ladies were highly competent and energetic, I was tense with the desire to be relaxed. I couldn't be relaxed because I really don't like feeling the absolute helplessness that is the natural corollary of lying in a shallow trough, with my eyes covered, and my body entirely (except for the head) squirmy with oil. The interior of my head was filled with endless videos taken from various angles around the room, showing views of me looking like a pale brown whale on a black rectangular slab, with three blue-sari-clad midgets variously pounding on me. I was not really so much bigger than the massage-ladies, but I FELT as if I were, just on account of the context.

Aside from these videos was the sensation of discomfort bordering on pain that was the result of being kneaded like a huge lump of dough. I don't know how one is supposed to respond to a massage, but my body's overwhelming attitude was "Hey, we DON'T LIKE THIS!!" while my mind kept up a steady repetition of: "But we have paid for it and so we must endure it."

There were other worries: every day, when it came time to switch from lying supine to lying prone, I was terrified that I would slither off the platform like a fish that has just been landed on the deck of a trawler. When one is completely covered in oil, lying in an oil-filled trough, it is completely normal to have these apprehensions. There was no traction at all, so I had to manouevre myself like those astronauts you see pirouetting outside the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey: slowly rotating first one limb, then another, then my hips, then my torso and finally my head, only to feel the first set of limbs setting off again on a second rotation, so that I was in grave danger of turning into a human corkscrew. And a severely oily one at that.

The ladies did try to help, by lightly nudging my arms or feet as I spun about, horizontally, feeling that peculiar zero G sensation that I never seriously expected to feel on earth. I feared that if I actually slid off the table, they would certainly not have been able to halt my progress. I had visions of shooting straight out into the corridor, down the hall, through the reception area and out into the parking lot, all in the gleaming altogether, with three female midgets clinging to my toes, objecting weakly in Malayalam.

It wasn't fun at all knowing that the corridor, inhabited by male voices whose owners tramped industriously up and down for most of the hour and half of the massage, was only one door-width away. I realize that I am revealing how hopelessly self-conscious and un-cool I am to feel uncomfortable with the idea that unknown male strangers MIGHT be able snatch glimpses of me every time the door was opened or closed, but ... the sad fact is, I really am that un-cool, and I really did feel rather peculiar to know that this same door was being opened and closed all through the massage, as the ladies went in and out in pursuit of yet more oil, or rubber tubes, or hot cloths or steam or summer tourists or whatever.

As for those rubber tubes, they were the cause of a very different kind of anxiety. Out of consideration for the young and uncorrupted eyes that may visit this blog, I will once more restrain myself from revealing precisely what function they served except to say that they involved a procedure whose name starts with 'e' and is five letters long. It is not fun at all, believe me, to administered one, when a thirty-minute journey by car remains between one visit to the bathroom and the next. Nope. I had to use up a whole month's quota of psychic-traffic-relocation-and-matter-transference power just to ensure that my taxi bridged the distance between Safdarjung Enclave and Friends Colony with no mishaps.

However, seven sessions have now passed and I am returned to my own self with no real trauma to report. My left shoulder, which has been trying very hard to convince itself that it would really prefer to freeze up and die, is now once more swinging loosely in its joint. I now have functioning neck muscles and my cough, which was the inspiration for the therapy to begin with, is much improved -- but it is STILL THERE. *sigh* I am continuing with pills, potions and positive thoughts. Nothing lasts forever, not even a cough.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

LEFTIES -- (previously published in the Pioneer)

This appeared in the Pioneer in 1999

Laterality is the word used to describe the "specialized functioning in each hemisphere of the brain or in the side of the body which each controls" (Britannica). The most familiar example of this is called "handedness", the way that most of us favour the use of one hand over the other. But there is "handedness" in the way we use our eyes and our feet too.

You can check which of your two eyes is dominant by a simple test. Hold the forefinger of one hand about six inches away from your face, parallel with your nose. With both eyes open, centre the finger on some distant object like a vase or a lamp across the room from you. Close first one eye then the other. You will find that one of the eyes will reveal a view of the finger correctly centred on the vase or lamp while the other eye will show the finger displaced to one side. The eye with which you see the finger correctly centred is considered the dominant one. It does not necessarily follow that the side on which your hand is dominant will be the same one on which your eye is dominant.

According to the encyclopaedia, about three-quarters of right-handed and one third of left-handed people are right-eye dominant. Though the great majority of people are right-handed, there is no evidence to show that one side or the other is in any sense "better". Some famous lefties are: Napoleon, Einstein, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates.

I used to want to train my left hand for writing with so that I would have back-up in case I lost the use of my right hand. But it was a strain. Even now, I find that though I can form letters and if I concentrate hard, draw a simple object, it's not comfortable. My right hand rests nearby, "watching" as its companion does the thing that it does so much better. I can actually feel my right hand's tension and disapproval! It's as if the two hands have come to an understanding that this one will do a certain kind of work and the other one, the left one, well ... it accepts its place as the junior in this unique partnership they have, as the manual extremities of my body.

Of course, when both hands are engaged in using a key board, they are equally responsible. Sometimes I wonder if my left-hand feels happy about that or whether it would prefer to live a more indolent life. There was a time when I wanted to learn the guitar. To play it I needed to use my left hand to press down the strings of the guitar to form chords. One of the reasons I didn't progress very far was that I found it too difficult to think with my left hand. I could practically hear it, whining and complaining that this job of remembering chord arrangements and pressing down on the sharp steel strings was too much for it. It didn't mind the piano, however and for a while, both hands played happily together. But then I moved out of the house in which there was a piano and my musical education braked to a halt.

It is not clear to scientists what the purpose, if any, of laterality is. Why should there be a bias in favour of any one side? Why isn't everyone ambidextrous? Why aren't there as many lefties as righties? So far, there are no obvious answers. Some scientists believe that any child can be trained to prefer to use one particular hand. In recent years, however, there has been a movement away from interfering with a child's spontaneous preferences. I have certainly noticed that I meet more lefties nowadays, in India, than I used to. I believe this is because parents are no longer preventing their children from favouring their left hands, which used to be a traditional taboo.

Handedness interests me. It is a difference with which people are born, something they do not choose. The problems of adjustment they have in a world in which all kinds of ordinary implements are created for righties, from scissors to knives to the fixed writing tablets on academic-hall chairs to spiral binders, are the result of belonging to a minority. Though we are constantly pressurized to succumb to the demands of majority groups, here is an example of a naturally occurring group of people, which is completely normal but different.

Lefties gain some advantages by being different -- in sports or in battle, for instance, a lefty can sometimes win because righties are too used to being amongst other righties. The fact that there are lefties thriving amidst overwhelming numbers of righties is a reminder that being different does not mean being wrong. Lefties represent nature's celebration of variety. They are a challenge to the forces of vicious conformity that cause so much of the world's torment and bloodshed today.

Lost & (maybe) Found -- (previously published in the Pioneer)

This appeared in the Pioneer, in 1998.

Built into the foundations of most human dwellings is a vast, innaccessible space. It does not appear in any engineer’s plans, nor does it feature in the journals of designers. It has no physical dimensions. Most of us know of its existence, yet none of us has ever visited it. Which is a good thing, because by and large, once something has gone in, it can’t get out.

The Lost Goods Limbo is the final resting place of all those straight pins, rubber bands, hair clips and gold-earring back screws that all of us are forever misplacing. It is the cemetery of ball-point pens, the caps of favourite fountain pens, the unused labels of computer diskettes, the only functional pair of scissors in the house, the missing button of the school blazer, and the “z” tile from the Scrabble set. It is the grave-site of the second volume of the Alexandria quartet and the last volume of the Tolkien trilogy. It is the tomb of single socks and shoes and woollen gloves and all other items whose life in the real world has no meaning except in pairs. It is the Valhalla of sealing wax stubs at the time that a registered parcel needs packing and the happy hunting grounds of all slips of paper on which precious addresses and telephone numbers are written.

Not that the place is without its rules and regulations. For instance, certain types of objects will remain in Limbo only so long as their absence has nuisance value. Air-line tickets, for instance, will disappear for as long as there is still time to catch the flight. The moment it is too late to reach the airport, the tickets will rematerialize in jacket pockets and glove-compartments. Keys will vanish at the moment that something needs to be unlocked in a hurry but not otherwise. The objects which wind up in the LGL are not usually expensive. Heirlooms and cameras, are more likely to be stolen than lost.

And one class of objects is Limbo-resistant. Hard contact lenses are a good example. They are so light and insubstantial, one would imagine that they were custom-made for being lost. But lens wearers develop such a powerful dependence on them that they do not lose them. A friend of mine claims that lens wearers call up their Kundalini force to locate the tiny, near-invisible cup of plastic even when it has flown off during a dust-storm or a riot, even while being blinded by the loss of the lens.

I can remember one evening in boarding school, when the whole school was practising for sports day, one of the girls lost her contact lens on the sports field. This was a grass-covered area the size of two football fields. While the rest of the school was ordered back to the barracks, Banoo and her friends combed the field using a torch and actually found the lens.

The Limbo is the repository for things that have slipped out of the beam of our attention. Anything that has not been thought about or looked at for more than a week or ten days is in danger of being sucked into the void. The only way to ensure firm control over one’s possessions is to fondle them one by one every day, but since this is hardly practical, the only other option is to be philosophical about loss. I have lost all kinds of things and have usually gotten over them in time. Yet there are those few instances when I have pined so strenuously for something that the usually implacable inventory keeper of the LGL relents and yields up the prize.

One such occasion was again when I was in boarding school. I had lost the stone from a ring that I especially loved. It wasn’t precious, but I was very attached to it. It was a mottled green blood-jasper, a dome-shaped oval the size of a fifty paise coin. The stone was loose in its setting and dropped out while I was on a school walk. I noticed the loss and walked back and forth over the route with my nose to the ground, but couldn’t find it. I mourned unreasonably. I couldn’t get over it. I dreamed of finding it again. Two months later, while on another school walk, someone to whom I had described the stone, pointed to a pebble by the side of the road and said, “Look! Isn’t that the stone you lost?” And it was.

Some years ago, I lost a dearly beloved book in my sister’s house in Madras. She has an unusually active Limbo at her disposal and whenever she tells the rest of her family that she's kept something very carefully, we know at once that it’s gone forever. I was neither able to replace the book nor get over its loss. Last month it turned up again. It’s called The Animation Book and is neither expensive nor especially useful to me. Getting it back is proof that the Limbo is not unreasonable or unkind. If you really, really care for something that you’ve lost, it comes back.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Old Clothes (previously published in the Pioneer)

This column appeared in ... ohh ... 2001, I think. But its broad details continue to be true!

Yesterday I gave away four bags full of used clothes. The friend who took them from me is someone to whom I regularly give away clothes because she lives in a large housing complex and can distribute kurtas and tee shirts by the armload. This time, when she brought the clothes home, her teenage son asked, “But why does Manjula have so many to give away?”

This is a very good question! But it’s an easy one for me to answer. The reason I have so many clothes to give away is that I’m not happy with the clothes I have. So I wear most garments once or twice after which they are stashed away in my cupboard never to see the light of day again until I decide that once again I need to empty the shelves of dead clothes. That’s how I think of them: dead, even though most of them are entirely alive, full of colour, well-stitched, washed and pressed. I can’t even decide what kills them off for me, but once something has ceased to catch my eye when I open my cupboard, I can almost never make myself put it on again.

I have never been a stylish dresser. I can remember, even as a child, absolutely detesting, with a kind of mute unreasonable hate, some of the clothes I had. It was as if the particular dress was a person whom I absolutely did not want to meet. Being forced to wear such a dress, since it wasn’t entirely my choice, was like being in the intimate embrace of some unbelievably nasty person. Clothes have a strange, life-like quality, what with their arms and necks and recognizable shape. It is easy to think of them, hanging quietly in closets, awaiting their weekly or monthly outing, with their hems neatly tucked and their buttons politely closed as if they were conscious beings, though inanimate.

The clothes I approved of were like friends, whose embrace I welcomed. The clothes I disliked like were like enemies, who seemed to smother me as they slithered into place, their zippers waiting to pinch a fold of skin or their hooks to get caught in my hair. The whole day would be ruined for me, then, while I waited impatiently till I could get home and tear the offending dress off.

I loved wearing uniforms. It was such a straightforward, thoughtful idea, not to have to bother with choosing something new each day! Switching from school to college was filled with terrors precisely because it meant having to find something different to wear EVERY DAY!!! It seemed such an impossible challenge. The other people in college seemed to revel in the effort of going to tailors and having “outfits’ made up for themselves. I felt helplessly unskilled at any of it. I wore the most outlandish items, hoping to cover up for my lack of taste in that way.

I detested going to tailors because I always felt they were smirking as they wielded their measuring tapes. I have always been fat and the calling out of measurements at a tailor’s shop was a painful embarrassment. I would imagine what the tailor would say once I had left the shop, how he and his assistants might refer to their customers by their vital statistics: “Where’s that caftan for 48-52-61?” they might say, “and that pantsuit for 34-24-36?” Because it was of course inevitable that the friends with whom I would go shopping for cloth and to visit tailors were themselves divinely shapely, the kind of customers for whom tailors assistants spend their whole lives lying in wait, just to have the privilege of estimating the precise angle of the darts on their blouses.

I far preferred buying readymade clothes, even though I always had to settle for loose, flowing items so that I didn’t have to spend hours popping in and out of tiny, fanless changing rooms, with the doors that never shut securely and the shop-assistants pretending not to ogle. In all the years since I have been buying clothes for myself there was only one shop that I REALLY loved. It was on Wodehouse Road in Bombay, in the early seventies. It was called the Happiness Boutique and it sold clothes with personality and wit.

I never gave away the clothes I found there. I wore them until they disintegrated. Alas, the owners soon sold the business and closed the shop. Ever since then, though I am extremely grateful for Fabindia and Anokhi, without which I’d be driven to wearing bedsheets, Roman-toga style, I have not felt at ease in the clothes I have. Salwars and kurtas, however attractive, feel like strangers when I wear them. Even the ones I like never grow to be close friends. Wearing them I feel myself becoming a stranger to myself. So I give them away hoping that they will find good homes, while I am free to find new clothes.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

About those who 'deserve' to die

I am feeling very disappointed that the appeals seeking to stay the execution of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, a 42-year-old man convicted of raping and murdering a 15-year-old schoolgirl have been rejected. He was sentenced ten years ago, and various appeals have dragged on and on. Finally all his chances have been used up, and he is to hang on Saturday the 14th.

It seems to me perverse and illogical to grant the State the right to destroy human lives while expecting individuals to observe the sanctity of life. On tonight's news a statistic revealed that 80 nations of the world have abolished the death penalty, while 78 nations allow it. Clearly the planet is a bit confused about whether or not the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. Most professional authorities maintain that it has never been shown to be an effective deterrent.

Personally I've always felt that the death penalty is in some ways a soft option. A person who knows that he/she will be killed by the State can, in a certain sense, take refuge in that knowledge. He/she may believe that it's better to get a bit of killing and mayhem done, and then be spared a long slow death by old age/disease, by dying on the gallows or by fatal injection. By contrast someone who expects to spend the rest of his/her life languishing in prison -- in some cases, the typical 14 years of a 'life' sentence can be extended -- if caught, may think more carefully about violent crime as a life-style choice.

This is aside from the compassionate argument that everyone should have the right to repent, to reform him/herself and to make over his/her life. I am always astounded and saddened by the simple vengefulness which argues, instead that 'he took a life, so ... his should be taken in exchange'. The fact is, there IS no exchange. The life that was taken remains taken and nothing brings it back.

Then there's the question of how we decide that THIS young man, Dhananjoy, who happens to have been caught and convicted deserves to die, yet there ... and there ... and there -- we see examples (in India at least) of people who are known to have taken lives and yet they walk free. Take the example of the Admiral's grandson who killed six pavement dwellers by running over them with his BMW as they lay asleep on the pavement -- he's free. Or take the case of the politician's son who shot a young woman, Jessica Lal, in a bar, at point-blank range, in full view of other people in the bar, because he was drunk and she told him the bar was closed for the night. He's free. These are both examples from Delhi and in recent years. There are so many others -- there are dacoits and men who've murdered their young wives for dowry and official instigators of violent riots -- and all these people are walking free.

The wrongness of the death penalty is in its finality. Our justice system is so faulty that we only manage to punish the poor and the underprivileged (Dhananjoy's victim went to a convent school and was of a higher social class than him) -- which means that we are more concerned with ordinary vengeance and with scapegoats than with justice. It's as if we believe it's okay to exterminate someone if he's too poor to protect himself -- NOT really because he's a menace to society and NOT because we really care about protecting society from depraved individuals.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

In Which I Blushingly Promote My New Book

There's no such thing as a graceful and dignified book-promotion statement from an author, so I'll just get right to it: my latest is on the market in the UK. It's called MOUSE INVADERS, hardback, published by Macmillan Children's book and my name on the book is MANJULA PADMA. It's the sequel to last year's literary phenom, called MOUSE ATTACK.

Okay, I admit 'literary phenom' is a deliberate falsification of the truth, as MA performed only medium-well. The publisher's hoping that the paperback, which is also just out, will do better. According to Picador India, MA's paperback is currently on the Indian market too, as of the recent weekend. This means I will NOT be walking into any bookstores for at least two months -- I am told that ALL authors go sniffing around in stores to see whether or not their books are being well-displayed -- the idea of being suspected of doing this fills my veins with ice-water, and thus ... no bookshops for me except for GIGGLES BOOK SHOP in Madras. The owner, Nalinia Chettur is such an avid bibliophile that her shop looks a little bit like a long narrow cave made entirely of books, at the very end of which she awaits her customers. Despite the real danger to fragile customers of being buried under an avalanche of best-sellers, her shop is well-loved and well-visited. I go to see her whenever I'm in Madras because I know she knows I've come to see her, not my books.

Meanwhile, back to book-promotion: two of my dearest friends have said they believe MOUSE INVADERS is 'FAR superior' to MA -- and they say this without a blush, because at the time MA came out, they said they liked it, but didn't make a huge fuss over it, by which means they allowed me to understand that, as my friends, they would tolerate my book, but would stop short of praising it unduly. The sequel, they say, they can praise without restraint. I am glad to hear this, because I too believe it's better in some hard-to-define way. It's a bit longer, and there are a lot more characters and I think I had more fun while writing it (though that doesn't have to mean anything at all -- sometimes anguish produces great literature. Did I say 'sometimes'?).

A third friend says she can see why these other two friends prefer MI, but she continues to be loyal to MA. I've only given out six books (one to my Madras-based family, one to my US-based family, one to E, and one each to the afore-mentioned three closest friends) so far, and don't plan to carpet-bomb my loved ones with books the way I did last year. This time around, I realize it's plain dumb to give away my precious few free copies, when I know I can't easily buy replacements. Instead, I urge all those of you who are in the mood to be adventurous to buy their copies online or through friends in the UK.

I normally pay no attention to sales-figures and other commercial issues. However, in the past year it has been made clear to me that, unless an author makes SOME effort to sell a book, no-one else will. Editors and publishers only swing into action with a media-blitz when they are reasonably sure that one of their publications is going to rake in returns and meanwhile, they've still got to push out huge quantities of also-rans, which will remain also-rans until some external agency tips them into the bin of front-runners.

It is supremely unpleasant to think this way. For some of us, it's just very difficult to wander around saying, 'Hey, this is a GREAT BOOK -- and I happen to be the author of it -- don't you want to buy a dozen?' The fact that many authors do this has always made them seem faintly ridiculous in my eyes. The alternative, however, is to write books that are read by my friends and relatives and NO-ONE ELSE. I wouldn't even mind that, if not for -- like I've said in the previous paragraph -- discovering that publishers don't like to publish authors whose work doesn't actually sell in the thousands. It doesn't matter how much a book is loved by a small handful of people -- if it's a handful, the author will not prosper and will ultimately not be published by anyone.

Is it ABSOLUTELY necessary for authors to behave like pimps for their own work before they actually become successful? I hope not, because if so, my books will NEVER do well and I'll have to polish brass door knobs for a living. Is there a middle path? Is it possible for an author to be dignified about promoting his/her work, while yet ensuring that it doesn't suffer against the aggressive competition of more ambitious peers? I don't know! The best I can do is just talk about it and to post the web addresses of Amazon's site and also the Pan Macmillan site, from which the book can be bought. Here they are, I hope: Macmillan Children's Books and MOUSE INVADERS, Amazon

Okay and that's it for promotion! Back to polishing door knobs now ...

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Wherein I get MASSAGED

Just got back and am still covered in muck -- not by choice, but by DESIGN. Okay, so I've got to step back a few paces and explain why and wherefore.

The story begins about five months ago, when I began coughing. I am quite used to coughing, as I've had my occasional encounters with asthma. But this was a whole new genre of coughing. If it were a show on the AXN Channel, it would be called X-TREME COFFING. Adventure coughing. Rictus-deluxe. You get the idea, perhaps or maybe you don't, so just to be sure, I must make it clear that this was neither the kind of wet, gloopy cough that results in fountains of multi-coloured horror nor the mild, dainty, lady-like cough that is performed behind lace hankies. No, this cough was like me reaching down into my trachea, pulling it inside-out like a sock, and giving it a good scrub with a wire brush.

Okay. Well, I'll cut to the chase -- after several types of treatment, I went, three weeks ago, to an Ayurvedic doctor, a lady called Dr Sudha Asokan. She gave me the canonical vile potions and said that I would "have to enjoy our massages too!". And so it has come to pass that I, along with millions of others worldwide, have had an Ayurvedic Oil Massage.

The medication centre at which the massages are done looks quite normal from the outside -- just another residence in Delhi's teeming Safdarjung Enclave. Inside, the low, single story building is honeycombed with small rooms, in the doorways of which lurk short, modest-seeming, large-eyed women of the Malayali persuasion. The room I was shown into had a platform which looked faintly sinister -- a huge black wooden thing, mahogany perhaps or maybe darkened jackfruit wood -- flat, but lipped, obviously intended for a human being to lie down flat within.

I was asked to strip down to nothing -- is it not amazing how easy it is to do this when one is told to by a smiling and vaguely dorm-matronly woman? In moments, it seems quite natural to be sitting on a mahogany-or-jackfruitwood platform, wearing nothing at all, with all one's minor and major bulges oozing in all directions, having one's head massaged. After this, for one hour, I was literally bathed in hot oil and given a thorough scrub-down squelch-supreme massage. The first woman was joined by two more, and they went to work with calm steady vigour.

Does it feel nice? Dr Asokan came in at some point, while my eyes were shut and asked if it felt good. Of course I had to say something positive, so, like a good art critic, I said, "It's really interesting." It is, for sure, a very odd thing to be trying to be a good art critic while lying in a shallow bath of hot oil, rather like a leg of lamb in marinade, naked as newborn panda cub (there really is nothing more naked than a newborn panda cub. I saw one on TV the other day and was quite horrified. It looked like a bit of chewed bubble gum, except that it was making a weak squeaking sound and its GIGANTIC mother was licking it fondly)(well, okay, marsupial pouch-inhabitants stretch the definition of what is acceptably alive, but then they aren't normal mammals and don't count, do they? I am confident that I can get away with these politically incorrect statements because I am so sure that there are no marsupials reading this. Didn't get up to that stage of development, did they, hahaha) and talking to a warm friendly doctor whom one cannot see because one's eyes are covered in gauze.

So ... uhhh ... did it feel nice? Well, yes, I suppose so, in a completely altered-state sort of way. I now know what it is like to be a panda cub which has been marinaded in smelly unguents and kneaded to within an inch of its young life. I guess that's what it most felt like -- like becoming a huge baby again, entirely in the power of others, even to the extent of not really being able to communicate, since I don't speak malayalam at all and can only understand the conversational language I've heard from my parents, uncles and aunts. The three ladies attending to me spoke in something vaguely familiar, but I could only understand the odd verb or noun, which isn't really helpful for anything.

After the oil, there was a powder-massage -- like being lightly sandpapered -- and then a bit of steam under a curtain placed over my head -- and then a procedure that is best left undescribed in blog-space -- and then I was done. The undescribed procedure wasn't anything perverse, or nasty, or unnatural, just ... not worth describing, okay? We'll just leave it there, on the shelf, and never look at it again. Or at least, not until I have grown a whole lot older and am a veteran of many such experiences, which I am not at the moment, and thus would really prefer not to think about it too much. Really.

And then I was done. The two ladies covered the back of my neck and shoulders with some pungent smelling herbal mud, told me to put my clothes back on and sent me off into the world!

Tomorrow, I shall return and for five more days after that. Oh, and the cough? It's MUCH improved, thank you. It sits quietly in my throat and doesn't fidget or sneeze except for about twice in the day, and I do believe it is quite tame, if not exactly lovable, now.