Wednesday, September 29, 2004


Last Friday I was invited to watch a rehearsal of BARBARA BUSH NEVER SLEPT HERE, a play written by David DeWitt, directed by Jim Bracchitta. The reason for the invitation was that Paul Knox, who directed the reading of my play The Mating Game Show at Salaam the previous week, is producing the show.

It was a fascinating and very rewarding experience, of which I will only be able to reproduce the least flavour because I'm a bit sleepy and as always, I'm writing this at dead of night. It felt almost better than seeing the staged play – which I'm going to miss, as it will open on the 7th of October and I'm leaving NYC in two days.

Part of what made it so thrilling was that before the rehearsal began in earnest, small groups of actors worked on isolated scenes. I don't know how much work had already been done on those scenes, but for me, watching them completely ignorant of their place in the larger narrative and unaware of the how's and wherefore's it seemed to me that they were being shaped right in front of my eyes – from collections of words and meanings into bright, taut, tight images, like turning the focusing ring on a camera until every line of a picture is sharp. Two women, one mature but still young (I think her name was Shiela) and the other middle-aged (Patsy), discuss an incident involving a man whom they both know, while also discussing Patsy's passion for politics.

I had no idea as I watched this scene rehearsal, what the context of the scene was, or who Patsy was – because of the play's title, I assumed (wrongly) that she was meant to be Barbara Bush – except there seemed nothing in the dialogue to support that idea, so after a very short while, I dropped it. The actresses, Pamela Dunlap and Alice King, performed their duet of thrusts and counter-thrusts almost like a piece of music. It was a very short scene and yet within the space of four runs, they had brought it out of the flat page into three dimensional space, just by varying their intonation and patterns of stress.

A couple more scenes were rehearsed on their own and then it was time to start the run-through. Here I must pause to describe the location of this rehearsal. It was in the basement beneath a room which was being used as a gallery. The show on the walls of the gallery was called The War Room, and featured three wall-sized canvases painted in shades of gray about the conflict in Iraq. In the display window were four life-sized manniquins dressed in identical (well I didn't look at them very carefully) black burqas. The basement looked very much like basements tend to look, i.e., like a bunker that has not yet recovered from World War II, but this one was also strewn with various oddments of domestic life – bits of furniture, kitchen equipment and the like. It was not immediately obvious to me whether these items belonged to the basement or were props for the play – most, it turned out, certainly were.

Aside from me, the audience for the rehearsal included the playwright, a photographer (alas I don't remember his name), Paul, and Jim the director, a rather beautiful young woman (Dyanne Court) with a glorious mane of auburn curls hanging down her back who was the stage manager and another young woman (Makiko Suzuki) neat and precise as an origami crane, the set designer. Also present were the lighting designer (Brian Aldiss) and the sound designer (Bart Fasbender).

The play is, at one level, about the events surrounding the return of a middle-aged man to the small town of his youth, after a career in politics. At another level, it is about the sparks that human beings give off, whether they want to or not, as they brush against one another in their various passages through life. At another level, it is about the lives of politicians and how the crucible of a healthy democracy must always – surely! – be its small towns and dusty by-lanes. At another level it is about the difference in the strengths of men and women, the different ways in which their ambitions shape their lives, their relationships, their moods. It is a thoughtful play, drawing on character-vignettes which were recognizable but didn't feel tired or clichéd. I think what I liked best about the script was its under-stated artistry – a cool normalcy, without bright lights and loud drama, yet eloquent, smooth and provocative.

It was also, in a sly and appealing way, a bit like a crochet-hook poked into the substance of daily affairs on the eve of what seems likely to be a fateful Presidential election – fateful not just for the US, but for the whole planet – digging up sharp, spiky, spicy comments about the current political situation without engaging in direct attacks or praise.

Having heard the smaller scenes, it was an especial delight to see them now patted into place like the final pieces of a jigsaw – suddenly understanding the meanings of those colours and shapes that just a half hour ago seemed to belong to some very different picture. Each of the characters – there was a young couple too, on the verge of marriage – created a precise reality of his/her own just by the way they moved their bodies or inflected their voices.

It seemed to me that what they brought to their performance was not merely their interpretations of these particular roles but also a life-times' worth of observations of others around them and of themselves. When the director asked them to look for a slight variation of one mood, they were able to look within themselves, like an embroiderer seeking in her basket for yet another version of almond green, then spoke the same lines with the altered emphasis. The point is, they had a palette of experiences rich enough that when asked to look for variations of expressions, they could comply. It was just so satisfying (and for me, also envy-inspiring!) to see that process of bringing completion to a text so that it was no longer merely words but became a shared - though fictional - memory of something vivid and memorable.

The play will be performed at Baruch's BERNIE WEST THEATRE, produced by Circle East Theatre Company, during the month of October this year. If anyone wants more in the way of contact information, they can post comments here and I may be able to rustle up some answers.

Friday, September 24, 2004


Onward … into the dark heart of my secret obsession. Not so secret, huh, you say? Now that I'm sharing it at this blog? Well you can judge for yourself. I believe it will remain a secret even after I say what it is.

In a word, it's a game. A game that I play now and then, on the computer, along with millions of other dedicated players (though I play only the single-player version, not the online multi-player type). It's one of the MYST series of games though the current one isn't in the direct line of descent, but a sort of branch-line, called URU. About three days ago, I finished playing URU, thinking that I could relax and take a break from what is, for me, like an extremely potent drug. I dread the immersion in it almost as much as I enjoy it, because I know it blots out all other realities until I am through with it. But a day later, I realized I could buy myself an "extension-pack" … and I did … and now I realize that I am in deep, deep trouble. Not only is the extension pack two CDs' worth of MYST-type adventure, but just next week, I will have access to the fourth game in the main-line MYST series, called MYST REVELATIONS.

Ahh. It is SO hard to discuss this! I am aware that very few – okay, NONE – of my friends is in sympathy with my situation. I don't know anyone who has really got quite as hooked on MYST as I did. To some extent it's a time-issue – most people have much more use for their spare time than to want to waste it on playing a mere game. But it's also a puzzle issue – I don't seem to have friends who really enjoy puzzles. Maybe the reason for that is that puzzle-players are fundamentally solitary, and therefore we don't exactly make an effort to socialize?

Anyway, it all starts with MYST. The first I heard of it was from someone I met casually, in Berkeley, to whom I mentioned my immersion in a particular kind of computer game – a very simple, DOS based game called The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, it's based on Douglas Adams' classic book of that name and was designed by him in collaboration with others interested in creating amusements entirely in DOS-text. H2G2 (as Hitch-Hiker's is informally known) is pure mind-candy, no graphics, and totally wacky. But deadly addictive. I played out the final sequence of it in a 5-hour blitz of mind-numbingly boring trial-and-error exercises. When I reached the end of the 'game', the only prize was the final message from its creators: 'You have reached the surface of the planet Magrathea. Yow!'

How can I explain why this was neither a turn-off nor a disappointment? It may have something to do with the immersive nature of such game-play – it's very similar to working with such intensity on a story or a painting, that the world and all its cares/concerns are completely switched off. Anyway, like I said, I was describing this game to someone and he said in that case, I would probably be an ideal candidate for playing something he'd only seen a demo-version of. Something called MYST. I was intrigued at once. Then I read a PCGAMES magazine article about it, with screen-shots … In the article, the reviewer (the game had not yet been released to the market) talked about becoming helplessly seduced in this OtherWorld, this curiously realistic dimension of pictures and music in which certain objects become portals into yet more worlds … He talked about walking on a city street in the real world, with MYST's haunting visuals still active in his imagination, so that some part of his mind was still wondering where to click next … on that manhole cover perhaps? On the handle of that parked car in the distance? Or maybe that traffic light?

It's very hard to describe.

By the time I first played MYST, I was in a fever of anticipation and for once, something that I looked forward to delivered its full payload of reward. The original game is now a dinosaur in computer-game terms. It used stills and restricted movements, with only a few thrilling moments of audio-video action and no living characters. Many computer games claim a strong story line but most of them are only sketchy armatures onto which are loaded a number of puzzles and challenges. MYST is different. It's a story as much as it's a collection of linked puzzles, like a maze with complex doorways embedded all along its course. Part of its fascination is that it deals with books: books are the main portals through which journeys across different layers of the story take place and as one plays the game, one recognizes that in real life, real books DO function as portals into other worlds! They DO colour and alter one's perception of reality as one reads them.

MYST was followed by RIVEN and EXILE. Typically, these games take about two weeks to complete. For me, RIVEN was the ultimate game: it was very rich visually, it had great audio, and its puzzles were intriguing without being annoying. As for the story … there's a feature that occurs right at the end which is as poignant as anything I've encountered in books or movies. I was quite amazed: I didn't expect a 'mere game' to go in that direction. EXILE was a bit disappointing. Even though it used the talents of a Hollywood actor (I forget his name) for its central villain, it felt much more like an ordinary game – in my view, the sign that a game is 'just a game' is when the smooth line of narrative is paused just so that a puzzle can be completed. Still, it was created in the MYST realm of games, where the player does not see him/herself, but connects with the world of the game from a first-person perspective.

URU breaks with that tradition and allows the player the choice of first-person and third-person perspective. At the outset of the game, the player sets up an 'Avatar' – a character who represents the player – and the rest of the game is played via that persona. I played most of the game via the persona of Magnolia, a fifty-something woman with short hair and glasses. I found the game a great deal less attractive than the previous MYST games because the creators have included (no doubt because of industry-pressures to follow current trends) physical actions on the part of the avatar are amongst the activities required to complete the game.

I found this extremely annoying because it meant that poor old Magnolia took a lot longer to get across a particular feature of the game merely because I use keyboard controls that are too clunky to perform the (for instance) running-jump required in some places. Eventually, the irritation of struggling with purely physical limitations drove me to do something I've not done before – i.e., go on-line to the URU web-site to get walkthroughs for the final third of the game. If not for the walkthroughs I would still be stuck in some dungeon of inner-space, unbathed, unfed, unexercised and my wrists numb, as I desperately attempt to cross the finish-line of the game and return to real life.

Still, it was visually stunning and by the time I came to the end, I stopped resenting the fact that I'd been robbed of the pleasure I get from completing a puzzle WITHOUT recourse to hints and walkthroughs. I realize now that perhaps games like these can only be played at a certain time of life and that for me that time is now over: I cannot afford to give up monster chunks of time trying to figure out how to pass through a make-believe wall in a non-existant world and maybe it's okay to confront that truth. I finished URU in just under a week, with only very occasional moments of frustrating key-frenzy.

What is it that these games provide me and others like me? I believe it's the basic travel/adventure excitement, but played out within safe confines of my own room. It is unfortunate but true that I far prefer spending time in Myst-worlds than I do in real world tourist locations. Myst-worlds provide much of the thrill of travelling(because the major enticement in all the games is the fantastic environments that open up with each new twist in the plot), with none of the expense, physical discomfort and communicable diseases of real travel.

It is of course disquieting to realize that I have yet more worlds explore now that I have the URU expansion packs, with REVELATIONS due on the market just next week. I may spend the rest of the year wearing a glazed expression whenever I'm not actually close to my computer. The worst feature of these games is that I have no way of sharing them with anyone because they are fundamentally solitary. There's an online version that requires broadband and that is played with dozens of others in tow, but I would find that as nasty as I DO find package tours – like reading a book as a community enterprise or showering in public – yuck! Not for this trappist monk.

That's the other thing: playing these games seems to activate, for me, the same pleasure areas that reading a truly immersive book. Just as I don't want to speak to anyone or shift a toe away from my favoured reading-couch when I am deep into a novel, I want to be left completely undisturbed when I am playing one of these games. All appeals to friendship, commonsense, good citizenship, ordinary civility, hygiene, sanity – all are kept in suspension until the period of fascination is over!

So yes, it's a drug, it's a dirty habit, it's antisocial, it's perverse, it's unhealthy and no doubt I will repent my folly in time to come. But for now - excuse me! I've just got to get back to those tri-nocular crabs scuttling about a bone-white atoll in an unknown ocean, to see if I can't swim across to that odd-shaped building in the distance …


Tuesday, September 21, 2004


... and a good time was had by all(I think)! The young actors who gave their time and energies to the reading did remarkably well, especially considering they had only two rehearsals and the audience was engaged, intelligent and responsive.

I am very grateful to everyone who participated and in particular to Paul Knox, the director, for the quality of his involvement. SALAAM theatre hosts its readings at the Asian American Writers' Workshop on the third Mondays of every month. It's not a huge space but perfectly adequate for the purpose and it seats around 50/60 people when full. Around 45 people came yesterday and after the performance, which lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, stayed on to ask questions and to share their responses to the issues presented in the play.

THE MATING GAME SHOW begins with an introduction to the six contestants, Dolly, Honey, Sweetie and Juju, Rocky, Sonny, participating in a TV game show in which they will either win a mate or … not. In the first act we see the players interacting with one another and with the show's host, Zed, who seems to be a two-faced manipulator, interested only in providing the show's audience of millions with entertainment at any cost. He invites Pooja, a young reporter who is very disturbed by events backstage, to do what she can to prevent yet another death onstage later in the evening. In the second act we see the game show, during which one of the girls will find herself forfeiting her life, because she cannot adequately match answers with her partner.

The play attempts to use the format of a game show to focus on dowry-related issues. While it's true that the audience last night certainly got the point, one of the probems (in my view) with my format is that it doesn't permit the actors much opportunity to express their personalities – whenever they DID get a chance, the mood picked up immediately. While the actual game show was a successful device for discussing dowry/marriage related issues, I felt the play needs more work if it is to succeed as a piece of theatre. I'll continue tinkering in the weeks and months ahead …

Members of the audience (largely, but not exclusively, Indian/South Asian) said they felt the play opened their eyes to the shameful practice of dowry murders, but was not depressing for all that. One lady said she wondered why the parents of the competitors were not brought into the picture, in order to explore their culpability in the situation. She also said (and I was very grateful for her perception) that she could see similarities between the fate of Indian girls trapped in dowry-fuelled marriages and that of American women buckling under the enormous social pressure to remain within unhappy marriages just to avoid being alone and single in an unforgiving social environment. Another audience member, my dear friend Dr Visa Chandrashekharan, made a warmly expressed point about finding the play positive, despite the negative view it offers of India.

For full descriptions of the cast and their bios, I would suggest visiting the SALAAM link to the right, but here's a quick who's who: Meeta Gawande and Priyanka Matthew played the ATTENDANTS in charge of props and sound effects; Mellini Kantayya: HONEY, Anita Raghuvanshi: DOLLY; Reena Shah: SWEETIE; Debargo Sanya: JUJU; Prashant Kumar: SONNY; Sam Morjaria: ROCKY; Nitika Nadgar: POOJA and Don Nahaku: ZED.
PAUL KNOX is the executive director of Circle East, formerly the Circle Repertory Company Lab. Among his directing credits are "Cornbury The Queen's Governor" and "Gilles De Rais", both by William M. Hoffman, and his own works, "Kalighat", which was produced by the Indo-American Arts Council and the Baruch Performing Arts Centre, and "Gehri Dosti: Five Short Plays with a South Asian Bent ;-)" which premiered at Harvard University last fall. His plays have also been seen at Circle East, the Circle Rep Lab, the Neighborhood Playhouse, the 42nd Street Workshop, the Columbia University Dramatists, Wellesley College, SAATh (the South Asian American Theatre of Boston) and at SALAAM. His new play, "Dawn of the Solstice Night" will be premiered by Circle East in January. Paul is also cofounder and trustee of the Tides Foundation – India Fund, which supports grassroots education and communty building efforts among sexually marginalized groups in South Asia.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Ready to Read ... Almost

Two rehearsals later … from cold words on a page, the play has begun to twitch with its own private life. But let me pull back a bit for the sake of chronology.

The first rehearsal took place on Friday evening. On account of the short notice and the fact that many of the actors on Salaam's/Paul Knox's list of possibles were unavailable for the reading – the whole complement of eight actors and two 'attendants' (I'll explain) were not present for the reading. Even so, a lot of work got done: sitting around a table, scripts in hand, the cast members plus Paul reading two roles and me reading the stage directions, the play was read out loud for the first time since that memorable session three months ago at the Roy-Dutta residence in New Delhi. Instead of chocolate cake, we had pretzels and fruit juices with mini-crullers on the side (I'll explain).

A quick overview of the play: six contestants, three women, three men, prepare to face the final round of a TV game-show designed to help themselves win a mate and a dowry - if they're lucky. If they're unlucky, they face forfeits including torture and death, live in front of an audience of millions. The subtext of the play is the practice known euphemistically in the Indian press as "Dowry Death" in which young brides who have brought insufficient dowries are murdered by their husbands and in-laws, frequently by being burned alive, so that the man can marry again and gain a fresh dowry.

Okay, so at the rehearsal, the two cast members missing were for "Zareer" (a.k.a. Zed) the game show host, and one of the male contestants, "Rocky". Paul did a heroic job of reading both parts, but it really is strenuous because Zed has a lot of speaking to do since he has the job of explaining the game show to the audience. The two attendants were needed for helping with some of the staging (moving chairs around etc) as well as for reading out stage directions and the BUZZ and DINGS (sound FX) of the game show. But I think at the end of the reading the young cast members had a sense of what was expected of them. Paul asked each person to describe what they felt about the characters they were portraying and for me that was an interesting process because it gave me an immediate insight into the extent to which the characterization did or did not work.

I had linked to a couple of online web-sites to get updates about the numbers and statistics relating to dowry murders and was able to offer a little background about the situation. From the time I wrote the first version of this play (in 1991) the numbers of dowry-related crimes/incidents have been rising steadily, so the play has only ever become more rather than less relevant. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that we've all become more blase about it: the stories that appear in the press are rarely front-page news in India now and though there are occasional alarm-calls about the rising numbers of crimes, they've become part of the murmur of violence that ripples constantly just under the surface of modern life in India.

The cast members are all young Americans of Indian origin*, all born and brought up in the US. They had heard of dowry murders but were not especially aware of how prevalent the crime is. I felt conscious of being the source of a possibly unbelievable tale of violence and cruelty – but then, that's always been my purpose in writing about dowry murders: to get people to think about them. At this first rehearsal, listening to the play being read in voices and accents far removed from the source-events, I wondered whether the form of the play is a little too abstract – it's really very difficult to believe, within the context of a pleasant drawing room in Manhattan, that on the other side of the planet, there are a number of families in which some members are conspiring at this very moment to fry their brides.

It could be argued, of course, that at any given time, there are would-be murderers all over the planet, plotting and scheming to cut off someone else's air-supply … but there is a quality of domesticity about reports of dowry-murders that makes them a bit different, I think. The stories are not merely remarkable for being very similar in their details (as if each family had been reading the same newspapers to get tips about how to plan their own murders), but they're also peculiarly cosy: families apparently sit together to plot the crime and in some cases they take steps to defend their actions, by preventing the girls' families from seeking justice. There's a very real sense in which the quality of wrongness is altered when so many people indulge in it – we're forced to look for meanings and justifications beyond ordinary morality – and yet, in the meantime, young women are being burnt alive and/or tortured till they take their own lives.

I'm going to skip over the intervening day-and-a-half separating the two rehearsals, to this afternoon, when the group met again, this time with the complete cast, minus only one of the attendants(*there is now one member of the cast who is not of Indian origin -- he's playing the role of Zed and is Hawaiian). Paul had stayed up all night choreographing movements and positions so that the cast would be able to present the reading as smoothly as possible given that they'd have their scripts with them and would only perform the minimum of movements. We met in the rehearsal space of the Public Theatre, on Lafayette Street near Astor Place.

Paul began the rehearsal with a couple of games to promote mental alertness and responsiveness within the group – it was quite fun to see the effect they had, like wake-up calls straight to the psyche – and then the rehearsal began. The mood at this session was quite different to the previous one: each character was now more clearly grounded in his/her personality and the interactions between them were less mechanical. It was really good to see how the input of the new 'Zed' and the third male contestant (I'll post the names of the actors separately) altered and enlarged the flow of energy entering the play. In addition, the actors were able to sit and/or stand in locations similar to what they'll assume tomorrow, during the final reading and that did a lot to smooth the transitions in the dialogue.

I'd like to describe more here, but am going to hold back on purpose so that I'll have a fuller account to offer after the final reading. I'll confine myself to saying that I'm feeling a good deal more confident about the play today(confidence in my conception of it)! Let's see how events turn out tomorrow …

And now just a word about 'mini-crullers': a cruller is something my sister Surya introduced me to, MANY years ago. It's a close relative of the doughnut, can be found at doughnut-vending outlets and looks like a sort of frillier, lighter version of the familiar plump, quoit-shaped item. Crullers don't seem to come in a range of flavours and toppings nor are they always available. Hence, when I notice 'em, I buy 'em. The other day, while in the local grocery store, I noticed an irresistible packet of not merely crullers, but TEENY ones, lightly sugar-glazed. They were so cute! And so easy to eat! And best of all, they were a good deal cheaper than anything else in the store. So I bought 'em and shared 'em with the cast and ... now I have none left in the house. Thank goodness.

Breakfast at Saugerties

This weekend my friend Gerri invited me over to her place in the country, near the town of Saugerties. Actually she invited me several years ago, the first time I met her, in Madras, in the company of Ranvir Shah – but that is a story too long and pleasurable to relate, so I will spare everyone the effort of wading through it, except to say that I thank Ranvir warmly for that introduction (and for much else too …).

Saturday morning dawned gray and gloomy – by the time I struggled out of bed, buckets of rain were emptying out of the sky and thunder was ricocheting off the craggy skyscraper-peaks all around me. Two hours later, however, by the time I had my backpack secured and was ready to make the short trip across town to the home of Gerri's colleague Heather, the air was clear. I caught a cab at the corner of Lex and 35th and in the course of the brief journey, not only heard over the cabbie's radio that Macaulay Culkin the (one-time) child actor of the Home Alone movies had been busted for possession of drugs, but the cabbie felt moved enough by this tale of lost innocence to tell me that he had been a serious drug-abuser himself. "There's only two things that can happen to a serious addict," he said. "Either you can get killed or you can go to jail – and they both happened to me!" I said that he seemed remarkably alive and unshackled for all that – but he explained that it was all behind him (he appeared to believe that death is a semi-permanent condition, of which he experienced the semi variety) – but he didn't expect to live more than another couple of years because all his friends of that era had died by the age of 55 – and he was 53. My ride had come to the end by this time, so all I could do was wish him better luck and a longer life than his friends.

Heather lives in a tall building with a fantastic view of the river – I had just enough time to admire it before we hit the road, following Gerri's instructions, by around 11.15. There was a strong wind blowing and small patches of sky appearing between scudding clouds, while Heather's formidable collection of music was made magically available to us courtesy her i-Pod(a small gadget of the kind I would normally find impossible not to own except that it relates to music and I've not been connected to that world of excitement for a LONG time). The two of us had met for the first time only about a week ago at dinner with Gerri, but had bonded quickly. Now, in the course of a very enjoyable two-hour drive, she introduced me to several new continents of music as, it turns out, she is a very serious music buff. She has striking black eye-brows, black hair worn spiky, and a warm, crisp-apple-cheeked personality full of crunch and we talked about vegetarianism, cyber-friends, animals and the importance of coffee in all our lives.

We arrived at Gerri's country home in good time and were ushered into a charming house, full of books and paintings, wooden furniture and all manner of amazing and interesting things to look at. Gerri is an ace-planner and since she had told me weeks ago that she was thinking of inviting a number of her friends over for the evening on the 18th, she had organized what she'd do and how she'd do it well in advance of Heather's and my arrival. Gerri is like a little bit like a grown-up pixie, wearing her curly auburn hair in a short bright cap on her head, her face is round and precise and she's always smiling. She has many gifts and talents aside from running her office – the one I'm going to mention here is that she is a wonderful quilter. Years ago she'd shown me a design she'd started for a gorgeous piece made entirely from South Indian silk – in deep purple, gold, hot magentas, electric blue and charcoal black - magnificent.

The evening was a great success. It began early, around 5.30, but the light was already beginning to wane. Gerri, Heather and I had changed into party clothes – nothing very fancy, just a friendly refining of the familiar daily tones. All of Gerri's friends brought something to add to the table so that aside from Gerri's huge salmon – the whole fish laid out in all its delectable pinkness and decorated, with half an olive for its eye and a quizzical expression on its beak-like mouth, salads and side dishes, there was also lasagne, Italian-style meatballs in sauce, a small forest of artichokes, asparagus, potatoes-in-jacket – oh and sooo much else – including a great Brie-and-potato pie, a crab dip, crisp veggies and chips for appetizers! And then, barely had we recovered from the dinner, but the serving dishes were all whisked off and the whole table covered again with desserts! Gerri had invited around 40 friends, most of whom knew one another but others who were meeting for the first time. The average age-range was in the fifties, I'd say, with Heather and only one other young friend holding down the below-thirties element – and everyone, so far as I could tell, was either a painter or a writer or a professional in one field or another.

Gerri's friend and partner of many years, Ron, was also an artist. His favourite subject was rabbits and his paintings, carvings and countless other representations, including a marvellously whimsical Last Supper in bunny-face! Sadly, I was never able to meet him, because he died suddenly some years ago. Many of the people present were his friends too, and between them they seemed to be channelling his spirit, because everyone said they felt his presence, smiling amongst them. It's been a very long time since I've been to any kind of party – and certainly a VERY long time since I've been in a company of people, none of whom I've met, before yet they all seem friendly and interesting, doing creative things with their lives and adding to the net worth of the Universe. I don't think I had a SINGLE boring or repetitive conversation the whole evening! And to the best of my knowledge, there were ZERO Republicans within a hundred yards of the house …

Best of all, everyone present not only contributed some of the food, but also, as the party flowed along, helped with a gentle, but continuous process of clearing and consolidating the food. Even though I had told Gerri that washing dishes is my solitary skill in the domestic arena, by the time the last guest had left, there was almost nothing left for Heather and me to help Gerri with. By eleven o'clock, the house was returned to normalcy, with everything put away and only the four black garbage bags on the porch remaining as a physical reminder of the so-recently-concluded revels!

The next morning was a glory of blue sky, fresh-laundered clouds and sunlight like Mösel wine, golden and heady. We had to make an earlier start than any of us would have preferred, but I needed to be back in town for a rehearsal. Gerri brewed up a percolator of coffee and enticed Heather out of bed with a platter of French toast made from Italian bread, sprinkled with powdered sugar and set off with maple syrup. A couple of hours later, still warmed by all the friendly flavours, scents, conversation and memories of the evening before, I was on the train and rattling discretely towards New York, with the Hudson river swollen with summer rain flowing swift and brown beside the train's tracks.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Strangely Normal

-- I cannot resist posting a link to this review of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Michael Dirda in the Washington Post. I have just finished reading the book -- it was a heroic effort but I accomplished it -- and am now in need of other opinions to bolster my belief that though it is superbly accomplished, it ... oh, it doesn't SING!

This appeared in DOUBLETALK, in the Sunday Observer, Bombay circa 1984 Posted by Hello

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Mating Game Show

This week I met with the team of people who will be working on the reading of my play THE MATING GAME SHOW on Monday, 20th September. The group is called SALAAM -- the name stands for South Asian League of Artists in AMerica -- begun by Geeta Citygirl. She was born and brought up in the US and she changed her surname from Chopra to Citygirl. SALAAM is very active and has been able to maintain itself in production for three years, which is highly commendable for a small group most of whose members support themselves with day jobs other than theatre. They have done readings of my plays before, so this is not my first time with them, but for me of course it's always rathre thrilling to be present at a reading.

This time the director is a playwright too -- his name is PAUL KNOX and one of his recent staged works is a play called KALIGHAT. I haven't seen it, but from reviews and notices that appeared in the NYC press at the time it was produced (last year, I think) it is a powerful and moving play set in Mother Teresa's home for the dying, in Calcutta.

On Monday evening, I went over to Geeta's apartment in order to spend a little time with her, Paul and two other SALAAM members, Priya Mathew and Anuvab Pal so that we could decide on the logistics of the reading. I had a slightly revised version of the play's script which needed to be printed out and decisions needed to be taken about the cast of actors. The choice of who will read which parts is a crucial one and most our time in Geeta's house was taken up with that. There are a number of young Indians ("South Asians" is the correct term these days, because it includes Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans) who are considering acting as a career. It isn't easy to earn a living as a brown-skinned actor whose most likely roles are Asian Shopkeeper or Asian Taxi-driver ... but from the discussion on Monday night, it was clear that there were a number of names to choose from and also a number of on-going productions that were keeping several of the actors busy.

Geeta's apartment was some distance away from where I am and I got quite lost on the subway getting there! The New York subway system is quite different to London's -- though there are maps and numbers, it's not always obvious how to switch from one line to the next -- but anyway, it only meant a half hour delay and one trip going in the wrong direction. Geeta lives in a vast housing complex, in a cheery, light-filled space that she calls her 'crib' -- because it's where she sleeps! -- bursting with books and posters and gadgets. She is a little shorter than me, has shoulder-length hair, a big friendly smile and more energy than can be contained in a football field. She had laid out snacks to eat -- two types of chips, two dips, cheese, cookies and drinks. Priyanka and Anuvab left around 8 pm while Paul and I stayed till about nine.

When it was time to go howeward, Paul introduced me to the bus system as he was going part of the way in the same direction as me. I didn't have the necessary small change with me, so we went down to the subway station to buy a MetroCard. My brain goes blank when I am faced by machines that sell train and bus tickets -- it's VERY silly, because they're designed to be idiot-proof -- but I always sink to below-idiot standards the first time around. Anyway, Paul was very patient -- he talked me through the choices like a Kindergarten schoolteacher whose dull student is unable to figure out how to fit square blocks into square holes -- and I am now the proud possessor of a multiple-use MetroCard.

We talked on the bus-ride about his work and his visits to India. He told me that on his first visit he spent six months in Calcutta, working with the Sisters of Charity in the home for the dying, and his play KALIGHAT is of course inspired by some of his experiences there. He is a young man and I cannot imagine what it must have been like to go straight from the US to a home for the dying in Calcutta, but that's what he did, and he seems remarkably centred and accepting of his experiences there.

I hope to post more material about the rehearsals and the reading here as events scroll out. I'm sort of hoping that by doing this I will inspire other bloggers -- Zig! I'm looking at you here! -- to think in terms of doing stuff along SALAAM's lines. I'm going to post a link to SALAAM on the right and will hope that all those who link to YES will also follow links to KITABKHANA, ZIGZACKLY and CAFERATI -- all featured on the right -- when they have the time. All are India-based lit.-inspired blogs, each with its own spices and meats to offer, good places to make connections and to meet new names and faces. I also want to mention that the revisions I made to THE MATING GAME SHOW were made possible on account of the informal reading hosted at Nilanjana Roy's home in New Delhi, with the generous participation of herself and Debangshu. Maybe when I'm back we can do a reprise ... of course I'm really only thinking of the quantities of chocolate cake that greased the wheels of literature on that occasion, so it's not very surprising that I should be looking forward to more of the same!

Monday, September 13, 2004

Flexing the Culture Muscle

This weekend has been filled (well, by MY normally inactive standards) with cultural events, courtesy a small but very active theatre group called SALAAM. The name stands for South Asian League of Artists in AMerica, begun by a warm, high-energy NYC resident called Geeta Citygirl three years ago. She wears a painted heart on her left cheek and she greets callers to her phone's answering service with 'Peace ...' but she's one of life's givers -- from what I've seen of her, she's in perpetual motion and its all directed towards her theatre activities and friends.

On Friday night I attended a reading of '9/10' by Richard Willett. It takes a moment for the penny to drop -- it's about the day BEFORE 9/11 -- and as it happened, the reading occurred on the tenth of September. It took the form of four dialogues between four pairs of people, on the eve of the event that would alter their lives irrevocably. There is nothing to connect the four narratives except of course the fact that they're in a building that will be, just one day later, rendered down to a smoking ruin.

It was clever, thought-provoking and well presented. I was particularly struck by the young couple Colin and Allison, a firefighter and his girlfriend who happens to be the daughter of a fire-fighter who died in a fire -- the play has the effect of snapping a lightbulb on over certain realities -- the fact that there was a time when fire-fighters were not accorded the status of high-visibility heroes they've had since post-9/11. Allison, it turns out, has a particular fixation with the sinking of the Titanic. She has been spending time over at the New York Public Library, looking at micro-film records of news reports. The day of the tragedy, the film is worn thin with having been used so often -- but what she has looked at just that afternoon, is the film of the day BEFORE the Titanic sank ...

In an oblique but highly effective way, she makes us stop and consider the absolutism of world events -- the way that a major news story ruthlessly wipes out all the stories that went before it, however urgent, poignant or impressive, in the tidal wave of news about the current catastrophe. Using the Titanic as the flashpoint, the playwright causes the audience to listen to these four conversations with a keen sense of premonition -- like ghosts of the future -- to what life was like in that 'innocent' time that is now lost forever, before the Towers fell.

Of course, too, as a non-American, I heard the play with a mental ear cocked towards all the stories that stream out of other lands and other histories, which should but don't have the same effect as a Titanic or a 9/11. Does it mean that they're really of less consequence -- are a million Rwandans of less consequence than 3000 New Yorkers? Or do we as readers of the media need to tune our own sensibilities more sharply so that we and not the news media can create the sense of consequence for ourselves?

So, like I said, it was a rewarding and eye-opening performance. About the playwright (from the flyer): his plays "... have been presented off-Broadway and at theatres across the country. Honours include an Edward F. Albee Foundation Fellowship, a Tennessee Williams Scholaship, an OOBR Award and grants from the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation and the New York State Council of the Arts ... he is the co-artistic director of the New Directions Theatre ( -- ha! I'm forced to use American spellings in a web-address!), where his play THE FLID SHOW will re-open in January 2005, and is also the author ten published short stories."

Then on Sunday I went to a performance of "FATWA" by a young Indian playwright, Anuvab Pal. Also thought-provoking and well presented, the play concerns two elderly men, Michael Jordan (Joe Jamrog) and Mohammed Ali (Jerry Matz) -- both obscure, wannabe-writers, unrelated to their famous namesakes. At the opening of the play, Michael Jordan has just been told that his novel AFSHANA is to be published while Mohammed Ali has failed yet again to get HIS long prose-poem published despite forty years of trying. It turns out that 'Afshana' is the name of Mohammed Ali's dead wife, killed on the eve of their honeymoon, by Jordan's rash driving. The two men have maintained an uneasy, quarrelsome friendship through the years -- based in equal parts on Bangladeshi kababs and an interest in literature! -- and in the course of the play, Jordan attempts a reparation of sorts, through a fatwa-inspired plan to earn some money for Ali.

The dialogue was for the most part engaging and crisp and the two principles held their own well -- two old men don't normally make for the most thrilling main characters, but this couple held our interest with their bad-tempered wrangling, as they struggle to squeeze what advantage they can out of the bare resources at their command -- Jordan's underwhelming success as an author and Ali's guttering life-force (he has terminal cancer). It was commendable, I thought, that the playwright chose to focus away from typical South Asian preoccupations to look at issues and characters outside the fold. In particular, I thought Matz as Ali provided a nicely rendered portrait of a man in the irascible twilight of existence -- when you can do what you like because you know there's not enough time left for the consequences to be worth fretting over.

The play was staged by AlterEgo described as "a team of professionals from various disciplines. ... collaborat(ing) with the New York theatre communicty to showcase innovative Theatre. What makes us unique is our ability to use AlterEgo as a platform to express our artistic vision while drawing from our diverse professional experiences to run a not-for profit theatre company." Anuvab Pal's plays include Chaos Theory, Out of Fashion and Life, Love and EBITDA. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, a member playwright of Pulse Ensemble Theatre, Harbor Theatre, a teaching associate with Epic Theatre and Literary Manager of SALAAM Theatre. The director, Michael Barakiva was educated at the Juillard School, Vassar College.

Their ages are not mentioned in the brochure but they both appeared to be in their early twenties -- YOUNG! And talented. A good combination ...

Meanwhile, next Monday, SALAAM Theatre will host a reading of my play The Mating Game Show. Stay tuned for updates ...

Friday, September 10, 2004

Weirdness! And Books.

It turns out that having a blog in a time-zone of its own means that the owner of the blog can't see it! I find I can post to the blog, and I can receive comments (because I get them as e-mail) but I can't see any developments more recent than the Niagara Falls post when I call up the blog.

Ah well. Maybe it'll pass off.

I am currently inundated with reading material. I have been forgetting to post about the several books I've been reading in the past week -- I often read in floods or droughts -- and it's been a flood, recently. I had two books with me on the flight, GENOME (which brings to mind a possible satirical companion volume called Three Men In A Zygote by Genome K. Genome) by Matt Ridley and A TOUR OF THE CALCULUS by David Berlinski. I was enjoying the first one and really disliking the second one -- but struggling with it anyway because I have always wanted to 'do' the calculus, but lacked the necessary software (I think it's called MyBrain) -- when I was totally derailed by a book that I'd read a review for but been unable to find in Indian bookshops, called PRETTY GIRL IN CRIMSON ROSE (8) by Sandy Balfour.

Okay, I've got to start a new paragraph for this one. I have always been a crossword fancier. I'm not particularly gifted at doing them, but when I find a good series, and when they appear in the daily paper I get in my house, I go at 'em for months. Recently, it was the New York Times crossword, which appears in the Asian Age. What especially thrilled me about doing the NYT puzzles is that for all these years, I had shunned American x-words coz I believed they were boringly prosaic, compared to the English 'cryptic' puzzles which in India pretty much define the genre. It was only in the past year, doing the NYT puzzles that I suddenly became aware of the other levels at which a crossword can challenge one, in particular the NYT Sunday puzzles. For those of you who like puzzles, and especially those of you who have never done American puzzles fearing that they lack depth and vigour, believe me: the Sunday puzzles are in a class of their own.

Okay, so the reason I'm wittering on about crossword puzzles is that Balfour's book is that most delightful thing -- for puzzle-doers anyway -- because it is an autobiography-cum-puzzle-appreciation course! It is a charming, amusing, enlightening piece of work, short enough that it doesn't become tedious, long enough to give the reader a powerful insight into what it's like to grow up as an ex-pat Englishman in South Africa, find the love of your life early enough that you (and she) are never lonely, and to spend the rest of your life travelling the world as a journalist and free-lancing political commentator (I'm paraphrasing a lot of material here -- he probably would describe himself differently). The title of the book, for instance, is a crossword clue ...

My sister had this book waiting for me when I got to her place, because I'd talked about it to her some months ago -- she also had the puzzle at the end of the book ready for us to struggle over, which was fun. So far, aside from my father, I've been the only crossword puzzler in the family and it's really cool to have a sister on board too now! Balfour, incidently, is of course of the cryptic persuasion -- and though he remarks upon the NYT 'swords, he hasn't succumbed to them. Ah well. Can't be all things to all people, I guess!

Next on the list: a great, great book for animal lovers called BECOMING A TIGER-- How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild, by Susan McCarthy. One of the anecdotes I read in this books is so astounding that I still gasp when I think of it: at a dolphinarium where visitors could go up to a viewing window to watch the mammals frolicking underwater, a young dolphin was close to the window and staring fascinated from it at a human visitor who happened to be smoking. According to this book, she watched for a few minutes, then sped back to her mother who was close by. The young dolphin, who was still suckling, grabbed a sip of milk from her mother, then sped back to the viewing window and blew out a cloud of milk to simulate the smoker's smoke! Is this flabbergasting or what? I haven't finished the book, and left my sister's copy behind because it was too big for my backpack. I plan to get my own copy here in NYC.

Okay, NEXT BOOK! It's actually two books -- PERSEPOLIS and PERSEPOLIS 2, both by Marjane Satrapi, wonderful, poignant graphic autobiogs. Think MAUS, but in an idiom all her own, and about growing up in Iran during the revolution that deposed the Shah and dragged a modern nation back into the middle ages. Very briefly, I lived in Iran as a child, when my father was the Indian Ambassador there. It was during the Shah's regime -- at the height of it, actually, because he held his wildly extravagant celebration of 2500 years of the Pahlavi Dynasty while my father was there -- and I have only pleasurable memories of Iran. So it is with sober remembrance that I read these books (still reading them -- I like to savour several books at once). The drawings are b/w and very striking. The author's childhood was obviously a highly specialized one, as her parents were intellectuals and politically charged, willing to expose their daughter to every freedom the mind is capable of. One of the effects these books have is to remind us -- in case we needed reminding, Hurree, I say with a wink towards you -- that there are many more ways of being an Oriental than our reading lists would (typically) allow us to believe. The second book has only recently appeared on the market, so it was a thrill to catch up with it.

And now to the final book on my list -- this was a huge (pun intended, the book is a major doorstopper) kick for me -- it's called JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Suzanna Clarke. And the reason it was a kick for me to get it is that just yesterday, in the morning, I happened to dip idly into a month-old issue of the NYT Sunday Magazine. In it, I read (rather enviously, I will admit!) an interview brimming with barely suppressed admiration with the author, whose first novel this is -- a first novel that has a print run of 250,000 in hardback and an international release (17 languages, I think ...) and is about -- hold your breath -- magic! Yes, it is an 800-page book about two English magicians locked in battle over the heart of Supernature (in England).

I didn't pay attention to the release date, but assumed it wasn't on the market yet. Then late in the evening, I gave in to an urge to leap up and rush across to the nearest Barnes & Noble -- 12 blocks away and a bit of a jog, because the store locator warned me that the shop is only open 8 to 8 and it was already 7.20 when I started. My intention was only to buy the Persepolis books and maybe the Animals book, if I found it easily. Imagine then my delight to suddenly, and with no prior expectation, find the Clarke book! The desk-clerk had just made a '15-minute closing' announcement when I spotted the thing, so I just grabbed it, paid for it and the Persepolis books and ran out with a huge grin on my face. I started reading it last night and I can tell you right away, it is to DIE for. No, no -- forget poor H. Potter! THIS book is beautifully written.

If I were a conscientious blogger, I would be posting links and such. But I am not only not conscientious, but am annoyed that I can't actually view my posts, so I'm going to leave the hardwork of chasing up links to other, more able and more energetic souls. Go to it, friends! There are many new worlds to conquer.

Thursday, September 09, 2004


I've been wanting post pictures at this blog for some weeks, but have lacked till now the necessary energy to wrestle with codes and downloads. I think I may have succeeded, but I won't know for sure till I've made this post ... If you see this text but no pic you'll know I messed up ...

I still haven't managed to dig up the precise date the original appeared in OUTLOOK and now I wish I'd gone the distance and scanned in the OTHER pic of which this one was the teaser-trailer. It showed "Mr January", i.e., the 'centre-fold' for the month in all his blushing glory. Well ... not REALLY blushing because in print these pix appeared only in b/w (black and white).

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


On Sunday, we made the mandatory pilgrimmage to Niagara. I call it mandatory because it is considered by some to be a crime against the great god Touristeshwara to be living so close to this scenic (a mere three hours) spot and yet not have seen it in all these years of visiting the US. So ... we set off, my sister, my brother-in-law and I.

None of us took our travel documents because we decided in advance that we weren't going to be dashing across international borders just to stare at a major waterworks. So we were confined to the American side and of course, it is not as dramatic by half as the Canadian side. I have been wondering, ever since this visit, who was in charge of divvying up the Falls so that this astonishing glitch occurred. It is on a par with realizing that Everest is NOT, after all, actually on Indian territory.

Anyway, the high point of the trip was, of course, the boat-ride on the MAID OF THE MIST, a series of boats with the same generic name (though they have various Saints' names inscribed on their bows. I didn't get to see which one we rode in) which permits those of us who were so unfortunate as to be stuck on the American side to get the charge that comes from crossing over to the Canadian side -- just an eentsy-weentsy charge, to be sure, because it lasts all of 5 minutes -- but without this charge, you can forget about saying you've seen anything. This was the Labour Day weekend, so of course there were capacity crowds. My sister and I got into queue and stayed there for about 90 minutes. I hate queues and I hate sight-seeing, so I was basically whining and complaining and hating all the fellow tourists all the way, right down and into the boat, until we were practically under the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.

Three-fifths of the crowd was Indian, I would guess. The rest was Latino and European, with only the tiniest sprinkling of Local American. Amongst the Indians it was definitely South India Week -- all those rounded consonants and dosa-flavoured vowels -- Malayalis, Kannadigas, Telugudigas, Tamilidiggigaddadas ... uhh ... you get the point: Southies. Some Gujjus too. And a number of NSSAMVBHBWTVESs -- Non-Specific South Asians with Masses of Very Black Hair, Big White Teeth and Very Dark Skin. These are the kinds of Indians we never see in the movies or in television commercials in India or elsewhere -- these are the Invisible Indians, who are nevertheless highly visible in Real Life, because they are definitely not only in majority but their numbers are apparently rising fast. Clearly, being invisible is an important breeding incentive, as it must surely lead to visibility sometime in the future.

And there were lots of small children, of all nations, religions and designer label clothing. Unfortunately, I really dislike small children. They bring out the Tyrannosaurus Rex in me. All those tiny hands and chubby feet -- all they inspire in me is the idea that they would make such admirable snacks.

Before boarding the boat, prospective passengers are given blue-plastic ponchos to wear, in order to be saved from a drenching. It was really hot, and my feet were complaining and my back was giving notice that I am too old to be a tourist and should just cease travelling and watch TV for the rest of what seems sure to be my rather short life, given the rate at which my constituent parts are deteriorating. While we were lined up just moments before boarding, a Kannadiga father was trying to get his six-month-old larva to stand on the railings, by repeating "Why don't you stand here? You want to stand here! Yes you can stand here! It's a good place to stand! Be a good boy now, just stand here!" etcetera in that demented way that parents have, when anyone in the galaxy can see that we humans are entirely different to, for instance, impala or giraffes, in the matter of being able to stand efficiently in anything under two years.

Then we were on the boat. I put my poncho on. Soon we were in front of the American Falls, which were nice enough, but reminded me that back in the Third World (i.e., Madras, where my mother lives) there has been no regular water supply and if only we could find some means of teleporting a quarter of an hour's worth of these Falls back to my mother on a daily basis, she would be SO happy. Then we moved off and towards the Horse Shoe Falls. The spray became somewhat boisterous. One young person, about 11 years old and un-poncho-ed was cavorting up and down the deck, getting wet.

There is something primal -screamy about getting really, really wet when fully clothed. Within seconds of entering the core area of the Horse Shoe Falls, all my snarly feelings of the past hour and a half were flushed right off, in spite of my flimsy blue poncho. The Kannadigas were screaming in tongues! The Italians were hugging their unfriendly Israeli girlfriends! The fat white kids were losing weight! The Ukranians were looking thrilled for the first time in centuries! Soon, we were not only getting wet, but the boat was heading right into the boiling white fury of the mid-Falls area. There is really no experience that approximates being within yards of being pounded by several million tons of falling water -- oh the recorded commentary told us how many gallons per second were thundering down around us, but all memory of these figures are wiped clear from my memory: all I know is that the world was suddenly transformed into a brilliant white roar of water, like pure exhilaration, like being mind-rinsed in a cataclysm of billion-megawatt energy.

A blink later, the boat had wheeled around and we were surrounded once more by the placid rainbows dancing in the spray around us, heading back to shore. Everyone was transformed and transfigured. Even me.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Night Blooms

It's called a Night Blooming Cereus and is rated as amongst the more exotic flowers to be found in human homes. It's a type of cactus and its main feature is that it produces a flower that opens only at night and lasts only for a few hours, always dying before dawn. Some people give parties to celebrate the event, usually timed for mid-summer and no-one who has seen one can forget it because it looks like a blessing in the shape of a beautiful white-petalled flower.

One of my sister's colleagues gave her a plant two years ago and it has been blooming regularly ever since. Between episodes of blooming it looks like a particularly gawky and awkward item, a delinquent hot-house resident that wants nothing more than to lurk in corners pretending that it knows nothing of blooms, pollen, stamens, petals ... until one day, quite suddenly and from the edge of one of the leaves, it puts forth a curling stem, about a finger in width. At the end of the stem there is a bud that looks almost normal, almost like a standard lotus bud, except that's a little bigger (about four inches from tip to where the stem begins), and a little hairier and it appears to have several tentacles, nude pink and white, clasped tight around it. There is something distinctly sinister about the thing, reminiscent of body-snatcher pods and other such unwelcome house guests.

On the evening that the bud is due to open, the tentacles begin to stir and to stretch -- all the action takes place within the course of a couple of hours, so the movement is practically visible. As the tentacles loosen their grip, the flower grows in size, its inner petals unfurling like a ballerina's tutu until, by around 8.30 pm (it's a punctual plant) its Cinderella transformation is complete. The tentacles have now drawn back completely, and form a spiky aureole around the petaled crown. Inside the pristinely white circle of petals there is a star-shaped structure, rather like an albino spider doing a languorous cabaret, poised above an audience of stamens sitting in taut, tight formation, as if at the edges of their seats, their pale golden heads bulging with barely suppressed lust.

I had seen photographs of the flower on-line (Google, of course! Just type in the name), but watching it in real life is a treat on par with seeing a one-time-only performance on stage. There's no saying when a bloom will make an appearance and at one of the web-sites online, where a number of owners and Cereus-fanciers share their experiences, there are several wailing voices claiming that they've owned a plant for 14 years and NEVER seen it bloom! My sister feels this can only be because the owners are too attentive towards their temperamental wards who (which?) seem to delight in taking their human hosts unawares and positively preen at the cries of delight that greet one of their sudden buds.

This flower may or may not be called "Brahma Kamal" in India, but if so, it is a bit of a mystery how it came to have such a name. The Cereus is supposed to be a native of the New World, while the Brahma Kamal I discovered on Google is a resident of the Himalayas. Certainly, Shashi Deshpande's recent book "Moving On" appears to make a reference to the flower that is even as I type this, blooming in my sister's Sun-room (well at night, I suppose, it ought to be called a "Moon Room"). Just another botanical mystery? Perhaps Zigzackly will tell us more ...

Friday, September 03, 2004

Paean to America

Yes, I know it is completely unfashionable, in this desperate and compromised age, for third-worlders like myself to have any good words to say for America. I do try, now and then, to agree with my politically savvy friends, some of them American, many of them Indian, that there is much amiss in the land where the Mississippi flows.

En route here, I try to have the kinds of experiences that my fellow third-worlders have at the immigration barriers, but have failed yet again, on this trip. I have generally been greeted warmly and with no suspicions, have felt disarmed and grateful, have not been turned away, have felt guiltily delighted to be back once more. In my first week or so, I continue to be cautious in my responses, I try to be objective. Or at least, that's how I've been in these posts, at this blog, on this trip.

But today, I am in my sister's home in rural Pennsylvania and can no longer contain myself. I must break down and confess that I have always loved America and that there is no point trying to hide behind political correctness and planetary realities: this is one of my dark secrets and here, on this blog, I am finally forced to confront it. Yes -- the name of this blog says it all -- yes, I love America.

Every part of this confession is tainted with guilt. There is no extenuating circumstance. Even the moment of cross-over, the moment when I first became aware that I was suffering from a crush, was a hopelessly childish one: it was 1964, I was eleven years old, in Bangkok, where my father was the Indian Ambassador. I was with my parents at the annual International Fair, which was some sort of charity event at which each of the Embassies show-cased their countries' products. Most of the countries had interesting displays. Ours was full of silks and crafts and a few Air India Maharaja figurines.

And the US stall? The US stall was awash with toys. That's it. TOYS. Big, small, cuddly, furry, mechanical, colourful, silly, serious, funny, clever. I can even remember the presenter at the stall shamelessly parading a long-maned pony worn across his neck, like a sort of big shaggy stole, as he posed for the TV cameras. Yes, it was utterly manipulative, devoid of taste or elegance, hamming for the audience and as breathtaking as an anaconda.

Even at the time, I knew from the politics at my school (two schools, actually, because there was a mid-term switch) that there were various reasons for hating the "Yanks" -- that neighbouring Vietman was a mess because of them, that they were bullies and autocrats, hypocrites and ... oh, so much more and so much worse. Nevertheless, there was the stall, and it was BURSTING with toys. I was rivetted and could not look away. In a sense, that early fascination, the knowledge that I had been ruthlessly manipulated, and that I didn't care, has stayed with me, and coloured me, ever since.

All through the years, I've had friends who have tried to talk me out of my idiotic fixation with the New World, who have tried to force me to see reason. And I DO see reason. But ... I continue to love America, unreasonably, illogically with all the warts, and horns and ugly bits. I know I should be apologizing for my lack of conscience and perhaps my lack of taste. But I don't apologize. I am glad to be here, despite all.

I should explain a little about this house. I've been visiting it since the mid-seventies. I have, so to speak, seen this home grow up from being a comfortable living space that my sister used in the early years of her life in the US as a doctor, in a country she wasn't sure she really wanted to live in, but found herself in regardless. It was always an attractive home, but now, when I think of what it was and what it has become, it is like seeing a dear friend mature from mere prettiness into beauty.

The house began with colours and textures and artefacts almost exclusively imported from India. But now it includes almost as much from India as from here. In the early days the local art-items were jokey things, cute rather than elegant, clever rather than enduring. Today, when I look around, I see a hand-made closet that is practically Debussy, it's so smoothly and stylishly dissonant, with a sinuous ripple running right across it, and up and down it too, so that you absolutely have to stroke its surface, and enjoy the sheer joy of its crafting.

I see a small mobile made from chunks of coloured glass. I see the handsome panelling of the kitchen-cum-pantry. I see the prints and hand-blown glass. I see the dressed stone of the newly renovated backyard, forming a tiny piazza-like space just before the garden proper begins, with clumps of bright and slightly reckless flowers overlooking an oval lawn, that's been shaped to suggest a magic pool, filled with solid green water.

Yes, yes, politically, there is much to hate about America. And yes I know that politics should and does colour so much and everything about the lives we live on this planet, we 7 billion bi-peds with the big brains and the small, calculating hearts. And yes I know I belong to one of the subject cultures, one of those that will be harmed by the influence that the US has had on the world and will continue to have on it whether the rest of us want it to or not, whether it succeeds in its goals or not. Yes, I know I should be fearful for myself, and others like myself -- the non-American citizens of the world, for what the US can do to us, or make us do to ourselves.

But today, a warm and sunny day, enjoying my sister's house, feeling unbearably and disgustingly complacent, I try so hard to plunge downwards into a pit of anger and dissatisfaction, and keep coming up ... happy. So I wanted to share this moment with you, friends, even though I know many of you will be sneering, and many of you will realize that you have always known that I am unfortunately soft in the head, sentimental, easily-seduced, lacking in morals or taste, cannot be trusted, cannot be respected, must be discarded -- all regardless, I wanted to share a moment of pleasure and honesty: yes, I do love America, I love being here and at this moment, headily and incautiously, give thanks for the abundance around me.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Comments ...

Two friends have reported being unable to leave comments here on account of the site's insistence on making bloggers of us all before permitting comments. In case anyone else has encountered similar difficulties, I believe the solution is to click the 'Anonymous' option -- ignore all the other stuff, don't attempt to leave passwords or names, etc -- and make your offering. You can always include your name, or whatever nickname you'd like to use, at the end of your message so that I'll know who you are! But that's not mandatory.

Shades of Humanity

A friend sent me the piece below -- it's not news, but it's worth passing around anyway. I saw a programme on the National Geographic sometime last year (I think) following the gene-trail that leads from the San of the Kalahari Desert right across the globe, touching every one of us, from Australian aboriginal to blue-eyed Swede. It was impressive but also rather saddening to think that the very people who may represent the 'parent' community of modern humans is so tragically reduced in numbers, so compromised in its ability to survive intact on its own terms. Anyone who saw the movie "The Gods Must Be Crazy" will remember the poignant representation of the Kalahari Bushmen -- it's great to think we are related! -- but it's also very sad to see, in more recent documentary films, how very limited their degrees of freedom are.

The following article came to me without identification. If anyone knows the source or can find out, I'd be glad to include that information.

UPDATE: Thanks to the tirelessly efficient ZIGZACKLY (website listed to the right) I can now post the name and correct title of this piece. I am hoping it is in the public domain -- and if not, Zig has helpfully posted the original location of the piece and the source of more articles by the same author in his comment below.


There is no such thing as race, thanks to the genetics revolution. The Human Genome Project (HGP) has determined unequivocally thatthere is the same amount of genetic variation among individualswithin a so called racial group as there is between individuals in different racial groups. What that means is that there is no real genetic difference between blacks and whites or between whites and Asians or between any of the so called races.Wonder why it's been so hush-hush? I mean, you would think this would be big news. Certainly on the order of Galileo stating that the Earth goes around the Sun and not vice versa. But you haven't heard it on NBC or read it in your local newspaper. It's more or less kept within the high brow community as if the common every day man in the street just couldn't take it.

So you can read about it in the Atlantic Monthly or New York Times, but not your home town newspaper. And some professors on ivory tower college campuses are scrambling to prove itisn't so, just like there some who argue that Darwin was a fruitcake and evolution a stunt he pulled to grab the limelight.But if we are all one race, which race are we? One answer is the cute one that we are the "human race". But buckle your seat belts folks, because the genetic answer is that we are all really black. And white people are pale adaptations of black people that evolved during the past 140,000 years.From whence does this white skin come? Weren't we all taught that it was the black people who evolved black skin and it happened so they would be protected from getting skin cancer?Forget it. Scientists have thrown the whole notion out. Here's how evolution works. If you don't live long enough to reproduce, your genes are lost to the gene pool forever.

There being no high school back when Humans came into being, females started reproducing around the age of 13. Skin cancer develops later in life when the female has already reproduced and her genes have entered the world gene pool. Bye, bye skin cancer theory.What scientists now believe is that everyone started out with dark skin in the first place because it is protective against absorbing too much Vitamin D, which is toxic. Too much vitamin D causes calcium to be pulled from the intestines and bones and deposited in soft tissues all over the body, damaging the kidneys, heart and blood vessels. Dark skin screens out UV radiation and your body, which uses UV to produce Vitamin D, produces less of it - a real evolutionary advantage at the lower latitudes where we began.So where did the 10,000+ shades of paler brown, beige, pink, white and what Crayola crayons used to call "flesh" come from?

Archaeological data places the origin of genetically modern humans in sub-Saharan Africa approximately 140,000 years ago. Humans then began migrating out of Africa in successive waves, starting approximately 100,000 years or 5000 generations ago. Now that scientists have mapped the human genome, they are homing in on when each wave began their outward bound journey and where they migrated to. So far they have confirmed that everyone on the entire planet, even the 1.3 billion Chinese, have a common ancestor back in Africa.For example, the first wave appears to have been a migration to the Middle East and then eastward and northward from there. Somegeneticists studying the human genome map believe that in a later north moving wave, which occurred about 60,000 years ago, a mere 50 people inbred together across successive generations to create all the people who now occupy Europe (excluding recent immigrants, of course).

But wait a minute, I have blond hair, blue eyes and my hair isn't nappy and I don't have thick lips. So how can my great, great, etc grandpappy be a black African? It's all from lines of genetic inheritance splitting apart and then coming together again. Lines of genetic inheritance, or lineages, split apart when there is a mutation that is evolutionarily advantageous, meaning the mutation makes it more likely for someone to reproduce greater numbers of offspring that survive. Someone with a non advantageous mutation has offspring that are less likely to survive.So as humans migrated out of Africa, why did dark skinned peoplestart losing the genetics Powerball Lottery to their paler kin?

Lower UV levels in the sunlight of the more northern latitudes meant a dark skinned individual's body could not produce enough Vitamin D. Insufficient Vitamin D would then result in a child developing rickets. A child with rickets would not likely reproduce either because it would die before it could or because its pelvis would be so deformed it could not pass a child through the birth canal. Its genes would be lost forever. So lighter skin, and more absorption of Vitamin D at higher latitudes would be an adaptive genetic advantage. Interestingly, in high latitudes where some people still retain dark skin, such as with the Inuit in the Arctic, the people obtain significant amounts of Vitamin D from eating fish and sea mammal blubber.

Seal blubber aside, what about all the other features that make us look so different? Mutations that endure are often advantageous to specific climates. For example, the tall thin body of the Masai warrior dissipates heat while the short squat body of the Inuit retains it. Long northern European noses moisten and warm the air before it reaches lungs, while in Africa short noses remain because the air is already moist and warm. The Asian's eyelid folds protect their eyes against dry sandy desert winds and wind driven snow. In the far north, light sensitive blue eyes allow people to see better when it is dark much of the year. The tightly coiled hair of the African keeps the hair off his neck so he remains cooler.

All these diverse physical features promote the promulgation of different linesof inheritance, or ethnic lineages.Countering this splitting apart of ethnic lineages is the melding through interbreeding between different ethnic lineages. If you walk the Silk Road from Persia to China, across the southern flank of Asia, you will see a continuum of physical feature change. You will not be able to tell where the European look ends and the Asian begins. Remember all those shots during our assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan and the TV scans of Afghani children? How many looked European and how many looked Asian?Many mechanisms for melding ethnic lineages have been at play. The rape part of the plunder and pillage drill by invaders, traders passing through with silver to buy bedtime favors, marriages for political convenience to form alliances between not so friendly tribes, and the boy and girl from neighboring tribes sneaking out for a little tryst under the stars, have all contributed to the recombining of diverse ethnic lineages.

So what we have instead of the meaningless terms Caucasian, Negro, Asian, etc, is a large multiplicity of ethnic lineages, all of whom descended from a only a single black race. So don't forget, next time you fill in the U.S. Census you should write in the word Black next to the question about your race, regardless of your shade of pale.


Long ago, I realized that I am completely inept at using a camera. This doesn't prevent me from often 'seeing' shots that would have made a great picture, if only I could have grabbed it exactly as I saw it. I saw one today and thought I'd share it as a word picture.

I was walking down 40th street between Madison and Fifth Avenue (notice the cool ease with which I now refer to these locator references!! Every single time I come to New York, I have to relearn the irregular maths of the Avenues -- it's quite charming and oriental in a way, this perfect grid, with the counfounding multiplicity of avenues between Third and Fifth -- like the crooked line of the Persian carpets -- you know the one: the rogue thread that carpet designers consciously introduce within their gorgeous designs in order to avoid appearing to challenge the perfection of Creation) when I saw a woman standing with her back to me, near a large cement trash-can. I noticed her only glancingly, a broad and somewhat dumpy figure dressed in what appeared to be a grey striped outfit, noticeably belted, reaching down to her ankles. A moment later, as I passed her, my impression of her altered dramatically -- she was an elderly Geisha, dressed in traditional clothes, including the white make-up, putting out her cigarette with a guilty look over her shoulder!