Friday, December 31, 2010
Got this from TA and after a short struggle decided it would be my New Year offering to friends and visitors to this blog. It's funny AND it's got resonance for Pythonizers from the last century -- for everyone who finds the references to Blackberries and Apples funny, there will be a small tribe of those who chuckle at the echoes of John Cleese's Dead Parrot sketch.
The year just ended was a fairly wild one. My niece got married three times in quick succession (oh all right! It was three different ceremonies, in three different locations, but only one marriage) and I visited Belgium for the first time, and also Framingham, MA and also Lebanon, NH and also a number for friends and family besides.
I spent most of the year either on my way to the airport, returning from the airport, AT the airport or in the air. Or at a bus terminal. Or at a train station. Or planning to be at an airport/bus terminal/train station. I even managed to lose my passport and waist-pouch in August, but got it back three hours later, because Boston's South Station is the kind of hub where many buses run a loop that goes to Logan Airport and comes back before the buses return to their base-stations in other cities. I was just major, major LUCKY that I got it back. I think travelers should be allowed to have their passports micro-chipped and embedded in their skulls. That way, we either have our travel papers or we're dead.
But that wasn't the only hairy trip I made. This last week, returning from Madras to Delhi, I left for the airport at 2 pm and arrived at Friends Colony in Delhi at 1.30 a.m.! It was a Jet Airways flight (9W 830, Sunday 26th Dec), scheduled for 5 pm. It was even announced on time but then, at 4.30 with passengers queueing up into front of the gate, it was cancelled with no further information.
Actually, I was so sure that the flight WOULD be delayed -- because it's the Season of the Fog, and flights in and out of North India are ALWAYS disrupted -- that I was amazed when I heard it being announced. After that point I had only sympathy and admiration for the Jet Airways staff. The passengers milled around, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, behaving like children who've been told that they can't have a second helping of ice cream. Some were just shaking their heads from side to side, saying "nonononononono" as if sheer denial was going to ensure them a seat on the flight of their choice. The ground staff were scrupulously polite, maintaining admirable sang froid while explaining very softly and patiently that the matter was simply out of their hands.
I decided to stick it out at the airport. The drive from Chetpet (where my mother lives) to the airport is arduous even without a fog and my ticket was nonrefundable. I felt I'd rather take my chances with the flight. Even though I knew the chances were very low: according to news reports 70 flights had been cancelled in the course of that day. The flight was called again, at 7.30 pm and when we boarded, there were enough empty seats that I had a spare one between me and the fellow passenger with the window. In spite of all the chaos, Jet landed safely (and with a HUGE thump!) at IGI but we had an hour's wait before a parking berth was available.
Outside, the fog was like a thick woolen blanket. The luggage carousel didn't begin spewing its contents till we'd all been waiting 45 minutes. And then there was the FOG, THE FOG, THE 'ORRIBLE FOG outside. It was one a.m. and I am always unwilling to take my chances with the prepaid cabs if it's very late at night. But the alternative was waiting till sun up.
So I stood in queue and got my receipts for a prepaid cab -- but was still feeling anxious -- and so just before going out into the wind and fog, turned to a fellow passenger -- someone I'd noticed on the flight, sitting across the aisle from me and fiddling with an interesting hand-held device which he explained to the flight staff was "not really a cellphone at all, but I'll turn it off, since I know you'll want me to" -- I turned to this fellow passenger also standing in the prepaid queue and asked if he'd like to share a cab.
Whoever he is/was and in case he happens to see this blog post -- THANK YOU. Because, even though the prepaid taxi-wallah refused to accept passengers to two separate destinations -- and anyway, he was going to Vasant Vihar while I was going to Friends Col -- just the act of accompanying me out to the cab rank was somehow steadying and life-affirming. I hadn't ever used Terminal 3 for prepaids before and it was all rather peculiar and confusing so it was just NICE to be escorted out by a friendly person, stranger though he was.
The drive back was so tense that I entirely forgot to feel any fear whatsoever. The driver & his buddy were both hunched forward and staring through the windscreen at a thick white swirl of pure white lassi -- there's no other word for it -- it was just totally impenetrable. So long as we were on the highway, there were the tail lights of other cars to follow into the creamy haze, but then we eventually had to veer off and go through an intersection ... and there was nothing WHATSOEVER to hold onto, as a visual guide. The driver was navigating by the seat of his amygdala, or whatever's the name for the most primitive/mysterious part of his brain, that permitted him to find his way across the milky nothingness and on and on and on until ... at last we were at the Outer Ring Road and the sheer volume of traffic thundering through had managed to shift the curtains vapour aside enough to show us the way.
Whew. I spent the whole trip saying "GOOD DRIVER! NICE DRIVER! THERE'S A FINE FELLOW THEN!" and other soothing remarks of this nature, to which he would give out little bashful snorts and say, "We live only to please our customers!" or some other PR-type nonsense that maybe they'd been taught to parrot to tourists during the C'wealth Games.
And so it goes, so it goes.
My final offering for this first post of 2011 is something mildly controversial that I wrote a couple of weeks ago. It was intended for publcation so if it sounds a bit a dated and also rather more formal than my typical posts here, it's because it was not intended for the Blogiverse. But it got turned down in favour of my other offering, the item on Klingons (see below). So here now is:
The WikiLeaks story reads more like a movie than a news item: Julian Assange, a cold-eyed ash-blond geek, is catapulted to fame as a cyber-Robin Hood only to be derailed by his sordid sex-life. While Liberals and Leftists the world over struggle to decide whether he's a hero or a villain it's the feminist networks that have boiled over with dissent. Is he a victim of cynical governments or a sexual deviant stupid enough to parade himself on the international political scene with female skeletons rolling out of his closets? Should he be denounced as a rapist or championed as a man whose sexuality is being used against him?
What makes this case so fascinating is that for once, it involves a man's sexual integrity rather than a woman's. Gender-parity has not yet reached the point where we can speak of outraged masculine modesty. But in this case it seems possible that a man's sexual misconduct is being used to punish him for having pulled down the panties of various Governments. That's something new. The easiest way to destroy the credibility of a woman who challenges authority is to accuse her of "loose" behavior. Men, however, are rarely charged with sexual misdemeanours when their real crimes relate to politics and international trade. Imagine, for instance, a suspected terrorist or arms dealer being arrested because he also happens to be a rapist! Not only would it mean potentially millions of men being thrown behind bars but it would also suggest that all those women who are typically silent victims of violent, sadistic men had suddenly been enabled to speak out in the way of Assange's ex-girlfriends.
What makes this case especially interesting (or atrocious) is that the accusations are not about easily-identified crimes. The accusers are not, for instance, under-age virgins savaged at gunpoint by a man riddled with AIDS. If the accounts in media reports are to be believed, both of Assange's ex-girlfriends are adults who consented to have sex with him but later withdrew that consent. Modern societies try to distinguish between types of sexual behavior in order to ensure that manipulative and oppressive practises can be treated as crimes. But the arena in the Assange case is murky. One woman claims that he pinned her beneath him using "his body weight" and proceeded to have sex with her even though she strenuously objected. The other woman says she was unconscious. Condom malfunction was also an issue. Whatever the specifics, it's obvious that Assange behaved in a seriously uncouth manner. But within the spectrum of incidents deserving the title of rape, these accusations fall within the eye-roll category. The boundaries between full consent and playful resistance, pleasure and pain are, after all, extremely porous. It is easy to wonder whether these accusers would have felt differently if Assange had varied his behavior just a bit: used romantic language, for instance. Or chosen a more expensive aftershave. Or promised a stable relationship.
Merely to ask such questions is -- I KNOW -- terribly unfair. The insinuation is that the charges are trivial. Assange may yet turn out to be a sexual predator who deserves to be locked up. But supposing the problem is that one or both women is motivated by hurt pride and unrequited love? Worse yet, supposing one or other of the governments whose secrets have been exposed by WikiLeaks is motivated by its own hurt pride and wants to get Assange behind bars by any means whatsoever?
The nature of truth and justice in any accusation of rape is muddied by the gender-biased prejudices of societies. In the Assange case, it's as if an awkward sexual encounter has suddenly blown up into an international fracas complete with red-faced ministers and black-browed generals. But whose version of truth will prevail when the end-credits roll? Only time will tell.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Well, they're not all EQUALLY cool but many are the kind that bring a warm fuzzy glow to the inner lining of the brain. My brain, that is. And for those of you who crave sweeter rewards for visiting this space, here's a photograph of the FRESH TANGERINE CAKE I made following my friend Elizabeth Wong's recipe, for Thanksgiving at my sister's home in Sayre:
It was as yummy as it looks! I don't feel immodest saying this because I just followed the recipe. The decision to add the slices of of tangerine was taken at the last minute -- I had taken far too long over the cake and was feeling kind of bedraggled at the end of it all, but there was a clamor for DECORATION! DECORATION by the time I had finally slathered on the icing, so I went that extra mile -- and they made a very pleasant difference -- the icing was VERY sweet and the slices were a welcome contrast.
The thing about not being an instinctive cook is that I can't tell whether or not something is working properly just by looking at/tasting it. In the case of this cake, it had to be made in two layers and for some reason I took an inordinate length of time just setting everything up and measuring quantities and then, after all of that, having put the two pans filled with batter into the oven, I happened to glance at the recipe again and realized with an awful OOOOOPS! feeling that I'd left out one entire ingredient! The sour cream. And the fact is, the batter had seemed a little odd, too runny and too sweet, but this is what I mean when I say I don't have the right instincts: I knew something was wrong but I wouldn't have fixed it if I hadn't looked at the recipe. But my sister said, "Don't worry! Just pull the pans out of the oven -- it's not too late -- and add whatever it is! It'll be fine." And it was.
I've not been keeping up with the blog at all, right? Well there's just been TOO MUCH going on. Thanksgiving was great fun but also a lot of work -- my sister cooked up a storm, as I'm sure many millions of other equally capable and gifted home-owners did too, all across North Am -- and I was her sous-chef. There were six of us in the house over the final four days and I think we all had a very pleasant time. For me, however, the absolute KNOCK DOWN MAJOR HIGHLIGHT OF THIS YEAR was that my nephew-in-law, Deke taught us all to play Poker (the game called "Texas Hold 'Em"). Wow! I had NO IDEA it was so much FUN! I am not a natural gambler at all, and I don't like losing money (we used real money, but not much -- $20 max per player), but playing the game was like a fascinating tool for understanding motivations and strategy in other people. Thrilling.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
The 'and I wasn't even looking' is my lead-in to another recent MAJOR THRILL -- watching the Beatles movie 'HELP' the other day, on DVD. I always loved this film -- I saw it on the big screen, in Bombay (at EROS Cinema, Churchgate), maybe a year after it came out, and if I could have, would have seen it many times over to memorize key scenes -- but of course that wasn't really an option in those days, as I was still in (boarding) school and wasn't at liberty to just dash off to see any movie I liked.
It's been digitally remastered and is absolutely sumptuous. I didn't realize at the time I ordered the DVD that iTunes was going to be show-casing the Fab Four starting today (or was it Yesterday?), not that it would make a difference -- but I may have felt I was band-wagoning if I'd known. Which I wasn't.
Watching it again reminded me that it was still very funny in a way that anticipates Monty Python's Flying Circus by about five years (I had to check to see the dates -- 1965 for HELP, '69 to '70 for MPFC) -- it's something I didn't recognize at the time I saw MPFC, though I knew they were channeling the Goon Show -- but also just their own I-Am-The-Walrus wackiness. They anticipate political correctness to an astonishing degree, considering that it was NOT the order of the day: they use a multi-armed deity they name 'Kaili', importune a goddess they call 'Perverti' and though characters are obviously dressed to simulate SubContinentals, they're just enough off the mark (I suppose ...) to get away with their spoof. They're quite vicious towards the British characters in the film -- the manic scientist who complains bitterly about the lack of Govt recognition and the daft elderly-lady neighbours, f'rinstance. The mumbling conversations of the 'Head Priest' in which he complains about young people not being attracted to human sacrifice any more, 'such a shame!' and wonders what can be done to make it more palatable. LOVE it.
Like I LOVE the tiger, the idiotic winking lady, the Beatle-fan who was the original sacrificial victim, the crazy 60s clothes ... and of course, of course, the boyz themselves, singing.
For me the best bit is the way Ringo finally gets the ring off his finger --SPOILER ALERT-- not all thru the main part of the film, when he desperately wants to, but only at that moment when he's distracted from the need to get it off his finger and is no longer obsessing over either keeping it or removing it and because at that moment he genuinely wants to help the petitioner. I always thought (but yes, of course I romanticize the Beatles out of all proportion) this was totally THE HEIGHT of transcendental philosophy revealed in the banal-pop medium of a Beatles film. Way out.
To top this, I have also ordered the DVD of Magical Mystery Tour, which I've never seen. Yes, yes, I know it was such a low-tide moment in cinema that even die-hard Beatle fans are embarrassed by the film. That's why I want to see it. I want to Love The Hate. Haven't got it yet! Will report when I do.
Saturday, November 06, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
A friend sent this to me. I do not have first-hand information but since the method appears to be otherwise harmless AND easy to resort to, I think it's well worth the try. Here it is: (disclaimer: I don't know, in both accounts given below, who the "I" is. The message is as it came to me, with no changes made to it by me. I Googled Won Low Kat and found several sites listing the same advise about the papaya leaf cure. I have NO idea what "Won Low Kat" is! The story and information appear to be sourced from the Philippines or Indonesia. There are very many links to blogs featuring the same or very similar text, but this one includes a photograph of the papaya's leaf: A SAILOR'S MUSINGS.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
Here's a LINK to my essay in the issue -- it features a couple of old SUKI cartoons! Here's one of them -- a fragment from the "Historionics" episode published in THIS IS SUKI.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Was I just in the right mood to see it? The Wikipedia article about the book on the which the film was based suggested that both the novel and the film came in for sharp criticism -- the unlikelihood of such a situation developing was the main charge I think, but there were stronger views -- but I wasn't greatly bothered by the knowledge that it was "just fiction" after all. I think a story like that -- and the film in particular -- maybe works better as fiction. It opens up a pathway that cannot be refuted by mere facts about what might have been -- and then takes the viewer down a corridor that is strangely sweet even while horribly sad.
It's been a good fortnight for movies: perhaps two weeks ago I saw PEEPLI LIVE (Hindi, 2010 dir by Anusha Rizvi, Mahmood Farooqi), followed by WELL DONE ABBA (Hindi, 2009, dir Shyam Benegal) and VAANAPRASTHAM (Malayalam, 1999, dir Shaji N. Karun), all on DVD. I liked the first best, the second one least and the last one … well, I enjoyed it in a purely visual sense, because it concerned the life and times of a Kathakali dancer.
PEEPLI was clever, well-acted, excellently well-cut and had a great script but I would have preferred a different ending. It was so obvious that (a) someone would die and (b) that it would not* be Natha, the poor farmer whose would-be-suicide the film revolves around, the only element of surprise that remained was to discover how the situation will be resolved. So when it is resolved in the canonical way -- see the film and find out -- I was disappointed. It seemed to me that an opportunity to discover a less oh-well-yes-it's-got-to-end-SOMEHOW ending was missed. But this is a minor quibble, considering the smart and keenly-observed quality of the film. It's got the quick wits of a television commercial but the heart of a documentary. *(his death would be too, too obvious for such a cool film)
ABBA was (for me) unbearably, unforgivably paste-board cute. I am the wrong audience for films of this sort, where everything has to be make-believe, from the Mr Nice-Guy driver with the saintly-but-irritable-executive-boss, to the cheeky-beauty-smartypants daughter, to the long-suffering-police-officer … you get the picture: one endless album of stereotypes. I detest this kind of cinema because I feel it talks down to everybody and the sarcasm -- oh! A well that was paid for by a Govt scheme never materializes and eventually is reported to the police as having been "stolen" -- is meaningless in a country where it is no longer even ho-hum news to hear of taxes being paid for houses that have never been built and defaulting tax-payers receiving threatening notices for years after their deaths. But it worked for my co-watchers at home, all of whom are fond of sophisticated cinema but who found it charmingly rustic and were willing to award it the Social-Relevance-Against-Impossible-Odds Prize.
VANAPRASTHAM came highly recommended and so for me was a much greater disappointment than if I'd realized that it was an annoying and weepy story dressed up as a stirring art film built around the spectacular costumes of a Kathakali performance. I don't get any thrills from hearing Malayalam since I can't understand anything said onscreen and though I LOVED the costumes, the story was moronic. Or it WOULD have been moronic if it hadn't been performed in Art Motion (that's slow motion for the sake of Art, not Sports) and been Heavy With Cultural Significance. Even with the subtitles, which were ungrammatical, too literal and yet also obscure in meaning, the story was hard to follow. The characters seemed to age at differing speeds -- a little girl of perhaps five grows into a lissom young miss of at least 16 during the same time frame as a baby who grows into a maybe five year old boy (going only by their appearances -- I couldn't read dates or follow the time references). Meanwhile the parents, estranged by social class and personal quirks barely show the passage of time at all.
It's like watching a gift parcel being tossed in one's direction from a distance, watching it arc through the sky, imagining/hoping that it might be aimed in one's direction and then watching it fall quite far afield: it was never intended for this viewer after all, is what one realizes. And those for whom it is made, apparently live in a dimension of extreme, brooding emotions that can never be released through logic or calm reflection, passions that can never to be talked through or smoothed out: all of existence viewed as one continuous storm of untamable Feeling. Ooh! AAAhh! SobSobSob. Exhausting and unsatisfying, however beautiful the costumes.
Monday, October 11, 2010
Friday, October 08, 2010
I just finished writing a piece for OUTLOOK in which I talk about the reasons why I stopped drawing SUKI. While researching images I looked for a couple to post here. Enjoy ...
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Here's my piece:
This week I heard that a well-known Mumbai actress received a birthday present from her husband, of a cake in the shape of a slum. That’s right, a slum. It is reported to have been created with shanties, pipes and a road sign with the celebrity’s age displayed as its “gali number”. The first reaction that went through my head when I heard this description was, “Imagine even pretending to eat clogged drains and sewage!”
But the more I thought about it, the more difficult it was to say exactly why I found the idea nauseating. For instance, would it have been okay if something bitter and hard to chew had been created rather than a sweet and creamy luxury item? Or is it mean-spirited to assume that a slum would NOT be delicious to bite into? And by the way, is it inherently distasteful to think of eating up whole neighbourhoods? Or is it only distasteful when the neighbourhoods are not well-maintained? I can remember, for instance, that for my sixth birthday the party theme was clowns, with a cake to match. At my 10th, I helped decorate a cake in the shape of a medieval castle, with ice-cream cone towers. Does this mean that my family was grotesquely insensitive about medieval royalty and circus entertainers? Or is it okay to eat delicacies fashioned into symbols associated with wealth and pleasure while confectionery in the shape of destitute neighbourhoods must be condemned? And is that because we believe the destitution is unacceptable or our willingness to admit it exists that must be avoided at celebrations?
The more I thought about the thing, the more questions my mind generated. For instance, would someone, child or adult, who asked for leper-shaped desserts be considered depraved? Or would we think they were socially mature and responsible? Then what about pornographic puddings—would they be considered inappropriate at a child’s party? And does the shape of a birthday cake raise awareness? Or breed insensitivity? Would it be acceptable if, when a cake were made for someone who didn’t live in a slum, the dwellers had been invited in to eat it? Or is it so obviously offensive to make a dessert out of the visible symbol of the nation’s social inequalities that there’s no level at which inclusion becomes possible?
Is there anything that the revellers could have done that would have made it less objectionable, such as providing clean drinking water to a slum for a month? Or would only a full year’s supply make it okay? And would that be considered a responsible approach to lavish celebration or would it be tokenism to assuage guilt? Would it show a greater sense of humour and/or irony if there had been candles in the shape of slum-dwellers? And if it turns out that the slum-dwellers had benefited in the manufacture of the cake would that have made it all right? Or would the shape of the cake be okay if it had been made in order to be raffled and the ticket money given to the homeless?
The husband of the 60-year-old birthday baby is reported to have accused cake-critics of being humourless. The couple is known for their support to worthy causes and in particular to pavement-dwellers. So perhaps they should have responded to the criticism by gifting the residents of the slum closest to their residence a cake of matching size, but made in the shape of their own apartment building. Or—here’s a radical idea—how about cakes in the shapes of politicians, made to be eaten by their opponents? Religious icons too! And would that result in cake-eating becoming a politically charged activity with opposing parties ostentatiously gobbling up the religious icons of their enemies? Might we be entering an era of cake-wars? And would anyone who pointed fingers at those who objected to such activities be told that they lacked a sense of humour?
In the end, there’s no way of policing or legislating such things. People of conscience must know in their hearts whether or not they’re using a symbol appropriately. If not, it really doesn’t matter whether they are leftists eating slum-shaped cakes or anti-abortionists eating foetus-shaped eclairs. The moral of the story is, you can’t have your ideology and eat it too.
SORRY, PLEASE! I'M NOT JEWISH
There are some books that make me want to lie flat on the floor and howl. Not with fear or laughter, but the sheer tedium of having to plough through them. If this one hadn't been expressed in such elegant and well-turned language, it would have been easier to ignore. So alas, part of my complaint against the book is that its author Howard Jacobson writes so well that we can see the emptiness at the heart of his novel all the more precisely.
The story revolves around Julian Treslove. He is presented as the type of human being who should have been drowned at birth, like an unwanted kitten ¬– except of course that would only have lead to a novel being written in the voice of an exceptionally annoying phantom. We are told that Treslove has no qualities to recommend him: unreliable as a friend, disloyal as a lover, uncaring as a father as well as monumentally sentimental and romantic. The cherry – or do I mean the eye-ball dipped in red dye? – on top of this dismal list, however, is his obsessive fascination with Jewishness. He is the one who considers it an affliction, in part because he isn't a Jew, in part because he considers his entire existence to be an affliction. The question that gives the book its title is based on Treslove's use of the name "Finkler" as his personal code-word to mean "Jew". The novel's ultimate theme is about what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaustian world, where yesterday's victims are today's terrorists and tomorrow's front-page corpses might be yours, mine or the Palestinian family's next-door.
Treslove's two dearest friends are Jews. Samuel Finkler and Treslove were in school together while the nonagenarian Libor Sevcik was at one time a teacher to both boys. At the beginning of the book, Finkler and Libor have both lost their wives. Libor's marriage was long, loving and intensely loyal, Finkler's was shorter and riven with infidelities – marital, ideological, intellectual. It is through Libor that Treslove meets Hephzibah, the woman who most fulfils his notion of Ideal Life-Mate. But his relationship with her is so compromised by his self-image as a cultural chimaera, a gentile Jew, that he ceases to maintain his integrity as a convincing character. It's enough that the world has Israel, Palestine and Woody Allen's New York-style neuroses to contend with. The spectacle of a non-Jewish Englishman moaning about the angst of not having Jewishness to moan about is too absurd to be funny and not pathetic enough to be interesting.
Perhaps one of the reasons I found the novel merely self-indulgent rather than insightful or poignant is that I already know, as an Asian belonging to a post-colonial nation, a fair amount about the inclusion-exclusion game as it is played out in urban situations around the world. Through Treslove's character, Jacobson seems to want his readers to re-explore the notion that the Jewish version of this game is still the most riveting one around. But it no longer is for me or, at least, not in the hands of this writer. According to the back-cover blurb this is a "scorching story of exclusion and belonging, ageing, wisdom and humanity … funny, furious, unflinching …' And it's on this year's Man-Booker Prize shortlist. Brrrrr! The longlist must have been grim indeed.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
Thursday, September 02, 2010
Ah -- and here's a link to the article itself, THE OLDER DELHIS.
I've just finished reading Paul Theroux's SIR VIDIA'S SHADOW
and am still tingling with pleasure. I have always liked Theroux as a writer and look forward to his books but for some reason never got around to reading this one when it came out in 1998/99. Perhaps because I was not interested enough in VS Naipaul to care that they'd apparently had a falling out; perhaps because the reviews suggested that Theroux exposed himself as spiteful and small-minded while criticizing a famous lit-giant.
I am glad now that I waited to read it because in the intervening years I have read several new books by Theroux but only the odd word or two by Naipaul. The fact that the latter was finally awarded a Nobel changes nothing: I don't choose my reading based on prizes. I read 'SHADOW as if it were a murder mystery -- but with a friendship rather than a corpse at the heart of the mystery.
I would say that it's a must-read for anyone who is interested in books and literature, in writers and their lives. Theroux does expose himself -- and that is what makes this such an unusual book -- it's like reading the diary of an intelligent, well-read and sophisticated lover who has been jilted in the most atrocious way and then, in the way of ALL lovers, intelligent or not, cannot stop himself from screaming his heart out. The entire book is a very well-articulated, superbly crafted scream of deep, unquenchable heart-hurt. The pain of a lost friendship IS often more unbearable than the loss of romantic/sexual/conjugal love because it very often involves betrayals at levels that the loser does not even know existed until they are revealed.
It is a wonderful book, better than any fiction. Go on, then: run out and buy it/borrow it/read it AT ONCE.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
Monday, August 23, 2010
The main (only!) ingredient is POPCORN.
Using freshly popped corn, squeeze the popped kernels into small molds about the size of fish fingers, plus something to keep the forms from breaking apart, like some kind of light batter (but not enough to seriously flavour the corn). Then these can be arranged on a plate around different kinds of dips -- such as hot caramel sauce, or chocolate for a sweet and sticky snack -- and Mughlai gravy, or BBQ sauce for savoury treats!
Friday, August 20, 2010
[This has appeared in the current issue of BIBLIO]
Like an experienced angler landing a difficult catch, Usha KR keeps her line taut all the way through this elegantly plotted novel. Not till the end do we get to see the whole thing as it lies panting and struggling, revealed at last in all its oddity, neither a mystery nor a romance but a story of people caught in the embrace of a complex and hairy otherness.
Usha's retelling of this half-forgotten news story is set in January 2000. A teacher called Shrinivas Moorty forms the heart of the book. Despite a sterile marriage and dead-end career, he has entered his middle-years with a few shreds of his youthful dreams still clinging to him. Next is Neela Mary Gopalrao, the woman bureaucrat at the Centre for Socio-Economic Studies who rules over her private fiefdom of clerks and peons with a rod of petty cruelties: cheques that will be needlessly delayed, inter-departmental letters that will never be delivered, cutting remarks that can never be countered for fear of dismissal. Finally there is Pushpa Rani, the young woman who has powered her way out of the slums and into a call-centre with the tenacity of a peepul-tree seedling growing out of a brick wall.
We are told at the outset that these three lives will be braided together and held in place by that monkey-shaped filament whose name adorns the cover of the book. And we look for the creature, as we enter the opening chapters, wondering from which corner of Ammanaguddi Street, dug up and traffic-clogged as it is, the shadowy being will spring. But the lives of the three characters soon dominate the stage and we are diverted by the unspooling of their histories until suddenly, with a twitch and a stifled scream, yes – there's the creature! Or … wait: what exactly are we looking for, again? Is this a novel about three fictional characters or a documentary about the changing soul of Bangalore? About a city or a country? About you or I? By the time we end the book, we know a little more about what we might have believed when we began it, but we also look reflexively over our own shoulders, wondering about the monkey-shaped spectres that haunt the hidden corridors of all our lives.
Usha K.R.'s gift as a writer is her ability to convince us that even the slighteset of stories is worth caring about. Her characters are so unremarkable that if not for the precision with which she describes them, we would not pay them a second's attention. Moorty, for instance: he has a slight paunch, his hair is thinning, he rides a scooter. Even the elements that make up his tiny inner spark, the love of western rock music, the fondness for good cinema and the Nehruvian socialism that still animates his deepest memories, are hardly very original. The songs and the bands are only too familiar, the socialism has grown so stale and the movies are all a bit passé now. But it is this very ordinariness that makes the portrait so convincing. Like a frog that has been expertly dissected for us by our biology teacher, the fact that it is commonplace is precisely why we value it – because it reveals what is commonplace about all frogs.
Pushpa Rani by contrast, is a character whose real-life counterparts are so recently evolved from the primordial slime of India's social inequalities that her feet as still a little webbed, a little unknowable. None of us has enough data about what lies in the future of all the Pushpa Ranis rising up from the slums and shanty towns of Indian cities and in that sense a literary character created from her clay can be molded to fit almost any role. Neela is more familiar, the petty bureaucrat in the starched cotton sari, but she has some unexpected flourishes too. She is of mixed Hindu-Christian parentage and for that reason is neither wholly respectable nor wholly pariah. She is that stock figure-of-fun, a card-carrying member of the Spinster Party who will nevertheless permit one single pulse-beat of indiscretion to rattle around her veins for the rest of her natural life.
The secondary characters are as well-realized as the principals. They include Neela's underlings such as the brash, good-hearted peon Sukhiya Ram and her single overlord in the official pantheon, the lofty Dr Subramanyam; 'Bali Brums', short for Balaji Brahmendra, the "charismatic and hugely popular radio jockey of the city's brand new and only FM channel, Voices from Heaven"; and Moorty's fragile wife Lily, with her beauty and her childlessness, and Moorty's colleague at work Jairam, with his America-returned born-again capitalism. Pushpa Rani's co-workers and family have a faintly filmi quality to them, as if we have either seen them in BBC documentaries about Call Centres or in commercials about the near-magical properties of skin-fairness creams.
Holding all the characters together is the personality of the street along which so much of the action takes place. "The Ammanagudi Street of [Moorty's] boyhood was a nice mix of cows and men, and of course, the goddess after whom the street was named. Of the old shops, only two remained – a cycle-repair shop and a flour mill, going about their business for more than thirty years – before they were shown up by a fast food "palace" selling hot tomato soup at five rupees per cup and a cyber café with twenty-four-hour Internet access … now that he had to go past the temple every day for the past two years, past the potholes filled with the over-runs from the manholes and the plastic bags that floated on the scum and got caught in the foot rests of his scooter every now and then, he had seen for himself how the Mother lived and even become familiar with Her routine. Every morning he did what every other passerby did – turn right to have a glimpse of her face – black stone, freshly annointed with oil, her nose, eyes and mouth outlined in silver, calmy accepting of all that her devotees did to her. A trishula was planted in front of her, lemons impaled fresh every morning on each of the three prongs – marking the bounds of direct access. No one could venture beyond except her priest – an unsmiling young man with a crew cut, the razor-trimmed arc of hair clean and precise against the skin of his neck. Late one morning Shrinivas Moorty had been witness to the priest lighting up a beedi and having a quiet smoke after closing the temple, and then making his way to the self-service joint up Ammanagudi street, presumbaly for an idli-vada … [The Mother] reminded him of his wife – the same mysterious rituals with the unguents and the stoic acceptance of worship. He remembered his mother and sister, who were easier than Lily and the Mother, and whose ablutions too were not as complicated, rubbing on their faces something called Afghan Snow, that came in an icy white glass jar and had a picture melting snow-covered peaks on the outside." (pgs 13 & 17)
Just as the street succumbs to the indignities of being dug up and built over, slowly strangulated with underground cables and wholly choked with a combination of garbage and over-sized cars, so too the human inhabitants succumb to the changes that have stampeded over them. In this twilight of the senses, where all that was once so familiar has been replaced by cement and plastic, the emergence of a "half-man half-beast" that briefly held several Indian cities in the grip of a fear psychosis is perhaps not surprising. As an interesting speculation about a phenomenon that was never properly explained the novel is refreshing and provocative. I look forward to whatever next Usha KR has in store for her readers.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
The past few weeks have passed in a blur of activity. I'm not even going to try to present a clear record of all that happened. But these pictures may provide a few clues -- starting with the ENORMOUS Belgian waffle at the very top and ending with the wedding photograph of my niece Divya and nephew-in-law Deke at the event in Boston, 17th July.
The three days in Belgium were pure pleasure, spent in the company of Paul and Bea, exceptional hosts. The two pictures following the waffle are both from Belgium. One is of the shower-cum-sunken bath of the Ah-MAAAAZING hotel at which P&B accommodated me as their guest -- it was a small manor which had been renovated maintaining its authentic turn-of-the-century opulence, complete with constantly playing classical music in the foyer and courtesy wine in the little garden at the back. The second is of a beer-fuelled wagon -- the seated beer-drinkers cycle in unison, which is what powers the small wagon they're sitting in!
We did a lightning tour of Ghent and Bruges with a brief follow-through in Brussels including a visit to the newly opened RENE MAGRITTEmuseum, on the day before my departure, on Sunday 11th.
I arrived in NYC on the 12th, discovered to my great delight that there's a shuttle bus service direct from the airport to Port Authority Bus Station -- it's called NYAS, stands forNew York Airport Service and is REALLY convenient. At Port Authority I got onto the bus to Binghamton, arrived on schedule at 6 pm and there was my sister Su waiting to collect me and drive us both back to Sayre.
I was two nights in Sayre, then Su and I left for Boston, by car, on Wednesday. We checked into the Marriott in the evening, and on Thursday guests began to arrive for the wedding. Paul and Bea flew in from Belgium and I went to the airport to meet them, while Su and Divya came by in their car to collect all three of us and return us to the hotel. In between, I also had a most enjoyable lunch and business meeting with the publishers of the American edtion of I AM DIFFERENT, in Boston, that same afternoon.
Friday was spent with P&B, doing a "DUCK TOUR" of Boston and generally having a good time. The first formal wedding event took place at the hotel in the afternoon -- a mehendi ceremony plus cocktail and dinner -- it turned into an extremely lively affair as Deke's large family had begun to arrive and everyone was in Party Mode!
On Saturday, the wedding was scheduled at 4 pm, began on time and continued with dinner and dancing late into the night -- but not the wee hours. By the time we wrapped it, it was only 11.30 at night and we had cleared all our stuff out of the venue, which was Deke's Golf Club ball room. The next day, Sunday, was a general wrap up for all the guests at the hotel, since many of them left that day. Everyone was very relaxed, there was an enormous breakfast buffet, also attended by Deke and Divya. On Monday, Su and I drove back to Sayre.
I spent another three nights with her, then took the bus to New York on Friday. Spent a night with Visa & Chandru, then on Saturday left for Vermont, by train. It was a very pleasant ride -- I LOVE trains -- arriving exactly on time at 8.03 pm. Suzanna was there to collect me and in another hour we were in East Hardwick.
So THAT was great -- a huge change of pace -- there were three hives of bees, new goat babies (yes, I KNOW I can call them kids ...), turkey chicks in one enclosure, ordinary chicks in another enclosure, a steer whose head was soon to be on the chopping block, the haying was in full swing ... and much, much more. Including of course the mandatory fantastic meal at RAINBOW SWEETS of Marshfield, VT.
My final five days were especially hectic: by bus to White River Junction where I was met by Daisy, my friend in Lebanon (NH), and was whisked off to a lunch date with her new friend David, owner of the amazing MAIN STREET MUSEUM -- a museum of droll and unusual objects, chosen for "the stories" that are attached to them. The next day, Friday, I left for Newport via Boston's South Station, on the Dartmouth Coach.
I mention this because I managed to drop my little waist-pouch on the bus while getting off. Yes, OF COURSE my passport was in it! By the time I realized it was gone, so was the bus. But I was VERY lucky: the bus does an airport loop and returns to South Station. Meanwhile I had the help and reassurance of a very kind South Station control-booth officer called Keith, who called the driver of the Dartmouth Coach and confirmed that he had indeed discovered the pouch. An hour later, it was back in my hands, contents intact. PHEW. Only another Indian citizen will know what kind of nightmare it would be to lose travel documents just prior to an international flight.
ANYWAY. So I went on to Newport, spent two very happy nights with Steve, Marion and the girls, then returned to Lebanon for two very pleasant nights. On Tuesday morning at 6.15 a.m. Aaron, Daisy's husband, very kindly dropped me off at the bus terminal, where I boarded a nonstop coach all the way to New York. It stops very close to Grand Central Station, but I was able to catch the same convenient NYAS shuttle service back to JFK. My flight left on schedule at 6 pm. arrived an hour early in Brussels at 7 a.m., left again for Delhi and 10 a.m. and we landed once more at exactly 9.40 pm.
And that's my story for the past few weeks!
Monday, July 12, 2010
Sunday, July 04, 2010
Then I began to think, Uh-oh! Joel Stein's e-mail box is going to be filled with hot, wet hate VERY SOON!
MEANWHILE, in other news, here's my review of VISHWAJYOTI GHOSH's DELHI CALM. I can never find India Today's online review links, so this is my own text-version (with my title for it -- the print title is most likely different):
IN SEPIA VERITAS
The thing about a graphic novel is that it is so very personal. The author's hands have touched the work, not merely via the keyboard, but physically: the paper, the colours, the visual shape of the narrative. In this sense, it seems to me, Vishwajyoti Ghosh's graphic novel, his first solo work as an illustrator/artist, is so intensely internal that reading it is to trespass within the author's inner studio of thoughts, moods and memories. Even though he's invited us in by publishing the book, his style is that of an artist who would much rather not exhibit at all.
So yes: this is not a novel in the normal sense. Nor is it an autobiography. It's more like the disinterred remains of a national trauma, reconstructed by someone who must have been a small child at the time (three years old: I checked). The trauma was and is forever, the Emergency. Yet in this version, it is less a historical event than a state of mind. The political figures of that era are not named, nor are their parties vilified. The entire situation is presented as a crisis that began for an obscure reason and was then maintained forever, a bogeyman in the collective national psyche. The book suggests that as a nation and as a people, we have become so inured to being in condition of stressful anxiety that we have forgotten what it means to be any other way.
The narrative is presented in a series of discontinuous episodes focusing on the persona of a journalist, Vibhuti Prasad. Interspersed between his interactions with friends and fellow-thinkers, are sections presented in the form of newspaper clippings in which we see a character known as Moon who is clearly meant to represent a certain woman prime minister. The atmosphere of unease within the book is infectious to the extent that I find myself unwilling to name this historical character in my review. Indeed, it strikes me as both very odd and very sad that while India prides itself on being a nation with a free press, Ghosh could not afford to name anyone in his book.
The entire story is told as if it were a fever-dream, and though some events are all too familiar – the rise of the younger son, called Prince in this version, the forced sterilizations of that era, the midnight disappearances alongside the flowering of a rare and sweet idealism, as if only the extremes of political excess can squeeze the purest type of radicalism out of an otherwise inert populace – other effects are presented as fantasy. The wearing of ever-smiling masks, for instance, and the chopping back and forth across narrative lines.
The drawings are presented in a yellowy sepia brown, watercolour washes combined with sharp, scratchy ink-effects. I found the work most effective in some of the long perspectives, where the city is represented as a jumble of rickety aparments held together by telephone wires, illegal power cables and the once-ubiquitous cable TV lines. The title is a slap of bitter irony: there is nothing in the least bit calm about the book. It rakes over the coals of the past with anger and in mourning, for all that was lost and all that will never be.
Thursday, July 01, 2010
In the opening pages, Prema, a young Nepali living in the US, is asked where she’s from. She tries explaining: “‘It is near India’, or ‘Where Mt Everest is’, or ‘You’ve heard of the Sherpas?’, so that they might say, ‘Geez, that’s real far’, or ‘I could have sworn you were Mexican/ Italian/Spanish’, or ‘You speak good English.’” In this efficient, endearingly familiar way, second-time novelist Manjushree Thapa introduces us to a story about displacement, self-definition and one South Asian woman’s search for fulfilment.
Prema’s story starts in a small village near Kathmandu, ascending quickly through the loss of her mother in childhood and the commonplace hardships of poverty, to a college degree in forestry, resulting in a job with an NGO. Secondary plot-lines include a younger sister who runs off with Maoist rebels when they come calling, an anaemic romance with a fellow NGO worker and a stoic, undemanding father who only wants to see her daughter go forward in her life.
One day, in a spirit of indifference, Prema signs up for the US Green Card Lottery. When she wins, her response is characteristically laconic, as if resigned to her fate. Her inner world, however, is taut with emotion and she turns her face westward with a faint quickening of hope. When she finds a lover in the US, an attractive Guatemalan, she responds with an ardour native to her own passionate nature and her mountain culture. Another kind of heroine might have capitalised on the romance to build the familiar multi-storeyed, bathos-laden Asian drama. Prema’s different. She knows her path is an “ever-directionless zigzag trail”. In the spirit of a true seeker, she exceeds the stereotype. Her strength lies in the miniature scale of her aspirations. Like a tiny field-mouse setting out to find a niche in the limitless sprawl of the North American cornfield, she succeeds by being undeterred by her smallness.
Thapa has a light touch and maintains an admirable balance between telling a story and making socio-cultural observations. I enjoyed noticing the altered perspective of someone who might be mistaken for an Indian, but isn’t. Prema’s personal life is enviably free of the guilt and family-honour-type tensions of the subcontinent. Thapa writes as if she knows what there is to enjoy about sex. In a literary ethos where authors all but compete to earn the Bad Sex award, it was a rare pleasure to read a description worthy of the opposite.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
They were sent to me by the Incomparable AA.
01. I thought I saw an eye doctor on an Alaskan island, but it turned out to be an optical Aleutian.
02. They’ve designed a new kind of high-tech airport which can retrieve passengers from the aircraft even before it’s landed -- a case of out of the flying plane into the foyer.
03. A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead bandicoots. The stewardess looks at him and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.'
04. The roundest knight at King Arthur's round table was Sir Cumference. He acquired his size from too much pi.
05. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? He wanted to transcend dental medication.
06. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, 'I've lost my electron.' The other says 'Are you sure?' The first replies, 'Yes, I'm positive.'
07. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were feeling really cold, so they lit a fire in the craft. Not surprisingly, it sank … proving once again that you can't have your kayak and heat it too.
08. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. One turns to the other and says 'Dam!'
09. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
10. No matter how much you push the envelope, it'll still be stationery.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Two years ago, when your first novel "The Music Room" won the Vodafone Crossword Popular Book Award, I enjoyed meeting you at the ceremony in Bombay and applauded warmly when you won. How sad then, that I cannot be enthusiastic about Aftertaste.
What compelled you to write this mithai-house saga? How does anyone set out on a journey of 292 pages, knowing that it's going to focus wholly on dreary, unattractive people and the grubby monotony of their lives? Writing a novel is such a very conscious effort, after all. You must have had some very specific reason for wanting to do it. Yet even the hospital doorman in the prologue can see that this family of four adult siblings doesn't want their parent to walk out alive! It's like you're daring us to continue reading after having revealed the essential features of the story right there on page four.
But okay, let's suppose we dismiss the opinions of a minor character and forge ahead. We meet the family patriarch, his friends, his money-lender. We meet the two sons Rajan Papa and Sunny, and the two daughters Suman and Saroj, in their youth. We watch their mother grow into the matriarch known universally as Mummyji. The siblings grow up, get married and have children, all in an atmosphere of unsmiling tension. By book's end we still have no idea why you've introduced us to characters so annoying that they can't even masturbate in peace without an audience of readers looking on.
I can only assume that your real purpose was to write a stirring (haha, yes, pun intended) drama centred around mitthai. And yes, there are a couple scenes in which someone or other succumbs to the charms of a milky sweet: "The minute the khoya barfi entered his mouth, Kartar shrank from master to slave. He was seized by a strange sensation that he couldn't quite understand. His tastebuds unlocked an ancient room where he was an infant sucking on his mother's breast." But two pages later, you follow up with: "Rajan Papa slipped into a satiated sleep … He woke up to the squishy sticky feeling of rasgolla syrup streaming down his legs." I'm sorry, but that has not only ruined rasgollas for me, but inspired unnatural questions about advanced diabetics and whether or not their secretions might indeed be sugary. Bleah.
The other possibility is that you had planned to write a laugh-riot about sweating in the sweet-shop, but then your journalist's instincts got in the way. Before you knew it, your characters had curdled into soap-opera stereotypes and your research into the sweetmeat industry produced the kind of ho-hum material best suited to a Sunday Magazine article rather than a feature-length novel. Your prose turned from glib to glum and your plot sank into that armpit of tedium known as Hindu Undivided Family Failure. There's really only one solution to plots that go down this path: disk-erase and start afresh.
I know, I know, all this sounds like I'm going at your book with a blow-torch, right? Well think again. Whenever I've written what I believed was a devastating review in the past, the subject of my attack has gone on to win prizes and break bestseller records for that year. So take heart! This is really only my effort to boost your sales and enrich the lives of all those readers who will swarm to read your book, now that they know it's about their favourite fixations: money, mithai and Mummyji. See you at next year's book awards! Sincerely and with no hard feelings, MP
Monday, May 31, 2010
An article I read about the widows of Vrindavan many years ago made such a deep impression on me that forever afterward, I could not hear the word "widow" without thinking of that article. There was a single photograph, showing tiny bowed figures dressed in greyish white, sitting by the steps of a temple.
Then on NDTV, recently, I happened to catch a glimpse of a documentary feature called MOKSHA, by filmmaker and friend Pankaj Butalia. The five minutes I watched were enough to make me want to see the whole thing, so with a few shakes of the e-mail tree and a month's delay because of my travel sched, the DVD was in my hands. Magic Lantern Foundation, the distributors of the film, were exactly as prompt and courteous as their name suggests they might be.
The film is quiet, powerful and very beautiful. I could say "sad" but the nakedness of what it shows us cannot possibly be covered by any mere words like "sad" or "tragic". At one end of the spectacle of Indian life there's the gaudy frenzy of weddings but at the other end ... these bowed figures, with their shaven heads, little cloth bags, scrawny hands and their bare bodies, blouseless, swaddled in thin cotton the colour of ash and bones.
The fragment I saw on NDTV quoted a nineteenth century account of a nine-year-old girl's death: she is a child-widow still living in her father's house. She falls ills and is burning with fever, but because it is a day of fasting she is forbidden water by a senior widow in the clan. She dies of thirst, having "licked the whole floor of the room (she was locked into) in search of a little moisture".*
What does one do with such stories, such images? One click away, on TV, there are girls striding about like gender empowerment shock troops, grinding their hips and sticking their glistening lips out at the world in quest of a better shampoo or a more meaningful potato crisp. Meanwhile, in Vrindavan, today, right now, even as you read this, there are thousands of these other women, unrecognizable as the same species so bent and shrunken are they, as they wait for death while eking out a living by singing bhajans to Krishna.
One of the achievements of this film, it seems to me, is that it manages to slide in between that moment when you want to turn your face away and that other moment, when you want to stare, to reveal the femininity of even these women who have been stripped of that very thing. There are the faint echoes of beauty that still cling to the shape of the nose, the calm straight lines of the brow, the ritual of applying white ash on the forehead, the bridge of the nose, some with dots on either side, some without. And there is that heart-breakingly steady gaze, without self-pity, as the life is described: yes, I am alone, yes, I have nothing, yes, my husband died in my arms, and then yes, my children threw me out.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Now you see him, now you don't: the work of LIU BOLIN. From the New Yorker. DOES EVERYONE SEE THAT THERE'S A MAN STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS IMAGE??? My guess is that most people who've stopped here have not realized that there's a reason why that otherwise ridiculous bird's nest soup stadium is featured at my blog ...
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Many Faiths, One Truth
By TENZIN GYATSO
WHEN I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.
Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.
Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.
Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.
An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.
A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.
I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.
Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met with many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust with such intensity that we were both in tears. And I’ve learned how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I’ve come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too — as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings.” I’m moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra State in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I made a donation to his colony.
Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.
Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.
Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.
Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.”
Monday, May 24, 2010
I was one of twenty authors invited to write an essay for the book and the subject suggested to me was "commuting in India". I wrote my piece several years ago and was quite pleased with it, so I thought I'd post a couple of excerpts here as a teaser trailer. If you want to read the complete piece, you'll have to buy the book!
Right until the moment that I sat down to write my piece for this collection of essays, I had expected to make a patchwork quilt of some fifty years of train journeys, from early childhood to now. Then I opened a new file on my laptop and in that instant the gently bubbling spring of memories changed into a trickle of stale anecdotes about lost tickets, colourful fellow passengers and the time I threw up all the way from Madras to Bombay courtesy my mother's mutton sandwiches. I’ve told these stories dozens of times and though they’re reasonably entertaining when accompanied by cheese sandwiches and tepid coffee, they're not exactly marble-plaque material.
So I decided to fashion an amusement from scratch, using myself as fall-gal and the Indian Railways as my stage. I decided to go on an actual trip from Delhi to Madras, on the Rajdhani, but to treat it as if it were an amalgam of all my previous trips.
Naturally, then, my first priority was to create a disguise for myself. Stage magicians will tell you that the main part of a successful trick is misdirection - drawing attention away from the mechanics of the trick by doing something just outside the plane of intention. With this in mind, I did two things. The first was that I bought myself a set of clothes of the kind that I never normally wear: a salwar-kurta ‘suit’ made out of cheap shiny cloth, mud-brown in colour, with an all-over print of dull red flowers. On my feet I wore a pair of vomit-pink slippers, one size too small and I took care to paint my toe nails metallic sea green two weeks in advance of the journey, so that by the time I boarded the train my feet looked moth-eaten and diseased.
My second move was to shave my hair off.
My reason for taking this drastic step was simple: I didn't have the time or inclination to grow my hair out, yet a woman with short-cropped hair not only suggests that she makes regular trips to a hairdresser but also that she has the money and leisure to pay for such indulgences. By contrast, a shaven head, in India, instantly communicates a message of traditional values, self-sacrifice and most importantly, loss. A woman will not normally remove her hair except for sober reasons - the loss of a spouse, catastrophic illness, mental derangement, louse-infestation or in quest of a favour from the gods. Whatever the cause, nobody doubts the credentials of a tonsuree. The very nakedness suggests an exposure to the elements and an absolute lack of secrets that is pitiable and for that reason, disarming.
‘Excuse me?’ I said.
Both men looked up. They were mismatched in the way of famous comedy pairs, Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry —something intrinsically funny about the differences between them. The tall, broad one said, ‘Yes?’ while the smaller, more delicate one just nodded, with his head cocked to one side.
My immediate impression was that they were both young, perhaps in their twenties. Travelling salesmen was my first guess regarding their careers, but they might just as well have been cousins going home for a clan gathering or graduate students taking a Puja break. They were dressed decently, but without any flair. In the dim light all I could see was that they were clean-shaven, wearing long-sleeved shirts, with their luggage stowed neatly under their seats. The big one’s hair rose up in a poll of black curls on top of his head while the smaller man’s hair was straight and slicked back, parted on one side: a large hearty rabbit and a small nervous mongoose.
‘I’m doing a survey,’ I said. ‘Is it all right if I ask a few questions?’
‘Sure, sure,’ said Rabbit, as he shifted his bulk aside very slightly, as if to make
space for me, except that there was plenty of space and therefore no real need for him to shift.
‘- usually, we are the ones asking the questions,’ said Mongoose, unexpectedly. ‘Never mind! We will give the answers this time.’ He said this with a straight face, neither smiling nor frowning. There was something melancholy in his sobriety.
We were all speaking in English, though theirs was more accented than mine.
I said, ‘Oh! Does that mean you’re … ?’
‘- media consultants,’ said Rabbit, turning the palm of his right hand up, as if this were a self-evident fact. Something in the way he performed this gesture made me want to giggle.
‘We do market surveys,’ said Mongoose, nodding morosely.
‘Really!’ I said, smiling too brightly. There are certain circumstances which cause me to laugh uncontrollably. I produce a loud, chuckling rattle - sub-machine-gun with a touch of hyena - that is difficult to turn off once it gets started. I grow breathless, my sides ache and my eyes stream with tears. The fits usually occur when there is an obvious trigger, such as a comedy film or the company of friends, but sometimes, as on this occasion, the hysteria rises inside me like a volcano of soap bubbles, for no clear reason at all. An image flashed before my eyes, of me with my shaven head and green-painted toe-nails falling off my seat howling with laughter, as the two media consultants looking on, puzzled and a little pained. I clamped my hand across my mouth, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
‘How about you?’ asked Mongoose. ‘You are in survey business also?’
Further images were flashing in my head: scenes from Peter Sellers’ movies, of Herbert Lom’s face starting to twitch as crazed cackles leak out of him. I feared something similar was about to happen to me. I began massaging my cheeks as if I was in pain.
‘Uhh,’ I stammered, ‘not really, no. I’m - I'm a journalist -’
‘You should let her ask the questions,’ said Rabbit to Mongoose, in a reproachful tone.
The smaller man turned towards me, his eyes trusting and morose. ‘Please, Ma’am, you go ahead and ask. We will tell you anything.’
I was very grateful for the relative darkness of their cubicle. Sucking in a deep breath, so that the giggles were pushed back down into my stomach, I said, ‘I’m doing a series of articles about reincarnation. Maybe the two of you have some interesting stories to tell me?’
There was a brief silence. Rabbit cleared his throat and shifted slightly in his seat. Looking straight ahead as if reciting a passage he had memorized, he said,
‘Well … speaking for myself alone, I can say I take six eggs once a day.’
‘Eggs?’ I asked, unsure of what I’d heard.
‘Hard boiled,’ he said, thinking that I’d wanted clarification.
Mongoose was shaking his head from side to side. ‘He refuses to listen. I have told him so many times, but still he eats them. He says it is a question of faith.’
‘Just a moment,’ I said. ‘Why are we talking about food?’
‘You asked about it, so I am telling,’ said Rabbit, turning his palm over once more.
‘It is true,’ said Mongoose. ‘We have been travelling together on field trips for three years. He takes six eggs every night before dinner -’
‘I’m sorry but … what do eggs have to do with reincarnation?’ I had gone to a stage beyond laughter now. There was a floating sensation in my head, as if my giggles had transferred themselves to my sinuses without pausing to be released along the way.
‘You can read it in the papers every day,’ sighed Rabbit, raising his eyes to the ceiling with a long-suffering expression. ‘Some people are dying, some people are getting attacks. Excess of eggs leads to catharsis of the hearteries - leading to incarnation. But I am still eating my six eggs a day because … because … it is my belief!’ He closed his eyes.
‘No one can help him,’ whispered Mongoose, ‘no one’. He seemed on the verge of tears.
I got to my feet, knowing that I would explode if I remained in their company a second longer.
‘Thank you!’ I managed, before I fled. ‘You’ve been very informative!’