Sunday, August 25, 2013


Past 7 in the morning and already so hot that the laptop responds sluggishly. The world is full of horrible news – chemical attacks in Syria, the Bombay rape, Chennai Express becoming the highest-grossing Hindi movie ever. And if that is trivialisation, I really couldn’t be arsed.

I’ve been stupid. Things have piled up until a 100 crore scheme is only as important as trimming my nails. Prioritisation is the route to sanity. But tasks raise their little bobbing heads and chitter in my subconscious, fuelling fear, nibbling at the day, their noise adding up to a half-heard refrain, “No time! No time!”

To make it worse, Terry Pratchett’s Alzheimer’s is showing in Dodger, possibly the worst thing he has ever written. Not to worry, Terry. We’ll be reading you for old times’ sake, because Night Watch is one of the best things to never win an award.

And finally, screw Twitter and Facebook. THIS is my space, and if you don’t feel like dropping in for a chat, there's a cheaper edition of C Bhagat's Revolution waiting for you at your nearest traffic light.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What goes around

Douglas Adams propounded a unique theory for heavier-than-air flight. Climb to a high place and throw yourself off. And oh, try to miss the ground. Classic in its simplicity, except for the obvious drawback – nobody seems to have made it work. Somewhere in another dimension, perhaps doodling on a napkin in The Restaurant at End of the Universe, Douglas Noel Adams may be working on an upgrade.
But the theory is out there. Which leads to another possible scenario. Somewhere in the Mid-Western United States, a devoted reader and fan of Douglas Adams’ work decides to try out his theory of flight. With the expected result. Thereafter, this thwarted aviation researcher – or rather more likely, his next-of-kin – sue Douglas Adams’ estate and Pan Books for a zillion dollars because his theory caused grievous injuries and / or death of a reader. How would you rule in such a case, dear reader?
What, you think it’s far-fetched? Try this: the Mayor of San Diego is accused of sexual harassment. His attorney places the blame squarely on the City of San Diego. Because – wait for this! – the City never trained its officials on what constitutes sexual harassment and how to avoid it. In other words, the attorney claims that normal educated people need to be trained in how NOT to be lecherous and insensitive. This is not just (in my humble opinion) a specious defence. This is a symptom. There is a spectre haunting the liberal world today, the spectre of transferred responsibility. The spectre of “it’s-not-MY-fault”. The easy way out – blaming the system, the television, the corporation, just so long as it’s somebody else.
The USA, of course, revels in incredibly frivolous litigation. A couple sued WalMart because their grocery bag split and caused “cracked and damaged toenails”. No, really! It’s not just the USA. A lady in Israel sued a weather station because they predicted sunny weather, she went out in a light dress without an umbrella, it rained, she caught a cold. And a truly sad story – a student in Texas (but of course!) died because she got drunk, drove her Honda into Galveston Bay and drowned because she couldn’t unfasten her seat-belt. So of course her parents are suing Honda because their seat-belts cannot be unfastened by drunk drivers who also happen to be underwater. It’s sad that a young girl died, but at some point, we have to accept that if you break the law, you take the consequences. Not just the law of the land, but the laws of rationality.
There’s an extension of this attitude in India as well. The attitude of “why doesn’t the government fix it”. The assumption that the common citizen is entitled, but not responsible. A contradiction of every social construct from Aristotle to John Crawls. It can't work. If we want the system to work for us, we have to work for the system. If I want my daughter to be safe on the roads after dark, it's also my duty to check why my nephew is taking his bike out after midnight. If I want the conservancy to keep my city clean, it's my job to take my trash over to the local dump instead of leaving it outside my gate. I can't expect rewards without effort. There's no entitlement without responsibility.
And if we expect such entitlement, we're stupid. As stupid as the man who says he broke the law because his employer didn't teach him how to stay within it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The gift of laughter

Some people are born colour-blind. Some are born without a funny-bone. On balance, the latter group is more to be pitied
Growing up, I disliked the boys who were held up to me as examples. (No, I lie - I loathed them, I hated them with a deep and abiding malice.) “He’s so serious about his work”, I’d be told. “And an intolerably self-important little twit”, I’d think to myself. That could be one of the reasons why today I mistrust “serious”. What does it profit a man if he gains the world and loses his last belly-laugh? “Serious” is over-rated. Schopenhauer? Pshaw! I’m a Marxist – of the Groucho persuasion.
  “He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world is mad.” That's the first line of Rafael Sabatini's "Scaramouche", written nearly a hundred years ago. One could scarcely find a better maxim to live one's life by. I hold that just as there is no issue good or bad but thinking makes it so, there is no truth to grief or mirth, it's all a point of view. Granted, it may not be politic to crack Irish jokes when there's a bereavement in the family (especially if it's your boss' family). You won't get the guffaws that indicate your delivery of the punch-line was perfect. On the other hand, it can't hurt to raise a smile or two.
Humour, if leavened with sensitivity and compassion, lightens the burden of sorrow. The Monty Python group read a hilarious speech at their comrade's funeral. I can think of no better tribute to a man who brought happiness to people
Sadly (pun intended) enough, we as a nation tend to mistrust laughter. We persist in the belief that a sombre demeanour is a sign of great intellect or efficiency, whereas if the truth were told, it's far more likely to have been caused by colitis or tight underwear. To be fair, humorists have a tough time anywhere. Around the world, a man who lightens your mood is oft taken lightly. Remember P.G. Wodehouse's utterly hilarious lament at being dubbed a "burbling pixie"?
Humorists should rather be placed on a pedestal, for they create something that defies analysis. IF I am permitted another Wodehouse reference, it was said that criticising him was like taking a spade to a souffle. Why devalue this rare gift?
In India, this wariness about laughter cannot be a cultural relic. From Gopal BhNaar to Mullah Naseeruddin, Tenali Raman to Birbal (why, even Narad), our jesters have been respected as men wise enough to understand the world and present home-truths with a laugh. In more recent times, Osho (with his famous treatise on the f-word) and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar among others have had huge followings even though (or because?) they have encouraged their followers to laugh.
Why, then, are we so insecure whenever somebody publicly pokes fun at our idols? Obviously, laughter is anarchic. Especially in a democracy, where a telling satire can finish a political career more surely than assassination.

Perhaps that is the crux - we fear being laughed at because there is no remedy for losing one's dignity. But there is a defence. Prevention is better than cure. Pre-empt your satirists. If we learn to laugh at ourselves, our critics can at best laugh with us, not at us. And we might be happier.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A moment of Marvell?

Ten years ago I fell in love.

It was a very sweet infatuation, with all the naivete and wonder of puppy love, or perhaps the wilful delusion of an Indian summer. For a few brief days I swooned over the object of my attentions, my passion all the sweeter because I knew our time together would be short. Then we parted, but for years afterwards I was firmly committed to her. None other could match her charms, no other name evoked the same wistful smile. This, despite considerable temptation; strange as it may seem, there were others who sought to seduce my stolid middle-aged affections. Some were subtle, some brazen, some endearing in their simplicity.

But none compared to Paris.

When I think back on it, my inexperience was a major reason for my being so utterly besotted. It was my first visit to Europe. My first encounter with the charm of history not just preserved, but kept alive. The first time I strolled down cobbled streets at dawn, or savoured wine and a cigar in a sidewalk cafe as the lights came on in the scented streets. My first experience of a city lit up for beauty alone, or carefully tended flowerbeds lining busy roads. Of a real van Gogh, a real poster by Toulose-Lautrec.  It was as if a country bumpkin entered the big city, and the first woman he met was Madame du Barry. No wonder I was lost.

The passion lasted some years. There was a yearning to return. It faded. And I broke the faith.

I rejected the advances of Hong Kong, but I was led astray by the brassy charm of Istanbul, lost in the strange intimacy of Prague, grabbed bodily by the direct approach of Manhattan. Time passed, new booklets were added to my passport. Memories blurred, ran into each other. The lights of Aleppo morphed into the glimmer of Rio from the Pao de Acucar. But nothing could erase the memory of a patch of green by the Champs Elysee, with spring’s first lilacs in bloom.

Last week I visited her again. And the magic was gone.

Perhaps it was because the first time I had visited had been in February, with the streets comparatively deserted, whereas this May I had to share her with a million other admirers. Perhaps it was because I was coming off three months of hard grind, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Perhaps it was age. Or perhaps it was just experience. 

In the ten intervening years, I have seen too many cities, savoured too many meals, shared stories with too many friendly strangers. Paris is no longer a realm of wonder. This is not bragging; it is a lament. I have lost the capacity for wonder. I have lost the innocence of the first-time traveller. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

For two days I walked the streets of Paris, trying in vain to recapture that first fine rapture. But the Ile de la Citie seemed smaller and duller, the alleys on the Left Bank no longer beckoned. The sidewalk cafes were full of tourists, teenagers and cigarette butts. The Centre Pompidou seemed incongruous rather than witty. Even le quarter Marais seemed a little grumpy, as if sulking at the weather on a weekday afternoon. 
Then I retreated to my room with a paper sack full of bread and sundry viands, opened a bottle of port and gazed morosely out of the window. The sky darkened into the late late night of northern summer. Lights came on in the house across the street. A snatch of accordion music drifted up from the corner. 

I knew the young chap in the apartment opposite would go to sleep early because he left for work at 6 in the morning. That the accordion player was not rubicund and beret-clad, but a fresh-faced single mother who played gigs on the weekends. I knew that later in the evening the boys would congregate at the side door of the “Irish” pub, ten paces round the corner, for a smoke and a bit of a chat. That a little before 7 in the morning the garbage truck would edge cautiously down the street, taking special care not to make a noise around No. 26 or else Monsieur Everet would shout at them from his first-floor window. I realised I knew the pulse of the neighbourhood. Even it was for a very few days, I fitted in. I may no longer have the wonder of the Trocadero under the evening sun, but I could down a pint with an oddity, a Frenchman who preferred Guinness to Bordeaux.  And with the epiphany, “peace came dropping slow”.

No, I could no longer feel the keen thrill of novelty. But I had in its place the comfort of familiarity, the pleasures of the everyday. The cement that binds any lasting relationship.

Saturday, May 04, 2013


I was a dinosaur.

Not, alas, a snarling male-fantasy T-Rex, or even a velociraptor.
I was a brontosaurus. Or perhaps a mastodon. Slow, ponderous, quite content to wallow in turbid swamps as long as there was enough forage available. Not succulent greens, but paper. More enticing, more delicious than the freshest ambrosia. To wit, books.

Growing up, the keenest pleasure I experienced came on every alternate Saturday. My grandfather would take us to the British Council Library on Theatre Road, where there was a whole section devoted to children’s books. (It no longer exists; Attila the Hen cut down the funding for British missions worldwide, and the children’s section was one of the first casualties.) My cousin and I would fight tooth and nail over the library cards, gleefully raid the shelves and then, on the ride home, finger the books lustfully, barely able to contain the excitement, the anticipation, the sheer joy of having so many books to read.
Paper and glue and printing ink, the texture of the old leather on the spine, the crispness of the pages against the fingers, the unique smell – whether the brash presence of a new book like the perfume of a parvenu, or the more muted, musty, faintly apologetic miasma of old books – all adding up to the sheerest magic. The FEEL of books as much as their content. The purest pleasure I have known.

And yet ... This morning I realised that it has been WEEKS since I read a book from cover to cover. The long shelf facing the bathroom gathers dust. My last three visits to bookstores were for book launches – where I did not pause to browse the shelves. I have been seduced by e-books.
In the first week of January this year, the Wall Street Journal published a bout of the sheerest havering, citing irrelevant statistics and using contradictory arguments to argue that e-books are no threat to paper-and-ink publishing. A year ago, this dinosaur would have thrown his weight behind this argument, but not now. Not since I was bought over.

First, I moved from a laptop to a tablet. Then I discovered the seductive convenience of reading a book that I can adjust to my own requirements. After years of badly-bound paperbacks with barely legible fonts, I can now change the size of the font and often the font itself to my convenience. I no longer have to prise apart the book to read the ends of sentences that run into the spine. I don’t even need a bookmark, since the e-book will automatically open to the point where I left off reading the last time.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

There’s more. A generous friend has shared with me his entire library of e-books. All. Forty. Thousand. Of. Them! All of them put together take up a little part of a hard drive which is itself no bigger than ONE old Bantam paperback. 40,000 books! To put this in perspective, my father and I have been at our combined wits’ end to accommodate our collection of some 7000 books (not including his treasured edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which always has its own place next to his armchair!) No bookshelves, no cartons, no trunks too heavy to be lifted. Just a hard drive and a tablet.
And the clinching argument – when I’m reading an e-book through the night, the page is back-lit. Ergo, no need to keep the light on, and no squeals of complaint from the Better Half!

Now I know why the dinosaurs vanished.