Friday, January 27, 2006

What we mean when we say it

As a rule, I don't like comparing places to Bombay. It's not fair to the place I think. No matter how laid-back a town or how frugal its facilities, it is still home to so many people. It is disrespectful to constantly measure someone's home to an impossible yardstick and delight in its shortcomings. And also because I partly think Bombay to be aloof, distant, yet complete. The rest of the world is just necessary accoutrement.

So I don't really get belligerent when people say how much cleaner the other places are or how much warmer the neighbors. It is mostly true. I also listen quietly when people comment on how rumpled Bombay's fashion is - how tackily wearable the clothes and how impossibly practical the accessories. Fine. Sartorial elegance is a flippant virtue.

However, I saw something on T.V. yesterday that made me very angry. It was one of those lifestyle shows that get launched with squiggly, psychedelic lines. A hep anchor was covering new watering holes across several cities in India. She was dressed in so many chains, belts, and bracelets that she looked like a shiny Christmas past. But she was a good dancer - spirited and graceful.

Anyway, the show covered one pub that has a swimming pool in the centre and serves free Bloody Marys every Tuesday. Then the chain-lady went to another one that was set up on a launch. Their specialty was some kind of a shot served in small glasses made of mushrooms. Another was a subdued, yet classy affair on the top of a hill. Chain-lady went around asking people what they thought of the place. Several thumbs were brandished to 'Yoo hoos!' and 'Awesome!'s. That was good.

And then came on this lady with Maggi noodle hair (in form and colour.) She slurred, 'You know how all those Bombayites used to go 'night-life' this and 'night life' that....well, we've got better 'night life' (bony fingers held up to make air quotes) now.'

Okay. First of all, I understand the need for well-groomed eyebrows but they don't need to look like the sides of an isosceles triangle, do they?

Second of all, not all Bombayites party all the time. There are plenty of people in this city who don't go to pubs or clubs. And yet, these people will vouch for Bombay's 'night life' - because 'night life' in Bombay isn't about exclusivist alcoves. (I'll hold on while geometrically shaped eyebrows rise and fall. Done? Right.)

It's about being busy until very, very late and not feeling that time is running out. You can be at work (wherever work is - tuitions at someone's place, storyboarding in an office, discussing bail at the police station, cooking dinner in someone's house) peacefully. You know that the last bus is several hours away and the last train is even later. You don't constantly watch your back while you walk to the bus stop or the station. In fact, your worry at that point is getting run over by manic rickshaws even as late night news is being broadcasted somewhere.

And let's say you get hungry. You will get food. Stalls will serve you. They won't make you feel guilty for being hungry at 11:00 p.m. It may be late but you will get a willing cook to make that egg bhurji with extra onions. When you finally reach the station, you find yourself waiting in a long queue. Sure, it's late but you're not alone. You're one of many, many people.

Sure, there are the clubs and their trendier cousins - the lounges and restobars where you get to in fancy cars with dandy dates. They may not be four storey buildings or stylishly alfresco occupying the space of a small continent. But they will make your drinks until the milk vans come out. However, that is not what Bombayites miss when they go to other places.

They miss being stranded in traffic at midnight or looking out for a place to sit in the last bus home or going back after clubbing in a modest rickshaw alone. They miss not having to be reminded that 'it's getting late', 'it's late', or 'it's too late now.'

The world over, the rich will always have cars and the beautiful will always have company. And you can have access to a whole different world with these. But in Bombay, you can have neither and still have options. That is the life, the 'night life' we were always talking about.


Note: And it’s ‘Bombay ’, not Mumbai, in this post because the reckless disregard for the setting sun began then.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Where the sane live



I watched 15 Park Avenue a couple of weeks back. I can see why it could be panned as pretentious and austere. I can see why it could be heralded as good 'cinema', instead of great 'film'.

15 Park Avenue is a difficult film - to watch, understand, or apprise. And that makes it an easy film to remember for a long, long time.

While the movie is about several things, its story is rather simple. There is a family of three - the mother (Waheeda Rehman) and her daughters (Shabana Azmi and Konkona Sen). Shabana is a vociferous divorcee who teaches Physics in Calcutta University. Her younger sister, Konkona, suffers from schizophrenia that got triggered off because of her rape. Konkona believes that she has a family with several children and a doting husband waiting for her at 15 Park Avenue. She insists on finding it and returning home but there is no such place.

While that is the basic, plain-vanilla plot, there are several other flavours brought on by other characters. There's Kanwaljeet who plays Shabana's colleague. He's in love with her and tries hard to get her to see a life away from her mother and sister. There is the doctor who treats Konkona but ends up carrying the candle for Shabana. Then, we have Rahul Bose who plays the guy engaged to Konkona Sen. He later bails out because he can't take the weight of his partner's illness anymore. Several years later, he resurfaces to help Sen find her 15 Park Avenue. He is married at this time. Sheffali Chayya plays a role that would be excrutiating if this were a real life story. She's Bose's wife and must understand her husband's exorcism from guilt. She must take care of the children while her husband goes and takes care of an ex-lover....indefinitely.

What I liked best about the film was its pace. It's languid and is not rushing towards a conclusion. This could be because there is none. The movie ends with Konkona going off somewhere and Shabana and Bose looking for her. Slowly, they disappear from the screen and you see a man whistling across the road.

Personally, I thought the drama was not so much in the obvious portions - like Konkona's fits or Shabana's outbursts, but in certain scenes that were bang-on true. Like the fear in Konkona's eyes when she passes the lecherous men at the hotel. She knows that she looks afraid and she knows that the men have smelt fear. Later, there's a dead 'thud-thud' in a room as the men rape her repeatedly and leave her bleeding.

Or like the way she diffidently leans forward everytime she's talking to her elder sister. Obviously she has accepted her sibling's dominance and is only too glad to be serving it.

Then there's the bit where Kanwaljeet (who is fantastic, by the way) takes Shabana's hands when he breaks off with her. He is tired of waiting and must call of the relationship. In detached certainty so typical of men, he says, 'This is for the best.' And Shabana's eyes fill with a hundred questions - most of them being, ''Really?''

Or Waheeda Rehman who is always conscious of imposing on her elder daughter and frustrated about her younger one.

Of course, the movie has several esoteric symbolisms like a beggar woman staring a Konkona from time to time, or fragmented dialogues spouted in close-up shots and left suspended, or the end which is more ellipses than period. But I think a storyteller must be allowed such licenses.

The film definitely scores on the casting - the best casting being Shabana's eyes. That said, I think Konkona has pulled off a commendable feat, not so much in playing the schizophrenic, but in playing the making of the schizophrenic. On the other hand, Rahul Bose and Shefali Chayya seem to jar here. A bit too much posturing, I thought, what with that love making scene and soliloquies muttered under the breath. The others simply glitter.

But as it is with a book that's more than its words and characters, so it is with a movie that's beyond its story and actors. To me, this movie came disconcertingly close to my heart. I had felt a similar strange void when I'd read 'Catcher in the Rye'. I felt that I understood the world of the insane from within. It's like that email forward that gives a scenario of a murder and asks you a question. If you give the right answer, it means you have latent homicidal traits. When I watch movies like this, I somehow feel that I have it in me to be mentally unstable someday.

I know the fear and hopelessness and that drive to gouge out bits of joy from life so that someone takes the distress seriously. I know this in the way you can know something and never understand, much less explain. I've always wondered how can you negotiate your sanity with other people? Why should I be weird if I believe 15 Park Avenue has a happy ending - simply because a lost girl went home? So what if the lost girl was a schizophrenic and so what if home wasn't a 'real' place?

One lives in this world and understands it. At the end of the day, we go to a place that either replicates this world or dismantles it completely. That place is home. For a dramatic race, it could be Atlantis, for a fictive auteur, it could be Neverland, and for someone less celebrated, it could be 15 Park Avenue.






Friday, January 20, 2006

To forget and then, to remember


It is ironical that one goes to a hospital to restore health. Health seems to be one of those elements that hospitals usually don’t allow, or allow very sparingly; like say, between 8 to 10. Since the last week or so, I have visited several hospitals and no matter how swanky the place, a hospital is the last throne of gloom.

Interestingly, they all smell the same – of pus, wounds, antiseptic, and hesitant healing. I’m pretty sure that if I’m blindfolded and taken to any hospital (as improbable as that is), I wouldn’t be able to identify it with my olefactory senses alone. Now, I could do that with the Shopper’s Stop around Mumbai or the Fame Adlabs or Crossword. Each place, I think, has certain notes in their introductory smells – like Crossword, Powai is more tomato while Crossword, Turner Road, leans towards melted butter and leather. All hospitals, on the other hand, smell alike irrespective of whether they are public or private or government-aided or politician-sponsored.

Interestingly, this nasal homogenous quotient has a peculiar effect on the stomach too. The viscerals start churning slowly like a carousal in a run-down airport. Food starts rounding up in a burp that gets lodged smack in the middle of the throat. This explains the pinched expressions of the many people milling around sanitized corridors – they’re all trying to stop gagging.

The first hospital we took my father to was very, very queer. It was too crowded – people jostled while they walked and tripped over carelessly abandoned mops. The ward-boys walked around with ‘I-know-it-all’ expressions that was rather misplaced. Two of them wrongly directed me to the loo.

Anyway, my dad was admitted in the ICCU and then came the question of blood. As always, I was short of money, so I rushed to the nearest ATM to withdraw some. Once there, I stupidly stared at the screen trying to remember what my pin number was. Some tense five minutes were spent there before I got to the blood bank – which was closed for lunch and crowded like a youth festival. The last time I’d seen so many people wait for liquid in plastic bags was at the Amul outlet outside BCL. Slowly, it dawned on me that this was ‘blood’…’BLOOD’... ‘human BLUDDD’. But then, it’s best not to dwell on these things too much – just makes you squeamish.

I managed to get the blood with medical sang-froid and give it to the nurse.

Much later in the evening, I was allowed to see my father. Somehow, I didn’t really want to.

A couple of nights earlier, I had reached the bus depot around midnight. Since my home is only a couple of minutes from there, reaching there was never a problem. However, Dad was waiting in the car to take me home – despite me telling him that I could easily rick it back; despite him not knowing when I’d reach. He just waited.

In the hospital it struck me that he’d waited while he was bleeding internally all the while. That night, he seemed like my strong father – the father I’d grown up to know. My dad never got tired. Not when he’d take my brother and me swimming after attending to three ships all day or take us out for a midnight drive even if he had an early morning flight to catch. Not when my dad was 35 and not when he was 60. That was the dad who came to pick me up. Two days later, I saw him being taken away in a wheelchair. I didn’t think I could stomach seeing him unconscious with drips.

Ma, on the other hand, had gone in and assessed the situation. It didn’t need cowards and if I had to be such a sentimental wuss about it all, I could go home and watch ‘Seinfeld.’

So, I went in and looked at my dad. His face was white and he was sound asleep. Slowly the conceit that I stupidly harbored – that sickness, hospitals, death happened to other people – melted away. It was happening to my family. My parents were mortal too.

I just couldn’t remember that while I was growing up.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Cruel, sometimes

This morning I spent three hours arranging for blood for my father's transfusion. Mine wouldn't do. And we are blood related.

I spent time at the blood bank in a long queue, ahead of a father who wanted ten bottles of blood for his little girl. They are blood related too.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Taste buddies

I had a rather coarse palate. If certain web sites are to be believed, then my being Arien had something to do with it. Generally for me, food to be appreciated must have a strong dominant taste. And for food to be fully appreciated, that dominant taste must be spice. Because I am an Arien (according to the website) and because I am Indian (own observation), what I mean by spicy is the chilly type of spicy. Not the genteel, well-bred, Eton-educated spicy of thyme, basil, paprika, etc. So, spicy was only something that came garbed in red-hot parched skin and seared tongue, smoked ears, moistened orbs and got the nose to run. To me, then and only then, did food have any taste.

Then I had typhoid and had to be off spicy food for an eternity. In that time, I must have eaten through three fields of wheat in the forms of rusks, bread – white, brown, and wheatish (funny), and chapattis. There were also boiled pulses or vegetables or chicken or very lightly flavored steamed fish. For the first week, everything tasted like a soggy newspaper. But then slowly, my palate decided to stop sulking and befriend the other tastes. Now it knew the zestiness of lemongrass, the sharp pinpricks of explosion of ginger, the smooth, fleshy nothingness of mushrooms, the delicate hint of sweetness of softened onions. It was good. My taste buds were getting meditative. My palate was getting used to silence. Inside my mouth, a sort of spiritual awakening was taking place where thrills were not sought in the obvious, but pleasure was attained in the affable. Peace.

It was only a matter of time that news of such compelling cleansing reached my brain. So, this is what my brain has decided for the year, 2006 – it shall be bland. It shall not get excited over the promise of prospects, or plunge into despondency when prospects dim. It shall be insipid and simply be led through incidents in a sort of wizened stupor. It shall not look for meaning or create drama or wait for effusive applause.

Then, slowly, perhaps by 2007, it shall understand the nuances of quiet living. It will smile contentedly when it goes through pages of my diary where nothing happened. Nothing more remarkable than watching a wet crow dry itself. Then perhaps, my mind that is so used to robust spouts of meaning will appreciate the mellow muteness of routine. My brain, like my palate, will evolve.

My palate that is already ambling along the path to sophistication, though, has found an excellent companion. It’s the new flavor of Bacardi Breezer, Turkish Melon. And like most things wonderful, I tasted it at Mocha. I took a sip, and, well..I don’t really know. It did to my mouth what Byron did to my notions of love. It elevated the obvious and made it sublime.

The drink is refreshing. When you pour it in a wine glass, you notice it’s mossy, pastoral hue. You imagine the drink to be fragrant. But when you taste it, it’s so unexpectedly wonderful – like the sighting of monsoon cloud in an extended, grisly summer.


My life now waits to follow suit.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Made me laugh


You have a stomach ache that is more like an intestinal tickle. You have not slept the entire night because you were trying to find that precious copy of ‘Bleakhouse’ but wound up looking for the black top with sequins. Neither was found. And because everything else was way too much trouble, you decide to simply switch on the T.V.

You instinctively gravitate towards the comforting genre of sitcoms. After a few hours of canned gaiety, you flick over to AXN or to some debate on a news channel and find that you can laugh at anything.

My sense of humor was never very refined to begin with, but I did have a discerning sensibility that now seems to have gone out of the third slat of a narrow window. So I hear anything or remember anything at all and lapse into a rather longish stint of tranquilized twitters.

Examples:

A

Whose Line is It Anyway: Colin and Ryan are two people trapped in a pre-mutiny environment. One of them is Irish and the other is Scottish, so it’s a little unclear what historical event they are dramatizing. They have to alert a town about an impending conquest. To do this, they must use dialogues written on a chit that they pick out of a hat. So, Ryan makes this rousing speech about how it is up to them to save a nation. In response Colin volunteers to tear through the countryside and shout at the top of his lungs (and here he picks out a chit): ‘I see Paris, I see France, I see everyone’s underpants!’

I suppose if a person went galloping on a horse hollering this message, he could save the people. I’m sure they’d all get mighty curious and follow him to safety.

B

Seinfeld: Elaine is dating a surfer or an Australian or an Australian surfer; I forget what. This guy is quite a dish and Jerry is teasing her about it. He mocks her saying that the only reason she’s with him is because he’s got a pretty face and nothing else. To make his point, he states ‘He’s a male bimbo. He’s a mimbo.’


The way Jerry says it....

C

There’s this sitcom on Zee CafĂ© that has that guy who was Will Smith’s cousin in Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I really like this fellow. Anyway, this sitcom revolves around a gym or something. In this particular episode, the cousin fellow has to break into somebody’s office with his friends. So we see him heave himself up with some fancy equipment and ropes and hooks, while his friends just walk up the two steps of the balcony. The office is on the ground floor. One of his pals looks at him and says, ‘Come on, double O zero!’

This bit was my favorite!

D

Then there’s J, my pal in Pune, whose sense of humor is rather medicinal - it's not for everyone and even then, the dosage is important. But, sometimes, she cracks some jokes that are really hilarious. This one kept me amused right through my typhoid.

Woman: Mera naam Geeta hai.

Man: Toh main aap par haath rakhoon?

Unless very sick, I don’t think I would have ever laughed at this, but now I guffaw simply on remembering this nonsensical joke…and most times, the raucous guffaw happens in buses when I’m sitting alone. Quite embarrassing really.

E

I majored in Sociology in college. In my final year, we had a paper called ‘Sociological Theory’. Here, we had to study every major thinker in Sociology and all his theories and all the ways he arrived at these theories and all the people who approved of these theories and all the people who thought those were crap. In fact, a friend of mine (who later became rather popular because of this observation), pensively announced, ‘It’s like we must know which direction the guy farted.’

That was rather unfair because we did not have to bother about the flatulence behavior of Marx or Durkheim or Foccault, but it became quite a rage to speculate about how a particular thinker would have passed wind. ‘Marx was a communist, right? He farted to the…`Left’.’ And there’d be loud teenage bawdy giggles, and someone would invariably say, (with feeble originality), ‘This stinks!’ And people would laugh some more.

In any case, one of the thinkers we studied was Max Weber. Now he was more than a thinker. He was a thinker’s thinker. The guy had a very rich intellectual propensity to devise a theory about everything. He was the toughest one to grasp. And sure enough, in our finals, we were asked to explain Weber’s theory about dysfunctional family, globalization, media, cities, etc. etc.

So I wrote out my paper really neatly. Beauty must camouflage ignorance. A pretty looking answer sheet meant that I didn’t know the answers too well. Actually, what I had written was hardly Max Weber’s theory of anything. It was more like Mukta’s theory about Max Weber’s theory of anything. Particularly, my answer to Weber’s theory of cities. What can I say? It was original enough to be displayed on the Sistine Chapel. But I was pretty sure my professor wouldn’t see it that way. I only hoped that I wouldn’t be publicly humiliated when the answer sheets were handed out. So, the day we were supposed to get our papers, my stomach was in knots and my mouth was dry and my forehead felt hot. (Come to think of it, this typhoid has been like that – the endless, anxious wait for a Sociology paper.)

The professor handed out the sheets and I got mine without any fuss. Relieved, I slunk into a corner and went through each page. I had fared decently enough, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn to the part about Weber’s theory of the city. Finally I did.For something that I didn’t know too well, I had managed to write 5 pages on it. Actually, it was easy. I could always faff. My novel answer began with ‘Max Weber’s theory of cities is a clear deviation from the constructivist perspective of urbanization. It is an erudite blend of phenomenology and structuralism, etc. etc. blah blah bloo bloo.’

It ended with my professor's remark: ‘Mukta, really?’

And of course, I had got a zero. Cruelly, the nada score was spelt out instead of being represented numerically. A ‘0’ instead of a ‘zero’ somehow makes the humiliation easier to bear.

But, funny it was.

**************

As a post-script, it is very tedious writing out what one finds funny and why. Mark Twain (my favorite funny man, I think) once compared explaining a joke to explaining how the heart of a frog works. You can explain both by dissecting it but the frog dies in the process.

Ha ha ha.









Monday, January 02, 2006

Counting blessings


Having a brother such as mine made me realize that optimists are not really popular people. I would always try to cheer him and he used to mistake it for a surreptitious endeavor to bump him off from his desolate pedestal. In fact, in a rather circumvent way, he once mentioned that all the people who were assassinated were people who wanted to make others happy – against their wish.

Well, there may be some truth in that. Right now, my new year has begun on a rather low note. I find myself single, jobless, without the book I was hooked on to, and with no luck of finding a Pulp Fiction DVD. It is rather tempting and cosy, in fact, to sulk and feel low and not be bothered by happy friends who dish out advice such as, ‘Plenty of fish in the sea. You should know that, Mukta, after all you’re from Mumbai’ (Reference to Mumbai because it is close to the sea – there are certain leaps of logic my pal is given to. She’s a lawyer, so one doesn’t ask her to explain things much.) The worst is, ‘Pulp Fiction? You haven’t seen it? You haven’t seen it? (repeat twice more in tones of labored disbelief.)You should’ve when you had the chance.’ Oh well.

So, as tempting as it is to crawl under a rock and hurl it at some unsuspecting busybody, I can’t. Because I’m an infernal optimist committed to blinking stupidly at the sun while getting awashed in cancerous rays. I’m damned to be happy.

To start with, although I hadn’t expected to begin 2006 single, it isn’t half-bad. In fact, singlehood is now familiar territory. One briefly goes on a vacation expecting balmy beaches and baked bananas on yachts. Then it rains and the natives stage an insurgence, so you must abandon the vacation and come away. For a while you are flummoxed. You took the trip because you saw the brochures and liked what it offered. There were emerald pools and people with olive skin tones sipping Pina Colada from tall glasses. There was nothing about restless natives or angry rain clouds.

Anyway, so there you are – with luggage in hand, looking like a soggy raccoon. But then you enter your room, the room of singlehood, that you had left in such haste. The bed looks warm, there is Coke in the mini-fridge, the table lamp is still not working, and your favorite novel lies upturned on the bedside table. You took a trip, you made a journey, and now you’re home.

Now that I am single, I know exactly what is going to happen, if past experience is anything to go by. I will read better books, watch stupid films because the good ones will release around Valentine’s Day, sketch more, and become more of an annoying optimist. Somehow, my belief in happy endings gets stronger every time I don’t have one myself.

So, without a fixed job and soul mate, there are possibilities. That means that I can spend the rest of my life exploring them. That is nice but would be better with steady cash flow. On the other hand, the imposed penury will probably hone my resourceful spirit that lies smothered in comfortable exile now.

Another thing to be really upbeat about is the new breakfast menu at Mocha. I’m sure it has been around for a while, but I just found out about it today. I tried a Tasmanian omelette that wasn’t very fluffy, but it had strips of spicy lamb in it. That made it less blah.

I got a pair of silver sandals that, frankly, are too pretty for my feet. But they are silver and they are sandals and therefore, it must be deduced that I am delighted.

My cousin came to meet me. He is always such great fun to be with. He is in the movies and insisted on giving me a narration of a script that he wanted to pitch. It was midnight and I really wanted to write my diary about how upset I was, when he told me, sweet as honey, ‘Come on! That’s not important. Listen to me!’ Honestly, where would all the sad people be without the self-centered individuals in the world? They are more effective than optimists.

Now, I thought a narration would probably take a half-hour tops. But no, it went on for four tiring hours where my cousin not only narrated the script, but enacted it as well. And I was required to participate.

‘See, this character has been a lonely child. He grows up to be a lonely adult. He can’t handle people. He can’t handle space with people. He feels isolated. Do you feel the isolation, Chinky?’

‘Yawn! Yes, isolation…good stuff.’

‘Feel the isolation, Chinky! You won’t understand the story unless you feeeel the isolation.’

‘Listen, has anyone ever broken up with you on New Year’s eve? Has that ever happened? Oh I feeel the isolation all right!’, I snap.

‘That’s all? Let me tell you about the financer who backed out of my movie at the last minute. Or wait, let me also tell you about the financer who backed out mid-way during my second film. You know, that’s what you call a break-up, not this stupid juvenile nonsense!’, he fumes.

Stupid juvenile nonsense, my chipped toe-nail! I want to find both those financers and give them high-fives.

Anyway, I was made to feel the isolation with my cousin going out of the room and switching off the light for two minutes. Then he came back and continued with the story.

‘This guy then murders his brother. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!’ That’s my cousin banging the pillow with my thesaurus. My mother comes up running and bops cousin behind the ear when he tells her that no, he isn’t dying but merely giving me a feel of the drama.

And after the entire story is told and retold from every character’s perspective, he gets some Coke and we sip in silence.

It’s now 4 a.m. and I remind him that I have fever and I must go to bed.

‘Okay’, he says and switches off the light. My stomach is churning from the memories of my vacation when I was happy and blissfully unaware that there was trouble afoot.

‘You know something?’, cousin whispers.

‘What?’

‘Looks like your typhoid lasted longer than your relationship. He he!’, he grins.

‘Tell me about those financers again,’ I pipe up.

‘Shut up!’, he says and goes away to sleep.

Well, that’s another blessing – cousins who can make you smile in the dark.

Other blessings include me having lost 5 kilos and looking like, umm, well, looking like someone who has lost 5 kilos.

Another thing that makes me glad is that this is my hundredth post.

Like I said, I’m damned to be happy.