Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lines In The Sand

I read a series of essays in the NYT Style section yesterday. They weren't particularly well written or compelling pieces, but they dealt with an interesting concept - the luxuries that people can't or won't give up in the face of economic duress.

My sense is that luxury has taken on a new meaning in the last couple of weeks. Part of the reason is the conviction that the 'Gilded Age' is over. Fabulous wealth (once passe) is now crass, even vulgar. It follows that luxury in these difficult times is not only an affront to good taste, but also morally suspect.

More importantly, in a post 26/11 world, luxury seems not only frivolous but also woefully inadequate. I used to believe that education, reading, and an appreciation for the arts enhanced life. I believed that taste, judgment and elegance were indices of personal growth and refinement. At the nub of these beliefs lay my conviction that a life well lived, and tastefully lived, could serve as insulation or protection against the ugliness of the world. But when you realize that death is not impassive, but often brutal, it's difficult to believe that things, no matter how expensive and beautiful, are truly worth having, acquiring, and enjoying.

In spite of my personal misgivings, gloomy economic forecasts and a subdued festive season, I am going to draw my own line in the sand. Which activity or expense, no matter how ridiculous, do I refuse to compromise on? Which is the one minor luxury I won't sacrifice to good sense? The answer is - cappucinos.

Yes, it's true. I drink 3-4 cups of tea and maybe 1-2 cappucinos a day. When I'm out with friends, I choose coffee over beer, even food. And while I havent actually done the math, I am pretty sure that coffee accounts for a significant chunk of my monthly expenditure. I also know that in India, people could buy meals for what I spend on a cuppa.

This is not even about a voracious appetite for caffeine - I rarely drain my mug. Moreover, according to a friend, cappucinos are a waste because you can eat a dessert instead and imbibe the same amount of calories. (Note: Said friend is a pastry chef)

But I like cappucinos. I like knowing that I am out, with someone I want to spend time with, and that we have something to talk about. I like that my senses aren't fogged by alcohol, that there are no distractions and that it is enough to be there, in that moment, with someone, and to have a good time. At work, the cappucino is my attempt to buy a few minutes of calm before I head back to the desk to take calls, answer mails and chase deadlines.

In sum, then, my last stand amounts to a coffee. It's not much. But my cappuccino fixation isn't about cappucinos at all. It's about the experience of slowing down and unwinding. It's not a luxurious product by any standards, but it buys a wonderful feeling. Ultimately, a 'line in the sand' is about doing something because you can, and because you want to. It's something you do for yourself inspite of the slashed paycheck or the diminishing job prospects. It's irrational, but you don't feel you need a justification. Perhaps luxury is not so much about objects as it is is about indulgence, no guilt attached.

So, what's your line in the sand?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Apropos Of Nothing

For reasons unknown, at around 2.30 AM a couple of nights ago, I remembered that my boss once told me that she hadn't been able to bring herself to read a book. Ever. My bemusement, muted at the time the comment was actually made, seemed much sharper at that unearthly hour. So, at 2.30 AM, I found myself wondering - what does it say about a person if she doesn't like to read? And why does this matter so much to me?

I tried answering this question by wondering what I would be, or who I would be, without my love for reading. Let me clarify - I'm an enthusiast, but there's a lot of great writing I haven't read, and a lot of contemporary work that I steer clear of for entirely nebulous reasons, such as - "I don't think I can sink my teeth into this." Or "I don't like that cover." And there was a time when I started working when I couldn't bring myself to get through anything that made the feeblest demands on my intellect. But for the most part, I've been the kid with the book sitting peaceably in the corner, developing myopia simply because I read too much when too young. Reading has been a given, like breathing.

Looking back, I feel reading helped me learn how to empathize, to appreciate that there is an emotional, social and intellectual world beyond my own. I don't mean that this awareness came pre-packaged, but even at the age of 6, I was aware that there were people like Elizabeth, Nancy Drew, Bess, George, the Three Investigators, Fatty and Beth. They weren't like me, they did things differently, and they didn't inhabit my world, but I liked knowing what they were up to. Psychologists will tell you that children can be egoistic, referencing only their own experiences. But they are also imaginative, and reading nudges them outside of themselves.

As I grew older, reading helped me learn. I devoured wonderful and entirely useless bits and bobs of trivia. As my curiosity about the world expanded, I was able to become more informed and more aware. Reading (and I don't mean just books) offers the world and its' stories to you on a platter. You end up having more to say and more to think about - and if you have the mettle, you try to puzzle pieces of awareness together. Reading tests one's intelligence, in the sense that any reader necessarily must process a narrative, an experience, a literary style or a vocabulary at some level, no matter how elementary.

Reading also helped me sense nuance - the multiple angles that inevitably co-exist (albeit uncomfortably) on any issue of import. An avid reader KNOWS that there could be someone else, somewhere else, thinking differently. Knowing this, she is also better equipped to construct a convincing and compelling argument.

Maybe I am romanticizing an anachronistic tradition. But when I speak with cousins or colleagues who are avowed non-readers, I find that the conversations are self-referential. Opinions are presented as facts, and facts having been stated, we move on. Often, these conversations lack context and insight - bouncing from one recent incident or experience to another - "I did this yesterday and it felt great! I met Y and I thought, gosh, he's such a bore! You know, I really think this country will go to the dogs." OK!

I think reading passionately and even indiscriminately reflects an openness of mind. A willingness to peruse, a willingness to be absorbed, informed, and yes, moved. It is truly a way of life, a way of engaging with the world. For me, a good read creates a connection. I feel grateful to the writer, to whoever it was that created an alchemical mix of people, places, relationships and situations. And as my neural tripwires buzz and jangle I often find myself thinking - " Isn't it amazing? These are just words!" And so much more.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Shorn, Yes. Folorn? Probably!

Late on Sunday night, India were well on their way on their way to pummelling England in the fourth match of the Hero Honda series. The stadium was in a frenzy, the players presumably psyched. But as Ishant Sharma came in to bowl his penultimate over, the only thought I had was - 'What happened to his hair?' [Close second - 'Why wasn't Sapna Bhavnani there to rescue him?']

Shorn of his tresses, Ishant is no longer our desi answer to the fire-breathing, arm-flapping , mullet-wielding Oz spearhead, Jason Gillespie. He might continue to excel, but minus the volume, post wicket celebrations will be low key. And he also loses the opportunity to earn compliments from military-dictator-heads-of-state.

Advice for budding fast bowlers: Keep the length. Without his mane, in the eyes of the viewing public, Ishant is strangely .........diminished.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shadow Lines

Something has been annoying me for a couple of days - not exactly privacy, not even confidentiality. More the sanctity of a personal conversation.

An American friend once told me that Indians are incredibly networked. Wherever we are in the world, we manage to bump into someone we know through someone else. And while that's a thought that's nice and warm and eggnoggy, it also means that news travels. Faster and further than you could imagine. And this becomes more and more apparent as the 'degrees of separation' diminish and friendships begin to intersect in different permutations and combinations.

Which brings me to my point - to what extent do conversations really occur between two people? How do you stop friend X, who you confide in, but who herself confides in friend Y (who you fell out with in 12th grade), who is dating friend Z (who's a buddy but not that close) from spilling the beans on your love-life/career/taste for bad music?

The other night, during a conversation with a friend, I was arrested by a vision of phantom eavesdroppers. And so I censored my sentences. All of which came to naught when I was markedly less discreet in another tete-a-tete which was duly disseminated to others.

How exactly do you begin to grapple with the competing needs to confess and conceal? How do you decide what to say to whom? How do you establish boundaries? And, all attempts having failed, how do you begin to co-exist with the unwanted but persistent shadow people who listen in?

Saturday, November 22, 2008


I just got home after watching Dostana with a friend. I've been interested in this movie for a while now, partly because it promised to plot itself on those faultlines where popular entertainment and topicality intersect. Partly because I like pretty clothes and bright colours.

As has been reiterated in every review-slash-conversation - the movie is not about two gay men, although the public and critics were initially led to believe otherwise (by some accounts, anyway). Two men pretend to be gay and fall in love with the same woman - they try to sabotage her romantic relationship, and eventually return to seek forgiveness and make amends. It's actually staple Bollywood fare, and homosexuality is just a plot device. The men could conceivably have been monks in training or Brahamacharis, although that's probably more of a 70's thing.

But the point is this - John Abraham and Abhishek Bachchan are straight men confined within a closet of their own making. Which creates scope for confusion and some genuinely funny lines. Not to mention Kiron Kher's incredible turn as an OTT full-on Punjabi mom. The theater where I watched the movie was full of families, kids and grandparents in tow, all laughing at the right times and even hooting with approval.

Does the movie compel viewers to re-think stereotypes? No. In fact, it relies on the absurd hand gestures, effeminate voices and odd turns of phrase that have long caricaturized gay men. At one point, Bachchan advises Abraham to get in 'character,' asking him to - 'Think like a about shoes!' This is misleading, and obfuscates the complexity of gender and personality.

But at least audiences are smiling instead of allowing their sensibilities to be offended. 'Gay' is now part of our public lexicon. Maybe, in India, we need to get in on the joke before we embrace what we can't quite bring ourselves to recognize.
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