Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Like a Deer in Headlights

I’m not the kind of person who normally veers off track – I’m fairly good at hauling myself up by my bootstraps, keeping my nose to the grindstone, setting my shoulder against a wheel and keeping it there – I suppose what I am trying to say is that I believe in Being an Agent.

But even the best of agents have their moments of weakness. I experienced mine this weekend, and had to acknowledge that I was perilously close to reaching a Point of No Return. Like they (used to) say on that ridiculous show anchored by couturiers Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, I was ‘hooked, booked and cooked,’ as in ‘Nita was hooked, booked and cooked by Mukesh.’ They said that. To quote Dave Barry, ‘I swear I am not making this up.’

But this is not about HDIL Couture Week’s tantrum-throwers extraordinaire and their small screen misadventures. It is about the fact that I found myself rushing home, looking nervously at the clock, and interrupting my grandmother as she watched a Makhmalbaf movie so that I could catch the latest episode of Ugly Betty. They shot it in the Bahamas, Shakira made an appearance, and Betty and Matt got back together. But still. It was a thing to make me cringe.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to steer clear of television. I’m very suspicious of its capacity to hold people of all ages and intellectual capacities in thrall; of its ability to consume hours of our days. I tend to watch television when I am in need of something anodyne to take the edge off a particularly unpleasant or difficult train of thought.

So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I realized that I had spent the better part of the last two weeks absorbed by Kitty’s struggles with cancer, Booth’s obvious feelings for Bones, Betty’s metamorphosis into a better-dressed butterfly (don’t blame me, they lay their metaphors on fairly thick) and the worst year of Ted’s life. I’m fairly well informed about Castle’s exploits. I also watched an episode of Criminal Minds, although the gusto with which the ‘detectives’ discussed serial killing and rape ensured that that was a one-time lapse. I’d watch 24, but eight seasons down, I know it’s a zero sum game. Jack Bauer will bring down governments, defeat drone armies, lose someone he loves, and save the world. This does not mean I have watched all eight seasons of 24. I just get to hear the jokes.

Watching all of this has felt a bit like bingeing, with the only difference being that I’ve had an overdose of images, plotlines and pre-fabricated emotions. Even though I’m consuming content, and not calories, a diet seems to be in order. Having had only one other addiction – Indian style masala tea – I’m not sure how this is supposed to work. Should I taper off my intake, opt for portion control, or go cold turkey? What is the television equivalent of eating right? Does it involve watching Mad Men and HBO mini-series, in small doses? If so, what would my Sunday ‘cheat treat’ be – Laguna Beach reruns? Gossip Girl?

I’m intrigued by the fact that I am framing this conversation in terms of excess, purging and addiction. Which brings to mind the question – do we have a surplus of content in our lives, a surplus of guilt and good intentions, or both? Whatever. I’ll wait till Oprah gets back from Australia to figure this one out. Xoxo.*

 * You know you love me (fill in breathy voice).

Monday, September 27, 2010

Curioser and Curioser

I recently read an essay by Nicholas Thomas entitled ‘Licensed Curiosity: Cook’s Pacific Voyages.’ The essay doesn’t make for particularly easy reading, but it does make a few thought-provoking points. Thomas explores multiple ideas here – the impact the Pacific voyages had on the British public, the dubious morality of this kind of colonial project, and the tentative nature of science.

What I found most interesting was his discussion of ‘curiosity,’ regarded by the Georgians as a character flaw that indicated a lack of integrity and intellectual heft. According to Thomas “…there are many forceful statements in a variety of genres to the effect that curiosity is feminine, unstable, somehow tarnished…curiosity was deeply, almost casually linked with commerce…and with the moral ambiguities and latent corruption of commercial society.”

Reading the essay reminded me that we don’t pay enough attention to the words we use – so many of them have long and remarkable histories that are sandpapered away by the easy casualness of familiarity. Throwaway lines such as ‘Curiosity killed the cat’ give us a clue to the word’s contested past, but these are not phrases to which we attach much significance.

To think that curiosity was once considered morally tentative, almost a vice, is to be reminded that knowledge was once disputed and ‘in the making.’ Around the time of Cook’s voyages, disciplinary territories were very much up for grabs, scholars and proponents were still developing investigative procedures for their preferred areas of inquiry, and were also working to establish that such inquiry, was in fact, worthwhile.

Would it be too much to say that our relationship with, and approach to knowledge has changed almost completely since then? We can get degrees in more specialized fields of study than ever before, can access more information, can pursue very diverse interests. Almost no one I know harbors doubts about whether or not knowledge has intrinsic worth, although there is still a disciplinary hierarchy with ‘hard’ sciences ruling the roost. We also value curiosity and encourage its expression – the internet itself is a sprawling testament to the wide range of our interests.

All of this is good, except for the fact that we tend to confuse an equal respect for disciplines with an ‘equivalence’ of disciplines. As a psychologist, I am quick to challenge students and professionals who dismiss the social sciences as ‘soft’ studies – but I am equally uncomfortable with colleagues who claim that qualitative enquiry will always answer questions more deeply, and address issues more meaningfully than quantitative research. I am sensing more of an academic ‘extremism’ amongst researchers, an unfortunate ease with making unsubstantiated claims on behalf of a discipline.

Standards for learning are also being loosened – the year I gave my school-leaving exams was one of the first years in which students taking the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (I.C.S.E) were given the option to ‘drop’ the sciences for economics and commerce (previously, only students with persistent learning disabilities were offered this alternative). Even at the age of 14, the choice seemed like something of a cop-out. Since then, I hear that maths has also been converted into an ‘optional’ subject. Consequently, one has a significant number of students passing through the country’s premier high schools with only a middle-school understanding of maths and science.* I am not sure about the statistics, but I’m willing to assume that a disproportionate number of these students are girls, who have historically been socialized to think of numeracy as a male domain.

Moreover, grading is increasingly being relaxed, to the point where students with percentages in the late 90s couldn’t get into a college of their choice in Bombay this year – simply because there were so many of them. Just this morning, I read that a number of I.C.S.E schools in the city have decided to substitute exams with continuous assessment, and percentages with grades, ostensibly to ease ‘pressure’ on students up to the 8th grade.

While I appreciate the spirit in which the measure has been undertaken, I entertain doubts about the implementation – do we have the training, the know-how and the syllabus to administer continuous assessments, given that so many schools have relied on examinations for decades? Do we have any way in which to ensure that the projects and essays which will replace exams will ensure learning? I ask this question because I know for a fact that wealthy students in elite schools ‘outsource’ assignments to consultants. How will the 8th graders be equipped to make the eventual transition to a point and marks driven school leaving exam?

It seems to me that we have today is an odd mix constituted of greater flexibility in assessment and basic study, accompanied by the perception that all fields of inquiry are equal and will provide us with equivalent sets of skills. There is less opportunity to cultivate an interest in subjects that aren’t immediately appealing, and almost no requirement to persist with fundamentals that seem boring and difficult.

This somewhat tenuous foundation, combined with easy access to vast swathes of information, can either result in people knowing much more about less, or less about much more. It’s a bold statement to make, of course, but I think it has some merit. I’ve been hearing murmurs about the dangers of living in a society inhabited by highly-specialized knowledge workers – I’m less familiar with the perils associated with a dilettante culture, but I’m sure the literature is out there.

There is an imbalance between the knowledge potentially available to us, and the tools we are being equipped with to engage with it. Are we being offered greater freedom to exercise our curiosity, or being implicitly told that curiosity is ‘enough?’ Where will this lead? I’m curious. 

Boon, Please!

Last week saw the culmination of one of the highlights of my year – Ganesh Chaturti, the 10 day period during which Ganesh, or Ganpati - son of Shiva and Parvati, brother of Kartikeya - is fêted, fawned over, appeased, beseeched, and eventually immersed.

Ganesh Chaturti, following close on the heels of Ramzan and Paryushan, heralds the beginning of an extended festive season. The city shrugs off the scars that are annually inflicted by the monsoons and puts on a brighter face. All manner of buntings and fairy lights are dusted off and displayed, loud and tuneless music emanates from every street corner, and crowds duly fall into orderly lines outside the main sites of worship.

Say what you will about the commercialization of this festival – pandals that seek sponsorship from construction companies and patronage from dubious politicians, cash donations worth hundreds of millions of rupees that bypass regulations, plaster-of-paris idols that grow larger every year and contaminate water bodies, Bollywood stars who capitalize on the occasion to drum up publicity for movies that aren’t worth watching, the almost complete departure of the celebrations from their community-centric roots – it is still a collective outpouring of devotion that has the power to take one’s breath away.

It is possible to argue that the millions who visit Ganesh pandals have misplaced their faith. After all, there is no way to establish that this idol (and not another ‘Raja’ a few hundred meters away) has the power to grant one’s heart’s desire. Any skeptic will assert that self-fulfilling prophecies, not divine intervention, are to be credited for the dreams that do come true. But these are arguments that would ring hollow when confronted by the sight of devotees at Lalbaug standing in queues that run kilometers long. They come from around the country, they come to seek blessings and give thanks, they even come from different faiths, they come because it would be inconceivable not to.

One may not understand it, but it is impossible to begrudge Ganesh the affection he commands. Shiva is majestic but frightening and temperamental, Rama is virtuous and admirable, Brahma is remote, but Ganesh is a god to love. He enjoys all of Krishna’s accessibility and popularity, without having to bear the burdens of wiliness, political astuteness, and a checkered romantic past. He is rotund, calm, beatific – slow to anger, quick to remove all obstacles to success. My community made a break with Hinduism centuries ago – but we have yet to renounce ‘Ganpati,’ who is invoked before beginning all journeys and business ventures.

I may not wait in line to see him, I do not ask him to intercede in matters on my behalf (well, maybe that one time), but I do make it a point to join the throng that bids Ganesh farewell every year. I do this because it is fun, because it is a childhood ritual that I am yet to tire of, because it is an excuse to eat junk food while standing in the middle of the street. Mostly, though, I do this because it is one of the few times that I truly share an experience with my fellow city-dwellers - we are all happy to welcome Ganpati, and we are all sad to see him go.  

I am not sure whether there is such as thing as a ‘spirit’ of this city. I do not believe that the 16 million of us are tied together by some kind of mystic, ineffable chord. Bombay is a city that needs shared spaces, but more importantly, a shared love affair. Who better than an elephant-headed, boon-granting, rodent-borne god, enshrined in pandals large and small, to create this meeting ground? 

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another F Word

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a growing interest on my part in food – its history and role in modern culture. Perhaps fittingly, this interest has expressed itself through more time spent reading about food than actually preparing it (I tend to survey most things from the vantage point of an armchair). I’ve also devoured two memoirs in rapid succession – Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential,’ and Jacques Pepin’s ‘The Apprentice.’ Both are chefs who owe much to France and share a fondness for home-style French cooking. The similarities end here - while Bourdain’s book is a booze-soaked, cocaine-flecked trawl through New York’s restaurant kitchens, Pepin’s is a genteel recounting of his childhood, friendships and evolution as a chef.

Chef’s memoirs, courses in culinary history, branded product lines and cooking reality shows are just some of flotsam and jetsam currently being borne aloft on the twin tides of chef-superstardom and a wide-spread obsession with food. It’s interesting that this preoccupation with fabulous, professionally prepared (or at least, professional-looking) food is peaking at the same time as paranoia about food. People in many parts of the world are spending more on food than ever before, while also convincing themselves to eat less and less of it.

A growing group of writers and cultural commentators have attempted to explain these contradictions - Michael Pollan’s name comes to mind almost immediately, and there are several others. Our complex relationship with food is, of course, just one example of a seemingly pervasive cultural schizophrenia, but it is one of the most disturbing, because it plays itself out several times a day in insidious ways.

Reading Pepin’s book today, I was taken aback by the force of his love for food – his appreciation of it, his willingness to make cooking the anchor of his professional and personal life. All his memories are colored by the textures, flavors, and aromas of food. This is no surprise, given that he is an internationally renowned chef. But it is still oddly compelling to encounter an unabashed love for something which so many of us today regard with such suspicion.

Food is increasingly fraught – engineered rather than grown, analyzed rather than relished. Even the dedicated consumer of whole rather than packaged foods has to worry about contaminants, artificial coloring, and pesticide residue. Quelling these doubts is only one step – calorie counts also loom large in our collective consciousness. We make complex trade-offs between what goes into preparing a meal, and how much of it can be ‘safely’ consumed. Given our morbid fear of fat, (addressed in this NYT Magazine Article) eating is a high-wire act – portions weighed against ingredients and nutritional value.

This can be taken to absurd extremes – my own brush with a restaurant menu that offered ‘protein plates,’ ‘grain plates,’ ‘macrobiotic plates,’ etc is just one example. Metaphorically running our fingers down this list (twice), a friend and I, both reasonably intelligent human beings, were stumped. We ate someplace else, convinced that calculating which combination of plates would actually amount to dinner wasn’t the best way to spend an evening. 

Nutritional experts, who will use every available forum to urge us to be more careful about what we eat, also say that we can have our cake and eat it too. Food can be healthy and appetizing, provided we substitute regular pasta with wheat, white bread with whole-wheat bread (preferably multi-grain), sugar with demerera (but we are reminded that in India, this is often just white sugar colored brown), sunflower oil with olive oil (but not too much), milk with soy, regular salt with sea salt….

This is in addition to reams of research about what is or is not good for us – most of it contradictory. Wine has calories, but studies have shown a glass a day to reduce the risk of, let’s say, strokes. Caffeine is bad, but studies show that up to (not more than) 6 cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of heart disease; chocolate is alright in small quantities, especially if it’s dark; fruits should be eaten with the skin for fiber, but without if they look too shiny and suspect….

Keeping track of all of this information, and sifting through it for advice that can be painlessly implemented is an exhausting process. I suppose this is why I found Pepin’s book, in particular, to be so refreshing – old-fashioned carbs; lashings of butter and cream; less caution, more enjoyment; a conviction that every occasion demanded a great meal, and that every great meal was its own occasion. We know more about food now – possibly too much. But we’re still fascinated by it – which is why we buy books, visit cooking demonstrations and watch shows to learn recipes that we never prepare. In our imaginations, we’re eating well; in practice, we’re eating right; and in reality, we’re accomplishing neither. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Seeking Sports News. About Sports!

My parents are not what you would describe as avid football fans. They watch the occasional Premier League and World Cup game. So I was a little surprised when both of them commented in quick succession on Wayne Rooney’s extra-marital escapades, saying more or less the same thing - ‘What’s wrong with these guys?’

Footballers having affairs; spot-fixing investigations; the sordid mess that the Commonwealth Games in Delhi have become, with reports of Indian athletes being caught doping, and organizers being caught with their hands in the till – just a quick overview of headlines in the sports sections over the last couple of weeks. And if we were to look only a little further back, we’d be able to add money-laundering at the IPL; the French football squad’s descent into factions; Tiger Woods’ excesses and controversy at the Tour De France to the list.

We admire our athletes because we believe they transcend ordinary physical limitations; practice their sport with a monk-like zeal and discipline; compete for greater-than-ordinary spoils. We expect sports to be entertaining - but sports, at least at the national level, have never been just about entertainment. While political and corporate battles are motivated by power and greed, we believe that sporting contests are motivated by the desire to win – a desire born of pride in representing one’s country. Somewhere, underlying all these beliefs and assumptions, lurks the naïve hope that not only are our athletes stronger, faster, and tougher than the others, but somehow, better. We don’t expect them to be models of propriety, but we do hope that they are endowed with some semblance of character.

While it’s always problematic to look back at the past as a ‘simpler’ time, I do believe that there was an age when sportsmen and women competed with a certain amount of pleasure and pride – and the sports headlines were about sports. Perhaps it was because athletes at the time didn’t have a choice – the material rewards and temptations were limited. Perhaps controversies were better concealed and less widely disseminated.

My father grew up watching the greats play at Brabourne and Wankhede. They made 250 rupees per test match, didn’t star in commercials, and played memorable cricket. They may or may not have been great men, but they weren’t embarrassments (either on or off the pitch).

It would be too much to say that I am disappointed in our athletes. To say so would be to presume both a claim on my part, and an obligation to behave on theirs. They say a society gets the government it deserves. Looking at the sports pages today, I’m beginning to think that our society is getting the athletes it deserves as well.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cricket for Cynics

We all know the cricketing world has been in turmoil over the last couple of weeks. For those who were orbiting the earth, or stuck in that traffic jam in China, here is a quick account.

  • News of the World, beloved of journalism junkies everywhere, ‘stings’ Mazhar Majeed, a British-Pakistani real estate mini-mogul + football club owner. He claims to have most of the Pakistani cricket team in his pocket, and a couple of them bowl no-balls at a pre-decided time during a test match at Lords
  • Scotland Yard begins an investigation. The ICC huffs and puffs. The evidence against Mohammed Asif, Mohammed Amir and Salman Butt is incriminating, and the English team refuses to play against them

So far, so predictable. Things then begin to get really interesting.

  • There is an outcry in Pakistan. The Prime Minister says the nation is ashamed, and Zardari says he is ‘disappointed.’ That’s probably because he wasn’t getting his cut
  • Even as commentators and ex-cricketers are frothing at the mouth, and assorted Chief Justices are saying they told everyone so, the Pakistani High Commissioner in London claims to have investigated the matter in a two hour conversation with ‘the boys’
  • Conspiracy theories begin to circulate – Pakistani ministers speak darkly of a ‘foreign hand,’ also known as The Neighbor Who Gets Named All The Time
  • Asif’s ex-girlfriend brings to life the phrase ‘dishing the dirt,’ saying that she has access to mobile phone records that indicate he was participating in match-fixing. She also says he has a drug and alcohol abuse problem. More recently, i.e. today, she accused Asif of being physically abusive. Without minimizing any of her relationship issues, I would have to say that this is one woman you don’t want to break up with
  • As his colleagues answer questions about their propriety and conduct, Shahid Afridi shows up to take charge. This is the same person who faced disciplinary action a couple of months ago for chewing on a ball
  • The PCB dithers about whether or not to drop their players. So the ICC goes ahead and takes their decision for them
  • Conspiracy theories now fly thick and fast – apparently R&AW, Sharad Pawar (the ICC president) and a vast network of Indian bookies have been planning this for months. We don’t have confirmation yet, but Manmohan Singh and PC may have been in on it too
  • Yasir Hamid, a Pakistani batsman, gets his 15 minutes. He is caught in another sting-op by NOTW. He says fixing has been going on for months, and that he was dropped because he refused to play ball. Later, he backtracks by saying that the NOTW offered him a British passport as inducement to confirm the story


I was going to make this a post about how the cricketing public had had Too Much, and how Enough was Enough. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that what we have here are the makings of serious drama - drugs, conspiracy theories, wads of cash sewn into jackets (so Spy vs. Spy), coded SMSes.

This particular fiasco is a worthy successor to IPL-gate, which was a potent mix of tax breaks, backroom deals, shadow companies, Bollywood celebrities, Lear jets, parties, pre-arranged team auctions, meetings with the Dalai Lama and (bizarrely enough), a South African model who was barred from entering India. Tweets brought down Modi and Tharoor, but they firmly resurrected the sports scandal.

It may not be cricket, but it’s definitely entertainment. Lalit Modi would approve. 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Interpretation as Action

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been entering bookstores with a certain amount of trepidation. Even the most casual and fleeting visit brings to mind my many lapses of judgment. All the books I should have read (but haven’t), and all the books I did buy (but shouldn’t have) begin to loom large in my consciousness, and I end up feeling vaguely embarrassed and not a little guilty.

If you’re anything at all like me – a reader who compensates enthusiasm for discrimination – you will understand what I mean when I say that I read well, but not wisely. I have long accepted that my reading is, and will continue to be, erratic and all-too-embracing. I have a terrible habit of letting new books languish on the backs of shelves while I borrow something else from libraries and friends. I go back to books months, or even years after I’ve first bought them.

Lately, I’ve come to realize that the books I buy function less as potential reading material, than as a collective index for my momentary good intentions and passing fixations. My collection of books is not a catalogue of what I’ve read, but a catalogue of where I’ve been, what I’ve been interested in, and what I felt I should know more about.

For instance, over the past couple of months, I’ve bought autobiographies of master chefs, historical fiction about a clique of American poets who were inspired by hummingbirds, a satirical campus novel, an alternative history of the Hindus and tomes on fashion illustration. Having completed only one of these, I am now planning to embark on an overview of African-American art during the Harlem Renaissance, and on a survey of the evolution of DC Comics. But even as I'm writing this post, I notice I have Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore,’ at arm’s length. I bought it almost a year ago.

You call it an attention deficit, I call it catholicism. There’s no such thing as buying too many books. Especially when you can find a way to derive something interesting from a collection without having read any of it. It’s a useful (and guilt relieving) trick. 
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