Thursday, May 31, 2012

It's Complicated

What is this made of?
Why are cows considered sacred?
Can you explain the rules of that game which is a bit like baseball?
How many languages do people speak here?
Please tell me the story of the Mahabharat.
Why don't Indians like football?
How come your clothes are so colourful?
What is the significance of marigolds at weddings?
India has Christians? You're kidding me! How did they get here?
Why do dozens of people break into dance in your movies?
Are you trying to tell me that there are people here who won't eat potatoes?
So caste is illegal, right?
Why do adult Indians live at home? 
Why are there so many posters of politicians everywhere?
Why won't Delhi autowallahs run on meter?
There's a billion dollar home in Mumbai? Who built it? Isn't it in bad taste? Why didn't you guys do something about that?
What's your government doing about poverty?

Being an Indian has it charms: Masala chai. Rajnikant. Sachiiiin, Sachiiiin. A.R. Rahman. Permission to be spoiled and indulged into one's late 20s. Incredible vegetarian food. Even more incredible arts, crafts and textiles. Saris and kurta-pajamas to make the chubbiest of us look distinguished. Laying claim to the invention of the zero, etc.

But it also has its drawbacks. Such as being at the receiving end of a barrage of questions about this complex and often bewildering country. Searching for an answer that lies somewhere between simple and simplistic, I feel like a bad tourist guide, a failed citizen. And I wonder if anyone else, having a similar conversation, is feeling a little bit like this.

Of course visitors and tourists turn to Indians with their queries - it's only natural to expect us to have explanations. But the realities of India are so varied and vast, it's hard to gather them into anything approaching a coherent whole - assuming, of course, that one doesn't want to converse solely in superficialities and convenient (half)truths. And it is impossible to know everything about everything. Even anything about everything. Whether its sport, film, politics, religion, society, temple architecture, women's rights, even rickshaws - there are too many things always in flux, always turning back on themselves, always open to interpretation. Too many moving parts to reconcile into a whole.  

It's a complicated business, being Indian. Equal parts delight, confusion and despair.    

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Read. Chew. Repeat.

Access to information, to texts, to opinions is a wonderful thing. We're a generation accustomed to push-button enlightenment on a whole range of topics ranging from Zen meditation to who-was-that-famous-woman-who-had-to-get-a-botched-lip-job-corrected-because-she-looked-like-she-was-smiling-all-the-time? We have self-appointed (and altruistic) sign posters who direct us to all sorts of interesting and entertaining material on the web. There are services that exist to separate the informational wheat from the chaff. All of this is over and above the content created by traditional media such as television and print.

A great swathe of people across the globe are information savvy and in a sense, empowered. This empowerment makes learning, growth and work possible. On any given day, I'd say that we're lucky and that I wouldn't switch to a simpler, less cluttered age for the world.    

But there are days I would give the world (or a substantial chunk of it) to actually be able to absorb all the information I have encountered. Those are the days on which the sheer variety and quantity of data I have accessed has me feeling sluggish and dazed.

Over the last week, with a little time on hand, I decided to monitor my information consumption and identify the onset of my mental lethargy. Two days into the experiment, the signs were all there. I'd read about the creation of the hand-sanitizer market in India, Einstein's words on kindness (via a favourite website), stumbled onto a debate about 'curating' links (via the same website), watched all the TV commercials released in a local market over the last 4 weeks, gone through a dozen Webby newsletters at one go, skimmed through articles about the fuel price hike and its implications, also skimmed over movie industry gossip, read an interview about neuroscience in late 19th century Vienna (and re-read it because I forgot it all rapidly), glanced at a cultural digest's list of infamous cinematic characters, eye-catching magazine covers and design breakthroughs for 2011. This was in addition to e-mails and data actually related to work. This isn't an exceptional amount of browsing by any standards - many people I know will (figuratively) cover substantially more informational ground than I do in the course of a day.

In spite of this, I felt a little overwhelmed and also frantic - for the life of me, I couldn't remember anything I'd read the previous week, even though I knew I'd found my Sunday newspaper's cover story interesting enough to spend 45 minutes with it. It felt exactly like a meal gone wrong - as though I'd nibbled at too many things at a buffet, culminating in an uncomfortable and dissatisfying fullness.  

The pundits have already proclaimed that like it or not, we live in an age of omnivorousness. Information and media must be consumed freely, without discrimination. This is the evolutionary demand of our times, the trait on the basis of which nature will/ will not select us. I know this, but even so, when it comes to information, I find myself wishing that I could exercise a rather old-fashioned virtue - abstinence.

As with eating, so with reading and seeking, I tell myself. Exercise self-control. Take bites. Chew. Slowly. Don't dig into something just because it is there - is it really all that necessary, or even good? Is it worth my time? Will it be memorable? Do I need to walk this one off? Isn't less really more?     

Maybe. Maybe not. I'm running the risk of being left behind in an old-school data bylane while nimbler, fitter minds and genes whiz past me (and mine) on an informational super-highway. How interesting that this uniquely twenty first century issue comes down to the simple mechanics of biting and digesting. I can only assume that evolution (or intelligent design, if you prefer) has an in-built capacity for humour. Or a cosmic tongue hidden in some cosmic cheek.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Them Folks in Those Dresses

There are days when the mind is unable (or unwilling) to process text - no matter how compelling, how informative and engaging. Those are the days on which I just look - mostly at fashion images. Lately (which in my world is a curiously flexible term) I've found myself drawn to red carpet galleries. I love the spectacle and theater of the Red Carpet Event. Prestigious awards to be handed out, beautiful people in beautiful clothes, some hamming it up for the cameras, others demonstrating poise, and still others demonstrating the woeful absence of taste and a sense of occasion which critics and columnists get to mine for a living.    

I think the red carpet drama as it is staged now - glamorous pictures projected into millions of screens for home-viewing - plays out some version of the high-school, small-town, dinner-slash-brunch game of 'What is she wearing?' Which is polite-speak for 'What was she thinking?' Of course we're talking about women here. Men, however hard they try (and the metro-sexual/androgynous trend-bearers HAVE tried) have no place in this conversation.

What was she thinking, indeed. We know celebrities through their work, through gossip columns, through interviews that are more often than not stilted and predictable. We think that social media interactions have created some sort of intimacy between the public and the stars. Maybe, in some cases, they have. Maybe there are famous people out there who are playing themselves when they tweet or update their blogs. But as in the halcyon days of the Hollywood studio, when film executives decided what lead actresses could and couldn't wear even off the sets, most celebrities continue to be managed. This exercise has evolved into a fine art. So when we're drawn to movie stars - their talent and their beauty - we sense that there's still a lot about them that we don't know. The few celebrities who do bare it all (unwittingly or otherwise) exert a curious fascination for us, but this is often laced with contempt. It seems that the audience is hard to please. It thinks it wants to know it all, but knowing all, it is derisive and dismissive. Walking the fine line between accessible disclosure and appropriate distance is a high-wire act. But it's an essential component in the performance of celebrity.

It is on the red carpet that a space is created for some dialogue between the celebrity as brand, the celebrity as person, and the viewer. Dresses are gifted by labels and selected by stylists, hair coiffed by professionals, make up applied and re-applied by practised hands. Yes. But they are also statements of intent. Of taste. Of personality. People still talk about Minnie Driver in her red dress post a very public breakup with Matt Damon. Bjork thumbed her nose at us all in that swan gown (?). Cate Blanchett paid tribute to Alexander McQueen at Cannes. Angelina Jolie struck a pose that set off waves. Tilda Swinton shows a penchant for technique and construction, Charlize Theron for big bows, Natalie Portman for sweetness and light. They're expressing themselves through fashion, styling themselves either as trend-setters or followers or just plain clueless. And we all get to watch and comment.

What she is wearing might indeed be our best bet at figuring out what she is thinking, what she wants, and what she is like. Who cares? I think we all do, a little bit. Some more than others. Of course we can watch our neighbours and friends instead. But it's just slightly more fun watching the Beautiful People putting on a show on the Red Carpet.   

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Good Afternoon, Ms. Darasha

I wasn't a particularly cock-sure child. Like most people between the ages of 5 and 13 (is that where childhood ends, nowadays?) I had my particular and not-so-particular enthusiasms and anxieties, quirks and oddities. I grew up before parents thought it was necessary to convince their offspring of their exceptional brilliance, so I'm glad to say I didn't see myself as a class apart, didn't grow up with a sense of entitlement. In spite of all this, there was one thing about me that I knew was unique, different, an advantage. I went to JB. And my world was presided over by one Shirin Darasha.

Ms. Darasha passed away a little over a week ago. When I heard the news, I was momentarily devastated. I wouldn't be there for her funeral, just as I had not been able to attend her retirement dinner. I knew hundreds of others would attend, that I would not be missed and that my presence was in no way important. But it felt wrong. And today, when I read articles, blogposts and messages of tribute dedicated to her, all contributed by members of the JB community, it feels superfluous to say anything at all. What could I say that others haven't already? Anyone who encountered Ms. Darasha knew that they were in the presence of a force of nature - a force that favored cotton sarees, large semi-precious pendants, and later, floral shirts. Anyone who was taught by her felt their horizons expanding, felt themselves beginning to understand and appreciate music, art, history and culture. She encouraged debate, enjoyed it in fact. She wanted to hear questions, to be challenged, to rouse us and animate us.

But it wasn't all easy going. We also chafed under the weight of her expectations, wondering why it was always up to us to uphold standards of personal excellence, why she was burdening us with a knowledge of women's issues and women's rights, why we needed to become cognizant of the difficulties our fellow citizens contended with. Why did the school plays always need to center on female protagonists who changed the world? Why was it so important to donate money, three or four times a year to social causes? And to also bring old clothes and food-grains to school? Why did she always remind us that we were privileged and that we needed to employ that privilege towards greater ends? Why couldn't we compete at sports, have an extravaganza of a sports day like everyone else? Why couldn't we be young, ignorant and comfortable? Why wouldn't she just let us be?

Why? I am beginning to understand only now. When I wade into an argument, when I proclaim a point of view, when I express what I am thinking in a professional situation without much regard for my designation and anyone else's, when I find that I am eager to learn one thing, and then another, and then a third, when I look at art or secretly listen to Beethoven, when I try to do the right thing, when I pay attention to how others feel and how they live, when I make an effort to challenge myself  - I am living the lessons she taught me and so many others.

She wouldn't let us be because she knew we had to be better than that. She was better than that. Her school, which she ran in her image, was not a place for people who let things be. If there are JBites out there who don't have a little bit of 'why not' in them, it is because they were determined not to cultivate this quality and it is very much their loss. Shirin Darasha never stopped trying to make thinking, questioning, strong individuals of us and it is remarkable how often she succeeded.

This complicated and confusing world needs more women and educators like her. Women and educators who open up possibilities, ingrain values and build personalities, all at the same time.  In saying this, I'm not saying anything original or insightful. I'm merely stating the obvious. But it would be wrong not to.
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