Sunday, August 19, 2012

An Ultra Marathon. Of a Certain Sort.

I'm no sports buff. I mean this. I watched the Olympics this year for a grand total of about 45 minutes (including advertisements). I have nothing against the Olympics, of course. I'm sure they're wonderful, the Greatest Show on Earth. Sportspeople - particularly those who seem to triumph against physical, mental and circumstantial odds - deserve all the glory that the Olympic stage provides. I do not contest claims that the Olympics celebrate history, legacy and the triumph of the human spirit in ways that no other event does.

Even so, week in, week out, I find myself drawn to humbler things. To sports I can relate to. To contests I see in my everyday life. There is a whole breed of contemporary competitive sports that we are nurturing unknowingly, by the simple fact of going through the motions of our lives. There's the sport of 'Extracting Maximum Mileage From a Mundane Event by Posting Pictures, Tweets and Status Updates.' There's the sport of 'I Hit More Stores and Got Better Deals' that reaches a peak during sale season. And then there is my current preoccupation - an event that demands more stamina and will than either of these two - 'The Weekend Marathon.'  The race to prove that one's weekend is bigger, better, packed with more than another's. It's not for the faint of heart. It's one of those long-drawn contests, starting early on Friday evenings and terminating very late on Sunday (or very early on Monday). It requires some amount of forethought and planning. And bragging rights last only five days.  

A city tabloid I subscribe to occasionally features a column detailing what the 'cool people' do during weekends. I don't know these cool people personally. When I read about someone who is able to read great literature, take tap-dancing/salsa lessons, visit family and friends, walk dogs along promenades, write poetry, visit organic markets in trendy suburbs, cycle to city limits, bake pies for the elderly (crust made from scratch) - all in two or one and a half days - I find myself thinking: Is this for real? What are these people made of ? Are they multi-taskers? Do they split up for different activities and then compound their schedules? Will they ever write a book about their fabulous Saturday-Sunday lives? Will the release party last All Weekend?  

Then I realize that I do personally know people whose weekends are, in fact, incredibly elastic, crammed with all kinds of goings-on. I have a friend who is a doctor. A surgeon, to be precise. This means that he is really always on call, unlike some of us who feel hard-pressed about 'thinking 24x7.' In between saving lives (or limbs), this friend manages to socialize, raise his family, buy art, visit his farm outside the city every weekend and make it back home in time to offer bags of organic tomatoes to anyone who's dropped in for chai on a Sunday evening, take lessons in watercolour painting and schedule early morning fitness mania. This is the truth. Every last word. I have a colleague whose weekends (as per other colleagues) are the stuff of legend. I've heard her recount a couple of these over lunch and I must say I am impressed, although (if there were a weekend sweepstakes), I would undoubtedly put my money down on my friend.

These weekend ultra-marathoners are human dynamos. Seeing, doing, learning, meeting, eating, drinking. They set the bar for the rest of us.  

There are others types, too. The ones who have retired hurt from the weekend race or decided not to take part at all. The ones who do mysterious things like 4AM 'con-calls' with Norway and audit M&A transactions and file all kinds of applications in all kinds of places, adhering to all kinds of deadlines. These are the ghost-friends - the ones whose presence I sense but can't establish. They become disembodied voices at one end of my cell-phone - kind of awake, but not really.  Because every moment not spent turning the wheels of Big Money is spent sleeping. I never meet them because that would mean that they would have to pull off the covers and get out of bed. These friends also fulfill an important function. They are the people whose weekends make the rest of us feel better about ours.

Then are all the in-betweeners. The more sporadic race-runners. The ones who do a little, then a lot, then a little again with their weekends. The ones who are happy coming in 3rd, 4th or 5th place. The ones who aren't happy, but resigned. The ones whose we-time must be balanced with me-time. The ones who participate just for the fun of it.  

Ha! Honestly though, who am I kidding? Weekend stress gets to all of us.  It's our chance to demonstrate how plugged in, eclectic, fulfilled and interesting we all are. People compete to win. It's the ultimate marathon for the non-athlete. Forget the Olympics. For anyone dealing with mega-event withdrawal, the real event is right here. Complete with live telecasts on Facebook.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Honest Voices. Good Things.

Good things may or may not come to those who wait. I tend to believe that good things have their own sense of timing. This has meant discovering two writers whose voices resonate with me in a way that they would not have a few years or even a few months ago. They are voices with which I could imagine having an earnest conversation. They are voices whose owners I would want to be friends with. 

First up, Cheryl Strayed. Her advice columns, written for under the moniker ‘Dear Sugar’ have been credited with redefining the genre. Note: I've had to take this particular statement (pronounced by worthies at Salon and The New Yorker) at face value. But what I have done myself is read the column and follow in the footsteps of thousands by developing the need for a regular 'Sugar-fix.'

What makes Sugar so compelling? For one, she takes on almost any kind of question with equal seriousness. She calls letter-writers out on their hypocrisies and assumptions, softening the blows with pet terms of endearment. In drawing freely from her own - complex - story, Strayed is empathetic but also eloquent. It's a tricky trapeze act -  inhabiting another's concerns while wielding writerly skill. But she pulls it off.
Then there is Nora Ephron. Seasoned journalist, Dorothy-Parker-but-smarter, New Yorker, the woman whose directorial persona hung over blogger Julie Powell as she released her second book detailing dalliances with the S&M community (a somewhat unexpected follow-up to her wildly successful memoir Julie and Julia). Nora Ephron was someone to be reckoned with. She’s written screenplays and a book about the break-up of her marriage. These are large canvasses that can accommodate grand sweeps and flourishes. But she has a gift for shining in spaces with less wriggle room - whether she’s describing her relationship with cookbooks, her reliance on turtleneck sweaters, her hair management ordeals or the ‘history of lettuce.’

What I find most appealing about these writers isn't their skill. It's the force of their honesty.

As a reader, I've always appreciated wit, verbal fencing, turns of phrase, elegance, observation, detail, insight. I haven't been equally appreciative of old fashioned authenticity. In being honest, writers can become indulgent. They begin confessing things we aren't ready or willing to hear. Honesty makes things - content and quality - precarious. It's difficult to do honesty authentically. And well.

But in reading Ephron and Strayed, I think I finally get it. There's something magnetic about truth - experienced personally, articulated compellingly. Steve Almond, in his foreword to Strayed's 'Tiny Beautiful Things' says that this magnetism has to do with the lack of honesty in our times. I agree. We're all too frequently glib. Slippery. Parenthetical. Too clever by half. So clever that we start conversations and speak in voices that don't end up saying very much. Which is why discovering Strayed and Ephron has been so enjoyable. And a 100% certified Good Thing.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monsoon Musings

One of the first pieces of non-fiction I can remember encountering is a book called 'Chasing the Monsoon' by Alexander Frater. I was a middle-schooler at the time and was oddly compelled by the idea of reading something that wasn't a story. Somehow, it made me feel grown-up. Not to omit the fact that chasing clouds across a chaotic and vast country seemed a piece of foreigner's nonsense - it was an enterprise no Indian would undertake, a whimsical quest no Indian parent would countenance. Which of course rendered the book doubly intriguing and exotic.

I must confess that I don't remember very much of the book. I don't think I ever got past a chapter or two. Non-fiction would reveal its charms to me much, much later, sometime around my early twenties (how it pains me to acknowledge that that particular time in my life is past). But it did leave me with the impression that while the rains rained everywhere, they monsooned only in India. Gloriously and uproariously wet and temperamental, the Indian monsoon was unique and identifiable - it traced a defined trajectory and left mixed blessings in its wake. 

Knowing what I do now, I realize that in undertaking his quest, Frater was no pioneer. In developing a (presumably temporary) infatuation with the monsoons, he had in fact arrived late to a large and fairly raucous party. I'm no anthropologist or culture-studies maven, but I doubt monsoon fetishism anywhere else can compete with India's feverish, high pitched version. We do monsoons differently here.

Kalidas' Meghdoot (Not strictly monsoon, I know. But it traces the path of a cloud). The malhar raga - miyan ki malhar, megha malhar, gaud malhar, and all its other complex, nuanced permutations. Miniature paintings based on the monsoons, populated with peacocks, trees in full bloom, lightning, thunder and lovers either ensconced indoors or separated by surging rivers. Our mythology is rife with torrential rains, particularly when it comes to Krishna. Researchers believe that the importance of elephants (that figure in the divine dreams of both Mahavira's and Siddhartha's mothers) can be linked to their symbolic significance as the harbingers of rain.  

And then there are the baser (or more commonplace, if you'd prefer) rituals that accompany the monsoon - rain dances in movies and  outside of them,  hosted by questionable hotels and respectable housing societies alike. Food magazines and newspapers doing specials on pakoras and fritters. Fashion magazines insisting that this year, designers have found a way to make raincoats and PVC desirable. Corn eaten on the cob, by the sea. Lychees. Resigning oneself to floods and delayed local trains and traffic jams. Abstaining from seafood. The annual examination of rain-preparedness conducted by dailies and tabloids, which this city almost always fails, sometimes with devastating results. Monsoon weddings.

We may style ourselves as a 21st century power, but our relationship with the monsoon is anachronistic, even primal. We need our rains, we enjoy the respite that they provide, but they  extract and endow in equal measure. Floods. Landslides. Death. Crops. Water supply. Growth rates.

The absurdity of our reliance on the rains strikes me with greater force now that the headlines are proclaiming that India is confronting the specter of drought. Drought? A word that rings of the past, of helplessness, of factors utterly and completely beyond our control. In a country in which the politicians and do-gooders both fail us, which has been impacted by economic doldrums originating elsewhere, which is roiling internally and which consents to targeted violence disguised as morality, it seems odd that pundits would discuss the weather. The thing is, India's rains aren't just a barometer of the mood or the stock market. Our collective relationship with the monsoons runs deeper than that. For better or for worse (and often it is the latter), the monsoons form part of our yearly experience of the world. We feel differently when it rains.

And with the monsoon having seemingly forsaken us, I, for one, am feeling worried. Disappointed. Confused. It isn't smooth sailing till it rains. And it isn't June, July, August or September either.
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