Thursday, July 15, 2010

I've been reviewed, or: how to ensnare throbbing felines

Rushing out of my car to catch the shuttle, I forgot to turn off the parking lights. The attendant whiled away a slow day by watching the lights grow dimmer and dimmer, until they were fireflies in the twilight. He could've informed my office. But no. To him, it made more sense to sit there swatting mosquitoes, and probably preparing a speech, with just the right mix of commiseration and disapprobation, to lay on me in the evening.

Only, I didn't get back in the evening. I got back, trudging the 2 kilometres from office, at 4 the next morning: things pop up at work, sometimes. And it was a Saturday. In early March. A time when we pleasant-weather-starved Delhiites should be out, enjoying the cool breeze, soaking in the sights. Not me; not that evening: I was hunched over my keyboard.

The mechanics' not being open until 10, I grouched my way back to office, with the prospect of another 6 hours in front of my computer. It was then that I stumbled upon Ask And Ye Shall Receive, aka "I will fucking tear you apart." Somehow, my mood seemed just perfect for a prolonged stay there. Filled with a loathing for the world beyond description, I glanced theatrically up at the stars (ok, ceiling covered with row upon row of fluorescent lights), muttered a "go ahead, do your worst," and submitted my blog for review.

A very pleasant rest-of-the-weekend - and a quick recounting of blessings - later, I regretted my rashness. To paraphrase Hammett, I adjusted myself to drained car batteries, and when no more of them ran down, I adjusted myself back to them not running down. That said, I continued to be a regular reader of their reviews, and have come upon a few blogs that I'm now a subscriber to.

There the matter rested, in Tolkien style. When submitting my blog, I was like Frodo - just coming of age. The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years* - I'm now a wizened hobbit of 50 - before the story picks up again.

And pick up, it did, in ominous fashion: my blog - the announcement came, to screeching violins - headed the list of doom. I should've rejoiced; welcomed the forthcoming criticism with an open heart. But instead, the feeling was rather one that the audience of an old Malayalam movie would've known, on the sight of the hero's younger brother getting on a motorbike, all light of heart due to engagement with childhood sweetheart, having won over her family after much initial opposition. There's no more effective indicator that, in 45 seconds' time, he would get pulped by a lorry laden with plywood.

Mordor was rising, and scary creatures were afoot on the boundaries of my shire. The first: "Let's see: two Indian blogs, one that immediately made me want to kill myself and the other that first made me scratch my head, unsure of who I wanted to kill." I screamed. Reason having reasserted itself, I asked myself, "Might I not be overreacting?" No, I wasn't: that was a regular reviewer there. A short pause for breath, and I was all set with a couple more. A few "get a grip, asshole" looks helped me regain a degree of composure, but whatever-it-is-that-has-icy-fingers had just put my heart in its firm grip.

After the initial panic, my customary calmness in the face of adversity took over. Battening down the hatches, my face set in grim, hard lines. "These guys don't know who they're messing with," I told myself. I would imagine I looked a bit like Sam Spade in the presence of a man who's just, say, head-butted Brigid O'Shaughnessy - or, I would've, if he were more like the rest of us, and not prone to dreamy looks before indulging in a bit of violence.

I prepared myself for an offensive. I would accuse them of racism, of sexism, of not knowing art if it jumped up and bit them on their collective rear ends. I would whinge so long and so hard that even the worst review on their shitty little site would look like an 8-year-old's homework. But above all, it would be a private whinge; an email, and I would move on, not uttering a word to a soul. No mention at all publicly of even their existence.

But when the review finally came, they did not tear me apart. The reviewer, Forcemeat (with an avatar as vegetarianism-inducing as the moniker promises), seems to have taken a liking to my blog. I didn't set his world alight, mind you - if I've understood the rating correctly, it was more of an "above average." Still, it was very un-ripping-apart-like, and has caught me distinctly on the wrong foot. After all the huffing and puffing, I feel deflated.

I suppose the right thing to do is to display an Olympian disregard for the opinions of mere mortals. Or, maybe, thank him graciously enough, while self-deprecatingly pointing out how some of the plus points he's noted are not really plus points at all; thereby underlying my supreme coolness, and my invulnerability to failings of the flesh.

But the thing is, I'd feel cheap doing that - especially when he's clearly taken the pains to read even the longest posts of mine, and has referred back to posts of years back. We all have our attacks of conscience now and then: this is one of my rare ones. Further, the review is beautifully written, makes valid criticisms and contains delightful winks that no one apart from me would probably get** - a tete-a-tete on the world wide web.

So, there's little left for me to do, Forcemeat, except thank you warmly for your time, and hope that you'll continue to drop in here when time permits.

*All right, all right, it's been just 4 months.
**Well, not unless you memorise much of my blog.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

In the footsteps of giants?

Up until very recently, my idea of an artsy evening was slouching on my sofa, tucking away chips and cola, watching "Bats: Human Harvest" on HBO. If anyone were to tell me that there are higher forms of art out there, they would get Raymond Chandler in my best bugger-off voice, "There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that."

Mr Chandler; your Philip Marlowe, despite being inclined towards the odd whinge - which is a habit I despise, and would never indulge in - has kept me entertained for many an hour. But I'm sorry: I've decided to go over to the other side. I'm now what is known as a connoisseur; of the sort in "Cinema Paradiso," turning my nose up at the popular, and spitting contemptuously on the lower classes from my seat high up on the balcony. Also, to mark my ascendancy, I'm brushing up on my French and Latin, which shall soon be sprinkled all over my blog. So long, ignoramuses (ignorami?). It was nice knowing you.

All right,  that's enough self-congratulation. Let me get right to the point. A few weeks ago, I got to go to my first-ever book reading - with a real, live author and everything. I forget where it was exactly (there was free beer), but I do remember that it was in the basement of a mansion in a nice, quiet part of Delhi.

His name is Ambarish Satwik. Interesting chap, too. He began by bemoaning the general lack of scatological writing in Indian literature. From what I could understand of the mixture of Hindi* and English in his graphic novel, he's on an epic quest to make up for 5000 years of lost time. His reading was excellent, and had all of us convulsing in fits of laughter with his poker-faced delivery. And this other story of his, further hardened my resolve to never, ever get married.

He was followed by an artist exhibiting something that, even several weeks later, I can't make head or tail of. The title had the words "Mountains", and either, or all of, "Misty," "Smoky" or "Pink" in it. To describe this properly, I need to give you a mental image of the basement.

There was a projector set up so that the projection would be near a corner of the room, on a glass partition that separated the room we were in from the next. There wasn't much space; so, while most others were facing the section on which the projection would happen, the only spot I could get to was along the partition, facing the projector.

I was well away from where the projection was to be, though, and so figured I wouldn't be obstructing anyone's view. My view wouldn't be great, but I could live with that: it didn't seem like the sort of thing that would interest me. Besides, it was a basement with no air-conditioning, and I think I've mentioned somewhere or the other that Delhi in the summers is freaking hot. Unfortunately, the two exits could be reached only via much profanity from people whose hands and feet I'd step on. So I stayed put.

The lights dimmed, and something that looked a lot like a guitar, but wasn't quite one, made its presence felt. No contribution yet from the projector. But that's ok. David Lean and Stanley Kubrick, for instance, have started with a pitch-black screen and an overture. I was interested, all of a sudden: this guy was already rubbing shoulders with giants.

Meanwhile, someone starting cleaning the partition behind me. I was annoyed. It didn't seem the right way to treat high art. She was moving across the glass, slowly, squeakily toward the projection - which started up, by and by, and looked like a Rorschach blot in motion. Or maybe it was dancing bulls. I lost interest. Boredom crept in. The heat was getting to me. I wanted more beer. I wanted out.

I was staring at my shoes, immersed in self pity, wishing the window cleaner would move on and take her squeaking with her, when something started to pierce my shell of self absorption. I looked up. People were staring, giggling; there was even the odd camera flash. Having the "situational awareness of a dead goat," to steal a phrase from I-don't-remember-where, it took me a while to piece together the mystery.

Apparently, the "cleaning" behind me was part of the performance. She was smearing a wax-like thingy on the glass. What the whole thing signified, I cannot say: perhaps some comment on the transience of life, or maybe on entropy (spotless glass to begin with, getting progressively dirtier), or something. There wasn't much for me to do, other than blush a bright crimson, mutter a "Why the hell didn't somebody say something?" and creep sheepishly away. Thankfully, at that point, something malfunctioned on the projector, and they had to start the whole presentation again. I was no longer the centre of unwelcome attention.

I'm no expert on psychology, but I do know that there's only so much of watching the smearing of wax, in a hot basement - even if accompanied by music and dancing bulls - that people can take in a day. One 20-minute stretch, they can manage to sit politely through; but a repeat immediately after - and this time, with no one in front of said presentation, pulling pained expressions while studying his shoelaces - well, that's asking for too much. There was much loud whispering and exiting. I stole out, too, careful never to be within throwing-of-blunt-objects distance of the artist.

Outside, I felt a little better when I noticed worse philistines than me about. For instance, there was this group on the lawn behind me, who thought the restlessness of the audience was part of the show, and spent a fair while discussing that and other inanities, until I just about wanted to scream. But then again, Tarkovsky, on being asked why he kept the camera trained for 10 whole minutes on a dude, who was raising excitement to a fever pitch by sitting, reading a newspaper, in a moving car, famously came back with, "So that the idiots leave before the actual movie starts." Perhaps something earth shattering took place in the basement after the rest of us left. Besides, I thought of my contributions to the evening, and kept my trap shut.

I suppose the thing to do now is to wind the whole post up, with a succinct "lessons learnt", or how it all added up to a significant chapter in my life. There aren't any, and it didn't. However, since we all have a little bit of whimsy in us...

My ultimate fantasy career has always been "film director." Strange then that when my debut came, it would not be behind the camera, but rather on stage... after a fashion. Perhaps it's fate hinting that my future lies in following the footsteps of the likes of Lilette Dubey and Anthony Hopkins? I can already hear those of you who know me, muttering faintly, "No, it isn't." Still, there it is. The evening that launched me from the low brow to the high brow.

*My Hindi's not too good, but Dr Satwik helped improve it tremendously, with a few essential words that I simply must try out when I can manage to get a girl alone.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Do the Right Thing

The movie review set me thinking. While I've never found myself face-to-face with a hideous alien; after a lifetime of living in India, I do know a thing or two about having very narrow standards when it comes to judging on appearances - especially the fair-and-lovely benchmark.  It isn't really racism: colour of skin isn't that much of an indicator of race in this very diverse country. Besides, we don't really discriminate on colour in an overtly physical way. It's rather understated, and ultimately is merely about what we consider attractive.

Casteism, if anything, would probably be the closest thing to racism that we can boast of - there seems to be much hair-splitting on that subject, though. Now, throw as much rhetoric as you can, and you would still fail to describe the horrors of casteism. Any conscionable blogger would write about it, particularly in view of the ongoing debate. But it is a war waged mostly in India's villages, and is not something I have direct experience of. In any case, no one has yet accused me of being a conscionable blogger.

Colourism, on the other hand, I've seen all around me; and even indulge in, whenever time permits (remind me to write a post on how jam-packed modern-day schedules are, and how it doesn't really leave us with enough time for the finer things in life). But hack that I am, I think I'll hitch a free ride by using a word that instantly brings to mind the worst of discrimination, all over the world. Right then, that's "racism" we settled on, yes?

Oh, and don't worry. I'm not about to bore you to tears by frothing up with righteous anger. Frothing up takes energy. Besides, I'm not really against racism. Being as human as the next man, I need to be able to despise - freely and without guilt. Is there a simpler way to judge and condemn than by colour of skin? Admittedly, there are more sophisticated means of identifying subjects to discriminate against, but for sheer ease-of-use, nothing else comes close.

Take a look at the IMDB Top Films. How many in that list are all sweetness and sunshine? At the time of writing, you have to scroll all the way down to #29 to find the first one - the nauseating "It's a Wonderful Life" - and then to #45, to find the second, "Amelie." What would we blog about, what would we film? Where would we get our little rises if there are no faces to grind our boots with?

Further, as a friend pointed out, racism is part of our identity. We grow up with it. We pass it down, from generation to generation, with love and care, careful to preserve every ounce of it. It is our rightful inheritance. And is there another nation that guards its cultural heritage more zealously?

All people are equal? What rubbish! If we can discriminate based on looks, intelligence, wit, talent, language, religion, etc, then why not colour? What's the difference? Why the half-hearted attempts at political correctness; why make me stand in front of the vice-principal's room for an hour, merely for calling a classmate a crow? (And he had started it, by tripping me on the staircase.)

The only gripe I have here is that we seem to be practising this whole racism thing upside down. We were occupied by the British for 200 years - and, judging by the cast of "Lagaan," the colonisers were white: not black, not brown, not grey, not yellow, not blue. White*. Also, it's the predominantly-white societies that we look to, with hawk-like eyes, for any hint of racism; and when we do get our evidence, what a good job we do with the whingeing - which is fair enough; after all, it isn't the Moors who treated us like second-class citizens in our own country.

So why is it that we simper at anyone with a lighter shade of skin than ours, while treating darker skin with something approaching disdain? An Iranian tourist - she of pearly white skin - told me how well, how magnificently, she was treated while on her visit here of a few weeks. Isn't that just wrong?

So, here's what I propose. We drop everything we're doing right now, and make our way to the nearest chemist, or wherever it is that we can get our hands on one of those fairness creams that have a  money-back guarantee. From what I can remember of the ads, they come with some sort of a strip that lets you measure "improvement" in skin tone; presumably, it has all possible shades of skin colour: from pot-with-no-self-awareness black, to sambar brown, to pasty white.

Whenever we come across a tourist, we hold the strip up against their foreheads, and if they happen to be two shades lighter than the median we've marked out, we condemn them to the cool treatment; our covert stare will have an element of distaste. Those two shades darker, on the other hand, we stare at with admiration; we fawn at them; we'd want them to pat us affectionately on the head, while not forgetting to fleece them, if we can.

On the local front, things are, admittedly, not quite so black and white; and I'm not writer enough to summarise it in a few lines. A couple of things that come to mind is asking specifically for dark-skinned partners in marriage ads; further, those of us of darker skin will not dilly dally in describing our colour. No more "wheatish" or other obfuscations. We go ahead and declare proudly: "brown" or "black."

Let the ones with the lighter skin come up with shame-faced  euphemisms: "tooth-paste-ish," "an unbecoming coconut-chutney coloured," "semiya-payasam skinned." Kids tripped on stairs will accuse the offender of being a... polar bear? (That isn't very good, is it? I'm open to suggestions.) Of course, since only dark skin shall turn us on from now on, at the next IPL, there will only be black cheerleaders (assuming we'll still be importing them). When chaps like him come back to India, we will impress them with our growing racist maturity, by asking, in a tone willing to believe the very worst, "What are the white people like?"

All I'm campaigning for is enlightened, logical racism. Is that too much to ask for?

*A quick Google search astonished me with the info that white folk come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and political views; apparently, not all of them have tried to colonise India, either. There are some who prefer racing and reindeer; there are others who absolutely detest motor racing, and would rather make chocolate, cuckoo clocks or all-conquering tennis champs. A chap named Napoleon had his differences of opinion with other white folk, notably the ones across the French Channel. And yes, some white Aussies have been known to refer to other white folk, separated by the Tasman Sea, as sheep shaggers. I acknowledge all this, but am still sticking to my guns; the time-honoured pejorative, "They all look the same," being my underlying philosophical premise.