Art of the Matter

Reflections of an Author at Work

Be A Tall Tree

be-tall-tree-stand-within-yourselfThe New Year began with a bang.  Since I didn’t bring it in with pink champagne or a string of ‘Page 3’ parties or nuzzling at a man’s neck, one could say I haven’t yet woken up to the fact that it is a new year – 2012.  As if it was not morbid enough for me to lose my pet, Ginger, on January 5, I hear now that we all must prepare for the rightful end of our world on December 2012.

So, what does that mean?  Should we buckle up and sashay down the path of our dreams and ambitions, aim for that high-paying job, and continue to hold grudges against traitor friends?  Or should we quietly retire with whatever savings we have (strictly cash!) to the Himalayas?

But hasn’t the world ended several times for many of us when we have lost our lovers, jobs, parents, partners, siblings, pets, dreams and dignity?  In that measure, if Mother Earth wants to explode by December, we can’t really fault that.  We might as well put that thought aside until December 1, and live the way we want to, because by suddenly altering our natures or desperately seeking a role model in order to redeem ourselves over the next 11-odd months is a sheer waste of time.

To stay alive, we just need to live.  Too simple?  Not really.  There are many ways to stay alive.  New Year resolutions is a great and time tested way – that is, if you can focus on following them for a month or two, and then not.  That will sort of fill you with guilt and all sorts of other useless emotions, guaranteed to remind you that you are human, and alive.

The other way, the bar-headed geese’s way, is worth considering.  Bar-headed geese are one of God’s most special creations.  Lily Whiteman writes in Audubon Birds about the impossibly daunting landscape where these surreal creatures survive.  As Lily says, imagine this: At 29, 028 feet, where the tallest peak Mount Everest reigns supreme, oxygen is scare (about a third of that available at sea level), and life is rare.  Mount Everest is tall enough to poke into the ‘jet stream’ – which is a high-altitude river of wind that blows at speeds of more than 200 miles an hour.

If we were at that height, our exposed flesh would freeze instantly.  Kerosene can’t burn here, helicopters can’t fly here.  Yet, flocks of bar-headed geese – the world’s highest altitude migrants – fly from their winter feeding grounds in the lowlands of India through the Himalayan Range, directly above Everest, on their way to the nesting grounds in Tibet.  Then, every fall, these magnificently brave birds retrace their route to India.  What’s more, it is believed that with just a little help from the tailwinds, they may be able to cover the one-way trip – more than 1,000 miles – in a single day.  Wow!  If a 5-pounds, 2-feet-high bird with the ability to fly over 50 miles an hour can show that kind of spunk, we don’t need to wait for December 2012 to justify our lack of life or ‘flight’ this year.

The bar-headed geese’s awesome engineering defies logic, but then, so does our existence.  We don’t do much to keep our world alive.  Our natural instincts have been practically scraped off our souls through the years, and our intrinsic oneness with nature leaves us bashful at best.  Only when our materialistic existence is threatened by a trauma or loss, or if we perceive that our life with all its New Year resolutions continues to remain imperfect, we worry about other ‘bigger ideas’ like World Hunger, Doomsday, and Big Boss Season 5 being rigged.

So, here’s to 2012, whether it is ending or not with a cosmic bang, live the high life. Take flight!

Dazed And Confused In Search of Our Dreams

dazed-and-confusedTake a page out of your Life’s book today. Is it legitimate? Or are you aping a journey that is based on the reality or illusion (trust me, it could be either) of another person’s whom you envy or admire? Sometimes we confuse our deepest desires and electric dreams with someone else’s, because we can’t really see ourselves being original and unique.

We want their fame and glory, their money and power, if possible, their bodies and souls. Take Dirty Picture — it set tongues wagging and hearts pounding. People are outraged, seduced, stumped and awed by the sensuality of the idea of a movie which is so bold and raw. Why are we talking about this? Because Milan Lutheria, the director, had the audacity to trust his own journey leaving half of Bollywood to slap their foreheads. “Sheesh! Why didn’t we think of that one?”

Originality does not necessarily mean you have to try and fit into your teenage daughter’s clothes even if you feel young at heart; it does not permit that you go to work looking like a skunk either, without make-up and slippers, because you think you look cool; and if you are a man, it does not warrant that you buy a Harley Davidson at 57 out of your retirement fund because that’s what successful men do.

English hypnotist and self-improvement author, Paul McKenna says, “The map is not the territory”. What he means is that we interpret situations based on what we feel and whom we are at that point of time. So how we interpret things affect our state of mind, expressions and behaviors. It keeps us away from being true to our most important dreams and realizing our potential.

If you are feeling ‘old’ or ‘unattractive’ or like a ‘loser’ lately, stop and think. Maybe you are vaulting down the road with someone else’s illustrious and affluent map, without having that person’s originality, intellect or talent. How can you succeed while trying to imitate someone else’s journey? Try to take your own path to success. If you don’t know the path yet, create one. The territory lays ahead – your territory – and you can make up the map as you go along.

Delhi’s Belly

India-Gate-DelhiThere’s something about New Delhi.

Besides the India Gate and the Red Fort, the greedy shopping experiences and gastronomic delights, there is something else: Prized Arrogance (PA). So, what is it about the capital city of India with its PA that awes and repels us in equal measure? For some, it is the lewd Punjabi aggression. For others, it is the scary tales of abusing women. For me, it is the fascinating greenery amidst which No.10 Racecourse Road turns its nose at the ghettos of Purani Dilli (Old Delhi).

For many of my southern friends, Delhi is about the so-called Prima Donnas of South-Ex, who may very well become totally irrelevant once they open their mouths to speak. Evidence of over-confidence without substance, perhaps – or simply, PA at its best!

Yet, PA or not, in winter, if you happen to be in Delhi, you are likely to be charmed. The crisp cold air is complemented by smartly dressed Delhites in their leather jackets, knee high boots and woolen berets. Very European! While you are dwelling on that pretty picture, throw in a driver who doubles up as a tour guide, giving a running commentary in Hindi. But, despite everything, the PA never really leaves the scene – and you can’t really ignore it.

Imagine this: We are returning to the hotel after a long day of meetings. The luxurious homeliness of The Lalit at Connaught Place beckons. All we’d like to do is really eat and sleep – and prepare for another long day of more meetings. Wazir Singh, our reluctant driver, is quiet, in keeping with our low energy levels. As we halt a few meters short of one of the traffic junctions, one of the many cars itching to get going, a white Maruti Swift on our left side wakes up. The car door opens, and a tall, fair, handsome man with spiky hair decides to step out. No harm done really, except his car’s door blatantly bangs against ours. As if for effect, he tests how far the door can open again, banging our car again, before he steps out.

Outraged, my colleague demands to know why the man was behaving this way. Wazir Singh gives the door-banger an equally outraged look, but remains mute. I chip in softly, saying the man was indeed shameless and must be told to behave, and also possibly taught not to step out between traffic lanes. Wazir Singh still remains silent. The door-banger lights a cigarette which he takes out of the boot of the Swift, and then he readies to hop back again into his car. While getting in, he opens his car door again, wide and hard, banging again against our car. Wazir Singh apparently has had enough this time, so he rolls down the window pane and says to the man: “Please watch out for the door.”

The man hurls the choicest of abuses and then, for effect, again bangs the car door against our Innova. The traffic lights turn to green and he speeds away. Wazir Singh sighs and says, “People are like this only in Delhi.”

For Better Or For Worse

Better-Or-For-WorseIs there no way one can find an ideal life partner these days by being simply being themselves?

Irrespective of the mushrooming matrimonial sites, singlehood like motherhood and fatherhood seems to be eluding the upwardly mobile men and women. We may have become too educated for our own good, and that has changed the rules of the game.

It is no longer about a steady income (contributed by the man) and multi-tasking abilities (expected from the woman). Marriage by the rules of our forefathers is now extinct. Men are seeking women ten years older than themselves, and women are looking for men who have more than incomes. Strangely, during the search process, women come out looking stranger than fiction, because they dare to be honest about their goals and dreams. The fastest way to lose a prospective groom online is to tell him the true story. Perhaps women need to focus only on their culinary skills in the brief description of themselves that matrimonial sites encourage. Men on the other hand, downplay their affluence to test the women. “Ah, let us see if she’s after my money or she really likes me.” Seriously? Unfortunately, yes.

Imagine going through your whole life without finding that special someone – and then naively believing that ‘The One’ like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (my favorite, really) is tucked in somewhere between the pages of a matrimonial site. Imagine believing that every word said and exchanged online with a complete stranger is all true, without having conversed or met the person in question. Also, while surfing through the ocean of so-called ‘great catches’ you are likely to find, profiles of men are blatantly claiming they are “separated” or “in the process of divorce”…which means…what? Are they emotionally available for another marriage when they haven’t even finished the first one? Well, your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

So, where does that leave the quest for that elusive soul mate via the tantalizing world of matrimonial sites? Increasingly, statistics displayed on matrimonial sites alarm prospects of either gender when it screams, “More than 10,000 new people register every day”. If only choosing a partner online could be as easy as shopping for a dress or an accessory on an online store where everything was clearly mandated: SX, S, M, L, XL, XXL? Black, red, green, white?

Agreed, that is wild thought and possibly not practical, but it is certainly not wilder than what happened to a friend of mine (let’s call her Gina). Some years ago, Gina wanted to marry an American-Indian-Citizen (let’s call him Robert), whom she had met on one of the matrimonial websites. The romance progressed well for several months – declarations of love and parcels between continents were exchanged.

Then Gina went to California on a paid holiday by Robert to meet with his family. Imagine her horror when Robert suggested she join the ‘family bath’ on the second day of her visit. A bit perplexed, Gina asked what he meant. Robert explained (without batting an eyelid) that his family members bathed together every day in a common bathroom ever since he could remember. Needless to say, Gina fled back to Mumbai.

Where does this leave the hopeful, unwed, millions then? Well, right at the beginning. Online or offline, the basis of an intended life-long relationship cannot be intrigue or politeness. The sooner the real truth is revealed, the better it is for both parties because the seekers do not have the time to assess and romance for years before they marry. Online technology could be used to speed up the process, but it can’t replace the ‘right to information’.

So, don’t give up yet. The key to finding your soul mate, irrespective of the mode of search, is awfully simple: Just keep it honest.

Incredibly Invincible

Salman-RushieThere is something to be said about the written word. Apologies, letters, books or poetry. Once they are written and shared, they are no longer yours. They give new meaning to the critical mass theory. They refuse to die, staying alive in the minds and hearts of those who had the good fortune of chancing upon them. I can’t help but jump on to India Inc. Bandwagon where Salman Rushdie, author par excellence, aided by the erudite Hari Kunzru, and at least 25 million Indians across India, are today holding up the national flag in support of the written word.

So, the point of all the brouhaha over the-book-that-shall-not-be-named is that it raises a bunch of succulent questions that are not just palatable to politicians and activists alike, it is also relevant to ordinary mortals. In my world view, all the sentimental and outrage kind of questions point to one thing (not the same old ‘freedom of speech for writers’ thing) that is: The Indefatigable Point of Invincibility.

There are many ways to achieve invincibility, I am sure. My Chemistry teacher, Mrs. Matthews, made herself invincible by terrorizing us even before she actually stepped into the classroom. We waited for the inevitable decimation by her laser sharp tongue and encyclopedic mind every other day as we struggled to rattle off Chemistry formulas before saying ‘Good Morning’.

Coming back to my first love, the written word, it is truly the way to gain eyeballs, money, fame, and if you are lucky, invitations to literary festivals. But the only pre-condition to gaining invincibility for your work is that you must not make a big deal of it, but let others take it up and do what they will. Of course, your perspectives, feelings, opinions have to challenge the status-quo of Life. So, if it is about love or hate, sex or taboo, religion or politics, what you write with your alternate perspective could be the next target.

Also, if you want to take the international fraternity’s attention away from our national problems of corruption, polls and scams aside, it is perfect to find authors who presented these signs of invincibility decades ago. Many pundits have nodded their heads and said, “Is it worth the angst, the alienation, and the obvious defamation worldwide for a few words which the majority people on this planet will never read or understand?” That is a question that we have to ask ourselves, not political leaders, paid mobs or pundits. If words can stir up “India Spring”, thanks to the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, then let us hope that Harry Potter is preparing a new magic spell to increase our invincibility and decrease intolerance.

 

Kolkata, Kolkata!

Coffee House KolkataWhen you first breathed the Communist air of hope and brotherhood, you were in your mother’s womb. You made a pledge unto me then…that you would never forget my ideals nor stop trying to make them your own.  You would enjoy the revelries of Durga Puja and Diwali with equal fervor. You would continue to cherish the old world charms, including the fatherly Ambassador taxis. I am Kolkata.

Through the gullies of Burrabazaar and the posh lanes of Ballygunge Phari, my soul found its multitudinous Avatars just like you did during your childhood years, mingling with neighbors of various castes and communities from all over India.

Sometimes you played in the well-manicured parks of Auckland Square and Minto Park with children you didn’t know, sometimes you admired the sunset at Outram Ghat with friends. Every time your cousins visited from other countries, you brought them to see the Victoria Memorial or the Indian Museum – as if their tribute would have to be still paid to Her Majesty of England for 300 years of British Rule. I am Kolkata.

Sometimes the lethargy of the city got into your bones also, and you preferred to spend hours at the college canteen just like your uncles did at the Coffee House on College Street. At other times, you were content roaming in New Market with your mother, bargaining hard for great deals. Not a single day went by during your college days at St. Xavier’s without a visit to Park Street, dotted and knotted with bars and restaurants, now a bit tired and rusty. But your favorite stop was always Flury’s with its fifth generation of Butter Cream Pastries and Chicken Patties. I am Kolkata.

You loved me and I loved you – without any conditions or notions. But then you had to grow up, leaving your teens behind and eager to explore the other worlds. Even the candlelight dinners at Peter Cat or the charm of the Academy of Fine Arts hosting art exhibitions or the spicy Jhalmuri and pungent Phuchkas at Victoria Maidan couldn’t lure you back. Marxism, which was your favorite subject at the college canteen debates, took a backseat. You no longer understood the philosophy of the Naxalites and wondered why there wasn’t ever going to be any new jobs or industries here. I am Kolkata.

Our love affair ended on a bitter note. I didn’t want you to leave,  but you did anyway, and chose not to return for many years. My streets didn’t want to change nor the colors of my springs or winters. I still felt proud of the aged Bihari rickshaw puller, who earned hardly a couple of hundreds of rupees every day.

I still loved the dancing fountains with their newly installed colored halogen lights at t the Victoria Memorial. I still embraced the beautiful sunrise over the Howrah Bridge. I still liked that tiny earthen tumbler of chai being offered for just a rupee. True, now there are some new shopping malls and fancy public transportation, but I still wake up more relaxed than other cities. I am in no hurry. I am Kolkata.

Your return was a surprise to me – and how do you think I felt? With your fancy clothes, your foreign accent and new money, all of which is against the ideology of our combined destiny, you came to see me again, but no humility. Am I not your favorite love story then? Could there be another one like me?

Now you love New York City I hear, but does it have a rich heritage like mine or the precious memories of your childhood? Have you forgotten the best of the Raj that I shared with you and still hold dear…including the innumerable Clubs and horse-drawn carriages? I am Kolkata.

Where have you been all these years, my beloved? The soul which you have today belongs to me, you know, full of all the poetry and romance, love and passion, which people want from you today.  Your education went beyond Shelley and Keats, and your social acclimatization wasn’t all about Deen Mistry and Lillete Dubey’s famous English plays at Kala Mandir. You have as much of Tagore in your blood as I have a loving tendency to give sanctuary to Bangladeshis. I am Kolkata. Accept it. Your love affair with me can never end. Because I am YOU.

Liberating Freedom

Boat in KeralaFreedom is as freedom does: A wonderfully liberated world where thousands are marching towards their victory under the scorching sun with Anna Hazare. (Most of them, anyway, won’t for fear of getting a suntan); power of the media that put Niira Radia to shame and corporate leaders behind bars; end of dictatorship, sexism, and tyranny a la Gaddafi.

What does Freedom mean to you? Going the Roebuck way or the Tiger Wood’s way? Choosing the flavor of your Gelato or the color of your car? Breaking your silence after weeks of anger or holding your tongue for months to contemplate? Whatever it means to you, remember, Freedom brings the big fat peril of revealing the true Self. Sorry, but Freedom does strip you of lies and makes you truthful – sort of diving into a public bath naked.

Many years ago, my friend’s elder brother was given permission to explore his career options by their father. All the family members duly encouraged him to be himself. Guess what the young man became? A naxalite, which was kind of odd in their family of doctors and engineers.

Freedom demands cutting through the clutter. Cut the ruthless job that gives you more money and fame, but takes away your health and happiness. Cut that torturous duty that’s supposed to add value to your reputation and family’s image, but doesn’t. Cut candlelit dinners on T-stir-inspired-power-cut evenings, when they really leave you peeved. Cut speculating on Ash’s marriage and her reluctance to get pregnant when in truth you don’t read enough to have any other sane conversation. (AB’s baby is already born, and you weren’t even invited for the baby shower, remember?)

If you dare to cut, the true Self will emerge. It might horrify you because you might turn out to be different – perhaps meaner, crazier or dreadfully mundane. Or simply, magnificent. Then you can proudly look into the mirror and say: I am not in prison, nobody dictates my life, I don’t need to pretend, and I don’t have to prove anything. And I am free of people who don’t have the courage to be truthful about anything. Now that is Freedom worth raising a toast to…Cheers!

Of Bengalis And Brotherhood

Goddess DurgaIt is hard to be a Bengali during Durga Puja if like me one has left the warm cockles of Bengal’s heart 18 years ago.  Come Durga Puja, and one is forced to reincarnate one’s universally appealing persona into native Bengali’s.  Like Tenualosa Ilisha (Elish Fish), the stalwarts of Bengal expect the natives to abandon the sea of anonymity (meaning other States of residence), swim upstream to spawn the eggs of Bengali Brotherhood in Kolkata, and partake of the ‘real’ thing…resplendent pandals, goddesses, gluttony, and including strangers.

Outside Bengal, it is a Herculean task.  If you must imprint these un-replicable experiences, then start early.  Seek out all the Bengalis in your neighborhood; count the number of Chatterjees, Deys and Gangulis in your office; and, if you are the sort to take it a bit far, reconnect with estranged friends (non-Bengalis) who have friends (Bengalis) affiliated to one of the few Bengali clubs or committees in the city.  However, your diverse attempts to swim upstream and regain your ‘Bengaliness’ could leave you exhausted.

To retain visibility like a fish out of water, float between Indira Park, Keyes High School, Banjara Hills and Kalibari in your finery at Hyderabad. Make a fat donation to the biggest samiti. Use colloquial phrases – “Dada, ektoo jaagaa deben?”  meaning “Sir, could you give me some space?” Greet grim Bengali brothers and sisters. You want to be ‘one’ with the community. Still, you go unnoticed, unappreciated and unanswered.  Self-doubts…Is this a Chinese New Year celebration and am I deciphering the riddles on lanterns in Beijing?

Suddenly, after hours in the cue for a splattering of afternoon bhog, an epiphany occurs.  Surprise, surprise! Every Bengali becomes an ‘outsider’ in local Bengali communities when out of Bengal. It is Bijoya Dashami.  Good triumphs over evil?  Involuntarily, you peer into the mirror.  At least, you still resemble an arty Bengali.

Grass Is Greener On The Other Side

grass-is-greenerHave you ever gone on a wild goose chase? No, I am not talking of chasing a man for the upcoming New Year Eve’s bash. I mean, really chasing something while believing it to be something else? I had that experience one time when I decided to move from Bengaluru to Chennai. I was sold on a small little boutique agency run by a deceptively hip husband-wife couple who called themselves ‘reputation managers’. When I joined the little outfit in a run-down-apartment-office in RA Puram on my first day there, I was ready to flee — even at the risk of losing the doubled salary. Frankly, I was stumped.

Here I had nurtured my grand vision of learning everything there was to learn about managing reputation and moving out of a deadly paralyzing corporate communication job into something new and contemporary…but all I had ended up doing was writing emails on an age-old desktop, watching a bunch of foolish young people pitching stories to the media, and dealing with verbal abuse from the CEO.

The wild goose, after all, wasn’t so wild. It was a PR Agency in Reputation Management’s clothing, where the CEO didn’t quite care to manage his own reputation. What a traumatic experience to eat such humble pie! – tripled by leaving behind idyllic Bengaluru after a decade of living there, and landing in gritty Chennai to realize that life was not at all a beach.

Whether you like it or not, at some point in your life, you will be drawn to the ‘greener grass’ on the other side. You will imagine you are destined for a ‘different’ profession where you will shine like a beacon if only you could get a chance. Some not-so-well-wishers will encourage you to turn your Class V hobby into a money-churning machine (when they are actually, secretly, tickled by your lack of genius).

Words of empirical caution here: There is nothing known as ‘greener grass’. There is no reputation to manage without PR. And, there is no point chasing anything or anyone that you do not have an aptitude for in this life. Sometimes, going with the tested could be slow and tiring… but it could open new doors. Remember the tortoise, though. Don’t take a nap along the way. Keep moving.

Tech Block

Tech BlockAccept it. We have ignored the signs. A month ago, celebrated writer Paulo Coelho tweeted: Life is like Twitter. Follow. Unfollow. Block.  True! People ARE “blocking” officially nowadays – thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and even Blackberry Messenger. I knew a woman who had changed her Facebook profile seven times in the past two years. I asked her if she had gone mad. She replied, “I hate blocking people. I would rather pretend I deleted my profile.” After representing herself by different names and images (flower, cartoon, Ferrari, feather, cat, tee shirt slogan), funnily enough, her last avatar was that of a telescope which would supposedly discourage people from finding her due to its un-attractiveness.

In case of badgering mothers-in-law, unfaithful boyfriends, boorish bosses and unwelcome guests, go right ahead and click on that block tab because Life is too short. Don’t waste it on mending fences with people who don’t care even if you agree to turn cartwheels in their birthday parties as part of the act. For free. In that case, the block option of Life could be fantastic just like Twitter. Just don’t post messages like these in your environment: “Wife blew up precious money on a bunch of hobbies that didn’t make her look or feel any better”, or “I am happiest when my boyfriend’s wife is out of town”, or “The best part of my life only includes beer, sex and X-Box” (the last one, especially if your girlfriend is expecting you to propose next week.)

Make the most of what matters today…even if it’s a girlfriend who wants you to call everyday (at least she cares!). Retain your right to choose – people or experiences. But, be careful. On Twitter, you can add people back to your preferred list and follow them again. In real Life, you may not get another chance to “unblock” people you need again. And, the last thing you want to do is spend the rest of your life justifying that on Twitter.

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