Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Side Effects

When I was between the ages of eight and ten, we spent a couple of years outside India. It so happens that the academic year for schoolchildren in Delhi begins in April, but in Kuala Lumpur it begins in September, and in Sydney, January. This progression is interesting since it signified to me that I would never attend class 5 -- I went from class 4 (or "J2/1" as it was called) in KL, to "Year 4" in Sydney. February 19xx found me back in Delhi, desperately attempting to relearn the Hindi alphabet in time for my school entrance exam the next month.

I'm not sure what my parents had been thinking, but they had teed me up for only this one particular school, which was where most of their colleagues' children (ergo my erstwhile friends) attended. This school was, apparently, a good one. Eighty-eight other sets of parents had thrown their progeny into the mix. The application of some unknown criterion determined that only eleven of us would be allowed to write the entrance test, which was to be conducted over two (or was it three?) days. Perhaps I hadn't known the numbers - more probably I hadn't understood them fully - but I recall feeling none of the consternation that I am sure my parents were feeling. (Or, that I feel when I look back at that situation today.)

Anyway, I went and wrote those tests as best I could. I even made friends with this other kid who was writing them -- he was "merely" trying to move to this school from one that was, I suppose, "worse". We must have chatted before and after the tests. Our conversation must have been that of ten-year-olds. I have no memory of this. What I do remember was the day the results came out. Eleven sets of frantic parents, and eleven dragged-about children, crammed into a tiny office room. From the fog above my head, news percolated down to me that I had made the cut. I turned to look for this new friend of mine, to share my news and check for his. I remember my mother dragging sharply on my hand - a thing she never ever did - and making me stick close to her while she battled her way into the inner office. Inside, we learned that only one person had been accepted. (We also learned that I had scored 6/10 on the Hindi section of the test; a harbinger of a constancy to come).

Swept up in this whirlwind of new school, new system, new friends, old friends, I forgot all about my friend left outside - physically as well as metaphorically.

Five years passed. The 10th standard board exams came. My expectations were high but I fouled up bigtime, returning an aggregate of 76%. Returning to school that summer, we saw two new kids in our section. One of them annoyed us (the in-group) on the first day, with the way he seemed to nod with every sentence the teacher said. He redeemed himself somewhat on the football field (we were a proudly footballing section, with nine members of the school team on our side). But he was strangely quiet - maybe just shy - so we didn't really pay that much attention to him until one day, a few days on, when, waiting in a bus queue, he came up to me and said, "Aren't you from Australia?"

I missed a couple of takes there, while my mind raced to figure out who this guy was. Then he made the connection for me - he was the kid at my sixth-standard admission test. It was a strange kind of come-uppance, since he was back at the school that had rejected him, having scored 12% more on the board exams than the guy they had taken. The ultimate retort.

I do think it was funny how quickly we became friends after that. From typical eleventh-grade IIT-aspirant activities such as skipping class to work out numerical physics problems, to co-writing and co-directing a smash "play" called "How Newton Discovered His Laws" (such a hit that we were asked to re-stage the play in front of the junior high-schoolers -- who hadn't learned any physics and hence hadn't a clue what was going on) we pretty much spent the two years of high school together. Our concerns were the same -- entrance exams, football, music, receding hairlines. His classic prayer from back then: "God, take all my hair, take every blade if need be, but please do it *after* I'm married." Together, we discovered that the combination of Anoop and Clinic Plus worked.

Then came the 12th standard board exams. Picking up my game a smidgen, I managed to scrape together an aggregate across physics, chemistry, and mathematics that was just enough for my target college. His score? One mark less. His response, instead of walking into any of the other "prestigious" campus colleges that neighbored mine, he chose to go to the one next door to his house, sparing himself the killing commute. He turned to theater.

I don't quite recall how we stayed in touch during those college years. It must have been over the phone. We met a couple of times, once when he brought his college troup over to ours, for a staging or contest of sorts. But I realised then that physics, or even other conventional paths, were no longer for him. Plan B had kicked in.

He joined the film institute in Pune. A year into my MBA, I passed through that city during my summer internships. I visited and stayed with him in his university dorm -- five people lumped together in a large, dark room, overloaded clotheslines straddling the airspace, compensating for the lack of cupboards. I met his girlfriend, relieved to see his hairline was still holding. We drank sugarcane juice together. He introduced me to French cinema; I remained mystified.

A year later we both graduated and found ourselves in the cesspit known as Mumbai. I experienced the corporate wage slave life for the first time. The first six months were a nightmare, sharing an unfurnished flat with three other such captives, two hour commutes each way every day. Then I found an apartment of my own in a decidedly better part of town. And somehow I got back in touch with him again.

I met him for dinner at a run-down eatery near a local train station. The only advantage of the place was its price. He too had graduated from film school, and had a job at an ad film makers. These are the guys who actually make the commercials. His job was that of a gofer, running to the general store to buy pans for a washing powder shoot. His salary made me gasp. It was pocket money, survival on that amount was inconceivable, at least to me. I insisted he move in with me.

We stayed together for a year. I watched, amazed, as his career shot upwards. The gofer got a job writing scripts for a popular TV horror show, and then for the Indian version of Jay Leno. (Not much difference there conceptually, we would joke.) The apartment would be littered with the gossip mags we subscribed to, to fuel his fire, and sheets and sheets of paper in his heavy, angular writing -- throwaway lines from his funnies. I picked up all sorts of insights into the world of the glitterati: X actress looks like a cow onscreen but is a stunner in real life, Y VJ cannot read Hindi, her lines are all transcribed in English. By the end of the year he was employed by SRK, then India's leading movie star, driving around with him in his imported Mitsubishi SUV, borrowing my Yardbirds CD to convince The Man to use a tune in his latest flick.

He moved out when I got married, and then I moved to the USA. Email and then instant messenger enabled us to stay connected. I learned of his being promoted to "props and pass director" for an SRK magnum. A props director is in charge of the props used in the film -- he orders the gofers to get what he wants. A pass director is in charge of the people who pass behind the main actors and actresses frontstage. He tells them when to walk and how. We laughed at his self-effacing descriptions, and commiserated with his laments about the crucial climactic scene of the movie, where he was in charge of co-ordinating forty thousand angry middle-aged extras in a stampede, in forty-plus degrees Celsius.

The film wasn't a huge hit, but it did well enough. And he got noticed by the folks who matter, and signed on to write a screenplay himself. The result, his flexible reinterpretation of the life of a king of yore, was panned by those who felt the film took liberties with proud Indian heritage. It was also panned by those who felt it was too intellectual and the leading lady didn't show enough skin. Standing up and applauding his name in an emptying Long Island theater was a wonderful , wonderful moment for me.

I met him last August, in Mumbai. He isn't married yet but his hairline is holding. He was rushing to audition a leading lady for a new film. His film. He had been signed to be director. Auditions for leading roles in Bollywood seem to be an interesting affair. The director identifies the superstars he wants in his film (alternately, they are identified for him by the producer), and sends the script over for perusal. He then follows up, and garners an appointment. Then, he goes and visits, copy of script in hand, and acts out the entire script for the actor / actress. If he's lucky, he gets a catch.

Over the course of the next year, we got intermittent updates about the progress of his film. The person he had auditioned that day had indeed signed on. Shooting happened. Then edits. A long silent phase, during which one day he popped up on messenger and asked me if I have some spare time. He sent over a couple of files, frames from some random cartoon. We had a semi-surreal conversation for about half an hour about these frames, what they meant, how I reacted to them, and so on. He thanked me for understanding, and helping him develop his style. I, of course, remained mystified.

Last week again we chatted. His film was finally there. The soundtrack was to be released in a few hours. His fingers were crossed. I said I hoped to hear it blaring from every autorikshaw when next I visit India. He agreed that the autowallahs were his primary target. Time would tell.

The next day, I heard that the soundtrack was a surprise entrant at number 7 on the charts.

My buddy's come a long long way. The entry on IMDB is the first of a long list, I hope. Autowallahs of the world, take note. I am so proud.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Messenger

Yesterday morning I was on my exercise cycle doing my thing when I noticed we had an uninvited visitor marking time on the window pane.

He looked kind of incongruous there, especially since I know there are a few of his kind who hang out near the living room balcony, at the other end of the apartment. It seemed to me that he might have lost his way; didn't really want to be there. His body language was kind of negative, especially the way he marched back and forth, back and forth, across this particular window (the central one in a bank of five).

I watched him for a while, as my feet went round and round in a cycle of their own, the two of us doing our disjointed pas-de-deux. He cut an interesting picture, especially as he traversed the middle of the pane. Then it struck me, his appearance there was more than esthetic. It was metaphorical too, on a certain level. At any point in time, how many of us are there, who are not feeling:




And up for a spaceship kamikaze?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Images of Wonderland

This is the third and probably last of the Wonderland posts [1, 2]. I just wanted to upload a few more glorious images from this, an untouched Caribbean paradise.

Less than an hour's drive from the nation's capital, in sequence one after the other, are a series of incredibly beautiful, pristine beaches, each with its own character. These images are from the Beach of the Thousand Steps, named after the almost impossibly steep precipice that provides the sole access to this refuge. On our way down, we shared the track with a group of young locals, one of whom decided to turn back at one of the steepest bits (the part where the steps disappeared, and someone had left a rickety wooden ladder by the cliffside for what seemed more like moral support than anything of a corporeal nature) with the muttered suggestion, "Man, the promoter he need to do some thinking."

This image gives an idea of the approach path that was being commented on.

And this one of the treasures that lay seemingly undiscovered at the end. I did not have the courage to carry my camera through this cove to the inlet and beach beyond, but that, and the one in the far distance, were still and beautiful beyond belief. Just off to the right here, a group of four young Rastas wandered by and stopped to indulge in a little religion of their own.

These next two shots are from Blanchiseusse (pron. Blan-sher-sherz and named after white washerwomen, don't ask me why), which is the beach furthest out along the highway. After this point, the highway becomes a dirt road. We stayed here for a night before turning back.

It was also here that I came across a Planet of the Apes moment.

Heading back homewards is Maracas Beach, the nation's most popular holiday spot. This day was Indian Arrival Day, marking the hundred and fifty-xth anniversary of the arrival of the first boat carrying Indians from, well, India. This is a national holiday, and so the beach, which on the previous day had looked more like one of the previous images, was now filled with revelry. Here's a cliche of the Caribbean Life -- man, I wish I could have stay on longer.

Maracas Beach is also the Mecca for bake-and-shark, one of the most interesting forms of local cuisine. "Bake" stands for a type of bread, one that closely approximates the North-Indian bhatura. Shark stands for the type of thing that featured in Jaws, diced to more manageable bite sizes, and flash fried to crunchy melt-in-mouthness. The beach is lined with tin shacks vending these, but we had been advised to go for the best ones. Half the island believes Richard's serves the best bake and shark, the other half goes for Uncle Sam's. We decided to try both -- one at lunch the first day, and the other the next. It was an excellent strategy.

Bake and shark eating is an enviably simple operation. You pony up some 2-3 US dollars for one hit of bake and shark, at which the nice lady behind the counter hands you a bake, sliced like a pita, and stuffed with ample portions of shark. You take this offering, and turn to the long table loaded with sauces, stuffings, and chutneys. These include flavors such as tamarind, mint, garlic, a very spicy "fish sauce", as well as mundane things like tomatoes, cucumbers, and cabbage. You load the bake, and you eat. Much to my chagrin, I could not manage more than one at either of the two times I tried. I wish I could have photographed the taste.

Indeed the local foods were quite amazing. A hundred and fifty years away from India, and the intermingling with various African, European, and other influences, have served to make the local cuisine delightfully different yet refreshingly familiar. During our stay we dined several times on "roti" bought from certified street vendors (I heartily recommend the lady who sets up stall across the street from Smokey and Buntey's, the landmark local bar / limin' venue). A roti consists of a "dhalpourie" (which is a large piece of dough stuffed with cooked dry lentils and rolled flat) on which she dumps pumpkin stew, potato curry, "bhaji" (collard greens), and, at your request, a few lumps of divine goat curry (or very excellent chicken or shrimp), served up with a dash of their fiery flavorful signature pepper sauce. All of these get rolled up together like a burrito, you pay about a dollar seventy-five (in US terms), find the nearest vacant bench (unless you're the stand-and-eat type), and you're good to go. Literally.

Then there's the "bussupshut", which is again a type of bread, somewhat like a cross between a roomali roti and a parantha. Its unique feature is that it's served torn up into long shredded pieces, to make it easier to mop up the curry that you order it with. Much like a bust-up shirt -- the thing from which it gets its name.

But most of all, more than the food, the beaches, the cricket, the rum punch, and the limin', what I liked most about Wonderland was the attitude. This is a place where the one real restaurant we went to, it took three hours to get dinner, end to end. Including 45 minutes of sitting in balmy Caribbean breezes while we waited to get our change after paying. A place where two yuppie Indian couples sitting at tables surrounding us walked out complaining about the slowness of the service. Having forgotten, of course, that this was the only restaurant open downtown on a holiday night.

You know you're in some place special when the rules they play by are theirs alone.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I heart NY

This is a rumination about wanting. Not the type of wanting where people die in the absence of the thing that they want. Things like food, or health, or fewer bombs in the street outside. My pudgy elitist existence survives independently of such matters that trouble the majority of the people in the world today. This angst dwells on a full belly.

Not also the type of wanting where people live to achieve purposes and objectives, such as the job on Wall Street, the Boston Marathon, or the attentions of the young lady in the front row of the class. A large part of my life is spent studying such wants -- they have no place in this loose-lipped reverie.

This is also not about wanting the unattainable, something a million excruciated (and excruciating) lyrics and poems have attested to. It's about wanting that which we have no control over, which might fall into our laps as destiny's rightful due, or forever elude our gainsaying grasps. Maybe the reason I'm having trouble putting it in words is because we don't really have a word for it, do we? Maybe the story is what is required.

On Friday morning I took advantage of the services of my old friends at Fung Wah to skip down to New York City. The forecast was for rain, and my plan was to skip through to Times Square and thence New Jersey, where I was bound. But like all plans, the weather too ganged agley, and the driver didn't stop for a break, and I was in the city in bright sunshine an hour before schedule. Driving in past New Rochelle I was surprised to feel a thrill down my spine when I saw in traffic a representative of the limo service I'd used a million times before. Going over the GWB, I decided the day was too good to waste. I dialed a friend's number.

When the bus stopped in Chinatown, I said hello to the bridge and hopped into a yellow cab for Washington Square. While I waited for my friend, I wandered round the square, breathing it all in again. No one approached me selling nefarious substances (how come?) and hotdogs had gone up to two bucks each (crazy). I took a few photos, clandestine and otherwise. It was a beautiful day.

My friend soon came skipping out to the park, bedecked in blue. We retired to a coffeehouse in the West Village and waggled jaws over coffee and biscotti and the latest rumors. As we talked, I felt this urge to go uptown, instead of the quick exit via 42nd. She urged. I went. The subway lines were just the same; I changed at 59th Street, feeling groovy. It was fun to get into the car that would stop exactly next to the stairs, just like old times. Uptown, I surprised the folks who had been my close friends and associates for so long. I even caught the old old secretary on her way out outside the office (she arrives and leaves early). She hugged me, like always, and cried as she walked off. Upstairs I jumped the gang, and we then sat out in the sun, just like old times, until the call from my sister-in-law in Jersey. I left around 6.

I spent Saturday and Sunday nights in Jersey. (We watched four World Cup games, two French Open finals, and three movies -- that makes nine cheers for suburbia.) Sunday after lunch I caught the train back to Boston from Newark. As we pulled into NY Penn Station, the thought struck me -- this is the first time in so many years that I'm actually taking this train through NYC -- ordinarily I'd take it either going to / from Boston or DC. For those who haven't taken this train, it goes underground as it approaches Manhattan from the south, and crosses the island going roughly west to east, emerging in Queens where it turns northwards. As we came over ground, the first sight I saw was the number 7 train, that runs from 42nd Street in Manhattan to the desi ghetto Jackson Heights in Queens. I remembered the time as an international students' peer advisor I'd mentioned this train and its cosmopolitan nature during my welcome speech to an utterly mystified incoming batch. (That was also the year I'd got to shepherd these kids to the US Open being played right... there.) My train curved left, to the north, and the east coast of Manhattan came into sight. Between the UN building and the Triboro bridge, I thought I saw the Dakotas. In my iPod, John Lennon sang, "I didn't mean / to hurrrrrrrt you." That was when it struck me. I was nostalgic, all weekend I had been nostalgic, but it was for something I had floated away from without ever having any knowledge of the nature of the float.

I'd lived in NYC for the better part of six years. I loved the place. Evidently, I still do. But I had made a decision to move on, and my life was now elsewhere. Even today, as I struggle with the decision to move back to America, I know that it is not to New York that I must go, for it is not New York that beckons. Yet there is something about the place that called out to me with such purpose that every extra minute spent there, even though it may have been against my original intentions, even if it were in the stupid delayed NJ Transit bus queue, was worth its weight in worthwhileness.

I wonder why.

And this brings me back to where I started. I know, and the choices I have made show, that I don't really want to live in this city as much as I want some of the other things I have chosen. And I like what I have chosen, and life is good. So why this non-adaptive nostalgia, for something that I myself have decided is not part of the grand plan? It's a peculiar manifestation of post-decision dissonance, isn't it, that bumps up the attractiveness of the non-chosen option in strange ways while doing nothing to affect that of what has been chosen. What is it that makes us want what we have demonstrated we don't want? Sitting in the train speeding through Connecticut, I trawled my mind for a way to describe what I was feeling, but came up blank. I know some poet somewhere must have nailed it sometime. But yesterday, me and Amtrak and Sam Adams, we couldn't work it out.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Just a passing phase

Okay, Evil MicroGoogleSoft Blogger won't let me upload my second set of pix from Wonderland, and I'm off to (Hooray) New Joisey (The Strip Mall State) for the weekend, so before I left I thought I'd take care of this. Three times over, and out!

1. I've got a little black book with my poems in.
2. Got a bag, got a toothbrush and a comb. (ya better believe it)
3. When I'm a good dog, they sometimes throw me a bone in.
4. I got elastic bands keepin my shoes on.
5. Got those swollen hand blues. (that too)
6. Got thirteen channels of shit on the T.V. to choose from.

7. I've got electric light. (how many phds does it take?)
8. And I've got second sight.
9. Got amazing powers of observation. (mmhmm)
10. And that is how I know - When I try to get through - On the telephone to you - There'll be nobody home.
11. I've got the obligatory Hendrix perm. (mary!)
12. And the inevitable pinhole burns - All down the front of my favorite satin shirt.

13. I've got nicotine stains on my fingers.
14. I've got a silver spoon on a chain.
15. I've got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains. (and how cool is that)
16. I've got wild staring eyes. (really)
17. And I've got a strong urge to fly.
18. But I got nowhere to fly to. (except joisey. for now.)


Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sport of Pain, and surrounding areas

So we went, yes, for the cricket in part. It was a most ignominious capitulation. The scoreboard had a premonition early on in the first game itself, when first it refused to start (and I contemplated watching a whole game without precise knowledge of the score) and then, when it came to, we got this.

But cricket in the Caribbean is about much more than the score. The first day, I got adopted by the guy sitting to my left, a geophysicist of Indian extraction. Over the course of the second innings of the game, he made sure I imbibed no fewer than six alcoholic drinks -- one Carib ("the pussy beer"), three Stags ("for the drinking man), and two loaded icy glasses of something he called "scotch", poured from his Gatorade bottle and tasting suspiciously like dessert. We talked about everything from his job to the ethnic Indian culture, and he gave me tips on Chutney Soca. The guy in front spent three increasingly incoherent hours telling me how he'd sat in that same seat as a kid of eleven and watched Wadekar and Sardesai (and oh yes Gavaskar). By the end, we were all friends (except when Brian Lara got out -- then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "We no friends right now, man.") When we left, ten minutes before the inevitable Windies victory, as we walked down the steps to the exit a half dozen people yelled goodbye to us, and I'll find it hard to forget the sight of several rows of people waving back.

On the second day, I was sitting next to a rather more insular group of giggly college students, so it was my friend's turn to get adopted. By the four very large Jamaican / Bajan ladies sitting in the row ahead. When Sehwag got out at 96, they turned around and felt his heart, stroked his cheeks, and waved their flags under his nose. In the end, we lost both games, but I was well way past caring.

Here, for the flavor, is a snapshot of Harbhajan bowling to Sarwan, with Gayle at the non-striker's end.

And here's some local color outside the stadium.

There are other forms of beauty in the Caribbean, too. Cricket apart, it was the most amazing vacation. On the day between the games, we took a car up to Fort George, an old British outpost.

And then there are the beaches. Imagine a tropical beach where you are the only person. Imagine getting out of a car, scrambling down a hundred feet of rocky slope, and stepping out on seemingly untouched silvery sand. Now, Blogger won't allow me to upload all these pix at the same time so I'll do that in the next post, but in the meantime I bring you - Premonitions of Paradise.