So Old

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I think of my Grandpa’s 94 years and wonder what it must be like to be so, so old - born in one century, living and lying in wait in another. 

It must be moles and watching the spittle fly as you chew your food. It’s counting wrinkles on the hand and the teeth left in the mouth before the grandchildren come home. How many more Cadbury bars before I die? 

Whiskey for apple juice, apple juice for whiskey. Something to keep the blood flowing while the soul slowly winters. The toenails are curling into the skin and the skin at the ankle is now an itch. The veins are splotches of red and blue and purple where your hands can’t reach. 

It’s pillow talk till the eyes dim when the lights are still ablaze. It’s cobwebs in the hair and musty sandwiches and little kittens gnawing. Now at the bread crumbs and now your toes. 

Ma

 aratikumarrao writes about a lady she met in Rajasthan:

I met a lady that day. 
She seemed glad to see me. We got chatting. I asked her what she liked most to cook. She couldn’t understand the question. I asked again, of all the things she knows to make, what does she enjoy most. What would she make for herself? She fell silent and smiled. Clearly unsure.

A Brahmin standing nearby translated my question into marwari, and repeated in hindi. Then she said, “i dont know. Anything you ask me to make.”

That day they asked her to make a over a hundred rotis for a puja. 
#traildiaries

With that one nugget, Arati explained my mother to me.

If I ask my mother what is the one thing she’d want, she’s sure to say “I want my daughter to get married” or “My daughter should settle down” or something along those lines. Her happiness, her wants are not her own. 

Where there was a deep dislike for this pathological habit of appropriation, now there’s only understanding. Her dreams were not hers - they’re my father’s, her mother’s, mine. I see her now as a woman whose ambitions and hobbies all rolled into one and she couldn’t tell one from the other. 

I don’t know the woman who’s also my mother. I only know Mom, the “brown/yellow woman, fingers smelling always of onions.” 

Shoes and Other Hurts

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Go forth on high heels, come back on
foot. Post-lunch trauma. The tragedy that
strikes black stilletos and my twisted feet
shall only be spoken about in hushed
tones. Deference to the departed.
The slinky black stilletos now lie
wrapped in a neon pink plastic bag in the
trash can, their next-to-last resting place,
on Robertson Boulevard and Melrose
Avenue. Right outside Cecconi’s.

This tragedy which was followed by dinner at
Louie involved the consumption of
generous servings of mussels and clams,
whilst further drowning in the charms of
Mint Juleps and Sparkling wine. The
mourning spilled over into the morning,
where I helped myself to
pizza with Italian Sausage from Terroni’s
and gulped down mouthfuls of French
Vanilla flavored coffee from the
neighborhood CBTL.

May the shoes rest in peace.
They had seen better days. 

Paranoid Android

This happened last evening: I’m standing outside office on the dark lonely but traffucked street that runs by Alliance Francaise, trying to hail an auto. I see a guy in a white maruti 800, yawning and at the same time, driving towards the pavement. Everyone has had a long day, I think to myself. 

Next minute I see the car next to me. There’s a bearded guy in a black tee waving frantically asking me to get in. WTF. My god, the guy’s grinning AND waving. *blink blink* WTF. It’s strange the ways your brains has all these thoughts buzzing around for that fraction of a second: I could get a lift till the signal. OMG, what am I thinking. That guy could be a rapist. Why is he so persistent.

Then it strikes me. That’s my friend, Nakul. Absolute horror to serendipity in 30 seconds. 

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Standing on that stretch of the road always leaves me afraid, vulnerable and defensive. I don’t want to stand too close to the edge of the pavement while I’m hailing a rickshaw because I don’t want a guy on a bike to grab my boobs or mow me down while he attempts to beat the traffic by driving ON the pavement. I shouldn’t be distracted by my phone while I hold my bags close so that nobody has easy access to my body parts. And god forbid, somebody tries grabbing the phone while I’m busy ensuring I stay aloof and my body, defensible.

Nakul makes for a good anti-climax, a friend remarked.

Yup, that. I don’t like being on my guard all the time. I don’t want to think the worst of every man who passes by. It also makes me very angry- when these very real fears are dismissed as paranoia, the workings of an overactive imagination, when good intentions are almost always overshadowed by the what-if. On my worst days, I wish upon them nothing more than what I go through: why must I alone be full of fear, be up for grabs every time I’m out in public. Y'know, I just want to hail an auto-rickshaw and go home. Why must something as mundane as that be so hard, so agonizing?

Everything it seems I likes a little bit stronger

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My weekends have gotten even more precious ever since I started working with Janaagraha a year ago. We work on 2 Saturdays in a month and 3, if it’s that dastardly month with 5 weekends packed in. Where these 5 weekends would once be a cause for celebration, it’s now the most stressful part of my life. Distressing even. Or at least enough to send me into paroxysms of anxiety (when do I do my grocery shopping, laundry, meet Dee for dinner) making lists of all the things I’m missing out on(mostly sleep and lazy brunches and too much mimosa) till it finally all comes to a head.

The long weekend had finally kicked in. It started with the most lofty of ambitions: a drive to Koramangala to dig into pillowy idlis at Kamath, some baking - perhaps an apple downside upside down cake, a movie, a quick detour to the Department of Horticulture to pick up some dirt, gardening, beer with friends. A little loving, a little exploring, a little excitement, a little adventure, a perfect weekend plan.

On Saturday, I bolted awake at 4.30 am - I had an interview with BBC Radio at 5.30 am. The alarm hadn’t gone off (In my head, I played out an entire “what if my body hadn’t bolted itself awake?” scenario), the cabbie hadn’t called, I didn’t have the cabbie’s number. After much hand-wringing, waking up cab companies at 5 am and other such unkindly acts at unearthly hours I made my way to the Hyatt on M G Road.

The sun hadn’t come up, Bangalore was lovely, dark and a few potholes deep. Kate and Mark at the BBC were kind to offer me a couple of coffees and let me by myself - talking politics, potholes and portmanteau words (Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood!)

Later in the afternoon, seven of us sat crouched around a long wooden table at a smoky pub and talked about work, mutual friends, our lives that were and what we wanted our lives to be. We drank mugs of Apple Ale, and then another, and then another.

This was a different time with pitch perfect timing, we didn’t have somewhere else to go or anyone else to be. A raucous afternoon, a subdued evening - Our voices hoarse with laughter and chatter, our minds emptied. This is what tumblers of good ale, plates of simple delicious food and a heart full of warm friendships brings.

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Monday would have made Sunday proud. Maybe it was the puddles of rain from the previous night or the indecisive temperatures - one minute a chilly wind blowing and the next, shafts of piercing sunlight or the bacchanalian excesses of the days before. Or maybe we just needed a lazy quiet morning. There was no fervour for a holiday gained, no time for elaborate plans and escapes. We stayed put. In bed, draped on the couch.

We ordered in Chinese food. Kitschy, junk, takeaway in little paper boxes accompanied by sauces with no names. Chilli chicken, Schezwan noodles, Kung Pao Chicken. What’s a holiday without a drink? We resurrected leftover wine, a few days away from vinegar, as Sangria with a dash of star anise, shavings of orange rind, splashes of OJ, leftover watermelon cubes and diced apples.

Outside, the rain splashed, the autorickshaw stand stood framed in the sodium yellow of the streetlights, the train station buzzed with activity. Inside we licked the chilli sauce from our forks and sunk further into our torpor.

Papa

My grandpa is in the hospital. No, scratch that. Right now he’s freezing in the morgue. 

There are so many people in the house on a Monday morning. Someone’s muttering prayers, an aunt is crying in the corner. My grandma breaks down when she sees me and then asks “Have you had breakfast? Do you want tea or coffee?" 

His chair has been moved. To make place for everyone who will come to pay their last respects. His bed is now storage for everyone’s bags, baggage from faraway countries. His walking stick is nowhere to be seen - someone has probably already laid claim to it. A distant relative has brought meat puffs for us for breakfast and a neighbour has taken them away. He loved meat puffs from Vaz Bakery; the neighbour says "No meat for the mourning." 

I’m not mourning. I’m just missing him. 

I sit at the kitchen counter, just like I would when he made omelettes because I refused to eat fish. My grandma asks me "Why didn’t you come here on Saturday? He was asking for you!”

I don’t have the heart to tell her that mom didn’t tell me he was asking for me. She didn’t tell me he was on his deathbed. Another aunt tries her hand at fifteen seconds of fame at a funeral: “He was waiting for me to arrive. He raised his hand and blessed me.” Mom chips in, “I was feeding him water with a spoon till his last breath.”

There’s going to be no end to this. 

I wait in the living room. It’s noon. The body is here, someone announces.

The body? That’s my Papa they are talking about. 

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Bean There, Cape Town
Cape Town’s first Fairtrade coffee shop

It was my first day in Cape Town. I knew I had 8 hour workdays to deal with and I was on a mission to discover the city. Work-life balance, trial one.

Cape Town is 3 hours behind Bangalore. Which means I woke up with a jolt at 6.00 am and felt like I was already running late. The city as it lay below me, while I watched from the 23rd floor was sprinting already. The skies were red, Table Mountain that was staring me in the face across the street was rolling out its table cloth, the streetlights were dimming out, people were pouring out of the railway station, breakfast was being served. You get the picture. Living on Strand Street, bang in the middle of the Central Business District (CBD) - didn’t seem like such a bad idea at all.

Mark, Eb’s friend, had emailed me about a few coffee shops in the neighborhood. I decide to venture out on my own and map these out. Cape Town has its history and as with any city in the world - just the right amount of caution is advised. Even the brochure about the hotel and the city in the room kept reiterating, “As with any city in the world…”. Ok, then.

Be over-cautious and you’ll be cooped up in your room all day, all night, all life long. Also it didn’t help that the concierge at the hotel was a little over-cautious: Don’t go by yourself, take a cab, it’s early to go out, it’s too late to walk around, blah blah blah. Pockets of the CBD are decidedly unsafe - they reminded me of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. So this what I do: I stay on the main roads, hold my bag close and don’t do absolutely racist things like crossing the road and on to the other side just because there are a bunch of black men heading to work. (I reprimanded someone for doing exactly that, BTW).

6.45 am and tt’s time for coffee at Bean There on Wale Street, just off Bree Street. I arrived at Bean There at 7 am. One of the baristas had to repeatedly tell me that they open at “half past 7.” (Too early to parse things like “half past”).

Could I sit inside then? Remember, nobody says no if you ask nicely.

Bean There is cheerful and inviting, cozy and warm. Just the coffee shop everyone wants in their neighbourhood.

The main coffee and cash counter have beautiful lampshades hanging above.  Glass jars containing beans from different countries are lined up on one side of the cash counter and on the other, cake stands containing baked goods are covered by glass bell jars. There is a bicycle on the wall and a sunburst mirror on one side. Cushions with funky prints dot the seating area. For the ‘What about the poor hungry children in Africa?’ crowd, they were also selling Coffee Sacks for 10 Rand.

Interestingly, Bean There is the only Fairtrade coffee shop in South Africa that roasts its beans on the premises. 

It’s half past 7 and time for the Cappuccino, my first for the day and the first one Bean There is serving on the day. It’s mellow, it hits all the right spots - no sugar and yet not bitter. Not too milky but just about strong enough to send me skipping to Jason Bakery. Where I picked up another coffee, because who can have just one? I come from the land of coffee from Cafe Coffee Day, remember.

I’m just another girl in the middle of a big unknown city. My cuppa has a perfectly shaped heart in the centre. The baristas are nice, the roads are shiny. Jason Bakery is a 2 minute walk away. Cape Town, I can’t be complaining.

Book Review | Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto

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Got around to reading Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto a full 3 years after reading an excerpt from his book in the New Yorker and finished it yesternight in a few hours.

Gawande starts the book by stating right away why in spite of all the vast knowledge we have at our disposal we fail at what we set out to do in the world. He says there are 2 reasons: Ignorance (We only have a partial understanding of how things work), and Ineptitude (We have the knowledge yet fail to apply it correctly). He makes a strong case for the checklist and how it could address both these situations of human fallibility. 

He digs into the history of the checklist in the aviation industry, how in 2001 Dr Pronovost at the John Hopkins medical centre borrowed this concept to attack the problem of infections in the central lines. Gawande then looks at how skyscrapers are built and surprise! They have checklists too. Well, not exactly checklists with boxes against them to tick mark but detailed plans and procedures and processes. Project Management 101, anyone?

One chapter in the book also focuses on decentralisation of power and the requirement for a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation. In this chapter, he focuses Hurricane Katrina and its devastating effect in New Orleans, how the government responded and the response from Walmart. 

The federal government wouldn’t yield the power to the state government. The state government wouldn’t give it to the local government. And no one would give it to people in the private sector.

Walmart’s CEO on the other hand gave out simple instructions: “Make the best decision that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and above all, do the right thing.” This meant Walmart store managers acting on their own authority were able to respond quickly, sometimes even before the government appeared on the scene.

The most simplest takeaway from this tale could be: The private sector is better than the public sector in handling complex situations. However, Gawande emphasises that this is not the intention - where government got mired in bureaucracy (processes, procedures, step-by-step instructions aka checklists) and overwhelmed by the decisions that had to be made, Walmart was able to push power away in a decentralised manner and enable and empower people on the ground through a system of co-ordination, communication and co-operation. In a circuitous manner, that is exactly what checklists should enable. 

The book’s emphasis on the need for checklists and how checklists are a great way to make teams work together (amply illustrated through the book through many incidents from the aviation and medical industry) reminds me of 2 instances that happened in Mangalore.

One, the Air India Express plane crash on May 22, 2010. Both pilots had been aware of the wrong flight path since they were both heard saying “Flight is taking wrong path and wrong side”, while the aircraft’s instruments had given repeated warnings of this. Seconds before the crash, the co-pilot had advised the Captain thus: “Go around Captain.” Probably, the co-pilot was asking his captain to abort landing. But it was too late. 

Two, my friend’s uncle Ashok who met a tragic end due to some grave negligence on the part of the doctors and the hospital. There were 2 patients that day in the hospital both with similar names but different ailments. Mistaking one for the other, the doctors conducted the wrong surgery on the wrong side on the wrong patient. Uncle Ashok died of complications a few days later. 

In the first case, did the Captain not pay attention to the co-pilot because of rigid hierarchical structures? In the second incident, the negligence and seeming incompetence of the medicos is hard to stomach. Would mandating that everyone in the OR follow a checklist have not led to the mishap? In the book, Gawande talks of a surgery checklist that is further divided into 3 parts - pre-op, during op and post-op. This includes everything from the obvious to the easy to miss: Everyone in the OR should introduce themselves, confirm which side of the body they’re working on, etc.

At one point, Gawande careens into Malcom Gladwell territory. He has chanced upon this brilliant tool called Checklists and he’s now going to make  these checklists work for every situation and mould every situation to have a checklist. After the aviation checklists and  skyscraper checklists and medical checklists, there is much talk of checklists for WHO and checklists for VCs and fund managers. Soon, there will be a checklist for checklists.

Software companies have detailed test cases - these can be looked at as checklists, manufacturing companies have quality testing protocols - again checklists. Essentially what Gawande is implying but doesn’t talk about in as many words is the need for well-defined processes and procedures, and in some cases institutionalisation of these processes. Used right and tactfully, checklists can be the checks and balances in system. Or they could go the way of the bureaucracy: the reason red-tapeism exists. 

Sex Ratio and Rape

There has never been a day ever since I returned when I’ve not thought about rape. Most of it is about waking up everyday to news about rape in the country. But I’m an alarmist by nature and just like that, I also spend a lot of my waking life ensuring I don’t say or do something that might piss off the Average Indian Virile Man - the rickshaw driver, the watchman, the newspaper vendor, other virile men lurking in the corners as friends, foes, countrymen. Friends and relatives share their stories about rape and sexual harassment and police who counter an attempt to file a complaint against the rapist with “We will counter it saying you were a prostitute”, the mother worries incessantly. As one can imagine, there is a lot stress brought on by some seemingly unnecessary worrying.

When Appu took over watchman duties at the apartment complex, I pegged him as quite a creep and made sure K knew what I thought. One Saturday morning, he came around to deliver a package, rang the bell and as I walked to get the door, I could hear him trying it. I could see him trying it. Why would the watchman try the door to my apartment? It didn’t matter if I was in or not. A few days later, a friend was dropping me home and as she pulled into the building, Appu yelled at us for blocking the gate. “Kya Appu, kyon chilla rahe ho?” I yelled back adding that he routinely allows rickshaws to park in front of the gate, what’s the harm in a car stopping for a few minutes while I get off.

This was also the time a lawyer was raped and murdered by her apartment’s security guard in Mumbai. I then spent inordinate amounts of time worrying about Appu plotting his revenge for insulting his masculinity, etc. K spoke to Appu asking him never to deliver any packages at home - “Madam will pick them up from you downstairs”, spoke to my neighbor Renu about the incident and chewed off all my fingernails out of fear. 

When the story broke out about the gang rape in Delhi that caused nation wide outrage, I asked on Twitter and Quora: Is there a correlation between sex ratio and the rapes in a country? The sex ratio in India as per the 2011 census is 940 females per 1000 males. Does this have an impact on the incidence of rapes in the country?

The Gender Gulf

CNN did a story about the gender gulf in China in November 2012. Here is what the gender gulf looks like for China:

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What does the Gender Gulf look like in India?

I couldn’t find a Population Projection report published as per the 2011 census but I did find a Population Projections for India and the States 2001-2026 published in 2001 (PDF) As with most government data in India, none of it is available in an easily downloadable format. It’s all tucked away in PDFs and printed copies.

First, the numbers. 

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Going by the projections, the gender gap in India as projected for Year 2020 stands at 3.61% while China’s projected to have a gender gap of 3.75%. The future is as bleak for India if you go by what the CNN story says about China:

Young men with poor prospects of ever starting a family spell danger to themselves and to their societies. Over millions of years of evolution, large numbers of women and even larger numbers of men left no offspring at all. Yet everyone alive today descends from ancestors who managed to avoid that fate. Our male ancestors were the ones who strove most frantically for status and the respect of their peers, and who won the chance to mate.

As a result, young men are hair-trigger sensitive to their circumstances, and when the number of men who will never find a mate rises, so does the intensity of the striving. Young men discount their futures and take ridiculous risks in order to improve their prospects. They also become more violent, rising more readily to perceived slights and insults, and starting more fights – often over trivial issues. These are the triggers for most man-on-man assaults and homicides.

Many factors contribute to the number of men who will never find a mate. Economic inequality, for one, leaves a great many poor young men unable to attract a wife. When a society allows powerful men to take several wives, too few women remain for many poor men to take even a single wife. But most dramatically of all, male-biased sex ratios consign the excess men to never having a family of their own.

Under each of these scenarios, large numbers of young men competing for dominance elevate local rates of violence, homicide and lawlessness. Martin Daly and Margo Wilson’s studies show that local income inequality can explain variation in homicide rates on a number of scales: from Chicago neighborhoods to American States and Canadian provinces.

Throughout history, a surplus of young men often heralded violence. The American frontier earned its “Wild West” reputation for lawlessness because its towns overflowed with men, yet marriageable women were vanishingly rare. In The Chivalrous Society, historian Georges Duby argued that European expansionism, from the Crusades to colonialism, was fueled by a surplus of ambitious and aggressive young men with otherwise poor reproductive prospects.

China is already feeling the effects of so many bare branches. The economist Lena Edlund estimates that every one percent increase in the sex ratio results in a six percent increase in the rates of violent and property crime. In addition, the parts of China with the most male-biased sex ratios are experiencing a variety of other maladies, all tied to the presence of too many young men. Gambling, alcohol and drug abuse, kidnapping and trafficking of women are rising steeply in China.

Every December, the Edge.org asks writers and scientists to ponder a single question. As the world readied to spin into another year, the question for 2013 read: What *should* we be worried about?

Here’s what Robert Kurzban, Evolutionary Psychologist from UPenn says in the response titled, All the T in China:

Anthropologists have documented a consistent historical pattern: when the sex ratio skews in the direction of a smaller proportion of females, men become increasingly competitive, becoming more likely to engage in risky, short-term oriented behavior including gambling, drug abuse, and crime. This sort of pattern fits well with the rest of the biological world. Decades of work in behavioral ecology has shown that in species in which there is substantial variation in mating success among males, males compete especially fiercely.

The precise details of the route from a biased sex ratio to anti-social behavior in humans is not thoroughly understood, but one possible physiological link is that remaining unmarried increases levels of testosterone—often simply referred to as “T"—which in turn influences decision making and behavior.

Should all this T in China be a cause for worry?

The differences between societies that allow polygyny and those that don’t are potentially illustrative. In societies with polygamy, there are, for obvious reasons, larger numbers of unmarried men than in societies that prohibit polygyny. These unmarried men compete for the remaining unmarried women, which includes a greater propensity to violence and engaging in more criminal behavior than their married counterparts. Indeed, cross-national research shows a consistent relationship between imbalanced sex ratios and rates of violent crime. The higher the fraction of unmarried men in a population, the greater the frequency of theft, fraud, rape, and murder. The size of these effects are non-trivial: Some estimates suggest marriage reduces the likelihood of criminal behavior by as much as one half.

Further, relatively poor unmarried men, historically, have formed associations with other unmarried men, using force to secure resources they otherwise would be unable to obtain.

While increasing crime and violence in Asian countries with imbalanced sex ratios is a reason to worry in itself, the issue is not only the potential victims of crimes that might occur because of the sex ratio imbalance. Evidence indicates that surpluses of unmarried young men have measurable economic effects, lowering per capita GDP.

An increasing gender gap, high crime rates, lower GDP and considerable social unrest. Any country that shows a systematic preference for boys would face a similar situation. India, are you listening?

The Ordinary Life

To write a post, I have to deem its subject wonderful or beautiful, puzzling or revelatory - it has to be pretty extraordinary. There is an unspoken need to weave a story, for it to be a serendipitous discovery, to be meaningful to my life, my living.

It’s difficult to write about the ordinary. Everyday life isn’t always wonderful or beautiful, it doesn’t puzzle me enough to keep me up at night thinking about existentialism, it isn’t revelatory about the purpose of life or I don’t make new discoveries about how to lead a life of purpose.  It’s ordinary: The daily chores, the everyday food, the daily rituals of breakfast, lunch and dinner, the conversations that move the days and nights along. 

Few minutes ago, I was caramelising onions for a chicken curry I’m rustling up for lunch. I crushed ice for a quick drink of rum and coke. I made a mental note of the pending work items on my To-Do List. In an almost meditative moment, I measured out the rice, washed it, added enough water, watched the rice settle, some grains did the dance of Brownian motion and thus I completed the weekend ritual of making rice. All simple nice things that make up my day but nothing to write about. And that’s OK.

Yesterday Anisha called from the neighbourhood Au Bon Pain. “Do you want something from here? I’ll come over if you make me some Cherry-Cinnamon tea.”

Ten minutes later, there was a knock on the door. I paused Newsroom and we sat down for a quick afternoon meal of sandwiches, cherry-cinnamon tea, chocolate and blueberry muffins. Anisha also brought along a small gift of honeyed peanuts. “I wasn’t sure if you were working today but I thought I’d check anyway.” I was happy that she chose to keep aside all modern misgivings of plans and calendars and turn up at my door. It was a spontaneous act of warmth and friendship - I preferred this to a more elaborate meal planned weeks in advance, weighed down by expectations and social niceties.

It takes time and extraordinary resolve to consciously step back and savour the moment. It’s almost a mantra I have to repeat to myself: Stop foraging for a story, ignore the urge to be constantly awed, appreciate the stories in the ordinary moments. Sometimes it’s just about allowing for the moment of spontaneity and giving yourself up to it, like the afternoon tea with Anisha. I could get used to it.

How do I exorcise a ghost

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It’s a little difficult to live with a ghost. As is understandable, I’d presume. Who’d choose to live with the dead when it’s hard enough with the living. But that’s not the matter. I have to live with a ghost. I’ve almost made peace with that, the larger question that haunts(along with the ghost whose career it is to haunt) is “How?”

The question of space: Do you quietly go about with your living and hope the ghost leaves you to it? But that’s not to be - this one’s an attention whore(Yay! I have company?). Do you include the ghost in your day-to-day living? Do you change your bedroom’s curtains to suit her fancies? Or do you stomp your feet and say, To hell with what you want! It’s my bedroom! But surely you can’t deem her to hell, why else would she be such a permanent presence in this land? It’s an odd conundrum, this.

Then the question of time: Who came first? The ghost or I? Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. Whose world is this, of the dead and the undead? The ghost’s or mine?

The matter of life and beyond: Does one ask the ghost about living and unliving? Is it polite? It sure is, you don’t walk into someone’s life just like that, plonk your non-existent ass and expect to be treated with warmth and love and given a hearty welcome.

You can’t exorcise a ghost. A frightfully ugly and stupid ghost, at that. You let it be and hope it finds its peace. And goes away. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Or flings itself off a cliff and finds itself flying away to Neverland.

I understand why gravestones read RIP. It’s just polite speak for “Leave us the fuck alone. Be gone!”

A Christmas Tale or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wooden Pole

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This you should know: Weddings, festivals, happy occasions with food, alcohol, people and other such fun things? I’m not the person to have around. Introspection tells me I’m quite the Scrooge. I get irritable about everything - food, drinks, people; I find it no fun to play dress up and be warm and friendly towards genial people when all I want to do is read Bridget Jones’ diary under the bed covers. It’s a bad cocktail and everyone else suffers the hangover. 

I had just attended a friend’s wedding in Ahmedabad where I had many arguments about how ‘giving away of the daughter’ was the most bizarre ritual I’d come across, EVAH (See what I said about being Scrooge?). I’d not fully recovered from this exercise in extroversion before Christmas was thrust upon me.

On Saturday I headed to the airport a full 2 hours before flight time. Two spoilt milk frappes from Barista, some unnecessary misplaced honesty towards Spice Jet and my wallet lighter by Rs 1500 for excess baggage later, I made my way to Mangalore. 

Where it is always sunny balconies, overflowing balconies, way too many cacti, way too many flowering plants, way too much fauna & wildlife, not enough herbs, way too much Jim Reeves, not enough Amy Winehouse, way too much wine, not enough beer, way too much meat, not enough veggies, way too much mood lighting, way too many candles, an excess of natural light, way too hot, not cold enough. Where it is always Christmas in Summer.

At home, we love our offal food. The menu for the next few days didn’t disappoint one bit: 

Saturday: Sting Ray Curry
Sunday: Boti - What we call Tripe in Konkani
Monday: Dukrachi Kaleez Anketi (Pig’s Kaleez = Heart, Anketi = Intestines) + Sannas
Tuesday: Christmas Lunch at the grandparents' 

All the kuswar, the open bar and I just could have been on a Goan beach. Only there was no beach, only miles and miles of unending sunshine and heat.

Ever since I 'came out’ as an atheist to the parents, I have been excused from the farcical Sunday morning rituals of Mangalorean Christians. No more mass on Sunday mornings, no more lying about being at mass on Sunday mornings when I’m lying hungover in my bed-someone’s bed, no more “Bless Me” with folded hands to every old person, priest, nun and no more tottering to the church altar in heels that could kill only to partake in another dead man’s body. Body & Blood. When the nosy neighbours’ questions ask uncomfortable questions about where I was seated during mass and what I wore and what I ate, the parents say things like “She was somewhere at the back” or “She traveled to Ahmedabad” and somehow manage to confuse and convince the person to not ask more questions. Disaster involving Uncomfortable Questions about Devilish Spawn of Devout Roman Catholic Parents successfully averted.

Not when it’s Christmas at home in Mangalore. 

I dress up, deck the halls with boughs of holly, sing fa la la la all the way to Midnight Mass. Here, “Midnight Mass” on Christmas Eve the sole defining moment of the Christmas Season in every devout Roman Catholic’s life is held at 7.30 pm. 

All was well - the priest asked that everyone switch off their mobile phones, hymns were sung in tune and then out by the resident choir, the sermon involved some very dramatic dialogues - till it wasn’t.

An 8ft tall wooden pole that was tucked into a corner to hold up some paper lanterns was pushed down by an overtly enthusiastic annoying little kid and this tall heavy wooden pole fell on my head. 

You know how it’s said that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights? I think it’s time they include “wooden pole on the head” as well.

I don’t remember the pole falling, I remember seeing it rest on my shoulder. My Mom had an expression of absolute horror on her face, Dad was yelling at someone who had put the pole back into its precarious position again for another kid to push it onto another unsuspecting stranger. Everyone else was staring at me. 

“Give me ice!” I shout. No one responds. People continue staring. I make a mental note: Don't count on these stupid devout Catholics to save your life. I make my way to the altar, wag a finger at the priest who is also staring, “If something happens to me, I’ll drag your ass to court!” Mom and Dad are now next to me, get in the car, don’t say such things to Father, let’s go home.

I escaped with just a hump on the right side of my head and some bruising on my shoulder.  

Thinking back, I know it could have been worse. Could have cracked my skull even, that damn pole. Mom’s taken the incident to be divine intervention for the most perfectly pitched ad for Roman Catholicism: “That pole could have cracked your skull. It didn’t. It’s God’s miracle! He saved you! Jeebus loved you. He averted a major disaster through a minor incident.”

I just think it was a perfectly orchestrated opportunity for God to prove he existed. He could have held back the damn pole from falling on my head in the first place.

He didn’t, I lived. God - 0, Joy - 1.

Happy Holidays! 

Brassiere vs Otto Titsling

I met a friend for brunch on a somewhat sunny summery day. Which means if you’re sitting outdoors and the person you’re having lunch with is wearing a tube top held up by transparent bra-straps with dinkchak glitter on them, you’re going to have shiny disco balls in your eyes all through lunch. Not used to poking my eyes with swords of light for pleasure, I did what any girl does: I came back and bitched about this woman and her utter lack of taste in bras to Mousey. I generally expect my girlfriends to empathize and nod in agreement when I’m being the fashion police but not this time. Mousey proudly declares, “Hey! I wear them too." 

Which is when I called her the "30 year old going on 16”. Because, you know, it was acceptable when you were sixteen. It’s acceptable now if you wear wrong sized bras, wear that stuff from Victoria’s Secret with PINK painted all over the ass and maybe, if you come from that part of the world where they manufacture see-through bra-straps and you can buy them in factory outlets. ON DISCOUNT. 

But even if you’re not from that part of the world, you’ll still see so many Indian women flaunting their 34Bs. No, no they don’t all come in one size but if you end up walking around in any neighborhood you’re sure to see a 38DD spilling out of a 34B.  What’s up with that, people? It’s almost like every Indian woman is afraid of NOT being a 34B. I was patiently explaining all this to Mousey when she had a eureka moment, “How do they fit then?” Well, hello! They DON’T. That’s how you know they are wearing the wrong bra, duh! Because when you see them jiggling around like that you really want to hang a warning sign around their necks: “BUMPS AHEAD”. 

*headpalm*

Screw the color, size matters.

Losing the old in the new

1992

They used to live across the street in the rundown house with the blue gate and sand aplenty around it. It was the ugliest house in the vicinity- Rusted iron rods sticking out of the chipped away concrete, laundry drying everywhere, graffiti on the walls. ‘The Brothers Pakistan’ is what Mom called them. Two brothers, their wives and six children lived there. The men always wore clean ironed pathan suits and the children always ran about and played in the sand outside the gate. The women were hardly seen except when one of the men called out to them and they slowly pulled away the bedsheets doubling up as curtains peered outside and tossed out the keys or had short conversations. Watching that house seeing how it was across the street was one of my many pastimes in that stretch of time that yawned out between the time I got home from school and the time Mom drove back.

Then one day an Arab drove up in a black Mercedes and stopped in front of the blue gate. The two men walked out, shook hands with the Arab and waited as he went back into the car. When he stepped out he had three big packets of white powder in his hands. He drove after handing them to The Brothers Pakistan. They proceeded to scoop out the sand from around the blue gate and buried these packets of white powder on either side of the gate. 

-

1996

She was the first secretary I had ever met. She always wore business suits with short skirts well above the knee, high heels and skin coloured stockings. I know she wore skin coloured stockings because I had asked Mom why her skin shone. Her name was Judy. Every morning when I had breakfast the doorbell would ring, every morning Mom would call out to Dad, 'It must be Judy asking you to reverse the car for her. How did that woman even get a driving license!’ Dad would open the door, walk out and walk back in a few minutes later. 'Why does she have a car if she doesn’t how to take the car out of the parking lot?!’ Every day except on Thursdays and Fridays. I think she had her day off on Thursdays.

One Thursday afternoon, I was in the balcony naming the cars that drove by out aloud. That was the time when I could tell cars from their rims and from the logo on the boot. A Pajero drove into the parking spot right below the balcony. He was talking on his cellphone and he had his dishdasha up to his knees. And the next thing I know he had in his hands something that was coming to life right in front of my eyes. I think I was fascinated-I had never seen something like that. There was a spot at the tip and as he ran his hand up and down, I could see the folds around this thing waxing and waning. And then I realized it was skin but I don’t think I fully knew what it was. I don’t know how long it was before Judy came walking out from her building and climbed into the seat next to the man in the dishdasha.

-

2004

I was sitting under the tree next to the Cafe Coffee Day outlet outside Bangalore airport. I had missed my flight and had a couple of hours to kill before I caught the next flight home. After buying a coffee from the CCD outlet, I also bought a pack of Marlboro Lights from the tiny store next to it that sells sandwiches and cigarettes. 

Just when I was about to light up a cigarette, a middle aged man came and sat next to me under that tree. We made small talk and I learnt he was a Jordanian running a business in Dubai and he was delighted to learn that I grew up in Dubai. He pulled out his pack of Marlboro Lights, 'You can’t smoke the one you bought here in Bangalore, I bought this one at Dubai Duty Free.’ We then had watermelon juice and he showed me pictures of his daughter and son. 'Sometimes I wish our kids were as interested in studying! My son worries me.’ As it happens with most people I meet at random places, he went on to tell me his story as well. 

After a couple of hours, he had to leave for his flight and so did I.