Water Woes

28 Oct

I was born with a nasal septum deviation except that I didn’t know it then.

And, from the looks of it, it seems to be a congenital – but fairly common – defect that my father and son both have. As a child, it went unnoticed and only much later did I realise that my constantly parched mouthed was a result of a breathing disorder that compelled me to sip water more frequently than most others.  It meant that active sports like running and swimming were not my forté (though the son seems to have overcome this handicap with incredible speed). It also led to my carrying a bottle of water with me while travelling (something that the son also does).

As flights became the most-used means of transport in the days when only Indian Airlines existed and terrorists hadn’t yet discovered India, walking through lax security checkpoints at airports was a breeze. You could carry anything, through including water.

Of late, however, water seems to have become Threat No. 1 at all airports: two separate but almost identical incidents in the last three weeks at Singapore’s Chang Mai and Bangkok’s Suvarnabhoomi airports drove home the faux paranoia that security officer have. Regardless of the rule (100 ml is supposed to be allowed) the unrelenting guards wouldn’t let me carry my little bottle of water. At Singapore, the lady on duty was kind enough to let me gulp down the water in haste (most of it jumped out of mouth onto my shirt!) and carry the empty bottle through because it could be refilled at a tap just a few metres inside; in Bangkok, however, it had to be consigned to the trash can where bottles and beverages of all sorts lay awaiting a wet death.

Once you cross Security, however, you can buy as much water as you like (and any other beverage for that matter) and drink or carry it on to the aircraft…which makes me wonder whether the compulsion to discard H2O comes not from fear but from commercial pressures. You can buy beer cheaper than what a low-cost carrier would charge you for in in-flight purchase; you can buy Coke or water…why the premium for something that is essential for survival? After all, you have to pay a premium for bottled water (irrespective of its origin) at any airport or restaurant.  Why, even PVR Cinemas tried it in Delhi and lost a legal battle a few years ago – but then arm-twisted bottled water brands into creating special-sized bottles that are still more expensive than what you’d pay at a retail store. And chance are that the frenzied rush to an airport and the subsequent check-in processes will leave you hot and bothered and thirsty anyway.

So, why this paranoia? Can’t security guards see that I have a slightly crooked nose but my intentions are straight? Do I now need to carry a medical certificate that will get me an ‘all-access water pass’?

Or must I pay through my troubled nose to buy water at a premium? And then for air too in the future?

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“Sexy hogi toh…”

8 May

A college student gets off her father’s car and walks purposefully towards the Metro station, blissfully unaware that every auto driver standing alongside has turned to give her the once over. Her father can only grimace from a distance and pray that his daughter will return home unscathed.

A young lady waits outside a market, talking on her phone. Two policemen gawk at her unmindful of the chaos behind them as a motorcyclist hits a rickshaw. She knows she is being watched but can do nothing to avoid the stare of the very men who are meant to protect her.

Not too far away, three female friends emerge from a pub and are ogled at by every man in the mall – from the security guard to the parking attendant.

None of this is new. None of this is initiated by the clothes the women wear. None of it is restricted to just one city.

But all of it happens.

And it was brought to life outside the South Extension Market in Delhi last Saturday. I was waiting, impatient as usual, for the driver of a car to reverse his way out of an anarchic parking lot when a phrase caught my ear: “Sexy hogi toh nahin chalegi…”

That’s right. A male voice saying “if she’s sexy, then she won’t do.” I whipped around to see a stud in his late 20s, leaning against a car, drawling into a cell-phone. He would have been a driver or another blue-collar worker but was oozing arrogance in his attitude. For all I know, he must have willingly suspended disbelief while watching Vidya or Vicky and then connected their two recent hits in a warped way.

And he continued: “…agar khandan badhane wali hogi, ghar sambhalne wali hogi toh batana.” That is, “if she can carry forward the family (bear children) and manage the house, then tell me.”

You don’t have to be Sherlock to figure out that he was discussing a matrimonial relationship – either for himself or someone close to him (a brother perhaps). I was too stunned by his words to even take a photograph and couldn’t hang around to hear the rest of his conversation but, clearly, he epitomised the kind of man who would lust after a lady in public and then demand a demure, ghoonghat-covered wife in private.

Janus? Or just your average Indian male?

I still can’t get over that “sexy hogi toh nahin chalegi…”!

Of Times Past

1 May

Every morning, I have a date at eight.

(And, no, this isn’t one of those rhyming couplet thingies.)

I wait at a traffic light near my house in Gurgaon like a roadside Romeo, with a Mac on my back and lunch in the bag, shooing away auto drivers, stray dogs and flies. I wait for Pooja to turn up in her Accent and pick me up en route work…eight is early for me but better than nine, which is when another colleague, Rohit, sets off.

This has been my routine for the last two months ever since my mouse-like driver – paradoxically named Ganesh – disappeared to get his sister married off in Nepal and hasn’t turned up since. After the marriage of his sibling, his father died, tragically. And then his mobile phone died, happily. And with it, died any hope I had of recovering the eight thousand rupees he owes me. So, I became dependent once again on kith, kin and colleagues to drive me around. Why I don’t drive is matter for another mindless post but, for now, let’s come back to where I started…

Pooja is punctual. She’s also a lady. And, for reasons that cannot be shared socially, she’s usually hyper (unlike Rohit who is the most relaxed human being I have seen). All of which means that I cannot keep her waiting. So I have to reach the pick-up point at least two minutes before she does. It takes me four minutes to walk from the gate of the building to the signal. But the wait for the elevator in the building can take 30 seconds or three minutes – and, if there’s a power cut halfway down the four floors, add another two minutes. So I need to set out by 7:52 to make it in time. What’s life without a little precision, I say?

And no matter how fast one shaves and showers, breakfast must be gobbled, vitamin swallowed, watch, wallet and pen grabbed, wife waved goodbye…all of which will take precious minutes. Something in this routine will be forgotten occasionally.

That’s how I forgot the watch yesterday. For, perhaps only the second time in 34 years since I was gifted an Anglo-Swiss by my father. I’ve been a keeper of Time ever since though, sometimes, I think Time kept me. I’ve slept with a watch around my frail wrist; even perched it on a narrow ledge next to me so that I could see the time whenever I awoke at night (not that I kept any record of the wakeful moments all those years). Somehow, one felt naked minus a watch.

And so, over time, the watch became more than a teller of time, it was something to be worn – not as an accessory which is what it is for most people but as a teller of tales. Every watch I own (and there are seven) has a story behind it. Be it the Titan Moonphase that Shovon and I won during an Ad Club Quiz in Calcutta despite Derek trying very hard to ensure we wouldn’t win it for the second consecutive year. Those days, Derek was at his prime, non-political quizzing days whereas today he’s the one being quizzed by news channels. Or the HMT (yes, good old HMT) that was created during Contract’s 10th anniversary in 1996…it still tocks, sorry ticks! Or the commemorative Tintin Swatch I gifted myself in Paris on a lonely birthday in 2008 2006…its strap may be frayed but the character remains.

I don’t look at a watch to see the present; I see the past.

Most people, however, wear a watch as a pure fashion accessory and glance at the mobile phone to see the time: did Nokia kill HMT? And that’s a pity because no matter how smart your phone may be, it’s unlikely to have any deep, meaningful associations of people, places and events from another life.  It’s cold, plasticky and detached; quite unlike the blend of soft, worn, warm leather and cold metal around the wrist. Somehow, a changing digit on a phone doesn’t quite mark the passage of time like the revolving hands on a watch.

But then, I’m probably in a dying breed of watch-watchers caught in a time warp while a very mobile world flits back and forth into a fickle future.

Time to go, I think.

And then there were words…

31 Jul

When Swapan sms’d me to ask if I would review his book, I readily agreed. And then, I procrastinated for reasons too complicated to explain.

Swapan is now a neighbour but has been a friend, colleague and competitor for almost two and a half decades; so, I have known him in more ways than one. And yet, I was surprised to learn that he had failed once in school.

Now, several weeks after carrying the little book around (it’s size, and much more besides, reminds me of The Little Prince that I was gifted in college) I sat myself down to review it. Actually, you can’t read This is all I have to say…you race through it and, before you realise it, you’ve reached the end. Which, I guess, is how it’s meant to be. So, you return to it to nibble on its maxims and, if they seem familiar, it’s only because they’re all (well, almost all) so very apt.

This_Is_All_I_Have_To_Say

Swapan Seth's Book Debut

Swapan Seth’s style has always been pithy. And this book is very Twitterish: it’s alliterative from the start (“An assortment of angsts. A cauldron of concerns.”) aphoristic, crisp and often clichéd. But, as we’ve always been told in advertising, clichés invariably work. Advertising runs not just in Swapan’s veins but also through his pen (or iPad or whatever digital device he used while writing this 95-pager) and its impact shows in everything about the book. It’s been written to a brief; with a sharply defined core target audience (his two sons) and a larger – yet niche – set of folks in mind; its positioning is unique (which may also be a bit of an issue because conventional booksellers won’t know which shelf to stock it in) and it’s exquisitely designed by Bonita Vaz-Shimray whose use of a wonderfully-named font, MrsEaves, adds to the crunchiness of the words…. like almonds in muesli. I do feel, however, that towards the second half of the book, the designer got carried away and readability does become an issue. But packaging is essential for any creative person who secretly worries that his ideas may not otherwise be expressed as well as they were originally envisaged.

There are gems tucked away in this book: “Parenting is a relay race.” And almost the entire chapter on love: “One day you will find love. Or rather love will find you” are among my favourite lines. If, in any book or film, you can find even one line that you relate to instantly, consider yourself as having received more than what you paid for the book (Rs 195 in this case). I found some sections reminding me of others that I had read (the chapter on Friends brought back memories of Desiderata, for instance) but even if Swapan has been inspired by all that he has read (and his appetite for words is XXL) there is nothing wrong. James Webb Young, an early 20th century practitioner of advertising said that ideas are nothing but an original combination of old elements. And Ms Rowling is known to have written that words allow us to create magic like nothing else can… this book comes close to it.

There are, however, some things I would have done differently.

The title, for instance, seems to eliminate the possibility of another book – and that would be a shame. If this is really all Swapan has to say, I’d be surprised. I find the front and back covers trying too hard to impress the reader that some well-known folks have endorsed the book: not really required, my friend. I have a knack for finding typos and would like to meet the editor in Roli Books who let several slip through her pencil. Most of all, I would have liked to see the names of people who played a role in Swapan’s life instead of their being relegated to pronouns: a teacher and his first client as an entrepreneur are the only ones named.

The book is dedicated to his sons with a line “May love be the ampersand between the two of you” and perhaps that’s why I love the book: the ampersand is a delightful but undervalued character that connects almost everything epigrammatically. And I tend to overuse the word “and”… often violating the most fundamental tenet of Wren & Martin.

But, for now, this is all I have to say and you should go find the book. You don’t have to be a lover, a husband, a copywriter or even a parent to enjoy snacking on Swapan’s words… bon appetit!

Forgetting to Remember

9 Mar

There is something weird happening to the way we remember things. And the way we forget them.

In a digitally-driven world, almost everything we upload/share/email/blog post…whatever, is cached somewhere without any expiry date and floats around in ghostly cyber-space waiting to be touched again by a human being. Unlike the history of earlier times – captured through folklore, twisted by kings and triumphant tribes or exiled forever when a storyteller died – it’s almost as though we’re all in a mad hurry to record every stupidly trivial detail of our lives via 140 characters or silly status updates.

And then we live in fear, having forgotten what we said, where and when. But knowing full well that Google knows it all and will make your spur-of-the-moment slur available on demand for a potential employer or, worse, a suitor. Which is where a tool (drop.io) allowed you to put an expiry date on everything you shared in the cloud. It would have had immense value except that its owners went in for valuation and sold out to Facebook. Mover over Google, Facebook doesn’t want you to remember and retract.

But that’s not the weirdness I alluded to, above.

My worry is that we are now a generation of people (digital migrants and natives alike) who simply cannot remember many things that some of us did in the pre-mobile, pre-Google era… like birthdays and phone numbers. Wasn’t there a time when you could recall every phone number you frequently dialled straight off the top of your mind? How many can you remember today? Two, three, four perhaps and they’ll probably be of people you love. There may be the odd phone number or postal address from a decade ago that’s indelibly etched; but not too many, I’ll wager. Is it because we no longer actually dial (or punch in) a number? Or is it because we’ve handed over the responsibility of remembering to ever-growing memory chips that sit inside our mobile and computer hardware? Will we need an app soon to tell us who we’re fond of?

I have a crazy time remembering things I’d like to forget about. It’s worse if you forget the things you should remember.

Update (March 10): Even NYT agrees with me in a funny way 😉

Nothing

23 Feb

There are times when you need someone to do nothing with.

Someone to just be there. Not to speak with or listen to. Not to touch or be caressed by. No whiff, no whisper, no kiss, no comforting… Just nothing.

Nothing more, nothing less.

But it isn’t easy to do nothing. Programmed as we are to continuously engage in social activity, we look for films to watch, books to read, links to share, friends to hang out with, calories to burn, beer to guzzle, tweets to type and statuses to update…try nothing for a change.

Nothing is a noun, not a verb – so inaction is inbuilt. ‘Do nothing’ is a paradox.

That’s it for now. Nothing else.

The Future of History

2 Feb

The Great Sphinx and Giza's Pyramids
There was a time when Egypt conjured up three stereotypical images: the Pyramids, the Great Sphinx and Mummies. But that was before the country jumped out of textbooks and was thrust on to news (and new) media that have succeeded in pushing back those enduring images and replacing them with those of angry young men confronting a strangely silent army on the streets of Cairo. Strong, soundless monuments have given way to volatile, vocal and violent mobs. And to vulture-like vicarious newsmen who wait for that defining moment of either a fall or a photo-opp that will turn a lensman into a legend. Suddenly, there is no sign of ancient Egypt: almost as though history has been shrouded by present-day flags and banners of protestors.

Clearly, a country known for its history stands at the threshold of a new, albeit uncertain, future. The problem with “a million mutinies” (as Sanjay quipped on Facebook) is that it has no single, unifying leader. So, while there is unanimity in demanding President Mubarak’s resignation and exile, there appears to be no one who is popular – or capable enough – to take charge of a country of 80 million people. It may be good to rebel and have a goal in mind but once that is achieved, what next? After the fall, a country needs someone to rise and take charge before anarchy takes over. The longest-serving president of Egypt brought, if nothing else, stability.

The dissent against him, however, is not new. It’s just that the manner and speed at which it has exploded that defies all logic at one level. In October last year, on a vacation, Egypt came across as a placid but simmering nation. People were, by and large, unhurried and our local tour operator, Mahmood, attributed it to the heat. Though with the kind of crowds one saw in Cairo and with petrol being cheaper than bottled water, there is no way that a car can hurry on its streets any way. Sheesha-smokers at El Fishawy in Cairo's Khan-el-Khalili MarketBesides, the ubiquitous sheesha with its intoxicating agents, added to the languidness of the locals. I have tried calling Mahmood to check if he, his young wife and two children are well but his phone goes unanswered: I can only hope that he is busy (though there are no tourists around) and not part of the madness that seems to have swept Cairo. It was Mahmood who first let on that Mubarak had allowed things to slip (by that, he alluded to inflation) and that the forthcoming elections were sure to be a sham. He even joked about the President being a modern-day Pharoah, though far less benevolent. The Pharoahs were actually extremely forward thinking and had created a Nilometer that measured the level of water in the river that is Egypt’s lifeline (even today) before determining the rate of taxation on their people. Very high or very low levels of water indicated floods or famines and led to lower taxes that year – incredibly simple, incredibly people-friendly and way ahead of its time like so much else the ancient Egyptians did. Nilometer at Kom Ombo

And so, Egypt was all about long, lazy, liquidy cruises on the Nile; treks around and into the Pyramids, crawling into empty tombs in the Valley of Kings, coffee at Khan-el-Khalili and the Mediterranean allure of Alexandria. In the course of covering geographical milestones, history was being experienced just as it should be on any voyage. A long time ago, in another avatar, working on a documentary film script for the Indian tea industry (with the ever-suave Kabir Bedi as the protagonist) I had written “Khazana toh khoj mein hai” i.e. in the journey lies the treasure. Egypt was just that.

Except for one niggling feeling that persisted: as a tourist, you never experienced the same sense of awe and pride from the locals in their historical treasures as we would perhaps do with our Taj Mahal and Red Fort and Gateway of India (Pinku-loves-Tinku graffiti, spitting and public urination being ignored for the moment). The locals who depended on tourism for a living were out to take you for a ride (there is no standard pricing for anything that one buys – including water or juice or colas) and were there to literally cash in on tourists. (Yes, yes, I can hear friends like RP Kumar and Vikas Mehta who have lived in Cairo exclaim “Just as we do in India!”) Even the museum in Tahrir Square, now the epicentre of dissent, was unkempt and disorderly and, having seen Nefertiti’s bust in Berlin Nefertiti: now a Berlinerand many Mummies in the museums of Paris and London, one didn’t want to pay extra for the Mummy Room here. Every ancient temple you visit will have a horde of shops and street-hawkers at the exit so that you are assaulted with cheap, unlikely-to-last souvenirs that kill the grandeur of long-standing edifices.

Why is it that the temptation of the transient takes precedence over more permanent things? Why is there such a hullaballoo about the banning of the Internet in Cairo when we should be worrying about where Egyptians are getting their food? Why gloat about the role of Twitter when schools and offices are shut and the entire country has ground to a halt? Have real priorities given way to the virtual? Is the medium taking over the message itself?

Perhaps this is the way it is meant to be. Perhaps Egypt has stood still for far too long and is now trying to rush ahead to meet an uncertain future. The dust – and there is plenty of it blowing in from the Sahara – will take time to settle and its chronicles will probably be written, and rewritten, several times in the next few weeks. But as long as its people realise that their tomorrow lies not in looking back and merely cheering about today’s face-off with an army that refuses to fight back (strange yet sane)…

History, as the cliché goes, will never be the same. Nor will Egypt.

Perhaps a leader will emerge from the marching millions and the Pyramids and Sphinx will come back on to your television screens soon.

Perhaps history will find its future again.