Friday, January 30, 2009

What is life worth living for?

Listening to "Chandni Raatein" in the middle of the night

Eating banana walnut ice-cream at Big Chill

Watching Monty Python

Slipping under a blanket when it is slightly cold

Going to a half-sleep on a weekend afternoon

Reading Douglas Adams

Talking to a friend after a long time

Saying hello to the cute girl at the sandwich shop every afternoon

Waiting for the weekend to begin...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Political Identity

Over the last four years, and increasingly in the last 6 months, I have spent a lot of time in trying to analyze who I am, where I think I belong, what does everyone else see in me, what am I to myself and the world. A significant part of these thoughts have been around what my political views are. I have always followed Indian and world politics fairly closely, and in wake of the brilliant coverage of the American elections last year, ended up reading a lot of political literature too.

I have a very strong sense of identity. Whatever differentiates me with most others, brings me closer to those of my own kind. Or, to try and put simply, I tend to group myself with people with whom I have a similar differentiation. Where I was born, the colour of my skin, what I studied, my alma mater, my profession, my firm, my hobbies, my caste, my nationality and several other things, with different emphasis over time and location, have defined my identity. When I meet someone, I categorize him/her across several of these labels, and see where they match or come close to. That is how I develop a conversation, a rapport and a friendship.

For instance, when I meet someone who lets say belongs to my region of the world, that is what we bond on. When I meet someone, who has the same interests as I do, that's what we talk about. One implication of this is that most of my friendships are fairly compartmentalized and I don't spend much time celebrating diversity, but that's not the point of the post.

I have always considered myself as a liberal sort of a fellow. What people do in their own time is their own business, and as long as nobody troubles me, I don't give a shit. But this runs into conflict with my earlier sense of identity. What do I do when what I believe is my group, is under a perceived threat? How do I reconcile my tribal bonding need and my liberal value-system?

What do I do, when people of my nation, my religion are under threat for being different. Do I sit on the fence and laugh at the infantile behaviour of the extremists, or do I take cudgels on behalf of my side, even as I know that what I would end up doing would definitely be unpalatable and probably wrong.

And my answer has always been to join the fight on my side and try to win.

Ideally, one would want to know the right or wrong. The problem is, sometimes, things stand so far back in time, one doesn't really know how anything began. But that's not the real reason why I choose to take a stand. I would probably stand by my group even if they were wrong. The reason is my innate need to survive.

I don't like saying this but ethnic cleansing works. We only have to look back at the 1500s and see that in the last 500 years, in almost half the world, one group of men have annihilated another. Both the American natives and Aborigines have been removed from the face of the earth and Africa has been screwed beyond possibility of quick redemption. Yes, men can do bad things to other men, and the earlier we recognize it, the better. Some would call it paranoia but who is to say it can't happen again.

In everyday life, we are used to being safe and protected and sheltered, and fed on a diet of Page-3 newspapers and escapist cinema, forget that outside, wars go on, people kill each other, and sometimes, the bad guys end up winning.

In the comfort of one's arm-chair, a libertarian ideology is very attractive. It gives us a moral high ground - when we are safe, we can afford to have one. However, with such a mentality, if and when the barbarians come at the gates, we'll probably end up being spiked.

And I would rather fight, kill and survive than stand aside.

The other problem with the libertarian utopia is that would imagine that everybody would love everybody else, and live happily ever after. But there is no example known to me that suggests that no chink will appear in this vision - people have always become greedier, nastier and given the variation in temperaments, there will be some bastards at any point of time. What do you do then?

When I ask people whether something is black or white, and I hear, gray - it makes my blood boil. The purpose of information is to take action, and saying gray doesn't help. Decisions need to be made - and one has to take guesses in real life, and hope for the best. One of the biggest sins in this world is inaction - because of absence of 100% evidence. And, I would, any day, prefer efficiency over precision. It's like the debate I was having with someone about global warming - the other guy said, "There is still not sufficient proof that global warming is happening," and my reply to him was, "If we keep waiting for proof, there'll probably be no earth left". Survive first, ask later.

So I am asked - are you right-wing? And I would have to say yes. As long as there is someone ready to shoot me, I will carry a gun myself. In the legendary words of Dinkar:

Kshama shobhti us bhujang ko, jiske paas garal hai
Uska kya jo dantheen, vishrahit vineet saral hai

Liberalism is a luxury only the powerful can afford, I would rather watch my back.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Do Take ka Aadmi

I follow all the cricket action very diligently on Cricinfo, and it was difficult to suppress a chuckle when Bangladesh got a new bowler called, Dolar Mahmud.

The Cricinfo guys had a field time with this, and there were a bunch of jokes floating about him. But after 4 matches, he was hit out of the park by Jayasuriya, and was removed from the team.

And guess, who they got in as a replacement

"Rubel Hossain"

And the jokes continued...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

An Easy Man to Please

It had not been going well.

I had had to get up early, at 5 AM. It was freezing outside. I had neglected to pack stuff the night before and it was taking way too long. I knew there were regular trains to the airport, but I didn't know long it would take and how much I would have to walk carrying the luggage, which was getting heavier every minute. Since the washing machine had broken down, I had run out of fresh clothes, so I had decided to carry all my dirty laundry back home, where they could be washed/ironed peacefully, giving me a few more days to get the machine fixed when I returned. But all that meant was that my pack was really heavy.

I got out, and the chill hit me. Bad idea, this, I thought, going in the train, trying to save 40 bucks, rather than take a taxi. I also suddenly realised that I hadn't eaten anything since last afternoon, and wasn't likely to get anything for the next few hours. The snow was slippery and I had to keep watching my step to avoid falling down. So, there I was, a hungry man, trudging slowly in the chill, carrying a heavy pack, and muttering angrily to himself.

I got to the station, and after changing a couple of stations, got to the airport. By this time, my shoulder was aching, and I had a 9 hour journey in a cramped seat to look forward to. I took my boarding ticket, and sat down for the boarding to begin. I never really understand why we need to arrive 3 hours in advance for an international flight - it never takes more than 30 minutes to get through the process.

I don't usually complain about such things, but that's because I have something to do, usually, read a book. But English books here are so expensive, I could never bring myself to spend on them. Everything said and done, I couldn't help myself keep converting prices into Indian rupees, and defer all the buying to when I got home.

I started cursing myself for having paid so much for the ticket. I had ended up booking late, and the prices had zoomed by then, and now, I would also have to reschedule my return, and pay some late charges on top of that. After skimping on small stuff, to pay so much for an uncomfortable ride. It hurt.

I also started thinking about all the things I still needed to do when I returned here. Get my commune card, get my insurance papers, and yes, fix the damn machine. Here, I have to bloody get everything done. Nothing is simple, no handymen, no agents. God, I hated my life.

And then the flight started boarding. There were a couple of cute girls in front of me, and I hoped I would get a seat next to either of them. We crossed business class (those bastards!), and onto economy, and halfway through, they were still with me. I looked down at my card, it said 21A, and we stopped near 20. My heart was beating faster, but a second later, both stepped into 20, and I looked across to see a middle-aged man in 21. Grumpily, I sat down next to him, and thought to myself

"This is great. With no sleep, and no food, and an aching shoulder, I will spend the next 8 hours in a cramped seat next to a middle-aged man with mild BO, and nothing to do but read the inflight magazine".

I was, you could mildly say, in a blue funk.

And then the miracle occurred.

I heard a voice, it was a god-sent angel, in the form of the airline stewardess:

"Sir, would you mind stepping out. We have upgraded you to business class".

Suddenly, the pain disappeared. I found myself grinning stupidly.

"That sounds perfect", I grinned.

I am a very easy man to please.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Strangers on a Train

(Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Fiction, Warning: Long)

We had met earlier.

That was on the train going home. We didn't "meet" really. She came to the compartment I was sitting in, to meet a family she knew. From their conversation, I understood she came from the same town as I did, and was doing an MBA in Delhi - that was rare, and hearing that, I looked up from my book. I could see only her side profile - she looked nice. She was wearing a fairly conventional sweatshirt and jeans. In a minute, she left and I returned to my book. I didn't even know whether she had noticed me.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of some spare time will fantasize about the girls he meets. I have spent countless hours daydreaming of a life with several different girls, some whom I might have only spent an hour with. There is just too much of Bollywood in me to resist it. But coming back to the story, in this case, there was nothing to go on with, I hadn't even seen her face. So, I had to return to my book.

Three weeks later, we met again.

I was going back to Delhi, as was she. My parents had come to drop me as had hers. As it turned out, they knew each other, and our seats were in the same compartment (this is not such a coincidence actually, the business community in our small town is pretty well-integrated, and all seats from a particular station are booked in the same compartment). I didn't recognize her at first - didn't have much time to.

We were supposed to catch a connecting train to another station, where we would board our train to Delhi. Usually, it is a simple affair - we catch a train at our station, and it drops us at the other station in 30 minutes or so, with more than an hour to spare. But, on this day, due to the fog, the train at our station was delayed, and the onward train was not. So we had to take a cab.

I quickly went outside, bargained with a driver and came back to pick my luggage. By this time, like all self-respecting small town businessmen, our parents had agreed that the two of us would share a cab, to split the cost. "Pretend that you know each other so as to not arouse the driver's suspicion", her father laughed. I smiled politely, paid my respects and left. She was already on her way to the taxi.

We got in. I smiled at her, she smiled back. She was not bad to look at, darkish, well-rounded face, and big eyes. Slightly plumpish, but as Snoop Dogg would say, "I like ma woman with sum meat on 'er". Some pockmarks, but a very nice smile and an overall pleasant look. I asked her what she did - an answer I already knew. I told her what I did. She was impressed, I was glad that she was. She asked me about my job, I asked her about her studies. I had my practised lines ready, and they rolled off smoothly. We smiled a lot, and laughed a few times.

I have this habit of advising people on matters concerning their careers. It is almost an addiction, a bad one since it makes me appear condescending, and I have tried to kick it several times, with sporadic success. This time, however, I waited until she asked for some advice. And then, I was short and to-the-point. Evidently, it was good, since she asked for some again on a different matter. I thought, "Wow! This girl likes to hear me speak."

We reached the station with an hour to kill. I got some moongfalis, and we continued our chit-chat. She asked me about my job; I talked about it for a while. We talked about the economy and its impact on the job market. The train arrived and we got on.

Besides us, the compartment had two elderly couples on their way back home and a middle-aged man. We settled down, and were quiet for a while. I took the opportunity to analyse her. She was nice-looking, was a good conversationist, but what I really liked, was the smile. It was full, and was completely participated in by the rest of the face. And most importantly, she showed it often enough in my company.

It was almost two and we decided to have lunch. She opened her pack, I mine and we shared our food. She confessed she didn't know how to cook, I said all I knew was dal-chawal and khichdi, adding a while later, that I could do pasta too. In this way, it continued, I don't remember half of it. We finished our lunch.

We talked of movies, I said I was really hoping to catch Ghajini and Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, she said she had seen Rab Ne... and hated it. She had always been in South Campus through grad and post-grad, so we talked of South Delhi. I said I loved going to Priya, she said she hated it. "Because it is so full of guys", she said. I disagreed, but kept my opinion to myself. She loved going to IHC and Dilli Haat, and even though I thought IHC was too pretentious and Dilli Haat too cheesy, I smiled and said I liked both the places, but had been there only a few times. That got her enthu, and she went on for a while about them.

By this time, we were both feeling sleepy, and she said she had been awake till 3 the night before searching for some papers. I got the hint, and suggested we lie down for a bit. We climbed on to our respective seats, and I said sheepishly, "Good night". She smiled.

When I got up, it was 6:30 PM. I looked at her, she was still asleep. I read for a while; and heard her get up. I didn't react, she got down and was busy for a while. After a while, she called me, "Come down". And I did.

We continued talking, among other things, about common friends in our town. Both of us had left several years back, and people whose names sounded familiar and whose faces were a blur, were brought into the conversation. We talked of our town and the changes it had undergone, and what the future heralded.

She was smart, and well-articulated. With most girls, my conversations have been very monologue-like. Either I go on and on, or am too tongue-tied to speak. With her, it was different. I waited my while to speak, she did too. I was funny, and she laughed. There were gaps in the conversation, but were broken naturally. It was comfortable.

It grew very dark. We had our dinner. After a while, the lights were switched off. The train was due to arrive in Delhi at 5 AM, and the entire train went off to sleep for the night. We tried to continue talking, but slowly became aware that we were disturbing others. Then she asked if I wanted to watch a movie; I said, "Sure". And she took out her laptop, and a pair of earphone. I browsed through her laptop, and came across South Park. I looked at her incredulously. She smiled, and said she had just started watching the series and loved it. I grinned.

We started watching Season 3. She had one earphone and I had the other. I was very aware that we were next to each other shoulder-to-shoulder, but she was comfortable, and slowly I forgot too. We laughed silently and kept watching one episode after the other, finishing the entire season. By that time, both had started feeling drowsy and the laughs had become infrequent. I suggested we go to sleep, and she agreed. "Good night, sweet dreams", I said.

I couldn't fall asleep. In all these years, I have hardly "clicked" with anyone. Most chances have been disasters, and even the few that went ahead turned out to be false alarms, eventually. I blame myself for it, sometimes the person overawed me, sometime the occasion did. But mostly, it was my own nature. Regardless of what I truly thought I was like, I came across as insensitive, creepy, dishonest, and it pained me. So, I had given up trying; resigned to let my parents find some girl for me, whose life I would probably go on to destroy.

But now I decided to retake the initiative. I would ask this girl out. I liked her, she didn't seem to despise me. I would wait for the right moment in the morning, and do it. Maybe, I could drop her to her hostel, and arrange to meet again. It could be done, why not!

And on that note, I went to sleep.

I woke up and looked outside. It was very foggy. It was 5, but the train was nowhere near Delhi. It had been delayed by a few hours. She was up too. I said "Good Morning", and we exchanged information about the train's delay. We figured we were about 4 hours late. Good, I thought, I have more than enough time to make my move. We busied ourselves for a bit, before settling down again.

She asked me what my future plans were, and I told her the truth, that I didn't have a clue, but wanted to do something good, and leave a legacy. I asked her about hers, and she said, she always wanted to run a shop, maybe get into retail now. I also said I wanted to travel a bit, and see the world. She said loved Pune and wanted to settle there.

We had refrained from discussing our personal lives as yet. I didn't have anything to say, and for some reason, was loathe to ask her about hers. I would find out eventually, anyway.

We had a bit of namkeen and biscuits. The fog was still thick but the train was making good progress, and we neared Delhi. I decided to make my move.

"How will you get to the hostel?", I asked.

"Oh! Don't worry. I'll get there", she said dismissively.

"Oh!, but I can drop you if you need me to. It's on the way", I said quickly.

"Well, I have a friend coming to pick me up", she said slowly, and smiled.

"Oh!". I got the message.

"Haven't spent 5 years in Delhi for nothing, have I?", she said and smiled.

To say I was hurt would be wrong. I hadn't invested any emotions in it yet, and the only feeling I had was the one similar to seeing Australia defeat New Zealand in a close match. Stacked against odds, to come so close and lose. That's the kind of feeling I had. I recovered quickly.

"Good", I said.


The train pulled in. We exchanged good-byes and I rushed out. We didn't even exchange phone numbers or email ids.