Saturday, December 31, 2005

Closing note: Smell ya later, 2005!

From Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:

"Life changes in the instant.
The ordinary instant....

I think about swimming with him into the cave at Portuguese Bend, about the swell of clear water, the way it changed, the swiftness and power it gained as it narrowed through the rocks at the base of the point. The tide had to be just right. We had to be in the water at the very moment the tide was right. We could only have done this a half dozen times at most during the two years we lived there but it is what I remember. Each time we did it I was afraid of missing the swell, hanging back, timing it wrong. John never was. You had to feel the swell change. You had to go with the change."

Reflect, sip champagne, and take advantage of every moment we're here.

Friday, December 30, 2005

In transit

Every morning, Manmohan Singh picks me up for work outside the McDonald's in South Extension.

No, not the prime minister of India -- my auspiciously named driver who seems every bit as mellow and pragmatic as the man himself.

The company's Manmohan-ji has thick black hair sprouting from his earlobes and wears heavy glasses that cover half his face (and occasionally slide off his nose when he is aggressively maneuvering the Qualis through traffic). Every day he wears a navy blazer, as crisp as polyester can be, and brings English newspapers for his passengers to read.

Suffice it to say, he is a bit different from most Delhi drivers in sartorial style, as well as temperament.

Manmohan-ji always manages to surprise me, whether he is waiting at a deserted intersection's red light as other cars speed past (hey, there's no one coming, what does traffic control matter?) or profusely apologizing for his hacking cough. He never fails to use his turn signal. He refuses to blare Hindi music. He has yet to make an attempt at mowing down a pedestrian.

These are the kind of people I like -- people who respect rules that sometimes seem insignificant, people who are mindful of the comfort of others without making a show of their magnanimity.

(This is not, of course, to say that sometimes the rules shouldn't be broken and so forth, but that's not the point -- for now.)

Of course, it does mean that it does tack an extra 15 minutes onto my already-too-long journey from Gurgaon to Delhi. But at least they're a pleasant 15 minutes.

End-of-year survey!

1. What did you do in 2005 that you'd never done before?
Graduated from college; lived in a tropical clime; allowed myself to ask for help; rode on an Indian bus; got vomited on in transit for a job interview; visited Boston; befriended a woman more than three times my age

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

I can't remember my New Year's resolutions, so I guess I couldn't have kept them.

Next year?
  • Lose 15 pounds (given, a perpetual resolution that never comes to fruition because my body likes being at this weight, dammit)
  • Be less reactive
  • Learn the general precepts of economics/business
  • Pay more than the minimum amount each month on my college loan
  • Save enough money to visit my parents
  • Be less impetuous

Focus words (because they're a damn good idea):
  • Shanti
  • Openness
  • Grace

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

No one close to me

4. Did anyone close to you die?

Again, no. It was a remarkable year, I suppose.

5. What countries did you visit?

India (does it count as a visit if I've been here half the year?)

6. What would you like to have in 2006 that you lacked in 2005?

Grown-up furniture; white teeth; clothes that weren't purchased secondhand

7. What dates from 2005 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

June 18: Graduation (Probably the end of my formal education -- but who knows these days)

June 20: Arrived in India (A huge change. A ridiculous proposition. The start of a new way of thinking)
July 1: Started working at MASCOM (Five months of doubt, regret, truth, and emergence)
November 10: K's hospitalization (Whereupon I realized that I am an adult, that I can take care of others, that five years make all the difference)
November 12: Moving back to Delhi (New job, confidence, and a grand experiment with outsourcing myself)

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Shucking off a niggling sense of self pity

9. What was your biggest failure?

Not sharing more of my life with the MASCOM students while I had the chance

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

A bit of Delhi belly, and several bouts of food poisoning

11. What was the best thing you bought?

Plane ticket to India; employment visa; an ashtray in the shape of a foppish Indian civil servant

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?

First and foremost, my mother; J and his family; E-lizzle; KTO; and S

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?

Many sprawling masses of humanity (including but not limited to people who hoot at me on the streets and the Northwestern graduating class of 2005)

14. Where did most of your money go?

Travel; flat set-up; food

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?

Moving to India (Kerala and Delhi); brother B returning from Iraq; vacationing in New York and Boston

16. What song will always remind you of 2005?

"Breakaway," Kelly Clarkson; "Since U Been Gone," Kelly Clarkson; everything by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; Tamil film music; Malayalam folk songs; "Stickwitu," Pussycat Dolls

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:

a) happier or sadder? happier
b) thinner or fatter? hrm...can't tell. It's a wash
c) richer or poorer? richer (graduation = cha-ching!)

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?

Talking to people; traveling; taking pictures

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?

Crying into the telephone; feeling sorry for myself; drinking

20. How did you spend Christmas?

With four Americans, a Brit, and a Kashmiri, eating a feast, drinking mulled wine, exchanging gifts, and singing Christmas carols

21. Did you fall in love in 2005?

Hrm...well, I found myself in love, I think would describe it better

22. How many one-night stands?


23. What was your favorite TV program?

"Joan of Arcadia," "Judge Mathis," "Law and Order," "America's Next Top Model"

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?


25. What was the best book you read?

"The Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion; "Among the Thugs" by Bill Buford; "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder; "The Discovery of India" by Jawaharlal Nehru

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Yahoo! Radio, which keeps me in American pop

27. What did you want and get?

A job in India; the means to travel; some sense of peace

28. What did you want and not get?

There's really nothing that I'm lacking right now (though I could be materialistic and say "a sofa set")

29. What was your favourite film of this year?

You know, I'm not sure that I've seen any that weren't from last year, etc.

30. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 22. I spent the day teaching, then at night was ushered into the school's canteen and met with excellent food, two birthday cakes, all my students singing, a photo album, and a hideous(ly wonderful) kathakali mask of multiple woods

31. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Better grades in my last two quarters at NU

32. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2005?

Three phases: "Who gives a damn", "visions in cotton", and "I have a corporate job -- what do I do now?"

33. What kept you sane?

Mommy, J, S, kittens, writing

34. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Britney Spears -- not really fancy so much as was constantly bemused by her quick descent from pop starlet to trashbag ho

35. What political issue stirred you the most?

Development for rural and urban poor

36. Who did you miss?

My mum, the bitchhos, J and his family, S when he traveled

37. Who was the best new person you met?

K Thomas Oommen, the most fascinating person I've ever encountered (and been lucky enough to call a boss)

38. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2005:

Much of this hell is self-imposed

39.Quote a song lyric that sums up your year:

"What do you do

when you look in the mirror
and staring at you
is why he's not here"
-- KC (I'm sorry, I know...)

Monday, December 26, 2005

'Tis the season

Well, I did it. I made it through my first alone Christmas. I guess I am truly, finally an adult. Sort of.

I didn't cry knowing that S was rooting out militants while I kneaded biscuit dough; I didn't turn into a malicious drunk when I realized he didn't call me and wouldn't be calling me. Instead, I sipped another glass of mulled wine, admired the newly upholstered couches of a recent acquaintance, and made do.

I spent much of the morning in bed, made some food, attended "a very expat potluck," exchanged goofy gifts, ate food, sang along with a gee-tar, and had a conversation about peanut allergies.

My grandparents called on Christmas eve, my parents/brother on Christmas day. I did not cry when I heard stories about my niece and nephew. I did not scream when I heard that customs officials confiscated the coveted "Rat brand" knives I picked out for my brothers.

10,000 miles from Portland.

366 days since our last family holiday.

Somehow, it seems those days have become years. I don't think I could have done this, could have been this person, if I had left a day earlier.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

At the petrol pump

Rickshaw driver: Fuel, fuel? I stop?

She says: Koi batne. (or however it's spelled. That's how I see it in my head.)

Miscellaneous attendant 1: Hallo! Hallo!

Miscellaneous attendant 2: How are you this morning, madam?

SS: I'm fine, how are you?

MA1: You are cute.

MA2: No, she's beautiful, yaar.

MA1 (turning): Cute, yaar!

SS (despondent; ignores uncouth boys)


MA2 (as rickshaw pulls away): Beautiful! Beautiful, yaar!

MA 1: Cute! Cute!

SS (guffaws)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

"S, am I a fancy lady?"

Secret confession: I want to be dainty.

I am such an oaf. I want to wear pink and ice blue and look natural, dewy, refreshing, not like some ill-advised soccer mom in Laura Ashley.

I try wearing a skirt to work, try wearing stockings underneath (to keep warm and to hide the kitten scratches).

Runs down the back of my legs.

Bunchy nylon around my ankles.

I will never be a fancy lady.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

I've been reading...

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

I love Joan Didion's writing, particulary her early works Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album -- so I was pleased to hear that TYOMT was a supposed return to these roots.

SDG lent me the book, and I devoured it in a weekend. Still, despite rave reviews and general acclaim, I felt a bit empty after finishing. Why? I'm not sure. Perhaps it's because I had read so many excerpts that the prose felt a bit stale. But I think it has something to do with my life, my years of magical thinking. There has been so much death, so much regret, so much longing in the last five years (give or take), that Didion's thoughts were far from revelatory to me -- in fact, they sounded like so many of the pages I've filled, trying to synthesize all that's happened.

When it rains, it pours. Her husband died and her daughter fell into a coma. I spent time in the hospital; my cousin died (was murdered? killed herself?); my godparent's daughter was murdered by her husband, who then killed himself; my mother lost her job. Didion's grief was more immediate, but mine was no less reflective.

You sit down to dinner and your life changes in an instant. It's true and it resonates, and yet I've...heard it before. She writes:

" . . . confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. . . . 'It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,' people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: 'Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States.' "

Didion is essential reading, in my opinion, for every writer. It's strange to see the words you've thought on a page, in someone else's hand. Perhaps that is why I was so uncomfortable with TYOMT. A great read, hands down, but Slouching will always be my favorite Didion tome -- vaguely familar, and yet startling in its beauty with every new syllable.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke

I usually don't go in for this sort of fantasy crap. I read a Harry Potter book and thought it was nice enough -- but could be improved by discarding all that magic crap. So Strange and Norrell was a bit of an odd choice for me.

Overall, a quaint story with adequately developed characters. Clarke constructs a fantastical world of magic in early 19th century England, and does convincingly evoke the time period by using period spellings and adhering meticulously to the coded behavior of the drawing room.

The book, of course, is far too long; epics may be in vogue, but my attention span doesn't keep with the signs of the times.I'm sure there's some greater allegory in it that I'm missing, impression was "meh". More than 700 pages, and at the end, I'm left with an expansive knowledge of a world that never really existed?

You can convince me to try new things, but you can never really take away my pragmatic realism. But at least you tried, Ms. Clarke; at least you tried.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Thwarted again

On Christmas, I will be here:

And S will be here:

These are obviously not the same places. (Also, I won't literally be riding in the back of a cycle rickshaw, and S won't be fishing on Dal Lake, but the point is -- Delhi and Kashmir do not equal hot chocolate and presents and holiday happiness.)

I call shenanigans.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ah, patriarchy's solutions

So last week, a call center worker in Bangalore was raped and killed by the driver of the car that dropped her at home every day. Presumably, it was a crime of opportunity -- she was alone in the vehicle and he took the chance to act inappropriately.

Now the BPO industry is up in arms, with protests in Bangalore and meetings set to broach the dilemma. The question on everyone's minds seems to be one of gender: With all these young women entering the work force, how do we ensure that they are able to navigate cities safely?

The solutions, thus far, are ridiculous. Take, for example, a quot by police commissioner Ajay Kumar Singh:

"We have called a meeting of the BPO representatives on December 20. We intend to suggest that women employees should not be picked up first and dropped last. There should be a male employee in the vehicle when women are picked or dropped. In cases where only women employees are present, we suggest a security guard in the vehicle."

Here, the police commissioner is assigning blame to the entire industry that supports workers in cushy call center jobs, as if every driver is a threat by merit of possessing a license.

How could they be so stupid?

This is the exception, not the rule. One man perpetrated a crime. Certainly, there should be more support for women traveling to and from the office. But sticking more men in a car is not the answer. What if the male employee is a rapist? What of the security guard?

Perhaps the logic is that having more people in the car is a social deterrent -- rape being, of course, an extreme taboo. But are there not stories of gang rapes every other day in the newspaper? This is a non-solution, a token gesture that speaks not to progress but to patriarchy.

It seems to me that companies should shoulder the burden of arming women traveling alone with the ability to defend themselves. Have a company hotline to which an SOS SMS can be sent. Institute a policy wherein each employee is called to ensure that they have reached home safely. Create a self-defense course for women to take before and after work. Give employees pepper-spray key chains.

Just do something a bit more constructive.

The epitome of upwardly mobile India

I am in a pet store in Khan Market, a center in New Delhi renowned for its unceasing ability to attract white people who will spend ridiculous amounts of money on objects they can purchase far cheaper in other (albeit dirtier, more hidden) markets.

The kittens need little collars so if, God/Vishnu/Allah/Joseph Smith/Buddha forbid, they escape from the confines of our cushy flat, we have a hope of identifying the ubiquitous billis.

The store is crowded and I, standing in the corner hemming and hawing over elastic collars, plastic be-glittered collars, collars with bells, am jostled each time the door opens.

A rushed woman, straight from page three, breezes in, her perfect coif highlighted in honey, her nails manicured, her weekend-casual khakis wrinkle-free and hugging every curve. She walks directly to the counter, interrupting the proprietor who is explaining to an auntie how to treat her dog for fleas.

"I need to see your latest dog sweaters. Jaldi, jaldi."

He hesitates. Her face is frozen in a glare.

"Just the lastest. Don't you have anything new? New sweaters. For my dog."

Still, he does not respond. She turns, glides out the door.

I never knew accessorizing one's dog was so urgent.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Liquid courage

Oh, sweet lord.

See, in college, I had this problem with drinking. As in: It was the only thing that could get me through classes. I had to drink a few shots of vodka to stay focused in classes.

I moved back to India because when I was here the first time, I was much less dependent upon the evil spirits.

And since I took up residence here, I've been remarkably good. In my six months in Kottayam, I drank twice (once at the infamous "goodbye Mike and Jessa" booze party, and once with Ujjal after a long day of picture taking); and though I enjoy a drink to unwind in the evenings, I've thus far been really good and probably have only gotten drunk a few times in Delhi.

But tonight? Listening to Yahoo! Radio and having rum and diet Pepsi. If I move back to the states, they better import Old Monk and Sikkim rum.

On the other hand, I am terrified that I have the same taste in drink as my (birth) father.

I started out clean but I'm jaded.

(This message has been brought to you in part by Old Monk XXX Rum.)

But what about...

art for art's sake?

From Indian Express:

Mona Lisa was 83 percent happy: computer
Paris: Now it's official: Mona Lisa was 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry. That's the conclusion of a University of Amsterdam computer that applied "emotion-recognition software" to Leonarda Da Vinci's work, the British weekly New Scientist reports in next Saturday's issue. The algorithm tries to assess the human mood by examining key features, then makes a score with respect to six basic emotions.

Oh, you silly scientists...why can't you just let us imagine up our own mix of emotions? You're taking all the fun out of it! I think if you investigate my face, you will discover it is 70% scorn, 20% disgust, and 10% wicked delight.

(But, I will admit, it is a pretty funny concept, which is ostensibly why so many papers picked it up from the wires.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ancient Indian wisdom!

...according to my hetero-lifemate:

A drop of oil in your belly button will prevent your lips from getting chapped.

I don't know if I buy it, but I've drenched my belly ring in mustard oil. I guess we'll see tomorrow.

Also: Anyone have ancient mystical wisdom for curing a very strange patch of itchy, irritable red skin about the size of a tennis ball on my back? It is either a patch of kitten scratches, a bevy of mosquito bites, or the bird flu. I donno.

Monday, December 12, 2005

And the headline of the day award goes to...

Drumroll, please!

Your Mind is a Monkey, Learn to Steady It
The Times of India, New Delhi, p 30

Another reason I'm glad I no longer work for a company that conducts surveys...

I got this letter from the James M. Cox, Jr. Center for INternational Mass Communication in a package from my mother today:

"Dear 2005 Graduate of Northwestern University:

This is not a letter asking for money! We are not trying to sell you a subscription or get you to join an alumni club!"

Friday, December 9, 2005

Reader Response!

VK says:
From what I could collect from your writing is that, you have a poor
opinion about indian newspapers. I understand that TOI and HT are glorified
tabloids. But "The Hindu" and Indian Express?

This is, as they say, a sticky wicket. I guess it merits some explanation.

It is not my intention to denigrate Indian newspapers any more than it is my intention to mock American newspapers. I don't think that American (or English, or South African, or Russian) newspapers are innately of a higher quality than Indian newspapers -- I would mock them with just as much vigor as I do Indian newspapers if the stars aligned.

Reasons I pay so much attention to picking apart Indian papers?

  1. I am living in India, and my physical access to newspapers is generally restricted to HT, TOI, Hindu, and IE (you'll notice that I rarely pick on the Deccan Herald or, for example, Delhi's afternoon newspapers Midday or Today) simply because I don't subscribe to them or read them on a regular basis
  2. I am, primarily, an editor. In the words of an editor I greatly respect, "Editors should assume that all writers are morons." It's become instinctual for me to dissect every paragraph, every sentence, to analyze whether the writer has effectively conveyed her message to the reader. Unfortunately -- and this again holds true whether one is in India or America -- this is not often the case.
  3. Indian newspapers are packed with content, offering a particularly broad range of stories to pick apart.
  4. And, yes, the cultural caveat: I am of a breed of young Americans who live their lives with a great deal of skepticism, encountering the world through fogged lenses -- expecting the worst and willing to acknowledge it, but quite reticent to highlight things that are of excellent quality.

Hope that's sufficient!

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

The myth of mystical India

OK, I'm always excited to see India things in Western media. But so, so often, the allusions are fetishizing a stereotype of the country that doesn't exist in reality or worse, spreading misinformation.

I could quibble about the recent Bollywood photoshoot on America's Next Top Model, but let's put that aside for now.

No, I want to highlight a Web site that normally, I adore -- Knitty, an online knitting magazine.

Witness Namaste, a pattern for a yoga-mat-carrying bag.

Now, the pattern seems nice enough. But is it really necessary to take a picture of the bag with a Chinese/Japanese (yes, I'm incredibly ignorant, please enlighten me) character? What were the editors thinking? "Ah, well, India, China, Japan -- they're all over there, yeah? I think they eat a lot of rice? Run it!" Senseless.

Furthermore, the site has chosen to run an introduction to the pattern:

"Namaste is the traditional greeting given at the end of each yoga practice and loosely translates as "the divine in me salutes the divine in you"."

Which, again, ignorance. I can't vouch for the validity or invalidity of this statement, but...don't they realize that "Namaste" is also a pretty generic term? It can be used for hello, goodbye, good evening -- really, a greeting or departing word that connotes respect that can be used anytime.

Women in leotards trying to attain some semblance of inner peace are not the only people who can use this phrase. It's a small point, but the littlest things matter.

When we try and translate India and present only the most superficial, jingoistic explanations, we're enabling the ignorance of people outside the subcontinent. People should be smart (logical?) enough to smell something fishy here, but it's always an editor's best interest to assume that her reader is a moron -- and clearly in this case, the editor is the moron.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005


As you all can see, I spoke (blogged?) too soon in my last entry.

Because as soon as I posted it, my internet stopped working (possibly due to the untimely intervention of S's brother and some Warez, but my inkling is yet to be proved, so...c'est la vie). Anyhow, there have been lots of things I want to talk about.

For example:
-- At least two Nigerians operating e-mail fraud out of India have been caught in the last week or so -- BECAUSE THE PEOPLE WHO GAVE THEM UPWARDS OF RS 10 LAKH ($20,000) COMPLAINED THAT THEY WERE BEGINNING TO SUSPECT IT WAS A SCAM AFTER NOTHING HAPPENED WHEN THEY GAVE THE COMPLETE STRANGER THEIR CASH. Buh-jeezus.
-- Toilet paper in India -- a great piece in Hindustan Times today.
-- Examples of good journalism in India, which are few and far between, and which this week included a profile on a pimped-out rickshaw-wallah who doesn't screw his passengers as well as a profile of a street hawker whose wife was getting an engineering degree
-- My awesome new job
-- My flat and my kittens, which I can soon show you. But not now, I'm too lazy.

Anyway, I'm here. And I'll be less sucky soon.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

I'm back!

Home internet? Achieved.

It happened circa 8 p.m., Indian Standard Time.

My life is complete.

But I am tired.

So tomorrow, expect some sassy commentary. Or at least something more than a post with an excuse about not posting. Theek hai?