Saturday, October 15, 2005

See you soon

After three unsuccessful attempts, a few days before the tsunami, inspired by my friend, Amit Varma, I started Green channel. It was successful in a personal way, because it was just a take on some aspects of city, the travel, the transitions, and whaddya know, a few people actually read this everyday! It's been a good ten months. I've had only one slightly angry exchange, and that was in January. I've made wonderful new friends, encountered an old friend, and even stumbled upon a writer who instantly became my favourite, though she doesn't yet know it. And one of the nicest things about being a blogger has been corresponding with people whose ideas I adore, or people I thought I'd get along with. And getting linked, oh yes, getting linked by people you respect.

This won't be a long and winding goodbye, so wait, I'm getting there.

Before last December I had written very little, so this blog helped me catch up, and proved to be an emotional crutch as well without getting into the 'dear diary' kind of writing. It also helped discover limitations, eg: Ability to write about roads and driver behavior: good. Ability to analyse merits of libertarianism over lefty ideology: bad. (So bad that I've probably got that bit wrong as well.)

But while it has been fun, I reckon it's time to say bye and get down and write for a living. Like anybody out there who can hold a pencil, I'd like to write a book someday. And travel, and sleep well, and never worry about money. So it's time I got started.

Goodbye. And see you soon.

Friday, October 14, 2005

"Sasta hai, madam"

Overheard on TV during the Challenger Trophy final:

“It is not about the prize money. It is about winning a place in the India team, which is worthless.”

I'd imagine Javagal Srinath, the former Indian bowler, meant to say 'priceless'.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The oppressive Indian

Gaurav Sabnis has decided to leave IBM after Arindam Chaudhuri's Indian Institute of Planning and Management threatened to burn their Thinkpads before IBM's offices in New Delhi. Sabnis' choice was his own, and his reasons for resigning are clear: 1) To not inconvenience IBM, and 2) to stand by his principles. His comments about IIPM, an institute whose claims were first exposed by Rashmi Bansal's JAM magazine, brought him a lawsuit but no refutation of the points he made. If there was a civil way of conducting this then-potentially embarrassing business, it was through a study of facts. This route would have been less forceful than the one eventually chosen.

Bansal found herself inundated with crass messages from overnight blogs before her readers began to weigh in their support. The offensive comments ventured nowhere near fact, preferring instead to silence her through fear. The threat to burn laptops was another intimidating measure to enforce silence, and there are some victory celebrations now that Sabnis has resigned. That is a misinterpretation because Sabnis left in support of his ideas, and has found favour widely for his behavior in this matter. The alternative, to remain quiet and withdraw his opinion, would have been easier and understandable given the stakes involved. But the only way to keep speech free is to defend it, and his departure is part of that defense.

So this is an offensive to suppress truth and a dissenting voice. It is not surprising but always worrying that people choose this path. And so, further and further we slip into ignorance, not knowing the truth, not given access to facts that are our right to know because they are buried. However, the events of the last few weeks have been recorded, for posterity and easy access, as well as the aggressive manner in which the IIPM has approached argument, and the support Bansal and Sabnis have found from friends and advocates of free thought and speech. The IIPM's conduct has been despicable, for if they have not told the truth people have suffered to find their efforts and investments coming to little, and if they have not lied, their handling of this situation has been in poor taste. The internet is perhaps the last place where free speech is understood, respected and appreciated, and is a place beyond the reach of IIPM's marketing clout. If mainstream media raises the issue of speech and truth and moves on, as it must, an archive of these happenings will remain here. That these words exist at all, that this dissent is there for all to see easily, is a significant win for those who speak freely and truthfully.

Give Bansal and Sabnis all the support you can. We all need it.

A wide range of supportive opinions are to be found on India Uncut, Kitabkhana, and Desi Pundit.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Trippin' on books

Today I decided to visit the Asiatic library. I had seen it for many years, from the time I didn't know what libraries were about. Only upon entering it did I realise how vast it was. The ceiling was high above the tallest cabinets and the common area was so wide, I had to cover five or six subjects before I got from one end to the other. Rows of tables were surrounded by books on physics, computers, literature. There were shelves filled with encyclopedias about Islamic history, music, general topics, medicine, and other things. Impressively new books lined the entrance in glass cabinets marked 'For display only' - a way of communicating that they weren't stuffy, they had it all.

I asked a librarian about old books, very old books, say, first-person accounts of life in...

"They're over there," he said, pointing at a large doorway before I could finish. "But for members only."

The members-only area was where elderly Parsi gentlemen sat over cups of tea and discussed misfortune on leather couches. Busts stood guard occasionally, stern English figures gone decades ago. This was, however, only the common room in the members' section - a large hall which connected to the other rooms. One wall was lined with metal filing cabinets that noted the author or the topic. And this was it, apparently. There were no librarians, just filing cabinets to help you find your way around. A bit disconcerting if you think about it, especially when the secretary (of the library, as opposed to Miss Paulomi, who takes notes and files her nails all day) says to you 'we've got everything,' with an emphasis on everything. Everything? I ask, mouth slightly agape. Everything, he repeats, shutting his eyes in conclusion.

The shelves are dusty, and I find (to my delight) that books such as 'Two days in Cairo' or 'A journey into the interiors of Africa' have very few spellbound. I remove one such and it nearly falls apart, its glue having lost its stickiness. The pages are brown, with a darker brown creeping across words on some pages, and dust flies up when I flip through the book. There are shelves and more shelves full of these books. Shelves that will need a ladder, shelves that will take years to explore. I decide to join this library.

But wouldn't you know it, there's a catch. Two members have to testify for your character. Normally this would not be a problem, but someone has recently been caught walking away with pages torn from a valuable book, and the people who testified for him are now in soup. After approaching several visitors, two, the secretary and an eccentric swami, vouch for my standard of writing without knowing me. I thank them and am about to pull my hand away and leave when the swami squeezes my hand and orders me to follow him. What follows is a tour suited to a Manhattan office in speed as we climb down spiral stairs into the 'godown' - "Manuscripts, old old books, very old books, microfilm, binding room, tremendous old books here." - bounce back up and into the study area where I am introduced to researchers, and through another cavernous hall before entering the newspaper area where, I cannot help notice with some glee, stands an enormous bookshelf titled 'Travel'.

All the books I cannot have and have yet looked for, and a number of books I don't know yet that I will eventually need, are all here.

I don't know. This place, Bombay, has suddenly begun looking good again.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Inverted city

There is a city, a quiet city, where the streets are empty and the only sign of life is from passing cars and dogs steering cleer of them. Driving here, unlike in most cities, is a pleasure because no one tails you or honks impatiently. The space has everything to do with it. The faster you travel, the shorter the distance. The slower you travel, the longer it is, and you feel every bump beneath, too. This is also related to the fact that there is no state-run bus to clog the lanes or taxi and rickshaw (again, state-run) to swerve nonchalantly into your path. So the roads are clear. What about the people?

Well, there are few people visible. They stay out of each other's way for the space they have is a precious thing. In physical terms, your space is space - the area you occupy. Expanding it, your space is the place you carry with you to think, to react, to initiate. You can see it around the people of this city. Because of this, in a sense, the lack of a crowd highlights the individual. It seems the right way to look at people. Not a crowd, not a mob, not a teeming mass, but individuals. We are primed to take in crowds; it is a way to not be overwhelmed by so many individuals at once.

I'm not one for crowds. Well, sometimes. When they aren't being too jostly and getting in the way. But we all seem to be getting in the path of somebody without knowing it most of the time. So you could be irritated or apologetic. You could even be indifferent, but let's see how long that lasts. But with no crowds about, as in the quiet city, there is a feeling bigger than the instant obvious freedom: that of a freedom of expression. It is a blank canvas that stretches as far as you can see.

And so it is with some cities. When the clutter is removed, you see it for what it is. There's even optimism that by cleaning it up, by removing the clutter, you can make it even better this time. To see this city, the one that leaves you with hope and cheer, drive about Bombay at four in the morning.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A movie that moves you

The Transporter II.

It's not everybody's preference, but silent men who hide danger beneath a suit and practice martial arts and drive a shiny Audi past bullets without even a touch make for a really fun movie. Plus there's this evil woman in her underwear who fires machine guns. Then there's the unbelievable plot - a deadly virus, etc. - a villain who, we are made to understand very early, is an ultimate fighting machine, a car leaping off a parking high-rise onto another building, a crashed learjet, an underwater fight, a massive black killing machine who is smothered by a falling boat - oops, I'm not giving away the plot, am I? Well, lies told often enough become the truth, and so it is with unbelievable things. Everything starts to make sense. A chandelier hook a deadly weapon? Sure! A car flies upside down to detach a bomb stuck below it? It's really possible, see? It's that kind of movie. Stepping out of the theater is anti-climactic. There are no chase scenes, no gun fights, everything's just too...usual.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Choice of life

The choice of life is between a good one and a hard one. The two aren't necessarily different, but in this case... it's better if I explain. A good life means a comfortable life with a decent apartment, a compact Camry, maybe even a motorbike with a top speed of 240kph. It'll mean having a wine collection, something I've wanted for ages, a large library, wonderful cookbooks that are forever open in a large open kitchen that's seperated from the living room by a table. That kind of kitchen, in that kind of house, in that kind of life. You get, monseiur? It is a life of few blemishes. Those are hidden by the comforting touch of finance, that wonderful friend, that first - and last - resort. The only certainty in a world of... you know the rest. Why bother you with that? Of course this will signify a shift. A shift in homes, countries, and the most challenging move of all - in the mind. I suppose it's easy to consider those steps as an unselfish gesture, committed purely for the noble intent of caring for those strangers I've never met but who burden me with the thought of their presence - a young family. You want Yale? No problem. That ring, love? It's yours. How about a month in Turkey, then? Who's up for that?

But it doesn't all flow that way, does it? What I'm worrying for, if you haven't figured it out, is myself. The idea is to be someone, to rise and rise in every way possible. To be among people but to soar. I suppose there's always weed for that but it isn't really my scene. It makes my head spin. It's a life within reach, always tempting, always whispering seductive things to encouraging ears. The way I see it, this is how it works: there's a part, I think it's the brain, that says, "Go on, mate, leave this place, go away somewhere, make a living, be somewhere where the taxes and petrol are cheap, and you don't have to worry about books or wines." And then there's the voice of conscience, the broken voice of the hard life that says, "Money, money, money is all you ever think about and you will be happy but will you be happy knowing that you could have done something but didn't, and instead followed a family into the life of safety and security, where paunches grow behind jingling cash registers while wives stay at home? Will you resist the certainties of money and grudgingly accept the insincerity of life? It's a bitch, mate, I know, and it's also a path of ruin, but it's really worth it. Think about it. When the make a family tree, they'll have a special mention for you: The guy who did it differently. Of course you might just die anonymously in a cardboard box somewhere. And there may be no family tree."

So this is what I'm up against. What's the hard life like? Well, it's a pain, really. Bombay's hard, for instance. Everything's hard. Watching the road look different everyday is hard. The lights going out is hard. The water going out is hard. For some reason I've stopped buying into that 'but there are so many people worse off than you' argument. It's rather pointless, I think. Don't you? The point is, when I'm feeling miserable I'm not thinking about anyone else. It's my personal misery. Dammit, you'd think this is the one thing you'd have to yourself, but no, apparently this needs to be cut up into neat slices and passed around too. Everyone gets a bit.

Where was I? The good life or the hard life. The good life might be hard to take in a different way. Say I take it up, and work at it for 25 years, will I sit back and think 'my god, you oaf, just what were you thinking at 25? Why the, you sod, why the hell didn't you take the hard life?' What makes it harder is when I think of the hard life, I think of Indian women in ethnic skirts. It's like this, and this might be a madness of sorts, but hey, you don't come here to subscribe to sanity do you? Do you? Anyway, it's like this: in my mind, women in ethnic skirts are dusky, wearing bronze necklaces and bracelets from different cultures, they are 'in touch' with themselves, and because they are in touch with themselves, they look beyond money and a fancy toaster. For a few years now I've had a woman in an ethnic skirt on my shoulder where an angel or devil should be. She's my financial and spiritual adviser. Oh don't look like that. Everyone's got one. I'm sure of it.

On the other hand, she could be absolutely wrong. You know, the path with good intentions, and I know where that leads. So it's a funny thing to be caught in. Knowing your options are open but being paralysed by choice. I read somewhere that instant decisions are best not left to the democratic process. It feels that way a bit at the moment. Too many voices, too many choices. I have to make this decision soon. It feels odd to stand at a crossroad.