Friday, May 27, 2005

Madness is Hereditary

In March this year, Mom and Dad celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. To those who say marriage is a great institution, this makes it plain just how long these good folks have been institutionalized. But before you get scandalized at this cavalier joke at my parents’ expense, let me state that it is directly through them that I have inherited this streak of humor.
What I didn’t inherit, in an instance of the cruelty so rampant in nature, is their good looks. My parents are both tall, graceful and relentlessly well turned out. They have oodles of charisma, are frighteningly well informed and can charm the socks off most people they have just met. They never smell bad. They each look about a decade younger than their actual age. Several of my friends, upon seeing their wedding photograph on the dining room mantle and the real-life versions, have turned to me and said, “What happened to you?”
One might get the impression, having perused this list of their charms, that they are those distant, slightly icy variety of parents who leave their kids growing up lonely and bitter about their own self-worth. (I achieved that all on my own, thank you.) Far from it. They are as capable of being warm and fuzzy as the next set of parents. Towards each other, they are mostly just fuzzy. Let me illustrate. The scene at the table is often a variant of the following. Father: Some idiot behind me wouldn’t stop honking today. Mother: Oh no! I forgot to buy cucumbers!
Father: I wanted to get out and hit him. Mother: Hm? No, I thought the vegetable boy was quite sweet, actually.
My sister and I are listening, enraptured. Their conversation continues, in an easy, enviable flow. After several minutes of this, we give in to laughter.
Father: What’s the joke? Mother: What’s the joke?
Ah! Convergence! My sister and I applaud. Now the parents just look confused, interrupted as they are during a meaningful exchange of ideas.
Oh well. I suppose that’s what happens. Eventually, they converge. (Thankfully, they disprove the theory that after a certain number of years, spouses start to resemble each other. Scary thought, that.) As with all parents, they have their quirks: Dad is fond of saying that madness is hereditary, you get it from your kids; and if I so much as boil an egg, Mom will issue an itemized list of instructions.
But at the end of the day, they’re there. We once gave them a wedding anniversary card that likened them to being the only matched pair of socks in the entire load of clothes in the washing machine.
Somehow, that is an appropriate simile.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Fride Chicken and other wisdom

India is a rich source for those individuals looking to bring out a book comprised solely of funny signboards seen all around this great country. People like me, for instance. Okay, okay, so it was my father’s idea. But if your progeny doesn’t have a right to steal your intellectual property, who does? (I have, on various occasions, helped myself to my father’s socks, his cologne, pencils, sweaters, and tequila. Etc.)
Anyway, they are everywhere. The signboards, I mean. You will soon start to appreciate the Indian ingenuity in conveying messages in the Queen’s language with such flair as to transform it altogether.
Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that to always spell a word the same way means that you lack imagination? Apparently we are a nation overflowing with the stuff. How else would you explain “Chines Food”, “Chinees Food,” “Chinnes Food,” and, doing away with the bother and complication, “China Food”? Or, not wanting to go exotic, maybe you would like some simple “Fride Chicken.”
For those who have suffered untold headaches and red eyes whilst driving behind those yellow and black three-wheeled nightmares we fondly call “Autos”, you have no doubt read those signs at the back saying primly, (displaying a fine sense of irony) “Please Do Not Pollut the Air.”
If you have a big house with beautiful pristine walls, of course you don’t want them spoiled. So what do you do? One family hit upon an idea. They scrawled, in red paint, right across the wall, “Do Not Urinate.”
What? Not ever? Not even in my own bathroom???
But even these pale in comparison to one I saw a long time ago on a small shop in Kerala. The black and white painted sign said, simply, “Fresh Chips Real Estate.” Eh? Maybe a missing comma would explain this one? Still, a business which handles such diverse areas as fresh chips and real estate is not to be taken lightly.
And the last, as succinct a piece of advice as “Eat your Vegetables,” I saw this painted on the side of a staircase leading up to a narrow doorway: “Be Careful of Your Head.” Indeed.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Seventeen syllables

Have been fascinated by many things Japanese: the high speed trains, the language, their propensity for eating poisonous fish (think I’m kidding?). I once went to a tea drinking ceremony, which was presided over by a little old lady in a green silk kimono and perfect, toy-like slippers. She used a brush to sort of brew a tea powder in the bottom of a cup, which you accepted with both hands, according to protocol. I took a sip. She asked me what I thought.
My face, in a performance worthy of at least an honorable mention at the Academy Awards, was impassive (pretty sure of this, though don’t have substantive proof). I didn’t say a word. “Ah,” that queenly presence said, in a tone that can only come from someone really old, or Japanese, or both. “You think it is different.”
It actually tasted, to my taste buds, a bit like fish-powder, albeit in a really pretty cup.
Anyhow, to get to the point, it is this: Haiku. Sample the pieces below, by an old master called Basho. (Got these off a website called Read a few books of it earlier, though.)

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

And another one:
No blossoms and no moon,
and he is drinking sake
all alone!

The great and fascinating thing about these poems is that, in the original Japanese haiku, each contains 17 syllables. Inexplicable, yet lovely. (The English ones don't have to follow this rule, because there are too many differences between the two languages.) Here is my pithy offering, inspired by the spirit of being in a free world and anyone being allowed to make as big a fool of themselves as they wish:

the silence between us
sits; tangible
as a bowl of ripe cherries.

many moons ago

A few scratchings from many, many moons ago:

The paper waits for me to speak my mind
for it can see
I have a pen in hand
it wonders what I have to reveal
and I wonder
what I have to hide…

We sailed down our stream
blissful in a paper boat
then came the ocean
we soon found
salt is not kind to paper boats
meant for blissful streams…

And in a tragic instance of self assessment:

So many evenings sat she,
In the prime of youth
Writing awful poetry…
Questions of ignorance
Searching for bliss

Friday, May 20, 2005

A few rantings, and one thing that mystifies me

Here is another random listing, again a work in progress, because, after all, can I help it if are just so many things to rant about? This rather unimaginatively named list is in stark contrast to my “Reasons to Live” series, which usually happens on days when I ingest too much sugar in the mornings and display a rare sunshine-and-daisies side (it does exist, I tell you) of my personality. On all the other days, it’s just plain old rants.

Rant 1: Have you ever read a newspaper article describing an event where so many people were killed, or injured, or whatever? It invariably reads: 20 people, including 2 women, were injured. Huh? So let me get this straight. “People” normally means, you know, men. Thus, if there are women somehow involved in the picture, (which they are, invariably, being such pesky creatures) they must, in keeping with journalistic integrity, be mentioned separately. Right.

Rant 2. When you are walking down the street, sundry men will honk, loudly, even in perfectly stationary traffic. This is presumably to let you know that they appreciate the fact that you are a woman and you are walking down the street; naturally, this historic and rare occurrence must be acknowledged by no less a significant gesture than creating loud noises where completely unnecessary. Maybe you should carry a placard saying, “You are Men, Not Geese. Do Not Honk.”
On the other hand, it also gives you the thrilling chance to look at an assortment of toad-like men leering at you, with or without dark glasses. Oh joy!

Rant 3. Lest these rants be mistaken for a man-hater’s outpourings, here is one about women. Must you show up at the gym with loose flowing hair, glittering lip-gloss, and lingering perfume? Must you giggle and/or pout, or try to baby talk your way out of doing the tough exercises? Or talk incessantly on your pink cell phone while your instructor stands there tapping his toes?

Rant 4. People who launch into a regional language when there are members in the group who do not speak the language. Would this happen if the outsider were, say, an American or French person? I think not. Then why this lack of respect for fellow Indians? This one beats me every time.

And finally, the thing that mystifies me: Why, oh why, is Shakira doing an inchworm impersonation in her latest video, ‘La Tortura’? (Great song, by the way.) It looks suspiciously enough like she has been watching our Hindi movie song and dance routines, and felt a compelling urge to incorporate certain elements into her own work. In any event, she appears in the video coated with what looks like chocolate syrup, singing about torture and having minor but alarming convulsions.
To quote myself, “Eh?”

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The other Florida

There was a commercial I once saw for an airline that was offering special fares to Florida, only $59 for a one-way ticket, in fact. It was January and I was in the depths of a minor snowstorm in Washington, D.C. I still remember how enticing Florida seemed at that moment, like a luscious fruit just out of reach.
But there is another Florida that lives away from the sun-and-alcohol soaked, tanned, glamorous, touristy beach havens that immediately spring to mind. This Florida is in the backwoods and orange groves, in the Everglades, in the neat, spruce downtown of the capital, Tallahassee, in the horse farms in the midst of rolling, misty green woods. It has a quieter soul than the Florida that you see further down south in glossy, body worshipping South Beach and its uber-chic denizens.
Tallahassee is the poster-child for this other identity. There are several buses here painted in lilting fonts of red, white and blue, saying: “Tallahassee- The All America City.” True indeed. There aren’t that many palm trees here, either; the nearest beach is 35 miles away. Little houses with picket fences and quiet roads in the midst of dense woods, old brick churches, and restaurants with “soul food” menus are common. In fact, the trees give Tallahassee a lot of its character and the famous Spanish moss is ubiquitous, especially if you drive down one of its famed ‘canopy’ roads. In March, azaleas bloom everywhere and color the town in their deep and pale pinks.
Drive out of town, and you hit rural Florida. You can find roadside stalls selling jumbo boiled peanuts, peel and eat shrimp, and, of course, oranges: the good old fashioned ones and then some exotic hybrids with names like Tangelo and Ortanique. While we’re still on things to eat, let me say two words: gator meat. I had my taste of it in a quaint wooden fish and shrimp kind of place where I ordered a grouper sandwich. The waitress plunked down a basket of what looked like chicken nuggets, and only later informed me that I’d just had their famous “special” gator, with the chef’s compliments. Oh well.
Then there is Wakulla Springs, the deepest freshwater springs in North America. At twilight here, the mist rises up from the water, and the birds fall silent. The marshes, the still, glassy waters, the resting gators and turtles, and the deep, misty silence make the place look and feel like a postcard from thousands of years ago.
Florida is as much about places like these as the tourist-fuelled beach paradise locales in the south. I was lucky enough to experience both, and I don’t know which I like better.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

He would be King

One fine day he arrived in our home from who knows where, making a dramatic entry by jumping into the courtyard from the wall. This athleticism and general air of mystery made me name him Zorro: he was also somehow quite swashbuckling for a creature with such a scrawny neck. This was quite a small cat, all black, with huge tortoise-shell eyes and enough attitude for a whole gaggle of cats.
He would strut in, waving his tail and generally raising Cain if he wasn’t given the attention and tickling that was so naturally his due. Soon his preferred mode of transport around the house became the crook of my arm, where he sat, regally, and regularly unsheathed his claws if I happened to stop stroking him. He would show up every morning at 6am, bawling shrilly if a bowl of milk wasn’t set out for him. If the cream wasn't thick enough, we would hear about that, too. He also loved chocolate ├ęclairs, and once purloined one right off the table, gurgling smugly afterwards.
He came and went as he pleased, but visited almost daily. If we had guests, he would select one or two at random and proceed to harass them for attention. Why they gave in, we will never know. Still, even we had to admit he was pretty darn cute, especially when he sat in the passageway going to the kitchen: he would strategically position himself so that a single ray of sunshine would slant down on his head and into his eyes, generally making a very photogenic spectacle. And so he stayed with us for some while, we remaining the poor sods who could be relied on to pet, feed, carry, tickle and generally pander to him anytime he so wished.
It was in that passageway that I saw him for the last time. His exit from our lives was a bit more dramatic than the entry. So what happened was that he was strolling down the passage, going off on one his jaunts, when who should he see coming down the opposite direction, but another cat. And not just some cat! This was an exact, but exact, replica of the great Zorro: maybe he wanted to try his luck with us, just like Zorro himself, what with all the cream and fish and other goodies to be had.
The two came to an abrupt halt. If they’d had brakes on their paws, I could have surely heard them squeal. There was a momentary stillness as they faced each other, mirror images staring in stunned horror. The silence was crashing. Then, in one swift motion, I saw two black streaks going down the passageway, jumping over the wall, and they were gone. We never saw either Zorro or his doppelganger again.
Soon after this we had a new member at home- a rather strong-willed German Shepherd puppy. So it was for the best that Zorro quit while he was on top, even if it really wasn’t the kingly exit he might have hoped for.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Nocellphonus Rex

Sometimes I get the curious feeling that I resemble a dinosaur. Not in the sense of the scales and razor teeth (although I have been known to be extremely cranky), but in the sense of being extinct. Or at least, coming really close.
This is because I don’t have one of those things called cell phones. The other day one of my new friends ( he is 19, and thus surgically attached to most electronic gizmos) nearly became the only teenager in history to have a cardiac arrest when he found this out. His eyebrows shot up. He nearly shrieked: “you don’t have a cell phone?” Then, seeing my shamelessly calm response, once again in the negative, he manfully recovered by going back to scratching the dog’s ears.
Other people, even those who are well, well over the teenage mark, probably have the same reaction though they disguise it with pleasant nods. Actually, I had resolved a while ago to get me one of the things. Ok, so maybe resolved is too strong a word. But I did think about it. I even looked obediently at the dozens of manuals and brochures (Cell Phones for Dummies?) that were thrust at me in a subtle display of concern for my unwired, unconnected, uncool state of being.
Two months later, I am still phone-less. I smile beatifically when asked The Question: When Are You Getting One? I tell them I don’t really like talking that much. I don’t like talking when I wake up in the morning. Or before I go to bed. In between, I’m at work so I can’t really talk anyway. Weekends I like to chill out with a book or movie. So when would I call? This argument makes some people look at me strangely, but for those who know me well enough, it is a very feasible reason. They also know that I just don’t like cell phones, in the same way that some people don’t like olives on their pizza toppings.
Possibly the only way I would buy one is to be connected with my family (dysfunctional but in a sort of goofy and entirely predictable way), who live in different parts of the country. Of course I would expect them to call me more often than I called them, but that is understood, since I am in the Non-Returners of Calls Hall of Fame.
And so it goes. I am a testament to the peace and quiet that comes with life minus a cell phone. (Please, I have enough stress anyway. I get stressed if I have to comb my hair more than once a day.) I would probably break my new phone, drop it, lose it, dismember it, or somehow ruin it within a week of possessing it.
No thank you, I say. Even if it makes me feel like a dinosaur.
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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Almost a Mermaid

Never mind if the word ‘snorkeling’ sounds something like a cross between snoring and oh…I don’t know, snarking? Like I said, never mind. If you have never snorkeled, you have missed something, truly. It should be on that list of things to do before you die.
I got my first and only shot at it off the Florida Keys, off Islamorada, to be precise. (Islamorada means “the Purple Isle.” Who wouldn’t want to stay in a place with a name like that?)
As if the drive down from Miami weren’t enough, when you actually get to the Keys you want to scream because everywhere you look, you are in the middle of a fabulous postcard. The water is every shade of blue and green imaginable. The sky is a deep, scorched, spotless blue. The sea and the sky melt into each other, mirror each other and convince you into believing that you are in a blue crystal bowl edged with diamonds.
See what I mean? This is what it is like: you gush and rhapsodize at every given opportunity.
Anyhow, the snorkeling. We had these two guides named Steve and Ed who took us out to sea on an inflatable dinghy, about an hour’s ride. When we got to what seemed like the middle of the ocean, Steve and Ed told us to jump in.
So what if we had life jackets and the other snorkeling things on? I suddenly felt all my hidden terror of deep water resurfacing really fast. To my horror, I couldn’t get out of my seat and sat there staring at Ed. Meanwhile, my companions, two of whom were high-level swimming champions, had dived gracefully into the blue and were swimming around like a school of contented fish. And there I was, going faster up on the dork scale than I would have imagined possible.
Anyway, Ed being a kindly gentleman took pity on me and handed me a yellow rope that I was to hold on to. He took my hand and lowered me gently into the sea. He told me to relax and stick my face into the water. I did.
And then, everything changed. Fear was left behind, as was Ed’s pity-rope. It was as close to being a mermaid as you can imagine, even with the decidedly unglamorous glass facemask and the little breathing tube that sticks out of the water above your head. Fish swirled before me in glorious waves of silver. The sunlight reached through the water, intensifying the crystal bowl experience. It was a melted world of gold, silver, blue and green, with no beginning, no end, nothing but sea creatures and the water, and your own hands in front of you reaching out to maybe try and touch a fish as it flashed by.
There are two pictures of this expedition: in the first one before actually entering the water, my face shows that I am close to terror. The post-snorkeling picture is a different story: we all look like contented mer-folk, brown and smiling like we were, in fact, born in the sea. The smiles stayed on long after we got off the boat. This is what snorkeling does to you.

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