Friday, May 28, 2004

It Happened One Saturday

When Richard Bach wrote, “Did you ever feel that you were missing someone you had never met?” he was probably talking about Nikhil. Nikhil was yet to meet her, but he was obsessed with her voice and he missed her all the time. He even heard it in his dreams. It had a peculiar feel-good quality about it that reminded him of lazy afternoons spent rowing on the Schuylkill when the winter chill was beginning to give way to a soft spring breeze, and listening to Kenny G's haunting The Moment on his cherished Discman. Yes, it had only taken a moment for him to fall hopelessly in love with her lovely voice.

It had all begun a week ago, when Nikhil -- Nick to his American friends -- had called a local information agency for the telephone numbers of art dealers in the city. Being a native of Philadelphia, and new to Trenton, New Jersey -- a struggling part-time artist dreaming of being the next Picasso, when he wasn't designing tedious ads for shampoos and health insurance -- he wasn't yet quite aware of the ins-an-outs of the so-called 'art scene' in the city. The lilting notes of her “May I help you?” still rang in his ears and often drove him to desperation. From the moment he heard her voice, he somehow knew his life would never be the same again. In fact, it took him some time to recall why he had called the information agency in the first place. Oh yes! The art dealer! Could she give him the numbers of any? Her honeyed voice told him to hold on. What? Nikhil mused to himself -- the receiver, his heart, or his raging hormones! She was back on the line soon, telling him that the information search would take some time and that, if Nikhil left his number with her, she could call him back soon with the necessary information. Nikhil was overjoyed, not because he would get a list of the numbers of half a dozen pretentious and shady art dealers, but because it would give him another opportunity to talk to her. He graciously acceded to her request and gave her his number.

Each minute seemed like eternity as he waited for her call. He remembered every syllable of the two sentences they had exchanged -- the endearing lisp in the way she pronounced her 't's, her long-drawn almost-British pronunciation of 'call'… He was glad it was a Saturday, otherwise…


He grabbed the receiver on the first ring, more frantic than the proverbial drowning man clutching at a piece of straw, only to realise that it was his sister calling from Atlanta. He hardly listened to her weekly account of the escapades of her two toddlers and her complaints against Nikhil's Italian-American brother-in-law, Paolo, and quickly put an end to the conversation. He grabbed a chilled beer from the fridge, whistling 'Hello, is it me you're looking for…' and flicked through all the television channels before settling on his perennial favourite Casablanca. But, on that strange-lovely Saturday afternoon, Rick's antics couldn't allay Nikhil's restlessness. Nikhil tried to picture the woman with the lovely voice. He imagined that if she had beautiful eyes he would be able to drown in, and concluded that she must. Nikhil merely wished, and love -- or whatever it was that he was feeling -- provided the logic: if her voice had a depth that touched his soul, her eyes must have depths he would take a million years to fathom. He thought that if she had long satiny hair, he could weave his fingers through to pull her closer…

And then the phone rang again, jolting Nikhil out of his romantic reverie! It was the information agency all right, only this time it was a male voice giving the relevant information. Hesitantly, Nikhil asked, “What about the lady who spoke to me earlier? I would like to thank her for the prompt service.”

“Oh, she went off duty just now and transferred charge to me. Anyway, I shall be glad to pass on the message.”

The male voice hung up before Nikhil could even gather his senses to realise he should have asked her name. He hit himself on the head with the rolled-up edition of the thick weekend paper -- what an anticlimax!

Now another Saturday was just a day away and, in the preceding week, Nikhil had called the information agency at least twenty times every day, at different times. But all his calls had been futile… she had not answered his call even once! Nikhil, meanwhile, had accumulated information on all the pizzerias that delivered for free (bravo, capitalism!), a list of all the plumbers in his area, doctors he could contact in case he developed enteric diarrhoea, and more bizarre bits of information about the city he had recently made his home. Nikhil was fast running out of questions to ask the agency and his phone bill was also steadily skyrocketing!

Nikhil was feeling frustrated, and, all the time, her voice asking, “May I help you?” echoed in his ears. Of course you can help me, he mused to himself, just pick up the goddamn phone one more time and all will be right with my world. He was absentmindedly humming 'Hello is it me you're looking for…' -- he cursed the woman next door who kept singing the song at all hours of the day and got the cheesy tune stuck in his head -- as he ran up the two flights of stairs up to his apartment, his Chinese takeaway dinner in one hand and his mail in the other. He was trying to read the sender's address on the topmost letter in the pathetic light of the stairs when he collided with his Lionel Richie-loving neighbour on the landing! He had met her a few times during his two months of stay in the apartment, and all he remembered of her was her weird dress sense -- one of those flowery shirt, flowing skirt, chunky boots, women's libber types – definitely not his type, Nikhil had thought. But, even against his will, he had to admit each time he saw her that she did have beautiful smoky blue eyes. And he had been mildly surprised when he had discovered that her taste in music was very similar to his because, living next door to her, he could hear the music that she listened to when she came home late at night and hummed along with the CD that she played. During one of their rare conversations at a pre-Christmas party in his apartment block, she had told him that she was a budding singer, trying to make it big on Broadway. Nikhil admitted to himself that the girl really could sing! On lonely nights, Nikhil actually looked forward to her returning home -- it was a kind of a vicarious companionship, he thought. But now, she -- wasn't her name Amanda? -- was looking at him in a far from companionable way because the folder she had been carrying had slipped out of her hands and the papers were strewn all over the landing!

Nikhil mentally cursed her, why couldn't she have taken the elevator? He offered sheepishly anyway, as the woman continued to glare at him, “Oh, hi! And… er, sorry. I didn't see you… er, good to see you again. Let me help…”

“It's ok. Sorry, I'm late, gotta run.” She quickly gathered her papers, gave a cursory nod in his direction and rushed down the stairs.

Nikhil resignedly made his way upstairs to his apartment and read through his mail, while finishing his garlic prawns and spicy Singapore noodles. Sated after a delicious meal, Nikhil's mind drifted back to the voice he had fallen in love with. He had fantasised about her and pined for her throughout the past week, and now he pondered over what she might be doing at that moment. He wondered if she was at home, curled up on a couch watching endless reruns of Friends or if she was out at some happening Salsa club in her Friday night finery, dancing the night away with friends, or maybe she was ensconced in someone's arms… Nikhil steered his thoughts away from that direction. He wondered about his madness -- obsession with a woman he had only spoken to once -- an obsession that led him to doodle for endless hours when he should have been working on the layout of the epilator ad, an obsession that led him to scan faces in the crowd to see if she was out there, an obsession that made him miss her all the time. Nikhil reasoned, if people could fall in love over the Net without ever having seen each other, his obsession, too, was not unusual. Yes, a little like The Truth about Cats and Dogs but, hey, didn't real life sometimes surpass reel life in terms of strangeness? Of course, he would eventually forget about 'the voice'. But Love never bows down to Reason, and so Nikhil couldn't stop himself from picking up the receiver and dialling the by-now-all-too-familiar number again…

“Good evening! How may I help you?”

It was her! For almost a minute, Nikhil sat transfixed. He didn't know what to say. Then, he volunteered a meagre, “Hi.”

“Yes?” she persisted.

“Er… I called last Saturday and… oh, you were so helpful and… I wanted to thank you.” Nikhil was blabbering like a prize idiot. Gone was all the charisma he was famous for among his female acquaintances.

“My pleasure, sir. How can I help you today?” -- the same endearing lisp in the way she pronounced 't', the same long-drawn pronunciation of words… Nikhil was lost once again. It took him a while to get his voice back.

“Uh… I need a shrink.” Nikhil was shocked to hear himself say those words, but now that those words were out, he realised he had to make the best of it.

“You mean a psychiatrist?” she asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

“Yes… I mean no… dammit! I've fallen in love with your voice and I can't seem to bloody forget your 'May I help you?'s. I'm Nikhil. I'm 27, single, a graphic designer and a budding artist, a pleasant guy, I believe, and I don't care a damn if you look like Marilyn Manson's ugly sister on a good day, or if you are married with six kids, but would you go out with me and put me out of the misery of thinking about you all through the bloody day?”

A long silence at the other end… Nikhil had never imagined silence could be so eloquent and could have so many meanings… until now! Breathless from his impromptu speech and a trifle overwhelmed by his own heroism (!), Nikhil counted the seconds. And then…

“Nick, you haven't a clue who I am, do you?” she asked, a sad note creeping into her voice.

Nikhil was expecting her to use a few choice words describing him as the lowliest of men; or an adventurous 'yes', she would go out with him -- but this was totally out of the blue! Know her? Hell, how was he supposed to know a disembodied voice?

“Er… I don't know… should I?” Nikhil blurted out, searching in his mind -- rummaging through the archives of his experiences with women -- and there had been many, but he couldn't match a face with 'the voice'.

And then he knew… he knew for sure as she softly hummed into his ears 'Hello, is it me you're looking for?' As the honeyed notes of her voice plumbed the depths of his senses, Nikhil felt a sense of inner calm, a sense of peace at the end of a harrowing journey -- as though he had found the woman who would complete him. He closed his eyes and listened as she sang to him and then…

“I think I'm falling in love with you, Amanda. Why don't we try to make some music together… not on the opposite sides of a wall? I know I could spend a lifetime just listening to you sing 'I Will Always Love You' like I have almost every night for the last two months.” Nikhil implored passionately.

“Nick, I'd love to,” Amanda replied simply.

We started Nikhil's story with him thinking of Richard Bach, so it's only fair to let Nikhil and Amanda end their story conjuring up Bach again: “We're the bridge across forever, arching above the sea, adventuring for our pleasure, living mysteries for the fun of it, choosing disasters, triumphs, challenges, impossible odds, testing ourselves over and again, learning love and love and love!”

Pages from a Diary

'It's terrible. I grow lean
in loneliness,
like a water lily
gnawed by a beetle.'[i]

Saturday, August 4: Sometimes we meet a stranger -- just another ship in the ocean of life -- and we feel a strange connection. I felt that way. He came into my life, when I was tired of fighting my battles on my own and I wished there were somebody I could share everything with. He struck a chord somewhere in my heart and, even before I knew what was happening to me, I had fallen in love with him. He shared my values and convictions (or so it had seemed) and now, as always, I am left wondering what could have been. I had been in my little romantic dreamland -- dreaming of reading 'The Bridge Across Forever' in bed with him, laughing over Jeeve's antics together, holding hands with him at 'Lord of the Rings', learning to make 'kheer' because he likes it, looking forward to him picking me up from work in the evenings, falling asleep and waking up in his arms, holidays in the mountains cuddling with him, walking along the beach with the waves kissing our feet, long drives always ending with kisses...

Bipasha shook herself out of a self-destructive reverie. I will go to pieces if I keep thinking about him, she chided herself. He is never going to be mine, no matter how many nights I spend crying over him, she tried to reason with herself. He never was mine in the first place. I thought it would be different this time -- but it never is, is it? Oh well, she told herself, life has to go on and I'll just have to pick up the pieces and move on -- as always. It is hard pretending to the world I'm fine when my heart is breaking and I feel like crying my eyes out. Acting nonchalant and saying 'plenty of fish in the sea' was easy, but you still don't stop pining for the fish that slipped out of the net… life was so unfair!

'Your love seemed to last even longer
than time itself. Now you wave your hand –
And suddenly your love for me is over!
That is the truth in five words!'[ii]

Thursday, October 4: Why did I have to fall in love with him? Why do I get caught in this vicious circle of love and loss -- again and again? He never promised me anything, he never committed anything. And yet, I dreamt of a whole future for us. Every time I think this is IT, I've found my Mr. Right, everything crashes like a house of cards. I've had enough heartbreaks and enough 'Can we be friends?' to last me a lifetime.

Bipasha's eyes filled with tears as she remembered. She had subconsciously known, from the day they had met, that their relationship spelt doom. Yet, she couldn't help falling in love with him. She had reproached herself, again and again, in her diary, for being aware of the impending disaster, yet plunging headlong towards it. He had told her how conservative his family was -- Tamil Iyers -- who wouldn't even dream of letting a Bengali daughter-in-law darken their door. “She is not a Brahmin and she eats fish, for Gods' sake,” his father had thundered! Oh well…

Wednesday, January 23: It's a new year, a time to forget the past and move on. Sometimes life just 'seems' so perfect -- my love whispering 'I love you' in my ear and covering me with kisses, and then... come back to the real world with a thud!

Bipasha flicked the page, smiling sadly. She remembered that evening like it was yesterday. That magical drive with him to Mysore -- a starry night and that long road ahead -- empty apart from the two of them. Walking around the gorgeous palace in Mysore during the day, they had been lost in each other, seeing everything with unseeing eyes, their whole world centred on holding each other's hand, as if in a silent promise -- I'll never let you go. On the journey home in his golden car, the one he was so proud of and spent almost all his spare time making a fuss over, there was the soft whisper of the chilly December wind, otherwise silence. They were lost in their own world, willing that the night would stretch ahead of them forever. She had come alive in his arms that evening. It was like a homecoming -- the warmth reassured her, his kisses fired her imagination, his every caress, his every word etched in her mind for always. And, she had thought…

'I like my body when it is with your
body. It is quite so new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
I like your body. I like what it does,
I like its hows.'[iii]

Bipasha sighed and went back to her diary…

Wednesday, March 7: 'Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.' He wrote that to me today, telling me not to cry, to read and reflect. This was the first time he said in so many words that it was over. I've been such a fool, as naïve as ever, building my own castle of dreams. And now he's gone -- away from me, away from my life -- being a realist, doing his family's bidding -- marrying a 24-year-old nice Tamil Brahmin girl his parents chose for him.

Bipasha mused to herself, whoever had said 'It's better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all' had probably never been in love. How else do I explain the tears that sting my eyes whenever I think of him, she thought. What is love?

Tuesday, March 13: To me, love is waiting for him to come home to me for lunch. Looking at my watch and wondering what he's doing. Going to a wedding and dreaming how ours would be. Cuddling a baby and wishing it was ours. Calling him up to talk to him and then just revelling in the sound of his voice. Flipping through South Indian recipe books, trying to learn to make 'avial'. This could go on and on -- I wish I knew what he's thinking now…

Bipasha shut her diary and promised herself -- I'm not going to wallow in self-pity anymore. How easily men move on, leaving us to pick up the pieces! I loved and trusted him too much, she told herself, and he just never measured up. He just walked out of my life without even a goodbye, without even a backward glance to see if I would pull through. My tears just keep pouring and writing in my diary is catharsis for me -- a means of flushing out all the pent-up pain and anger. I miss you my darling, I miss you very, very much. I just want you to know, wherever you are, that you made me very happy for a little while. And I wish you all the happiness in the world … pity I will never be able to share it with you…

[i]Kaccipettu Nannakaiyar, translated by A.K. Ramanujan
[ii]Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by Elaine Feinstein
[iii]e.e. Cummings

Disclaimer: This story is a complete figment of my imagination, it's not based on any individual's personal experiences.

Woman and her Body

Woman and Her Body

Women, as we all know, have been subject to the male gaze from time immemorial and, most of the time, when she has been molested or otherwise sexually harassed, she has been blamed for having either dressed provocatively or having encouraged the man somehow. As the British politician, Nancy Astor, had once remarked, “I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance, he laid the blame on a woman!” If provocative dressing is the reason in most cases, how then can one explain why when a Caucasian American friend of mine walked down Connaught Place in Delhi, on a September evening, dressed from neck to toe in her newly-bought full-sleeved salwar kameez with a dupatta covering her chest, two men brushed past her, touching her where they shouldn't have? She felt, quite naturally, violated and the questions she posed to me later embarrassed me. Is this how men in urban India behave on the streets? Cop a feel when they get a chance? How could I tell her that women in India grow up building up their defences against incidents like that? That, on our way to school and college, we learn to cope with wayward groping hands? I didn't have an answer to her query -- was it because India is a sexually repressed country, that no woman is secure on the streets on her own? I wondered, we belong to the land of Vatsayana, so are we a sexually repressed country? Or is it that we project such an image since we stick to the good old Indian habit of sweeping everything under the carpet! Anyway, I would desist from flogging a dead horse, enough has been written on incidents like this already.

On the other hand, I do believe that sometimes women do invite trouble through the way they dress. For those who have been away from India for a while, they would probably be quite taken aback by the way page 3 women dress here today -- imagine model Sushma Reddy in a completely backless handkerchief top gracing the cover of Bombay Times or Czech-born model Yana Gupta in a gold-sequined micro-bikini and you get the drift. It's ok for these 'celebrities' to dress the way they do because they constantly have flunkeys in attendance to look after their security and well-being. Besides, whether you wish to display your body or not is your choice, after all, we belong to the 'If you've got it, flaunt it' generation. The trouble starts when the hoi polloi decides to ape their 'style' -- they become fair game for compulsive eve-teasers (if such a genre exists). Much as we harp on women owning their own bodies and their right to display them if they wished to do so, society doesn't seem to have matured enough to be able to cope with such ideas.

Why I Am A Feminist

The firebrands of the second wave of feminism have mellowed and some noted feminists have even begun to see feminism as an anachronism in the 21st century. With this somewhat surprising backlash, whither art thou headed, Feminism? Although, in recent years, 'feminism' has been ridden with a miasma of contradictions and has received a sizeable amount of bad press, I am still proud to say that I am a feminist. Not because it is still fashionable in India to proclaim oneself as one, but because there is still an enormous amount that educated women like us need to do to improve the lot of less-privileged Indian women. Consequently, in my opinion, 'Feminism RIP' is still a long way off.

Contrary to current contentions that feminists are relics fighting a war that has already been won, feminism in India still has miles to go. One need only consider simple statistics to be assured that that indeed is the case. India is still the country with the lowest average age for marriage -- 14.5 years for females, as recent as in 1998. The sex ratio in India (excluding Kerala) is 927 women to every 1000 men, as against the international sex ratio average of 950 at present. The sex ratio has declined from 972 in 1901 to an appalling 927 in 1991, the primary reasons behind which are female foeticide and infant deaths (again, chiefly due to the preferential treatment of male children in early infancy). The significant difference in the literacy rates between men and women is also a clear indicator of the negligence accorded to the education of girl children in the country. According to the 1991 census, the literacy rate for Indian males is 64.13% while that of females is 39.29%. In Indian society, it is still the woman who is perceived as the primary caregiver within a family, and it is essentially the mother who teaches children the basic values of life. Thus, in the Indian context, the facilitation of the education of women is definitely a necessity, especially with regard to sanitation, hygiene, family planning, childcare etc. The situation of women in the rural areas is much worse -- for example, in rural Bihar, the female literacy rate is as low as 17.95%!

These dismal statistics emphatically confirm the fact that it isn't time yet to compose an epitaph for feminism. As long as domestic violence against women persists, as long as female foeticide continues, as long as dowry deaths and child marriages in India go on, as long as marital rape remains a reality, as long as sexual harassment in the workplace continues, I will remain a committed feminist. In my perception, feminism is an extension of humanism -- the ability to sympathise with the lot of the less fortunate and to attempt to alleviate their sufferings in any way possible. The Norwegian critic, Toril Moi had commented about Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex -- “[it] helps me to remember that the aim of feminism is to abolish itself.” Let us, then, hope that our daughters will live in an ideal India where they would be enjoying the fruit of our struggles, so that there wouldn't be a need for any 'feminists' or any kind of 'feminism' to exist. Let Janis Joplin's words be a beacon to the women of today and the generations to come -- “Don't compromise yourself. You are all you've got.”

Vernon God Little

I started DBC Pierre's Booker-winning book with a lot of expectation. I had been meaning to read it for a while but got around to reading it only over last weekend. It reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye but that's obvious, considering both are the ramblings of a hormone-tormented adolescent boy. Anyway, our hero, Vernon, is implicated as an accessory to the shooting of his classmates by his best friend, Jesus. Remember Columbine? Somehow, the chilling reality of the killings never comes across, the reader is too caught up in following Vernon's preoccupation of being made the "skate-goat," his frustration at the twisted "powerdimes" of the adults around him, the unrequited lust he feels for Taylor Figueroa in her bikini briefs. Vernon is a "f*cken" unlucky guy, he gets caught everytime he tries to escape and finds himself in the most disastrous of situations, which reinforce his Texas hometown's belief that he is a wayward boy! So, we follow the 16-year-old Vernon's escapades - resorting to blackmail to fund his escape to Mexico, meeting Taylor in Houston, hiding out in a beach house Mexico, being caught and finally, his trial. I won't give away the ending. Read the book because, although it starts a little slow, it picks up momentum and halfway through the book, you can't put it down! A moving first novel. A line from the book that will stay with me: "You're the God. Take responsibility. Exercise your power." Only you can shape your own destiny!

Thursday, May 27, 2004

On reading Jhumpa Lahiri's story in "The New Yorker"

I read Jhumpa Lahiri's latest offering here:

My comment will probably stick out like a sore thumb, considering the fact that it was published in such a prestigious publication, but really, I'm sick of this kind of pandering-to-the-diaspora fiction. To me, this story came across as a conglomeration of cultural cliches. I mean, please, there's so much more to write about than quaint stories about Bengalis eating fish and rice (read Amit Chaudhuri and you'll know what I mean!) and not assimilating with American culture. That's what "Interpreter of Maladies" was all about (someone please tell me why she won a Pulitzer for that - was it just because she was at Columbia herself?). She's been there done that, time to move on but we continue to get the same rehashed stuff from her. This is a theme that has pervaded literature for yonks. There's absolutely nothing remotely novel or interesting about it anymore. I'm not denying the boredom of the educated Indian housewife, or an educated woman who is a homemaker anywhere in the world. If you read Marilyn French's "The Women's Room," a cult book at one point of time, since French highlighted the boredom of the 60s American suburban housewife, you get the same theme. Or Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique", which was instrumental in giving the women's liberation movement a voice, since she elaborated on the same subject, but with data to support her argument. What's the point in being a writer if you are afraid to explore new vistas, if you just want to stick to the tried and tested path just because you've got some amount of success in that? There's more to the world than her miniscule NRI Bengali society and its insignificant little trials and travails. Yes, they work well in reaching out to the Western reader (economics largely determines "literature" these days) but it won't survive the passage of time. As I said before pandering-to-the-diaspora stories are just that, not really worth anything much in the long run.

I mean, I used to think Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni was the pits but Jhumpa seems to have set her mind to winning the award for presenting us with reheated curry dinners. Someone needs to tell her that reheated meals gradually lose their taste! I just couldn't appreciate the story because I've read similar ones about 20 times over in the past. Read the 80s Bharati Mukherjee, you'll find the same story, told in much more interesting ways.

PS: Don't waste your money on "The Namesake", if you haven't bought it yet!