Saturday, November 29, 2014

On going veggie and the eternal indelible moral dilemma

(This is something I have talked and written about way, way too much, but here I am again, for what I hope is the last time. I do love the cartoon.)

It's been over a few years since I turned vegetarian and I seem unable to explain to people why I did it in the first place. I was an animal-lover vegetarian as a kid for some fifteen years, till one day I thought okay, let's try not to be and then I wasn't. My decision to eat non-vegetarian food is completely incomprehensible to me. I ate it on a new year's eve, at a party and I guess it was okay, in the mood. And continuing with it could have been some kind of flocking-together attempt with my then-friends and cousins. We were just out of school and went places, and you know how people are annoyed by vegetarians for having to order a whole separate dish. I don't know.

A year ago, I was reading a book and in it a man snapped the neck of a chicken and it made me sick, and no rational argument in the world that I have offered myself, and my mother, and others kept me from feeling that way. So I stopped. And I haven't once wanted to eat it again. We went to Kerala after, where I didn't eat any seafood, despite all my sister's attempts to make me eat it, and I've even started loving vegetarian pizza, which for me, is a colossal achievement. 

Now, here's my dilemma. A few weeks ago, I was eating egg biryani that someone had brought over, and suddenly I had this mental image of a hundred chickens cooped up in a cage, miserable, ready to be thrown out or killed once out of use. Ugh, it gave me the creeps. I quit eggs. I just couldn't eat them any more without feeling utterly freaked out.

As a once pretty active animal rights advocate (I went for rallies and stuff) I know the suffering of a cow that's milked. I also love milk, butter, chocolate and everything in between. Where do I draw my limit? Because the way things are going, I might soon be a vegan. Or maybe turn into that absurd old neighbour of ours who had an assortment of pets, whose house was infested with cockroaches and pests and who rubbed jaggery on the walls to attract insects. Why not be him? If there is such a thing as too extreme, then the whole facade should collapse.

My father used to say we shouldn't limit our lives, give up new experiences for the title of "humane," because in the end, it is all subjective. The case in point is my mother, who is from a family of pure non-vegetarians. My grandmother used to make the tastiest fish curries and my mother never ate them, because she couldn't bear the thought of eating animals. But she's often told me over the years to not get overly attached to the cats in our neighbourhood, to not pet them, because then I'd be required to give them constant attention, I wouldn't even be able to travel without worrying about them (and that does happen.) 

So, in her world, it's okay to let a hungry stray cat stay hungry instead of adding to our burdens. That it may eventually die of starvation or disease or a fight with another feral is immaterial, because it won't happen before our eyes. She didn't mind circuses, either. They'd taken my sister to one. Even as a kid, I was very disapproving of the fact and refused to go. Eating animals, though, is still out of question for her. This is the limit my mother has drawn for herself. 

So which is mine? Whose suffering can I swallow? The death of a mosquito who may hurt me unless I hurt him, or the calf who is separated from its mother or the cow who wallows in filth and hormone treatments till she is prematurely "culled" (because though we regularly do it, we prefer not to say disposed of or killed.) No argument for or against vegetarianism holds until it makes personal sense to you. And here I am hoping I never feel I have to give up milk, not sure if it'll ever seem too cruel to me, as if I have no control over my feelings. It's idiotic, don't I know it.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


I'm home. And happy. What do I do at home? Nothing, that's the point. Home has always meant this feeling of utter formlessness. It's not laziness per se, even when I work or run errands, the feeling is there. At home I reach this level of comfort that takes me out of my physical self and it's just my head and my thoughts floating around in yellow coloured (my bedroom walls) bliss. I'm a daydreamer and it's back here that I am at my most secure, I feel the safest to disconnect from everything and just, dissolve. I can push away any and every worldly concern and simply become: a swirl of ideas. It doesn't mean that is all I do, but the comfort comes from knowing I can. 

This home, for me, is not about the people. It's not my mother who keeps pestering me to get up already, or my sister. I do love them, but home has to do with the place. The yellow-green-walled, amazingly unprejudiced place that has been a patient collector of my experiences, good and horrible, for twenty two years. It's a connection with the past. It was past-me who survived, and loved and thought a great deal, and who transformed to make this-me happen. But she left a part of her in this room, that is my home. I sound like a hopeless romantic, I  probably am. 

I'm all for change, now. In the words of an awesome friend of mine, change is fixed and constant. And I'm surprised, I actually like it. I have only tiptoed away from my fluttering nothingness, I am well aware of that, but even in those three steps I have discovered a little treasure. But as wise old Terry Pratchett put it,

"The important thing about having lots of things to remember is that you've got to go somewhere afterwards where you can remember them, you see? You've got to stop. You haven't really been anywhere until you've got back home."

Isn't that perfectly true? Home is remembrance. It's Wordsworth's couch.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Once Upon a Bag

I love this bag, I stumbled upon it at a small obscure shop in the heart of Pune. I'm a sucker for nostalgia. That's why I like period dramas so much. In my old cupboard, in a cozy little balcony-turned-room, back home, I have a bagful of memories - trinkets like handmade jewellery, painted stones and shells brought home from beach-trips, photos, notes about and from old crushes and newspaper cut-outs of my favourite stars, among other things. It's my childhood at-a-glance. There's also a small collection of quirky buttons, because I thought stamps and coins were too passé. Then there's the still growing collection of bookmarks. In that cupboard there's another paper bag from when I first went make-up shopping with my sisters and stored in it are all the greeting cards I've ever got. Can you imagine, I have a bunch of friendship bands from way, way back when, pages from sappy old diaries and snippets of fabric cut and saved from favourite old clothes. I was a cheesy kid, awfully romantic. That girl is gone, but like I said, I'm a nostalgimaniac (just made it up) and kind of a closet hoarder. I like to believe objects store memory. And one of my pet hobbies is fantasizing about history.

I'm also a sucker for bags. Not dainty purses, huge - ginormous - bags. I have about ten at the moment, which for someone who rarely steps out of the house to buy stuff, is a lot. My nostaligimania (yes, I love this word) is one of the reasons I bought this bag. It was perfectly wistful, wonderfully odd and just made me want to find out more. (It is chunky but prettier than in the photo.) The bag has earned the strangest of looks, much to my amusement; but it does get quite a few intrigued compliments in college, which make me realize how in-the-right-place I am here. I mean, today at the train station, this guy called me over just to tell me he liked my bag. Cute.

The image is from a painting of St. Catherine of Bologna, the patron saint of artists, an artist herself. I love it when I find surprise connections between books and other things in my life. I recently read a curious book about a young artist called Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis. That's where I'd first heard of Catherine of Bologna. Here's the excerpt:

The patron saint against temptation sits straight-backed in an Italian convent as if mortised into her chair, and she is dead, dead, dead. Her name is Saint Catherine of Bologna, and nuns have been lighting candles at her feet since Columbus asked Isabella for those ships.  
Rainey Royal, in the reading room of the New York Public Library, peers at the photo in the book so closely she can smell the paper. Her shiny hair spills over the page. Saint Catherine is not just about temptation: she's the patroness of artists, for Chrissake—just what Rainey needs. She thinks they could be sisters, five hundred years apart. Rainey is an artist, and she embodies temptation. 

Wisps of smoke from centuries of candles, she reads, have stained Saint Catherine's hands and face mahogany. In the photo, the saint wears a gargantuan habit, her nut-colored fingers laced in her lap. Rainey wears a halter top and holds a dry clay egg in one hand and a silver teaspoon in the other. 

While she reads, she burnishes the egg with the back of the spoon on her lap.  

In her mind, Rainey lifts the musty black fabric. She looks up Saint Catherine's legs. She sees this: not an old lady's crinkles but the lucent flesh of a fourteen-year-old virgin. One morning, Cath walked out on her rich foster family, with its tutors and grooms, and offered herself to the nuns.  In the cloister, Cath will never listen at night for the marquis padding toward her through chilled marble halls.  Why Cath endured that setup at all is because her own father sent her there, to serve the marquis's daughter. There's always a man, right?

The painting is of some significance, it seems. It is apparently a rare sight for a donor's daughter and wife to be represented in a painting as well. It's those two women who are present on my bag, I wonder if this is of some significance also, or just a random selection of fair painted ladies.

Another dear-to-me trinket worth mentioning is a slim blue copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha, which I found at local book sale, with a short handwritten anniversary note in German on the first page, from 1970-something. Precious.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Why I Like Reading Blogs

I spend about an hour a day visiting blogs, and I have a whole schedule of how I do that. Book blogs on alternate days, personal on the rest, celebrity blogs (which these days is limited to Gaiman) on weekends, and some twelve blogs by people I know - old acquaintances, online and real-life friends - that I check up on daily, if only to reread the older posts. This may sound stalker-ly to some and I have been scoffed at for my blog-obsession often enough. But that fact remains - blogs are interesting.

Regular everyday conversation rarely presents the opportunity to really understand someone. It's all poofs, fluff and inconsequential blahs. How many people do I know who actually like discussing things that have little of the immediate reality of the weather and lunchtime? Very few. When people write, even the unlikeliest of my friends, they sift through their thoughts and present a selected few with more coherency than small talks or chats can hope to summon. And when they write blogs, they do it with the underlying assumption that someone would read them. It's a presentation, and the closest one can get to an honest one, by virtue of not being face-to-face. People bare their emotions on their blogs, the opinions that they might be too embarrassed to share out in the real world because they don't suit their carefully constructed images or simply because they don't want to risk being taken too seriously. I was once told that it is easier to speak the truth in a foreign language or in English because it is more impersonal than your mother tongue. The same applies to blogs I think. It is easier to be sincere on a blog rather than in real life.

I love language. I love dissecting people's words choices and peculiar sentence constructions. People have the cutest tics (not to be confused with the blood-sucking insects.) Like, one blogger I follow throws around a lot of uncanny Britishisms and another has this very storyteller-like tone employing phrases such as, "well well well," "lo and behold" and "voila!" I apparently write incomplete or one-word half-sentences that make no sense like, "I did something, just because," which in my head means, just for the sake of doing it. Some bloggers swear a lot, others ooze punctuation!!!!! There's a lot you can judge from the way a person writes and I love how so very often, what you make of a blogger-personality doesn't match up to their real-world image. It's a weird kind of fun, the failing to fully figure people out.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Do we take comfort in someone else's pain?

A friend told me the other day that a professor told them that stereotypes are incomplete. Google will lead the uninformed curious to a quote by Nigerian-American writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Americanah.)

"The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

I love the "The Danger of a Single Story" TED talk. It's one of those that I can watch over and over and still find myself nodding in agreement every time. 

I often wonder if we take comfort in stereotypes. I don't mean this in the sense of conforming to a preformed biased idea of how we should be - that is undoubtedly harmful to us, that was what I meant when I wrote about the myth of being yourself. What I'm referring to here is far more delusional and, by extension, dangerous.

In her talk, Chimamanda talks about her American roommate's idea of Africa, noting that: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. It is this well-intentioned pity that I think we easily seek comfort in. 

When I was a kid my mother told me to take comfort in the fact that there were people out there going through worse. I thought it was a twisted logic then and now I find it a dangerous consolation. Be happy with what you have, because there's someone out there who has even less reason to be happy? Misery is not the problems you face but what you make of them, how you let them affect you. Someone shared a quote on Facebook the other day, which went somewhere along the lines of how unhappy people are attention-seekers who like to wallow in self-pity. While I don't completely agree with unhappiness being a wholly conscious decision, I do think that it's odd to be happy that someone out there has been a dealt what my bias assumes is a worse fate. As if knowing that a poor orphan with cancer has lead a happier life than I should make me feel guilty for not loving mine, thankful for not sharing those problems. It's miserable, and it is a reflex reaction of those who have lead generally stable lives. We swallow the half-representation of reality, the stereotype, because it makes us feel good about ourselves. (I may have got side-tracked here a bit.) Not Schadenfreude, something like Schaden-reassurance.

This randomly reminds me of a quote from Khaled Hosseini's brilliant novel, And The Mountains Echoed, about a poetess romanticizing the normal lives of her staff, and their indignation at becoming her puppet-characters.

That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister's misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed. 

A few weeks ago, I was walking to the train station from my college, when I saw two small children , no more than eight years old, carrying half-empty alcohol bottles in their hands and a suspicious sway in their gait, blabbering nonsensicalities at passers-by who didn't seem all that bothered. I felt no pity or anger or horror, I didn't feel anything, I just registered my complete disconnection to the situation. We barely know the reality we are surrounded by, far be it from us to judge or understand someone else's world. Every time I look at one of those artsy portrait-photos of old working-class men and women with their characteristic weary eyes, I search for the beauty people appear to find in them. All it is is taking comfort in someone else's misery and marvelling at their obvious acceptance of what we find unthinkable. It's a local version of the admiration given to an exoticized half-truth like Slumdog Millionaire. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

On the Beauty of Accents and Mixed Languages

I'll never understand the obsession with having a British or an American accent. Sure, English English and its many dialects sound sexy when it's Englishmen speaking them. But to tell you the truth, there's something adorable about a local Indian accent, especially when it is pronounced enough to seemingly affect fluency. It's true - the less accented your language, the more proper it becomes - but I feel, the more proper it is, the less personality it has. I  know someone who speaks perfectly good English with a charming Tamilian accent that makes me jealous. Mine is a funny half (school-learnt) Indian, half (nicked-from-TV) bad American accent. I've been told I don't sound Marathi. But I'm not sure I sound anywhere.

I don't think accents deserve the prejudice they're given - although, what does, for that matter. I think accents are beautiful. They add character, carve out an identity. Your accent is your heritage, your culture, a bit of home that you can carry around with yourself, and carry with pride. And I think it goes without saying, there is nothing less attractive than an Indian faking an American accent to sound khool.

Hinglish used to annoy me. Writers like Chetan Bhagat who Indianized their English with desi words seemed to me to be committing some sort of crime. I strutted around, nose in the air, for being one of the 'correct' people who never sneaked Marathi or Hindi words into their English. Very priggish of me. I love now how people in India can easily mix languages, slip into their mother tongue and back. English is a foreign language, all we do is make it comfortable by giving it a touch of ours. Nothing wrong with that. In a country with so many languages, English becomes a uniting bhasha, and we have every right to personalize it. Just think how casually we play with our bi-, often multi-lingualism: it's awesome. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Myth of Being Yourself

They say, you should just be yourself. They probably think, as long as you are yourself, everything will be all right. That's what I would call another fool's axiom. There is no such thing as yourself. And there is certainly no such thing as all right. 

"Being yourself" implies that you have control over a set of virtues and vices that came together to build you. That is a myth. You are no fixed combination of qualities; you are constantly changing, growing and adapting. And the fact of the matter is, you have little say in these changes. You don't make them, more often than not, they happen to you. And if you decide to simply be "yourself" - or whatever you interpret yourself as - you diminish your scope as a person, you limit your life. Now what kind of advice is that? Don't try to be anyone, I'd say, let life come to you. It should know its way around pretty well by now. 

And what is all right, anyway? When is everything all right? Never, that's when. You cannot delude yourself into thinking there's such a thing as control. Everyone has problems, everyone goes through stuff. You will make mistakes, you will have vices. All right only ever lasts for five seconds. So why hanker after an impossibility? Think about it - once you accept it, even lack of control can be reassuring. And truth be told, we do need to have felt bad for good to feel good. 

Mostly, if you are tired of change (comfort zones are comfortable, after all) and think you're better off just being yourself - imagine if you'd made that decision five years ago. Aren't you glad you aren't that version of you any more? I know I am.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fixing Me - Not another waiting room conversation

Picture me in a tiny waiting room. I'm not alone, as is unfortunately always the case lately. I stare blandly at a newspaper, hoping it appears as if I'm immersed in it. But who am I kidding, I can't act. Do I just have a face that people want to talk to? (Really? No, I doubt that.)

"This is so boring, right? I mean, this really is boring. I don't know why they expect us to just sit here, and they take their own time. The professors, I mean. This always happens. Just because we are students doesn't mean we have all the time in the world to spare. I have so many assignments due, you have no idea. Do you have any assignments?"

I barely manage to look up and nod, when he continues.

"The other day this professor made me wait outside his office for an hour for one signature. It was so irritating. I have a life too you know. But he is a good teacher, so I won't really complain. Do you know him, Something-or-the-Other?" 

I open my mouth to answer, but settle for a nod instead, as he spirals on.

"He's good, right? But maybe not so good as This-Other-Guy. He does know how to manage a class well. Last Friday he was discussing feminist theory. I know, it sounds boring. I mean, that's what he said. There's so much stigma attached to the word. Like you add unnecessary bad implications to things like mental illness. But he explained what it actually is, and he had all these other ideas about our culture, and it was genius, all the things he was saying. I mean, most of it was completely over my head, which is what happens when he talks. That's his real charm. But the thing is, when we think of feminists, we have this typical image, don't we...?"

I wonder how many words he's getting out every minute. I have never seen a mouth work so fast. It's like he doesn't need to breathe. He pauses, suddenly and looks at me, fleetingly expectant. I hurriedly nod. That seems to do the trick.

"...exactly! Well, he explained it very well. I don't think I can tell you exactly what he said. You should take one of his classes next time. The-Other-Guy's, I mean. Something-or-the-Other is also good, like I said. But he doesn't give such good grades. That is the only complaint everyone has against him, anyway. But do you really think that grades are that important?"

I sneak in a nod, that sadly goes unnoticed.

"I mean, don't you think that if you do your work well, you'll get that good grade? Do you think it matters in the long run which grade you had? No, right? Who is going to ask you how much you scored all those years back. No one, that's who. So the quality of teaching is more important, yes?"

A pause. This time, I'm ready with a succession of nods. His face glows with unbridled pleasure at being agreed with. He momentarily struggles with suppressing the joy to get back to his point.

"Exactly. So where was I? I forgot." Astonishing. "I talk a lot." No kidding. "Anyway, forget all of that. We've been in the same class for so long, and I hardly know you. Why don't you ever talk? This professor, we're here to meet... what do you think of him...?"

I take a deep breath and open my mouth to finally begin my end of the conversation... and the door pushes open.

"Oh, it's time, do you want to go in, first? Or should I? I do have a class right after. And I need to have breakfast before that. Did you already have it? Maybe I'll be done quickly. Can I go in, first?" 

Nod. Nod, nod. Another nod. My neck hurts.

"Great, see you later. Wish me luck." Nod.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The best thing about keeping a diary is reading it.

I wrote this on 29.07.2014, part of this virtual journal I always forget to keep. I reread what I've written so far a lot, it's like some sort of weird self-obsession. I like (and hate) how everything I write falls into cliché in retrospect. This is one of my favourite days. It was the day before I left for Hyderabad, feels like a world apart.


It is sinking in, finally, this feeling I can neither fully understand nor even begin to describe. It’s unreal. Like waking up early on one of the annual gathering days, getting dressed and hurrying to school at dawn - so far off from the routine, it might as well not be happening. It’s like every early Diwali morning, or a late night stay-up waiting for Baba to come home from his trips. The only permanent proof that it exists is a wrapped up memory that won't fully unravel until it repeats itself. The only proofs that I have of Hyderabad actually happening are my packed up bags, a flimsy letter that says I got into a university. Aai in all her bee-like busyness seems quite unable to understand the sheer gravity of this… this move. There. I said it. I acknowledged the unreality of me going away. I know what you're thinking and I hope you are right. 
Let all my drama be unnecessary, I can hope.

This afternoon I stocked up on another strange incident that feels improbable now that it's in the past. Me at a temple.

Today we went to Kasba Ganpati Mandir, Aai and I, to hell with the rain. It’s a beautiful place, a quintessential cold-stony temple – unlike Sarasbaug which I don’t like – and here’s what I prayed for:

The courage to make a choice, a decision, and the strength to stick to it. A man in front of me held his ears and did a bunch of sit ups, asking for forgiveness, perhaps? And that reminded me not to beg for it. So I asked for non-forgiveness, for the sum total of all my faults and misgivings to weigh on me and keep me in line. I asked for the ability to help me be myself, and to help me help myself.

It was a good, complicated prayer. It went in circles that seemed to make sense at the moment.

And then I looked at the people around me and I wondered if they really were happier by doing all of that. Did setting themselves at the foot of an interesting shapeless Ganesh idol really make their lives better? Were they more successful, more satisfied knowing they’d eaten a holy prasad? Did they not have fathers who suddenly died, or exams they failed to pass? 
So much self-pity. I need lessons in empathy.

Where does happiness come from really? Doesn't it come from the inside? Do you need to go to a temple to find it? Or is it more complex than my scepticism allows me to assume? Can God reach in and touch that inside that not all of us can find, like - a half-baked metaphor is happening here - kindling a fire there. You can rub two stones on each other all you want, but a matchstick, if you happen upon it, really will do you good. So why not use it - when it may be right there? Maybe God is your matchstick. 

I'm rambling.

But I suppose "He" can be a helping hand. Belonging to someone who isn't a neighbour or a friend or a colleague, someone who won't tell on you or judge you or refuse outright to help you - so you won't feel guilty asking him for help. It's not wrong to ask for help, is it? 

(And if you're asking for help from someone mighty and powerful and one who has all these whims (I'm thinking of Olympians, the Greeks really knew what Gods were all about) you are better off having something ready in return, just in case, if only a few rhyming lines of cowardice.)

Also, the place has roots. Aai tells me it was the temple Baba went to to pray, when he lived there, when he was still young enough to vehemently believe. I like the histories of places and that's a sort of connection with him I'm unlikely to forge again, he being no more and everything.

Maybe I need to visit temples more often. Maybe I will.