Thursday, September 29, 2011

LESSONS FROM CONTROVERCITY

September 27 is World Tourism Day, a day that celebrates the impact of tourism on our shared values as a global village. And this special issue you hold in your hands is about rediscovering forgotten stories. So I thought of rummaging through my list of forgotten stories and looked for one that would both question as well as be the answer to our shared values as global citizens. Here’s what I came up with.... Hope it helps....

“Amsterdam is an amazing city! It has this really nice ambience!! You must go there”, GA was gushing. He had just returned from his honeymoon, and of all the sights and sounds from Champagne to Cologne, all he could remember was Amsterdam. “It has..”, GA leaned over conspiratorially, “a legal red light area, red lights(!), women on the streets, everything legal”. “I’ve heard that it’s got these really beautiful canals?”, I asked. “Canals? Oh yeah canals! Yeah, yeah, nice but you’ve got to hear this, they have live sex shows, can you believe that? Really nice!” GA had a glazed look in his eyes. “Really, that’s interesting…”, but GA wasn’t listening. His eyes had that faraway look of a man reliving some past glory. Amsterdam cropped up again in a later conversation with an elder cousin. He had just returned from a vacation to Europe. The Dutch capital was yet again the star of the itinerary. “Oh, it’s really nice”, he said. After a moment’s silence, he added, “They have sex shows you know”. My jaw must’ve dropped a bit for he quickly added, “It’s perfectly respectable there you know, I went there with my wife!”. He had the hurt expression of a diabetic caught with a mouthful of rich creamy chocolate cake in his mouth. “It’s low calorie, and I gave most of it to the dog too,” he seemed to say. “Of course dada! But is that why you liked it so much?, I asked. “No, no, it has…, it has this…, this really nice ambience”, is all he could muster. Nice ambience, eh? This I had to see. So, not too long ago, I was travelling with friends and family and had stopped over in Antwerp (just about a couple of hours from Amsterdam). On a really grey day, while most of the group seemed happier indoors, the missus and I, along with some Belgian friends, left for the El Dorado of civil liberty – Amsterdam.

Other than the obviously popular red light district, controversial Amsterdam honours homosexuals with a Homomonument and sells marijuana legally in stores and cafes. One can even buy a ‘good death’ – euthanasia, just as legally in this city. It’s a heady cocktail of sex, drugs and death. Understandably, not many seem to notice that Amsterdam is a beautiful city. The bottlegreen canals that run through the city and the lovely little boats make it one of the most romantic cities in the world. Along one of these canals, stands a brick red house, where there once lived a young girl who lived a short sad life and wrote a moving memoir, now famous as Anne Frank’s Diary. And then of course, there is the Van Gogh Museum which is impossible to enter because it is always, either too late or too full.

De Wallen, the red light district was a short walk and a long wait away. Narrow lanes, awash in red hue, flanked by shop windows, each with a bed, a chair and a rather friendly lady, pressing against the glass pane as if her parents had locked her in and gone off to the beach, and here she was all dressed up (down?) in a bikini and nowhere to go. Every time we’d pass a window, a resident lady of love would look at me and smile. Her eyebrows would dance, she’d wink and… Phew, for a moment I felt like Brad Pitt in Nymphtown. No wonder this place was popular. There were groups of Americans on a guided tour, walking past posters of all assortments and shades of human and non human couplings, and ushers at theatre gates announcing, “Show is on! Show is on! It’s alive! It’s alive!!”. “That’s Dutch for it’s all live”, said my Belgian friend. “Have a feeling they do it on purpose when they see the Americans. Never know what draws them”. Behind the bright lights though, the truth is that having legalised prostitution, the Dutch government ensures that sex workers have both rights and responsibilities. The use of condoms is mandated by law, and human trafficking is limited. Pimping is illegal and prostitutes are protected against exploitation by law. This has ensured that the scourge of HIV/AIDS is contained to such an extent that only 7 per cent of prostitutes are affected, most of whom are drug users and in all likelihood, contracted the virus from an affected needle. A far cry from the situation in India where prostitution is illegal, but trafficking and coercion is rampant and almost half the country’s prostitutes are HIV positive. The writing is clearly on the wall but someone’s yet to read it.

Back in Antwerp, someone from the stay-at-home group asked us “How was Amsterdam?” “Nice, uncle! Really nice ambience!” we replied, almost in chorus.

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Thursday, September 22, 2011

THE UNLIKELY LOSERS (OR SO YOU’D THINK!)-II

Last week, I wrote about three unrequited loves and promised to tell you more. And since I began this story, it is I who must take it to its logical conclusion as well, for whatever it is worth.

I spent a lot of time thinking how I would tell you what I have to say. Should I try and make it funny, or should I reveal what I have to say through characters invented to meet the moment, and then I realised that today’s page is about being honest and ‘me’, and so I should abandon all ‘technique’ and ‘artifice’ and just say it like it is.

So here’s the story, bare and true…

I was a very confused kid in my teens. I believed I was good.

I had a strong sense of self-worth, like we all do. We all believe that we are talented, pleasant, likeable, even lovable and special. Like the rest of you, I believed I was meant for great things and that someone special and beautiful was out there waiting for me to walk up to her and carry her away in my arms. And I found her too, just a few houses away. She was my best friend’s sister and my sister’s best friend. The more I saw of that smile that lit up her face and my heart in the same breath, the more I wanted to see her beaming face. I would walk past her school bus-stand in the mornings half an hour before it was my time, hoping to catch a glimpse of her and I would spend my evenings playing cricket or soccer with one eye on the game and the other looking out for her, and soon as I’d see her or turn deaf to all the sounds in the park and hear her laugh and talk, like a delicate ankle-bell tinkling on a quiet summer afternoon, I would run in faster, hit the ball harder or at least hope to. More often than not, I would miss the ball altogether and end up hitting the ground harder, biting the dust and swallowing defeat. But come next evening, I would try again, and again and again…

This girl, who made me play an evening’s sport with the reckless passion of a ready-to-die for glory gladiator, hated my guts… How do I know this? She told my sister, who very dutifully spilled the beans on me just when and where they would hurt the most. She said, and I quote “Where’s that irritating brother of yours? I hope he isn’t coming to the park today. I hate him! He is such a painful show off !!”

Evidently, in spite of having strong potential references in her brother and my sister, this vacancy wasn’t going to be open to me. And yet, in less than five years from that day, as soon as I turned 21, I was married to her. Let me tell you how that happened. But before that, what had I done to deserve all that hate?

Well, after we fell in love and got married, I asked her if what my sister had told me was true, and if so, why did she hate me so, for, for the life of me, I couldn’t work out why someone like her should “hate” someone as…, you know… someone as… (such immodesty is beyond me, but feel free to fill in the blanks with superlatives of your choice) … as me.

So as I lay with my head in her lap one Sunday afternoon, and she playfully ruffled my hair with those hands I had dreamt of holding every evening in the park, and playfully asked her the same question again, hoping to hear something like, “I was na├»ve and I didn’t understand you and how you were so different… just too good to be true etc….”, she, I’m hoping involuntarily, clutched my hair tight and tugged at it and said, “You were obnoxious! Arrogant and irritating and….” By now she really was pulling at my hair and I realised her memories of the past had begun to influence her present actions and so I let out a little squeak. She hurried back to the present, let go of my hair, smiled and then did a lot of nice things that good sweet wives do, and then continued. “You used to bug me. You’ll ask me and the others some stupid obscure questions just because you happened to know the answers and you would try and pull everybody down just to try and prove that you were smarter than everybody else. I really disliked those bits about you at the time. You were nice and interesting, but this thing about you was such a turn off. And then when we met during our MBA, you had changed… changed so much, and for the better.”

Hmmm, so I had changed, suddenly, but imperceptibly, but how? And when? And perhaps more importantly, why?

When we look back on those years today, I begin to understand what she meant. I was the same nice guy if you will, then, that I am today and I knew it. But I was worried that the world around me did not. So in conversations and discussions I would make it a point to try and prove that I knew this and I had an opinion about that. All I wanted to do was to impress the person I was talking to. I wanted him or her to feel that I was intelligent and likeable. So I’d go, “Hey, did you know that Mikhail Gorbachev got the map of America tattooed on his forehead so that his grand kids could shoot at it with their suction-cup dart guns?” And once the joke fell flat, I would move on to the Socratic method of asking questions off the group, but unlike Socrates, I was not looking for the truth. I was just trying to make a statement.

Often, during these discussions that I would drag my closest friends into, my opinions would run up against those of others. Now you must remember that my beliefs were not mere beliefs but manifestations of my self-worth. So if I felt that Imran Khan was better than Kapil Dev, it didn’t matter how bitter and stupid the discussion became, I just wouldn’t let go of my stand because admitting to another’s opinion, to me, was like admitting I wasn’t good enough.

I wouldn’t stop there either. At the time, I must’ve been desperate to make my world believe that I could be funny. For I can find no other reason why I would try so hard to make jokes about my friends, pull them down and take pleasure in seeing others laugh at them, the butt of my, at times, cruel jokes. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the guys I would make jokes about. But at that time I used to think that I could be good only if I could prove that I was better than the others.

So, yeah, I guess I really was an obnoxious fool.

But why did I change? Honestly, I don’t know, because I’m telling you all this in retrospect. But here’s what I think…

Through all these years, I had a friend who saw the real me – a shy and desperate kid lurking behind this mask of complexes and unwitting arrogance, hungering for love and acceptance. He didn’t mind my discussions, he tolerated my stupid adamancy and he forgave me my rude jokes. He never once attempted to knock me down or hit back for trying to make him look like a fool or for cracking jokes at his expense. I could do all I wanted but I could never do enough to upset him, or even hurt him. I’m sure I must have, but he never let me, or anyone else feel that.

He understood me then more than I ever did, and I was only beginning to understand him, but then he was gone, just like that. He was just 19…

I never told him I loved him. And just when I wanted to, he was gone, forever. For hours, days, months and years, he stayed with me, in my head, replaying a lifetime’s adolescence shared together, from dawn to dawn… and shared dreams crushed under the wheels of a wayward bus.

But even as his memories tore at me, they liberated me. For the first time, I began to see him for who he was. I saw that he loved because he wanted to love, gave of his love honestly, unconditionally and without artifice. I saw that he was the most honest person I had ever known for he never lied to himself. And I saw that he had the courage to be himself, and the compassion to believe that he didn’t have to be good at someone else’s expense. And this is why he was so loved, by all of us, even by someone as emotionally insecure and parasitic as me.

His legacy touched and changed me and made me into the man his sister loves today. I am glad I changed but I wish he didn’t have to leave for me to learn my lessons… miss you…

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

THE UNLIKELY LOSERS (OR SO YOU’D THINK!)

Every good story, I’m told, has a set-up, then a problem or a hurdle if you will, and then the climax. So this one is not going to be a good story, because the problem is the set-up, and we can’t talk about the climax. It’s a family magazine after all. But I’m going to tell it anyway because it is important… Doubly so for you if you think it isn’t. But it is absolutely vital for you if you are the kind who would publicly trash the idea of what I’m about to tell you and then slink away into a corner and hurriedly flip to this page to see if it makes sense… any sense whatsoever. And mark my words, in red if you please, for if you are going to do any of the above, consider this page some much needed therapy.

Now that I’m done with the hard sell, here’s the setup…

AP was one of the brightest students I’ve ever taught in a class room. He is tall, pleasantly tanned, well boned and fairly fit. When he is being a good boy, he speaks well enough to both entertain and inspire. He has read more books than you might have seen and seen more movies than you might have read about. And yet he is cool enough to stand toe to toe and go a few rounds with you in the muay-thai ring and he might bloody his nose but he won’t sully his reputation. So he is a nerdy-jock, or a jock-nerd, whichever the case may be, and a very interesting character but for all the time he was here with us, he couldn’t manage to land himself in a decent relationship. He might lash out by saying he never really cared much for a ‘decent’ relationship anyway but if you looked into those big brown eyes long enough, you’d know he was lying, more to himself than to you actually, but lying nevertheless.

Now, read what is to come very carefully for this could be you. AP could make the ladies laugh, he would listen like he meant it, and he could talk about the all the stars from Bandra to Beverly Hills, and all their toys and their trysts with bright blue pills. So what gives?

Why would a man who is a good talker, a good looker, a good listener and gets a tick on nearly every box that counts still go back home to an empty room or his guy friends if they had the time? Why should a man like him fail to keep even if he could find true love?

The second case file is from the family folder. It’s a cousin who is right now living in Singapore, alone and unfulfilled as far as we can tell from here, though he does make a fair show of being too happy and busy for a real relationship. This chap has an ivy-league education, a job that pays him for being smart and aware and he cruised into his thirties a short while back in a swanky new BMW convertible. So he has it all going for him you’d think, but here’s what the women he has been friends with for years, like the chorus of muses from a Greek tragedy, have to say about him… “He is a show off! How do you talk to him? He just won’t listen! Granted, he is an interesting character. But do I need a lecture about blood diamonds and Gujarati millionaires and the Antwerp diamond industry just because I happened to wear diamonds to our date? He is a great guy, has a good sense of humour and is really nice, but why would life be fun if I’m stuck with a guy who has a TV screen on his head that’s stuck on CNN and I don’t even have the remote? Sometimes I think he knows so much that he has forgotten how to feel…”

Now what do you do?

Ladies, before we go any further, you need to know that these stories aren’t just an effort to help my fellow men understand themselves better, but also their unheard cry for meaning and understanding. These are good boys who would make wonderful partners. Unfortunately they are misunderstood and are lost. They would need your help and your understanding, and the rest of this piece, to find their way back into your hearts…

So going back to the set up, let me wrap up part one of this story with a tail to this tale.

This one’s about a guy my wife used to know when she was in her teens. She didn’t like him much. But I’ve heard it said that this guy really liked her. But my wife, she couldn’t stand him. What was the matter with him? Well I was curious and so I asked her and she said “he was a pain to be around. Such a desperate show off... I knew he liked me.... And he was the nice sort but I could throw up as soon as I’d see him...”

As you can see, there’s a pattern here but here’s the first twist in the tale and that is the modern day fact that today, my wife is married to this very man who she once hated. You’ll be happy to know that she doesn’t throw up as often as promised either and by most accounts, including her own, she is happier than she’s ever been.

Ostensibly, there would seem to be a lesson lying in wait somewhere in there, for all three of us. But who is to know if my fortunes are a result of my methods or a moment of masochistic madness by the lady in question. Anyway, that is a story for the week to come when we explore that dark zone of enlightenment that lies between the problem and the climax. Until then, hang in there and check if your life is set up a bit like our setup. God bless if it is and God bless if it ain’t....

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Thursday, September 8, 2011

A TALE THAT TIME FORGOT

Dates… I hated them while studying history in school. They ruined the story for me. And dates, I loved them when I waded into love. I looked forward to them, counted them, remembered them. I came to realise that whether I loved them or loathed them, in this life, there was going to be no escaping them.

Every month and week has its fair share of them. There are these private, insignificant dates that my life depends on not forgetting, like birthdays, anniversaries and yet to be kept promises. And there are those that are like ornate gravestones in the churchyard of time, marking the passing of one that mattered, one that ought to be remembered. There was one that went by last month – the 15th of August, when India awoke ‘to life and freedom’. And there is one coming up on the 11th of this month that is a bit of a gash on the butt-cheek of time…it still doesn’t let you sit down and say ‘I’m at peace with my world’.

But why am I pouring this soppy gruel down your page? Well, that’s because there’s another important date coming up – the 25th of October. It is the day when the Bolsheviks stormed into power in Russia in 1917 (the actual date is November 7th according to the Gregorian calendar but since the Orthodox church in Russia in those days kept time with the old style Julian calendar, the Russians still call it the October Revolution). And let us not potter around about the exact date for it really isn’t the point here. The point is that the course of history changed irrevocably that day, or so you think. But the truth is that all these dates, be it the 15th of August, the 11th of September or the date on which sprang the October Revolution, they all owe their existence to other forgotten dates that impregnated the seeds that flowered into days that shaped our world. This story is about one such date… one that lies forgotten, like an unmarked nameless grave. A celebration of an underdog from history’s date-file…

The year should be around the late 1800s and the month really isn’t important. Just picture a train running through the heart of Western Europe. Let me help you with that. It’s the dining car of a train thundering through from let’s say Cologne to London. It’s evening and you can see the countryside, fields of green and amber and blue skies streaked crimson and gold rolling out of your window and meeting far away in the horizon. Clumps of willow and birch stand like old ladies conferring at a tea party in the soft light of a setting sun. Every few miles, you see a farmer in a blue or brown beret ploughing the field behind a large draught horse. You look away from the window and take in a view of the carriage, the wooden panels, the embroidered drapes that look rich and feel cheap, the ornate little chandeliers, the heavy tables and the chairs that seem a size too small and the liveried waiters waiting on them and you wonder if you belong in here. You hear a little voice fading away and look outside the window to catch a glimpse of three little boys running with the train, their woolen jackets and shorts and schoolboy cap are all you can see as they stop to pant and wave their hands at the passing train and all the fine people who they can see but know will never meet.

The dining car is filling up now and the table next to you is taken by a middleaged German couple. The man is not very tall but heavily built. His hair seem to have known the discipline of a comb once but it’s all forgotten now, like the memory of a strict father that fades as a child grows out of his home and town. But it’s the whiskers you’d notice first, an unkempt explosion of hair and will that refuses to be tamed, almost like an embodiment of the man’s spirit. And his eyes, they seem to know what no one knew and believed what few understood. This man was hard to miss. The lady with him was of an aristocratic bearing, and seemed to be a gentle foil for the man’s obvious fire. The couple settles down next to you and they both smile and greet you and those around them. Supper is soon underway. The train is hurtling across France and it is dark outside. In the inky blackness, you can still see the silhouettes of the trees and the woods in the distance if you strain really hard but most of the passengers are busy eating or talking. But then everybody stops doing whatever they were at and stare when another passenger who enters the dining car with a spring in his gait. He is a very young man of middle height, a Prussian, but something in the twirl of his moustache, the twinkling eyes and the sculpted beauty of his contours suggested that the passengers were in the presence of a luminous star. All the seats were taken except for the one next to the middle aged couple and with a smile and a flourish, the young man walks up to the table, greets the pair and takes the last available seat. They strike up a conversation and soon it is all warm and nice, unlike the country outside that was simmering with the heat and dust of unrest and political change.

Suddenly, a loud explosion tears through the car and derails it. Anarchists had blown up the train with explosives lining the tracks. The lamps blinked, tables crashed, people screamed and there smoke billowing above leaping flames that had engulfed the upturned carriage. The middle aged couple had been crushed under a table and both of them seemed to have lost consciousness. Flung far away from them was the prone form of the young Prussian. In the light of the flames you could see the form stir and gather strength as it rose, slowly, but surely and then the man stood up, ran his hands over his muscled and seemingly indestructible form, dusted his trousers and must have been looking for his wallet when he heard a moan. He turned towards the sound. The Prussian saw the pile of splintered boards and tables and followed the sound to the place where the injured couple lay. With a vigour that would have done Hercules credit, he lift ed and tossed boards, tables and the beam that had trapped the pair underneath. Seeing that they were conscious, he gently helped them to their feet and the man and the woman thanked the young fellow for saving their lives. The man with the beard extended his hand and introduced himself.... “My name is Dr. Karl Marx and this is my wife Jenny. Thank you so much for saving our lives and for the pleasant conversation during dinner. We will always remember you....” The young Prussian smiled and shook the extended hand and said “My name is Frederick Mueller and I work as a model for artists.. It was nothing... how could I turn and run away from someone who is lying helpless while his life is in danger.... But we should make haste for the fire is almost upon us....”

With that, the young model guided Dr. Karl Marx and his wife away from the scene of the accident. As the flames flickered and spread, you could see the three silhouettes hurrying away into the inky blackness of the night. At that time, how were they to know that while one man’s books and ideas were soon to change the world, the other was going to take London by storm as the strongest man in the world... A man the world would come to recognise as Eugene Sandow, the one who would single-handedly start the body building revolution with his great strength and hitherto unseen sculpted physical beauty. Indeed, strange are the ways of fate and chance. I came across this incident in a book written by the great Bill Pearl, a physique champion from the 1960s. And although some details about the dates are a little fuzzy and the authenticity of the story thus gets a little diluted, I found it a story worth sharing and so here it is, hopefully garnished just right for you to wonder..... What might have happened to the Berlin Wall, to the October Revolution, to the war in Vietnam or to the cold war chess in Afghanistan, if Sandow had not had the nerve, the strength and the courage to rescue Dr. Marx from under the debris that fateful night? No one remembers that date today and yet it was the seed for so many others. So let’s hear it for the underdog be it one from a date-file, your life or the mirror, for in their own little or not so little ways, for don’t they all matter?

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

‘BETWEEN A MAN AND A SNOWMAN’

I always knew I was going to be rich and famous... Just like you all did too... But I tell you what... I really will be rich and famous when I grow up... Because now not only do I have a dream, I also have found the way to realise that dream.

You see, in ancient tribes, boys need to go through a rite of passage to be accepted as grown men. If you are a Masai, you would need to stalk and kill a lion; in Vanuatu you would need to jump off a high platform with nothing but vines tied to your ankles... Land-diving they call it and it’s the mother-god of all bungee jumps. In ancient Scandinavia I’m told they had to find a woman, which isn’t easy in those snowy wastes (and it is rumoured that desperate snow-blinded men have oft en mistaken a polar bear for one), chase her down, sling her over one’s back and run back to the village before the woman’s tribe catches up. Too bad if you picked a bear though.... In those ancient worlds, that was the only way to sow the oats and watch the fields grow and prosper. Anyway, even without any lion hunting or bear slinging, my farms are doing just fine, thank you but a man’s got to be a man at times. And since it’s about time I got some acceptance... as a man to begin with and then as a full grown one to boot, I have chosen my rite of passage.

But before I tell you more, here’s a brief backstory...

The year was 1938 and a British officer with a French name (yes that happened in those inbred imperialistic times) was lost in the upper Himalayas. The snow was white... The sun was bright and soon the poor guy lost all sense and sight. Lost weak and blind, Captain d’ Auvergne stumbled and tumbled down the icy slopes into what he thought was sure death but what he would today, were he alive, describe to you as two big strong hairy arms of God. Well, no he wouldn’t really call themthe arms of God but they were definitely God-sent... Those arms were the arms of what he swore was a female yeti-the abominable snow woman if you will. The Yeti, about 8 feet tall, he claimed, nursed him back to health and once he was fit enough to return, he was free to go. She didn’t want to eat him, or keep him in return. And nor did she want his babies (the last bit is a pertinent point for many Yeti accounts by local travellers speak of male Yetis abducting young women for heaven knows what end).

Captain d’Auvergne’s account of his Yeti encounter has always been my favourite cryptozoological bedtime story. Somehow, the other accounts of Yetis kidnapping girls and bringing down yaks with one massive blow didn’t seem to fit in with the picture I had of the bamboo chewing gentle giant.

Yeti legends are as old as the mountains perhaps. The people of these high reaches have come to accept the Yeti as an unpredictable and reclusive neighbour. Mothers would tell their children to behave themselves or else the Yeti might come and take them away. Sometimes a Yeti in the woods or high up above the tree-line would let out a helpful whoo-hoo just then and the kids would close their eyes and huddle up close to mom and turn into little chubby cheeked angels, at least for a while.

So what is this Yeti? The locals say it is a large ape-like creature, about 8-13 feet tall. It has long reddish brown hair and is an incredibly powerful creature with a conical head and ape like features. European travellers have also seen what they thought was a Yeti but most expeditions in search of the elusive snowman, including one by Sir Edmund Hillary and one by the greatest mountaineer of them all, the redoubtable Reinhold Messner yielded nothing conclusive. Sceptics say it must have been a brown bear, or perhaps the Tibetan blue bear... Others say that what a certain eye-witness saw must have been a mountain hermit or a large monkey. What has added fuel to the dismissive fire has been the discovery that a lot of hitherto well-known Yeti relics turned out to be hoaxes. Where are the bones?’ Why aren’t there any pictures they ask...

And what do these doubting Thomases and Janes have to do with my rite of passage into the lives of the rich and famous? Well, I am going to prove the naysayers wrong, find the Yeti, write a million copy best seller about the expedition and its success and show the world conclusive proof of the fact that the Yeti exists.

What’s that? Why am I so convinced about finding the Yeti, you ask?

...because I know it’s there! And hush... If you come in a little closer I’ll tell you why.... You see, the Yeti isn’t a snowman or a mythical beast at all but a very real beast called Gigantopithecus and it is waiting for me to rediscover it up on an unnamed mountain.

How do I know it’s there? Didn’t Gigantopithecus disappear in the deep sea of extinction a few hundred thousand years ago?

Well those are all answers for another week. Meanwhile, I’ve got to run... Have an expedition to plan... A man to become...

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