The Perfect Blend of Tradition and Modernity

 

My father, whom I respect, love, and admire, is admittedly not infallible. And one of the major mistakes he made where my own life is concerned was in 2013, when in a mood that was mixed parts of ‘Nothing else is working’, ‘Customised service is better than faceless matrimonial websites’, and ‘The upside could be great and how bad could the downside be?’, he enrolled me in the lists of Sycorian Matrimonials (back then, it had not yet become Sycoriaan).

As it turns out, there was one upside and four downsides. The upside was that the whole association with Sycorian left me with stories upon which I will be able to dine out for years and years. The downsides were:

  1. The hefty enrolment fee they charged. As Amba said, for that amount of money they ought to be manufacturing brides and grooms, Pygmalion style, to customer specifications.
  2. The customised service being far, far worse than faceless matrimonial websites because the Sycorian relationship managers refused to reply coherently to email, kept begging for phone calls or face to face meetings (in which nothing ever happened), and in general did nothing beyond sending profiles of prospective brides, which matrimonial website algorithms do anyway, at far less cost.
  3. The psychological pain which my father suffered when he was repeatedly spurned by prospective brides’ parents, either because they were yuppies and shuddered at the thought of their daughter marrying into a crass Punjabi business family, or because they were lalas and shuddered at the thought of their daughter marrying into a business family so manifestly unsuccessful that the father in law drove a Toyota Corolla and the groom himself rode a bicycle to work.
  4. The time I wasted and psychological despair I suffered while reading the profiles of said prospective brides.

This despair was largely because most (though to be fair, not all) bridal profiles were very much like each other, especially in the following respects:

  • Education at a British university
  • Worked in a family business or didn’t have a job
  • Claimed to be from a cultured family (though neither any profile nor a Sycorian relationship manager could ever give a satisfactory explanation of what a cultured family is, and if it involves petri dishes)
  • Claimed to be the perfect blend of tradition and modernity

What impressed me over give months of reading Sycorian profiles is that whenever it came up, everyone claimed to be only a perfect blend of tradition and modernity. There were no imperfect blends, near-perfect blends, ninety-fifth percentile blends, off-spec blends, or cheap-but-serviceable blends. The only parallel is to olive oil, where if you go to a supermarket you can find extra virgin olive oil, olive oil, and even that gross pomace olive oil, but never virgin olive oil without the extra virginity.

Just as with cultured families, no explanation was ever forthcoming on what exactly a perfect blend of tradition and modernity is, and what it implies for one’s daily life. Nor was it ever explained why being a perfect blend was a desirable trait in a bride, when in whiskey blends are looked down upon and single malts are preferred.

RoKo and I once speculated that the modernity consisted of meeting in a five star hotel coffee shop, and the tradition consisted of getting the prospective groom to pick up the bill, but that was just us being bitchy, and anyway, as the months went by, I ended up meeting ladies from Sycorian even in mall coffee shops. So I eventually decided that “perfect blend of tradition and modernity” was just something that people used to fill in matrimonial profiles when they could think of nothing else to write, the way we, as Class XI students who had to come up with farewell dedications for graduating Class XII seniors whom  we had no clue about, used to write “Amit Kumar’s smiling face and cheerful personality will never be forgotten!”

So after completely giving up on Sycorian around the beginning 2014, I paid the expression no more attention until the very end of 2014.

In the end of 2014, I was vacationing in Bavaria, and went to Neuschwanstein castle.

It is important to note that Neuschwanstein, which inspired the shape of Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle has no military value. It looks like a fairy tale castle because the mad king Ludwig II wanted to build a castle that looked like it was out of a fairy tale and which would be the perfect backdrop in which to perform Wagner operas. In fact, in pursuit of this goal, he actually wanted to build three more fairytale castles, all without military value, just so he would have the perfect simulacrum of an imagined age of chivalry and knights.

However, as the guide at Neuschwanstein pointed out, it wasn’t just opera backdrops and medieval high fantasy and impractical castles. Neuschwanstein also had a toilet that automatically flushed whenever you stepped off it, and one of the first telephone lines in Bavaria. All the modcons that the late nineteenth century had to offer, really.

A couple of days after going to Neuschwanstein, I was in Nuremberg, where I visited the transportation museum, which exhibits the personal train coaches of Chancellor Bismarck and King Ludwig II next to each other. Bismarck’s coach is straightforward, free of frippery, and has a stenographer’s desk and telegraph machine. Ludwig’s coach is a bright blue with gilt all over the place. Talk about contrasts.

 

Anyway, by 1886, the rest of the government of Bavaria was fed up with Ludwig spending the entire treasury on his impractical romantic castles, so they had him declared mentally unsound and unfit to be king, and replaced him with a prince-Regent. He mysteriously died by drowning shortly thereafter. Even more mysteriously, the psychologist who signed off on the medical report declaring him insane died the very next day.

It was after learning all of this that I had a flash of insight: with his obsession for creating the perfect medieval castles, but also making sure that said castles had flushing toilets, telephone connections and electricity, and were linked by a train that had a gorgeously medieval livery; it is actually Ludwig II of Bavaria who was the perfect blend of tradition and modernity. If you aspire to be the perfect blend, nothing but bankrupting a nation, being declared insane, being deposed from the execution of all your responsibilities, and then dying under mysterious circumstances will do. Anybody claiming to be a perfect blend without going through all this is either ignorant or a liar.

Different Boons

Last November, I started reading the K M Ganguli translation of the Mahabharata (the only English translation of the complete, unabridged Mahabharata before Bibek Debroy completed his translation).  Seven months on, I’ve only managed to finish the Bhishma Parva. On the one hand this means that I’ve finished everything leading up to the war and ten days of the war itself. On the other hand there are twelve out of eighteen parvas to go. In all this while, I’ve read nothing else; and this month I finally decided to take a break from the Mahabharata just so that I could read SevenevesThe House That BJ Built, and Royal Wedding.

And since I’m taking this pause, I might as well use it to write about something I noticed in the first six parvas – that is, that the boons various characters receive from various gods and goddesses play out very differently.

  • Boons granted by Shiva or Brahma: Usually, these boons are won by demons through severe austerity or devotion, after which Brahma or Shiva rewards the petitioner with an excellent boon. After that, the recipient of the boon uses it to terrorise the natural order, and finally Vishnu (on in one case, Durga) has to step in and exploit a loophole in the boon to restore status quo. Examples: Ravana, Mahishasura, Bakasura, and so forth. The only exception I’ve seen to this pattern so far is Shiva’s boon to Amba that she will be transformed into Shikhandin in her next birth in order to slay Bhishma – with this boon, there is no interference by Vishnu.
  • Boons granted by Indra or Agni: Indra or Agni ask Arjuna to go to war with somebody. In Indra’s case, this is the Nivatakavacha asuras. In Agni’s case, Agni asks Arjuna to battle Indra himself, so that he can burn the Khandava forest without worrying about Indra’s rain putting out his fires. Once Arjuna has successfully won his battles, these gods grant him weapons.
  • Boons granted by Surya or Savitri: Somebody will ask for a boon. Savitri will say “No, I will not grant you what you are asking for. But instead I will give you this. Accept it graciously.” What Savitri promises eventually takes place. And then, through a series of coincidences, that will lead to what was originally asked for.
  • Boons granted by Shakti (Mahadevi or Durga): These are straightforward. You ask for something. You get it. But perhaps you bring about the dawn of Kalyug in the process.

I wonder which of these story structures arose out of poetry, which out of allegory and metaphor, and which out of plain old sectarian “My god is better than yours”.

Real Estate and Travel Fetishes

A long time ago, somebody on Twitter shared an article (possibly on medium) about how, instead of looking forward to your next vacation and a life full of travel, you should make your career and life so fulfilling that you never wonder where your next vacation is going to be. Unfortunately, I forgot to bookmark it, and can no longer find the link, but I am certainly one of those people whom the article was chiding. Sadly, despite all my cool product development projects at work, I still get more excited by the prospect of travel.

In my defence, it is easier to share the excitement of travel with friends, family, and loved ones, than it is to share the excitement of developing a flame-retardant conveyor belt.

But, looking at my Facebook news feed, I certainly get the feeling that the scolding in that missing article had a point. There are so many people who seem to give off the impression that all that their life is missing is a vacation to somewhere cool and undiscovered.

That’s Facebook. And then there’s advertising on FM radio in Delhi.

Delhi radio is chock full of advertisements about buying apartments (and also commercial real estate sometimes). And the vast majority of these advertisements feature emotionally maudlin husbands or wives or children crying (or as Jagadguru used to say, crying up and down) about how miserable their lives are, and how the new real estate development can magically solve all this misery.

I find the radio advertisements far more awful than my Facebook feed, though that could be because of two sorts of bias:

  1. Cringing at what my friends say on Facebook would be awkward because they are my friends
  2. I share the hankering after travel but don’t see the point of buying real estate, to the extent that I roll my eyes at people who do (especially in India). This is probably the result of reading all those internet pop science articles about how experiences make us happier than things. (For an enjoyable pop science book that takes it a step further, I recommend Geoffrey Miller’s Spent, of which I really ought to write more in another post.)

But even with this bias and the previous excuse, I have to admit that both the hankering after travel and the hankering to own real estate are a sort of cargo cult which imbue either vacations or houses with magical powers. To wit:

  • All my problems will be solved if only I have a 3 BHK in which everyone in my family has a room to themselves and covered parking!

or

  • I will achieve remarkable insights and self-knowledge if only I travel to all the spots on this list of 25 places to see before I die!

Although I know many remarkable people who are free from either of these fetishes, the people I know personally who do suffer from this all seem to fall in Category 2 rather than Category 1, with minor exceptions like my bua (who does not so much believe that all her problems will be solved by buying real estate, as that everyone’s problems will be solved by buying real estate, and indeed that the source of marital discord is in living in rented accomodation). I know very few people who overlap, which leads me to suspect that these are mutually exclusive (perhaps because of that experiences versus things dichotomy).

This acquired relevance a while ago, when Gradwolf and I were discussing this article about online dating for rich people, and he was wondering what the entry qualifications were for such a thing. It was then, that I had a flash of insight and realised that to join these gated singles’ networks, the deciding factor was not how much you earn, but how much you spend and on what.

That is, if you are the sort of rich person who gets excited about buying a 3 BHK flat in Greater NOIDA (West), Floh and A World Alike will probably regretfully decline to let you in. But if you are the sort of rich person who travels to vineyards in Tuscany (or at least Nashik) and posts pictures of it on Facebook, they will probably welcome you with arms wide open.

This is potentially the source of the next class civil war between the different types of rich people.